Record-low counts of Delta smelt at a time of persistent drought underscore the importance and challenges of managing freshwater flows for the benefit of fishes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while also meeting human demands for water. Understanding the effects of water flows on fishes is central to understanding how the Delta ecosystem functions and is key to achieving the state’s coequal goals of “providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring and enhancing the Delta ecosystem … in a manner that protects and enhances … the values of Delta as an evolving place”. The economic, ecological, and social costs of scientific uncertainty in water management controversies are significant – and to some degree unavoidable.
Scientific findings that relate fishes and flows increasingly guide decisions on how to manage flows for the well-being of threatened or endangered species in the Delta. Many studies – and management decisions – rely on correlations between water flows and fish populations. But the decisions warrant fuller understanding of precisely how the flows affect the fishes. Knowledge of these underlying mechanisms is likely to facilitate adaptive management by clarifying uncertainty and risk, by creating specific expectations for outcomes and by strengthening testable hypotheses. This report therefore recommends, first and foremost (there are other recommendations as well), redoubling effects to identify causes and
effects concerning fishes and flows in the Delta.