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National Resource Council Committee Meets about the Delta


February 1, 2010 -- The 15-member National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Sustainable Water and Environmental Management in the California Bay-Delta met for the first time last week at UC Davis.
This is the panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences at the request of the Departments of Interior and Commerce to review the biological opinions on Delta smelt and two species of salmon that led to some reductions in water project deliveries last year. 
The panel was formed in response to the request of Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was responding to the request of billionaire Stewart Resnick, owner of agribusiness giant Paramount Farms, who didn't like any science that led to reductions in his water deliveries.   The underlying message to the panel:  Look at the data, then go back and come up with a different answer.
The NRC panel will consider whether there are any "reasonable and prudent alternatives" (RPAs) that would protect fish species and habitat but have less impact on "other water uses" than reducing exports, which was the recommendation of the biological opinions.  A report on that is due from the committee this spring.
In a second report, to be issued in the fall of 2011, the panel will focus on incorporating science and adaptive management into programs for managing and restoring the Delta.  The advice in his report is intended to coordinate with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
Last Monday, the NRC panel heard primarily from people who worked on the biological opinions, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ( FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).  Tuesday, the panel was briefed as well by a collection of outside experts, ranging from the highly respected to the seriously questionable.  RTD staff wondered whether the inclusion of some of these "experts" was intended to get all the purchased and fringe science out of the way at the beginning.  RTD staff also questioned why an in-Delta expert was not included in the presentation committee.
Those pushing for more consideration of "reasonable and prudent alternatives" would like the panel to blame fish declines on a variety of other stressors rather than water diversions. 
What about toxics?  But Carl Wilcox of the Department of Fish and Game said that for smelt, there are few direct links to toxics; declines are linked to diversions, salinity, and habitat changes.
What about invasive species and poor water quality?  But UCD fisheries biologist Peter Moyle, told the panel that the amount of water exported from the Delta system is the primary threat.
DWR's Jerry Johns made an interesting argument for maintaining water diversions:  He said that SWP infrastructure such as the San Luis Reservoir is useless without those diversions.  "We've built it-of course we have to use it."  Johns also said that controlling exports hasn't benefited smelt.  Well, let's talk about the condition of smelt populations when controls were finally put in place. 
Take an immensely artificial system, apply esoteric modeling and statistics, and you can get just about any information you like.  You can get competing graphs such as the panelists saw on Tuesday.
Tina Swanson, Executive Director of the Bay Institute, brought everyone back to earth with some home truths:  Old and Middle River flows in the South Delta are negative three-fourths of the year.  The magnitude of water project operations has increased as fish have declined. The RDAs the committee is being asked to reconsider were designed to minimize impact on water deliveries.
Swanson noted that little attention has been given to how effectively the water projects are managing water resources.  She said they aren't being managed sustainably, so that a "fairly modest drought" created havoc.  The biggest driver was not fish protections but how deliveries were managed in the first year of the drought.  During the first year of the too much water was taken from the reservoirs.
But you can't tell that to people like those from Fresno who sought during the open mike period to enlist the panel's sympathies for San Joaquin Valley joblessness.  From them, the panel heard that reductions in water deliveries were the cause of every economic problem in the Valley.  Restore the Delta reminded the committee of Dr. Jeffery Michael's work (University of the Pacific) on the link between Central Valley unemployment and the housing bust.
Richard Deriso, chief scientist at the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (TUNA?) told the panel (remotely, by WebEx) this his analysis of Delta smelt population and survival data showed that methods used by USFWS were "flawed."  According to the Sacramento Bee's Matt Weiser, Deriso's analysis was done for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California at the request of one of the attorneys representing MWD in a lawsuit against the federal smelt protections.
Other purchased science was delivered by Scott Hamilton, who spoke on behalf of the Coalition for a Sustainable Delta.  Most of this coalition's officers work for Paramount Farms, and Hamilton is a resource manager for Paramount Farms.  Hamilton presented data suggesting that more fall flows would harm smelt.
Hamilton also brought in a fish specialist, Bradley Cavallo of Cramer Fish Sciences, who pointed out that there are other things-such as upstream weirs and better hatchery management-that we could do to protect salmon.  But even if we did all those things, wouldn't salmon still need enough water?
Consultant BJ Miller said the committee needs an organized data set, including the whole range of environmental stressors, and offered to provide it.  David Fullerton of MWD agreed that "data is lying around like gold nuggets" and encouraged the committee to go collect some for themselves.
Very likely the NRC panel members will do that.  The few questions asked by the panel suggest that they understand where the weaknesses in the various arguments may lie.  RTD doesn't think that any amount of honest data analysis will support trying to restore fish and habitat while removing water from the system.  We trust that the committee's expertise and academic integrity will be equal to the extraordinary political, financial, and cultural pressure being applied to the process.