Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
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BAY-DELTA FWO: Smelt Working Group Meets to Help Delta Smelt Survive
California-Nevada Offices , February 28, 2012
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Joseph Kirsch, Supervisory Fish Biologist, and Biological Science Technician Denise Barnard, both from the Stockton Fish and Wildlife Office, check on fish taken during a recent trawl survey.
Joseph Kirsch, Supervisory Fish Biologist, and Biological Science Technician Denise Barnard, both from the Stockton Fish and Wildlife Office, check on fish taken during a recent trawl survey. - Photo Credit: USFWS

By Steve Martarano, Bay-Delta FWO

It’s a Monday morning in late January. A good three months behind schedule, the first significant rainfall of the 2011-12 water-year has hit the Sacramento/San Joaquin Bay-Delta region over the weekend. It’s time for the Smelt Working Group to spring into action.

“OK, I think everyone’s on,” group moderator Kim Turner, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bay-Delta Office (FWO), says talking into a speakerphone. “Let’s get started.”

What’s the Smelt Working Group?

For more than a decade, the Smelt Working Group, or SWG as it’s known in the acronym-heavy world of government, has been regularly meeting to make key recommendations to help the delta smelt – a once plentiful Delta species that has plummeted to record low levels and is listed both federally and by the state of California. In December 2008, the Service issued a biological opinion that determined the effects of operating the state and federal water projects were putting the delta smelt at risk of extinction.

Delta smelt are fish native to and only found in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta Estuary in California. They were once one of the most common pelagic (living in open water away from the bottom) fish in the upper Sacramento–San Joaquin Estuary. The delta smelt was first listed as threatened under the Edangered Species Act in 1993 due to habitat loss, drought, introduced species, and reduction of food items. Critical habitat was designated for the species in 1994.

Because it was a “jeopardy” opinion, specific actions, called reasonable and prudent alternatives, were established to help protect the delta smelt while water operations continued diverting water to farms and residents in both Northern and Southern California. The SWG consists of representatives from the Service, state departments of Fish and Game and Water Resources, and fellow federal agencies Environmental Protection Agency, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation.

The SWG evaluates up-to-date biological and technical issues regarding delta and longfin smelt and develops recommendations for consideration by the Service in its implementation of the Operational Criteria and Plan (OCAP) Biological Opinion.

“The working group’s mandate has always been to review the available data and to estimate the risk of delta smelt entrainment at the facilities,” said Victoria Poage, a Delta Native Fish Biologist in the Bay-Delta FWO and lead of the SWG for several years. Poage said the SWG originally grew out of the Data Assessment Team, an interagency data-sharing group that includes stakeholders. After several biological opinions for delta smelt throughout the 1990s, the SWG was reconstituted as an agency-only team in the 2004/5 OCAP, the immediate precursor to the 2008 decision.

The SWG process entails a lot of review. The SWG typically meets every Monday from early December through June. At each meeting, the SWG evaluates the latest data about Delta conditions, entrainment, delta smelt distribution, and various modeling outputs. Based on that information, the SWG assesses the risk that delta smelt will be entrained and, if necessary, develops a recommendation for any measures that might be necessary to reduce that risk. The Working Group provides a written recommendation to the Service by the end of business on Monday. Based on the SWG recommendations, the Service will develop a draft determination of protective actions necessary to prevent jeopardy to delta smelt, which is reviewed by the Bay-Delta FWO Field Supervisor, and other staff, The Regional Director is briefed on the draft determination. The draft determination is then presented at the Tuesday afternoon Water Operations Management Team meeting (WOMT). After further discussion and input at WOMT, the Service finalizes its determination and presents it to Reclamation and DWR for implementation by close of business on Tuesday.

Upon transmittal of the final determination, the Service posts the determination and all notes from the SWG on the Bay-Delta FWO website, at http://www.fws.gov/sfbaydelta/ocap/. Because of favorable conditions and lack of entrainment during the 2011 season, no determinations were made.

Contact Info: Steve Martarano, 916-930-5643, steve_martarano@fws.gov
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