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Fate of fish reverberates in East Bay

US - For a pip-squeak of a fish, Delta smelt are becoming a whale of a threat to California's water supply.

To protect a little fish that grows about 2 inches long, lives one year and smells like cucumbers, officials this week shut down a set of massive water pumps that keeps one of the world's biggest economies humming.

There is little else of interest about the little fish except for this fact: Delta smelt, which live nowhere else on Earth, were once the most abundant fish in the estuary. Now they might be on the verge of extinction.

But why should anyone care if a nondescript little fish goes the way of the dodo?

After all, Delta smelt do not make the A-Team of endangered species, the so-called charismatic megafauna -- bald eagles, grizzly bears, otters, whooping cranes and the like -- that people tend to want to protect, if only because they look magnificent in magazines and nice on neckties.

In the Bay Area, water supplies are threatened, new subdivisions are scaled back and bridge construction costs go way up to protect a motley assortment of little critters that scamper, slither and swim through the region.

Call the Delta smelt, red-legged frog, vernal pool fairy shrimp, tiger salamander, salt marsh harvest mouse, valley elderberry longhorn beetle and Alameda whipsnake the region's prosaic microfauna, a collection of slippery, slimy and distinctly uncuddly creatures that nevertheless pack an economic wallop around the East Bay.