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State of Bay-Delta Science Book, Fact or Fiction?

by Dan Bacher 
October 23, 2008 -- The CAL-FED "Science" Program this Wednesday published a book, the "State of Bay-Delta Science, 2008," supposedly summarizing the "significant new knowledge" gleaned from eight years of research into water supply and water quality, ecosystems and levee fragility in the California Delta, according to a CAL-FED news release. However, the question is whether the book is a non-fiction publication based on scientific fact - or actually a highly compromised work of science fiction.

For those not familiar with CAL-FED, it is the joint-state federal agency, formed after a "Water Summit" by the state and federal governments in Sacramento in 1994, that has presided over the dramatic decline of Central Valley chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, green sturgeon, white sturgeon, striped bass, threadfin shad and other fish in the California Delta-San Francisco Bay Estuary. 

The collapse of these species has huge implications for fisheries up and down the West Coast, since the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta is the largest and most important estuary on the Pacific Coast. Recreational and commercial salmon fishing is closed in ocean waters off California and Oregon for the first time in history this year, due to the collapse of Central Valley fall run chinook salmon populations.

Those of us aware of the numerous examples of political manipulation of science to serve corporate agribusiness and water developers under the Schwarzenegger and Bush administrations have become very wary of "political science" masquerading as "natural science" in reports such as this one. For example, the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force, a supposedly "independent" body appointed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, released a report last week advocating the construction of a peripheral canal and more dams to "restore" Delta fisheries, even though they would certainly further imperil collapsing populations of Central Valley chinook salmon and Delta fish. 

The CAL-FED publication was released on the eve of the 5th Biennial CALFED Science Conference, initiating the gathering of 1,200 San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta scientists, managers and policy makers at the Sacramento Convention Center. The effort was led by Michael Healey, a former CALFED Lead Scientist and Science Advisor to the Governor’s Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force. 

“This is a landmark publication summarizing our current understanding of the Delta by the most knowledgeable experts on the estuary,” claimed Cliff Dahm, CALFED Lead Scientist. “I envision this as a go-to book for managers and policy makers, as well as interested members of the public that are working to gain a better understanding through science of forces at work in the Delta."    

One of the key findings, in an apparent attempt by "political biologists" to exonerate the Bush and Schwarzenegger administrations from their role in engineering the Pelagic Organism Decline, as well as the collapse of Central Valley salmon populations, appears to dismiss water exports as a primary cause for the unprecedented fishery collapse. 

"Since 2001, both public and scientific attention has focused on the unexpected decline of several open-water fishes (delta smelt, longfin smelt, juvenile striped bass, and threadfin shad)," the report claims. "It is clear that export pumping is only one of several factors contributing to the decline. Other factors include changes in food supply, loss of habitat and toxic chemicals. (Chapter 4).

Even worse is this statement in the same chapter, "Nevertheless, there is no conclusive evidence that export pumping has caused population declines. The lack of unequivocal evidence of pumping of large effects of pumping on fish populations does not rule out such effects, and for rare species such as Delta smelt, caution dictates that potential effects should not be ignored (p. 89).

The report admits on Page 87 that "Export pumping has been blamed in part for the declines of species such as striped bass (Stevens et. al 1985), Chinook salmon (Kjelson and Brandes 1989), and Delta smelt (Bennett 2005)." However, the document then goes on to say "no quantitative estimates have been made of the population level consequences of the losses of fish caused by export pumping."

Now doesn't it make sense that if the CAL-FED scientists were going to do a truly scientific study of the reasons for fish collapses, they would engage in an all-out effort to develop "quantitative estimates" of the losses of fish destroyed by the operation of the massive state and federal pumps that export water to subsidized agribusiness and corporate water developers? 

As Patrick Porgans, independent natural resources consultant so accurately points out, "if the scientists developed quantitative estimates of fish population losses that unequivocally demonstrated the huge impact of the pumps on imperiled fish populations, that would be the kiss of the death for the operation of the pumps. After all, this is not really about fish, but about the mega corporations that receive subsidized water from the state and federal projects only to sell the public back its own water." 

