Calif. has a historically complicated relationship with water. The problem is that most of Calif.’s rain falls in the North, but most of its residents live in the South. Los Angeles outgrew its natural water supply somewhere around 1900. Meaning for the last hundred-odd years, southern Californians have imported their water from the North.

Southern Calif. is one of the largest agricultural regions in the U.S., requiring billions of gallons of water to quench the thirst of its fields. However, while SoCal has the field space and the sunshine, it does not have the water to support these agricultural systems. Recently, the droughts in southern California have made national headlines, bringing to light the struggle between environmental groups, politicians, and farmers — all over issues of water distribution. At the center of this struggle is a tiny fish, no bigger than your finger, the Delta Smelt.


What is a Smelt?

While the name sounds misleadingly, like a Dr. Seuss character, the Delta Smelt is very real. According to the The Center for Biological Diversity, the smelt is one of the best indicators of the environmental stability of Calif.’s water system. In recent years, smelt populations have fallen at rapid rates due to pollution and imbalances in their ecosystem, now water politics are adding to the burden of the smelt.

The smelt resides in the Sacremento-San Joaquin delta, a major hub where water from northern Calif. is pumped to the south. According to environmentalists, the massive pumps that transport water, also suck up and pulverize the small fish. The smelt has been declared an endangered species and is now under the Endangered Species Act.

Why Is This Fish Such a Big Deal?

Because the smelt is protected under the Endanger Species Act, lawyers from the NRDC filed suit objecting against an increase in water pumping in smelt habitats, and as of March 13,2014, the protection of the smelt was upheld. The result has been the diversion of tens of billions of gallons of fresh water away from agricultural regions in the south and into the Pacific Ocean.

The economic hit to the farmers of the San Joaquin Valley has been devastating and many politicians are up in arms over how a fish can have precedents over people when it comes to water (pretty ironic when you think about that one…).


Whether or not this ruling is “fair,” it draws attention to a much bigger issue going on in Calif.

The Big Picture

Southern Calif. has a semi-arid climate, meaning it is really hot and really dry. While it may have the land and sunshine necessary to mass-produce cheap vegetables for Americans to enjoy out of season, the lack of water that is needed for this process shows that this is really not an ideal place for agriculture. Dams have been put in place across the Colorado River to meet the water needs of California’s agricultural fields, while people living along the Colorado River are facing water shortages.

When John Boehner stood in front of a press conference and stated, “How you can favor a fish over people is something people in my part of the world would never understand,” what he really meant to say is that, how can people favor a fish over the highly lucrative industrial agriculture complex.

The delta smelt is really a small symbol that represents the mistreatment of Calif.’s natural water systems on whole. Water is used as a bartering chip for various economic interests in the state, not treated or respected for its essential ability to maintain life – and no, not just human life.


After all, do we really want to join John Boehner in “his part of the world,” if that means turning a blind eye to the importance of another living creature, I think not.

Image source: B. Moose Peterson / U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services / Wikipedia Commons