Ashley Rood is a Research & Outreach Associate with EDF.
Beginning this past Sunday with an address by Congressman Costa, the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) started its review of water management in the Bay Delta. The nation's elite scientific panel will analyze and either support or refute the science (otherwise known as the Biological Opinions) behind how much water can be pumped out of the Delta for cities and farms while preventing the extinction of endangered species.
I was at UC Davis this week, along with my colleagues Ann Hayden and Spreck Rosekrans, to watch the public workshops unfold. Although we were skeptical when this additional review was initially announced—we're cautiously optimistic that science will rule the day and this will rise above the sticky politics of the Bay Delta. Below, find out more about what the NRC will deliver and what we're looking for in this review.
Highlights from the NRC public workshop
- The NAS NRC committee asked good questions–in particular, they were trying to drill deeper into the difficulties of balancing water supply and environmental sustainability
- Melanie Rowland, General Counsel for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gave a great talk about the law that defines the scope of the scientific review. The Committee's sole task is to verify the science analyzing the impact of pumping water through the Delta (it is a review of a "consultation" under Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act). Other stressors (like water pollutants and invasive species) are not a focus in this review. This review will not focus on recovery, only preventing further "take" or harm to current populations of the listed species.
- Transparency: one committee member suggested that the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is not being transparent enough with their day-to-day decision making on operations. NMFS responded that they recognize this gap and are working on getting their real-time operations posted on-line.
- Integration: the committee suggested several times that the two Biological Opinions need to be well integrated—rather than working at odds with each other, the Opinions must be used together to protect fish in the Delta (and as mentioned above, this should all be done with transparency).
- Fun Fact: the paper trail for the NMFS Opinion is 150,000 pages—a lot of pages for the NRC committee to get lost in over their 6 week review, but also a good example of how extensive the original research was for the biological opinions.
What we're watching out for:
- The last NAS study in California dealt with the crisis on the Klamath River. The results were inconclusive and lacked operational guidelines about needed flows for fish in the watershed. The Klamath soon suffered from a devastating fish kill.
- Politics as impetus: this elite and costly study was requested by Congress due to pressure from Central Valley farmers, and Central Valley Congressmen were the only representatives speaking at this week's public workshop—we want to ensure that NAS sticks to science and avoids being unduly influenced by politics.
What we talked about during the public comments: (future in-depth blogs to follow)
- Spreck Rosekrans suggested that the Committee recommend water transfers as a way to minimize the effects of the current pumping restrictions. Good water transfers provide incentives for water conservation; ensuring continued productivity on farms while providing the water that fish need.
- Ann Hayden championed the peer-reviewed science behind the Biological Opinions and emphasized the critical role of these Opinions in creating a scientific baseline for her work on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.
What will come out of this review?
- March 15, 2010: A report focused on the Biological Opinions. The NRC will determine if there are any alternatives to the current pumping restrictions in the Delta that can be implemented (for example: instead of turning the pumps down, could a "bubble curtain" be installed to discourage outmigrating juvenile salmon on the lower San Joaquin River from making a sharp left turn and "going with the flow" to their death at the pumps?) The NRC will also look at how potential conflicts between the Biological Opinions can be resolved.
- November 2011: Recommendations to integrate adaptive management approaches to balance water supply reliability and ecosystem sustainability in the Delta.
We'll be tracking this for the long-haul as the committee's work unfolds. And we'll keep you posted on the balancing act of politics and science in the Delta.
In the meantime, here are a few interesting articles to read:
- From the Sacramento Bee: Steady flow of conflicting views marks Delta debate in Davis
- And NRC committee member and fellow blogger Dr. Michael Campana reports from the workshop here: Civility in NorCal, or Three Days of the Smelt: The NAS Bay-Delta Committee Meeting.