The minuscule delta smelt, a silvery-blue fish that smells like cucumbers, took on outsize importance this weekend when Donald Trump speculated that it may be responsible for drought-stricken Fresno, California’s water woes.
The three-inch fish, found only in the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is nearing extinction. And efforts to save it are diverting water away from California’s farmers during the driest four-year period in the state’s record.
“Is there a drought?” the presidential candidate said he asked farmers, prior to a rally in Fresno on Friday (May 27). “No, we have plenty of water,” Trump said they told him. “We shove it out to sea.”
They’re shoving it out sea, he elaborated, because environmentalists are “trying to protect a certain kind of 3-inch fish.”
That’s an apparent reference to the 1.4 trillion gallons of water (paywall) that have been pumped into the San Francisco Bay since 2008, largely to save the delta smelt’s dwindling population. The Wall Street Journal reported that the water funneled for the delta smelt would have been enough to sustain 6.4 million Californians for six years, whereas it yielded just eight fish in the fall of 2014.
That sounds pretty damning. But how much could it have aided California’s farmers, who are apparently on the losing end of this equation?
Well, the golden state is the nation’s leading producer of almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, kiwifruit, olives, peaches, pistachios, plums, pomegranates, walnuts, and dozens of other agricultural commodities, according to a 2012 Department of Agriculture report (pdf). And farmers command a large share of the state’s water supply—about 40%, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Based on the number of almond acres in the state, Slate calculated that California uses 1.1 trillion gallons of water each year to farm almonds alone.
That means the trillion gallons of water diverted toward the delta smelt over eight years could maybe have sustained one segment of California’s farming community for one year. Maybe.
It would appear then that there’s a larger problem facing California’s water supply than the luminous three-inch fish, like, perhaps a drought. The water pumped to the delta smelt is a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated 63 trillion gallons of ground water the Western US lost to the drought from 2013 to mid-2014, according to water scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
Trump’s solution for the water crisis then starts to feels a little like mending a leaky faucet with duct tape. It may help temporarily, but doesn’t address the larger, more pervasive problem at hand.
“If I win,” Trump told supporters during the Fresno rally, “we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive.”
“Don’t even think about it,” he assured them. “That’s an easy one.”
It may not be so easy after all.