What the fudge is going on in my backyard? 'Combat science' and the war over Fish, Upstream diversion, the Delta, Government, Environment, and water eXporters

By Michael Monasky | May 11, 2013 When suburban sprawl and feuding agribusiness interests deplete water supplies, bureaucra...

By Michael Monasky | May 11, 2013

When suburban sprawl and feuding agribusiness interests deplete water supplies, bureaucrats seek a scapegoat. This time it's science. The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) and the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation -think mining, energy and dam construction - hosted a forum Friday that featured its latest study of the so-called stressors in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Contaminant discharge, depleted fish populations, unpredictable water delivery, invasive species and loss of wildlife habitat are the five stressors studied in the report. A major concern of the authors is that “parties...are likely to meet as legal adversaries” where “science takes on a 'combat' role-- where legal defensibility, rather than improved understanding, becomes a driver” in the planning process. 

Never mind, however, that “institutional fragmentation,” a euphemism for the patchwork crazy-quilt of local, state, and federal agencies that oversee water, wildlife, and natural resources, as well as land use planning, have become so dysfunctional as to do no more than identify and amplify the narcissistic cries of special interests.

So, who is to blame for the institutional inertia when water becomes scarce while the Delta flora and fauna deteriorate? The PPIC panel was dominated by six attorneys, four engineers, two economists, and one planner. Only three of the 16 speakers were scientists; a geologist, a biologist, and a chemist, so it was easy to understand why science took the brunt of the blame. 

The study supports the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) of Governor Brown, which hopes to divert yet more water deliveries from two, huge 35 mile tunnels starting just south of Elk Grove. It admits that science, planning and regulation must be included in the effort to avoid public misunderstanding of the project's cost, to coordinate interagency cooperation, and to eliminate current inconsistencies in management of Delta water resources.

A Delta Ecosystem Regulatory Coordinator (DERC) would oversee environmental permitting. When asked about the role of agribusiness and sprawl in the Delta's water woes, the panel of consulting scientists chuckled but had no response. These water professionals seemed to have no intention of exposing themselves to risk. After all, the history of water management in California is an old zero sum game; take from the North, and give to the South.

The study included references to the newly formed Delta Stewarship Council (DSC). Former State Assemblyman Phil Isenberg was appointed chair by former Governor Schwarzenegger. The DSC replaced the CALFED agency, which was heavily criticized by the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) for bureaucratic cost overruns, ineptitude, and duplications. History seems to be repeating itself.

Isenberg complained that Californians want unlimited personal choice while demanding government efficiency, which he argued are mutually exclusive. “I'm the gardener in the crabgrass of government,” he declared, and “politics lags behind policy” in discussions about water. Isenberg prioritized informing the public about its water supply and the associated costs.

Peter Goodwin is the DSC lead engineer who maintained that an independent, open, transparent, and competing process should prevail in the promotion of scientific hypotheses in the study of the Delta. Science proposes “alternative futures” to assist policymakers. “Are we doing the science that will help inform policy?” he asked. Goodwin declared that there is “uncertainty between scientists, but that business prefers certainty.”
Mark Cowin leads the California Department of Water Resources and says he “hates integration” since it “works only when it's in your self-interest...collaboration and litigation cannot co-exist...I believe in crawl-walk-run.” “I'm skeptical about a single organizational structure that will solve these problems” for the Delta, Cowin said.

Will Stelle is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) attorney and its Northwest Regional Fisheries administrator who cited examples of successes in the Columbia River Basin, where he encountered  a decade-long controversy in preserving the spotted owl. Stelle premised increased performance standards upon implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), with the Bonneville Power utility company and the Columbia River Project as “core drivers.” He said that these complex problems had “simple answers” so long as program, finance, governance, and science were integrated into the plan. “There are winners and losers,” Stelle admonished.

Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that there are too many bureaucracies, but supports the establishment of those agencies listed in the report. Bonham espoused expedited “performance-based permitting.” Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, complained that the regulatory process does not shift resources to needs. Quinn suggested that water recycling in Southern California was implemented in 1984 only after an uncharacteristic change in water agency leadership. Quinn lamented that there are “too many adversarial relationships;” and that compromise should result in “science, broadly accepted,” a reference to a softening of science in deference to policy makers.

After the meeting, chemist Terry Young explained her panel remark that she was optimistic, that “the glass is half-full, that we have made progress,” especially considering the conditions prior to enforcement of environmental laws. When asked about other environmental degradation, she admitted to additional levels of complexity (such as air quality and congestion) that further confounded ecological conditions. “Some days,” Young said, “it seems the glass isn't half-full.”

Elk Grove's plans to expand its Sphere Of Influence (SOI) play directly into these water controversies. When constructed, Governor Brown's BDCP will displace prime agricultural lands and wildlife habitat. Nearby property must be set aside to replace those lands taken out of farm and wildlife uses. The SOI property just south of the city of Elk Grove will likely be tapped for such mitigation measures, potentially making the city's expansion plans moot.

Meanwhile, special interests want more water down south, making the plea for “reconciliation ecology,” a euphemism for the “co-equal goals of ecosystem health and water supply reliability.” Ecologists and citizens, beware.

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