This story is over 5 years old.


In Photos: California Farmers Versus the Delta Smelt

California farmers have been cut off from surface water supplies amidst a historic drought, in part because state and federal agencies say the river water is needed to protect the habitat of an endangered fish.
Photo by Chris Gregory

California is in the midst of its worst drought in 1200 years. As politicians impose statewide water restrictions and the agricultural sector comes under intense public scrutiny for growing water-intensive crops — such as alfalfa and almonds — farmers are pointing to what they say is the true villain of the drought: a fish called the Delta smelt.

The little critter inhabits the waters of the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, and is listed under the US Endangered Species Act. Nearly 200 years of farming has dramatically reduced that amount of water flowing from the Sierra Nevada Mountains into the Delta, depleting the fish's habitat. Federal law requires public agencies, whether local, state, or national, to make efforts to protect the habitat of species protected by the law. In the case of the smelt, officials must ensure that millions of gallons of California's scarce surface water continues to flow into the Delta every day.


As farmers come under attack from environmentalists for growing water intensive crops, they're now hitting back, saying that it's the fish, not agricultural producers, that are the problem.VICE News traveled to the heart of California's breadbasket to investigate the war between the Delta smelt and the state's farmers.

The San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta is the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas and supports over $5 billion in annual economic activity.

Bill Jennings, a conservationist, sits in his home office. Once a traveling salesman, Bill now dedicates himself to preserving the delta estuary

Each year, over two thousand delta smelt are bred at the UC Davis Fish Conservation and Culture lab in Byron, California in order to preserve genetic diversity in the species in the event that it goes extinct in the wild.

The UC Davis-bred delta smelt are kept in temperature-controlled tanks out back of the lab.

Wine grapes are among the delta region's many agricultural crops that have been hit hard the historic drought.

UC Davis Fish Conservation and Culture Lab Manager Luke Ellison spends his days fertilizing delta smelt eggs in small petri dishes. 

All photos by Chris Gregory for VICE

This story was produced with support from LG as part of the Photos from Beyond program — click to see more photos from this series. VICE News maintains all editorial independence in the production of this content.