Of Fish and Farmers

Consider the Delta smelt: an old fish in California, endemic to the upper Sacramento-San Joaquin Estuary, now caught between its home and thousands of drought-stricken acres.

Tony Scherman, Conversations With the Devil, 2011-12. Courtesy Winston Wachter Fine Art, Seattle. Via Artsy.

“It appears to me impossible that I should cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should only be organized dust,” Mary Wollstonecraft wrote in 1796 in a letter to her lover. “I cannot bear to think of being no more, of losing myself.”

She turned, in the next paragraph, to considering the young star fish disturbed by her oar while she rowed in a bay in the south of Norway: fragile, soft-shelled, gelatinous. Floating, she wrote, just below the surface of a calm sea.


The Delta smelt is a tiny, steel-colored fish. Stretched across an open hand, it barely spans the width of four fingers. The fish lives only in the San Francisco Bay Delta, hatching in early spring and spawning a year later. A female lays 1,200 to 2,600 eggs and then dies. A single smelt will inhabit the earth for 1/85th of your probable lifetime.


Imagine your home is Los Angeles, the biggest city in the country’s most populous state. It’s early fall at the tail end of a dry summer, the season when California takes up its vigil for winter rain, more important now than ever as the drought hunched over the West is the worst in recorded history.

You must travel north for a meeting in San Francisco. Follow the I-5 400 miles through the long, fat finger of the Central Valley, which is made up of two parts, the southern portion called the San Joaquin, the northern the Sacramento. Nearly half of America’s fruits and nuts grow in the Central Valley, but this autumn, you pass hundreds of thousands of fallow acres. Wonder at their emptiness. Watch the haze on the horizon and feel the presence of something large over the land. Life in this valley has never been simple.


Over millions of fish generations the smelt, those gleaming silver scraps, have evolved north of the Central Valley in the San Francisco Bay Delta, an estuary that exists where the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers meet. The smelt were once the most abundant species in the estuary, and this is the only place in the world where they exist. Today, the rivers they swim are studded with cement blockades, squat buildings stretching from bank to bank. The buildings house government-operated pumps that, in most years, suck water from the Delta and carry it to the plains you drive through now, the farms of the Central Valley. Inside the plant close to Tracy, which you’ll pass near as you enter San Francisco, the pumps thrust out of the floor. They are rings of metal 15 feet across, painted green, each capable of guzzling 500,000 gallons of water, and the fish that swim in that water, every minute.


Out the window: valley towns where the field workers live, a few stoplights on a main street wrapped in smog. Buy lunch at the deli in a supermarket where ranchera music plays on the intercom and a chile relleno with beans and rice costs half what it would at your usual spot in Westwood. The corn tortillas are handmade. The girl behind the counter is every bored teenager with an afterschool job. She’s perfectly bilingual. While she runs your credit card, she gazes past the sliding glass doors at the heat waves rising from the blacktop.

Get back on the road. Tune the radio to NPR. As you drive through the Central Valley notice that the ground is flat, as if this were the middle of the country instead of California. It is here that you begin to pass billboards slathered in red.

“First in time, first in right” is an old axiom when it comes to distributing scarce water in the West. No one will argue that the fish were not first in time.



You haven’t noticed higher food costs, but then again you haven’t been counting change. You don’t understand how or why Congress would create a dust bowl out of a place called the greatest garden in the world.



You knew the drought was bad for California, though maybe not how bad. Drought hurts people and the environment, and you’re supposed to care about the environment, even if you don’t always know how. The canals that run between the brown fields are pits of gravel. Sometimes a few irrigated acres skip past the windshield, wheel lines stretching over lettuce and spinach and squash. Pass the San Luis Reservoir, a designated state recreation area where you might like to swim and boat if the artificial lake weren’t down to 29 percent of its capacity, the beach sloping hundreds of yards to the water. Realize that this is the land where most of the country’s food grows, the food you have eaten all your life. A dust devil whirls in the distance, tossing dirt 30 feet into the air. Not many of the fields are growing anything now.


The smelt have been dying en masse for 40 years. They are eaten by invasive predators, poisoned by pesticides and sewage, baked in too-warm temperatures, and crushed by the pumps in the Delta. All your life, as you drank and bathed in water drawn from rivers, did you know that the rivers of California no longer run from the mountains to the sea? That their paths are no longer controlled by gravity? That Congress decides, in drought, in a hail of controversy, who gets water, and who, or what, goes dry?