The report fails to mention that some of the largest annual water export levels in history occurred in 2003 (6.3 million acre feet), 2004 (6.1 MAF), 2005 (6.5 MAF and 2006 (6.3 MAF). Exports averaged 4.6 MAF annually between 1990 and 1999 and increased to an average of 6 MAF between 2000 and 2007, a rise of almost 30 percent. The Pelagic Organism Decline and the year classes of Central Valley chinook salmon in collapse correspond directly to the years of record exports, but I couldn't find anywhere in the publication where this crucial bit of scientific data is mentioned.

Other "key findings"of the report include: 

• The Delta of tomorrow will be very different than it is today. Intensifying forces of change, such as land subsidence, rising sea level, species invasions, earthquakes and regional population growth, virtually guarantee that current land and water use in the Delta cannot be sustained. (Chapter 1).  

• Many toxic chemicals are a concern in the Delta. Organisms can often be affected by very low concentrations of contaminants. Effects can be magnified though concentration up the food chain or synergistic effects of mixtures. (Chapter 3) 

• With climate change, California will become warmer, more precipitation will fall as rain and less as snow, the snowpack will be much reduced, and there will be less groundwater recharge. These changes will challenge the capacity of California’s water management system to provide reliable, high-quality water to satisfy human and environmental needs. (Chapter 6) 

Other areas of the book deal with Delta history, science, geophysics, water quality and supply, aquatic ecosystems, levees, climate change, policy development and some themes that are crosscutting across areas and issues.   

The conference where the book was unveiled features seminars on the Pelagic Organism Decline, salmon management and ecology, estuarine food webs, water quality, riparian habitat and a host of other topics. Again, the topic of export pumping is curiously absent from the conference sessions, as far as  I can tell, with the exception of two sessions, one entitled "Evaluation of Daily Delta Flows and Delta Smelt Salvage Density Patterns" and "Splittail Population Dynamics and Water Export from the Delta." 

Ironically, as the conference presentations are being made, our public trust fisheries continue to collapse. CAL-FED, a joint federal-state agency, has spent hundreds of dollars on scientific studies, conferences and "restoration" programs, but has been a dismal failure to date. 

The reason for its failure is that the state and federal governments have constantly resisted taking the drastic measures needed to restore salmon and other fish populations, including dramatically reducing water exports from the California Delta and taking drainage impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley out of production. The CAL-FED Process to date has produced nothing but the collapse of Central Valley salmon fisheries and the Bay-Delta ecosystem. 

The CAL-FED process has been an elitist process where the people most impacted by fishery declines - recreational anglers, commercial fishermen and California Indian Tribes - have been excluded from the decision making process. Meanwhile, those who have presided over the destruction of public trust fish populations - the Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Resources - have completely bent over to serve the needs of corporate agribusiness and the state water contractors. 

Although I think there is some interesting information available at conferences like this and in the CAL-FED book, the problem is that there are lot of agency staff and consultants making good salaries incessantly "studying the issue," often with apparently pre-determined conclusions, while failing to stop the decline. The state and federal governments have set up a de-facto "restoration industry," in cooperation with some corporate funded NGO's, that extracts hundreds of millions of dollars from the taxpayers with fishery collapses the only concrete result! 

Patrick Porgans often refers to CAL-FED as "CAL FED UP." This is an appropriate term to describe his and my view of the agency that has squandered hundreds of millions of dollars with only unprecedented fishery collapses, yearly conferences and questionable documents to show for all of the money spent while it refuses to study the quantitative impact of the operation of the pumps on fish populations.

Copies of the The State of Bay-Delta Science, 2008, will be available to attendees of the CALFED Science Conference October 22-24, at the Sacramento Convention Center. Hard copies are available by contacting Rhonda Hoover-Flores at rhondah@calwater.ca.gov. You can also download a copy of he report by going to http://www.science.calwater.ca.gov/pdf/publications/sbds/sbds_2008_final_report_101508.pdf