At the DoubleTree, surrounded by the bustle of San Francisco, open your laptop on a faux oak desk and type the words “Congress created dustbowl” into a search engine. Read about the farms you have driven past. Many will receive no surface water this year from Central Valley reservoirs. One farmer has bulldozed 1,000 acres of young almond trees because he can no longer keep them alive. Others have sold land their families have owned for a century. A journalist interviews farmers who describe themselves as targets and villainized. Many feel forgotten by the country they feed as their wells run dry, crops dying in the time it takes to drill deeper. This is our broken dream, they say to the journalist, gesturing toward farmhouses surrounded by bare land.

Beside the fish your fingers are monstrous; the burnish of a wedding ring looks dull.

Scroll through photographs, most black-and-white, a salute to the American dustbowl 80 years past. The contrast between pale sky and cracked ground is sharp. In one image a small tree lies dead in front of a grocery called La California Market. In another, sheep kick up dust as they march over dry pastures. In a third, two men stripped to their underwear bathe in a sluggish irrigation canal. The caption below the photo says that these men, born in El Salvador, are usually employed harvesting cantaloupe. Now they live in plywood huts beside the canal and wait for rain.

You did not know any of this. Let photos and text materialize on your screen. Early California planners counted on five times the precipitation the state receives even in a good year, and in drought there isn’t enough to go around. The amount of water the government pumps can remove from the Delta is limited by drought, and further limited by the Endangered Species Act, which protects the smelt. Less rain and snowmelt in the Delta causes saltwater to press inland, pushing the smelt away from the ocean toward the pumps, and as a result some plants have been stilled altogether. This means a decrease in deliveries to the Central Valley, where many farmers receive none or little of the Delta water they need.

The smelt don’t own water rights in the way the farms and cities do, but there are people who believe the fish have the ultimate right to whatever rain or snowmelt trickles into their estuary. First in time, first in right is an old axiom when it comes to distributing scarce water in the West. No one will argue that the fish are not first in time.


Slide the laptop away from you across the desk. Ride the elevator down three stories to the hotel restaurant and sit in a dim corner booth. Order a Pepsi. Tug the paper wrapper off the straw and wait for the caffeine to kick in.

When the waitress stands at the end of the table, ask her if she’s from the area. She’ll nod. Ask her if she’s been to the banks of the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers.

Sure, she’ll say. Longest rivers in California.

Let the waitress take your order. Then ask if she knows about the Delta smelt. Sure she does. And who does she thinks deserves the water in the Delta?

Maybe she’ll say the fish got here first. Or maybe she’ll raise an eyebrow and ask, how could anyone choose fish over people?

Understand she isn’t looking for an answer. Then think about extinction. Think about gone forever. Think about Bob Dylan, his question for Angelina: When you cease to exist, then who will you blame?

Eat your tuna melt. Pick through the garden salad, and now think about hunger, about men living between plywood walls, beside sluggish, dirty water.


Break from the traffic of San Francisco and watch the freeway stretch between fields of dry grass. Head south. The meeting ended quickly and you’ve gotten an early start. Drive 60 miles before seeing signs for Tracy. Try, and fail, to picture the pumps: the spinning five-ton shafts, the water lifted 200 feet and deposited in a channel that leads to the San Luis Reservoir, all this weight and movement on a scale difficult to fathom. Imagine you are among the scientists counting the smelt that have been drawn dangerously near the pumps. Imagine stooping to scoop a single fish from the school with a filmy blue net, letting the slim body fall into your palm. Hold it there. Notice it smells slightly of cucumber. In bright sunlight, look through the skin to the silver skeleton, the dark sacks of tiny organs.

Beside the fish your fingers are monstrous; the burnish of a wedding ring looks dull. For now, the smelt are safe from death by bruising and crushing in the mouths of the pumps, and perhaps you feel a burst of gratitude for the web of legislation and lawsuits that have yielded this result. Imagine the smelt wriggling, sunlight gleaming on the water, thick brush on the riverbanks. Almost 70 percent of California’s population, and almost half of the farmland in the Central Valley, must compete for this Delta water. Consider the 17,000 jobs that are now gone. Whether or not the cessation of pumping will help the smelt increase their numbers is unknown.

One fishy eye looks past you, large and white with a round black pupil that makes the smelt appear startled. Better to put it back in the water before dropping it on the ground. Notice how it blends immediately into the school, dozens of snouts and spines and lateral lines. Watch as the mass twitches fins, pulses water through gills, breathes.

Imagine all of this. Then hit the rumble strip at the side of the highway and jerk the wheel. You’re moving south at 80 miles per hour, flattening gnats and locusts with the pane of the windshield. Fall behind semis and sedans headed for Yosemite; watch the yellow line flicker from dotted to solid and back again. Turn the radio on. You’ve got a long way to go before dark.