UC Davis was the site of a momentous discussion last week, when an elite science panel met to review California’s water crisis.
The panel, which consisted of members from the National Research Council, was called by Senator Dianne Feinstein in response to California farmers’ protests about water regulations.
The main topic of the panel was the science behind regulations that have limited water pumping from the Delta to agricultural and urban areas in California. These regulations were put in place due to steadily decreasing numbers of fish native to the Delta, which are harmed as a result of the pumping.
Stewart Resnick, president and CEO of agricultural giant Roll International Corporation, which owns Paramount Farms in the San Joaquin Valley, originally called for the panel in a letter to Feinstein.
“Quite simply, the federal agencies have used sloppy science to attribute the entire Delta fisheries decline to the state and federal water projects and have imposed regulations accordingly,” Resnick said in his letter.
Feinstein complied with Resnick’s request, and Congress provided approximately $1.5 million to fund the panel. The National Research Council consists of volunteers from all over the country, who have extensive backgrounds in research and many who are university professors.
“This is an all-star lineup,” said Jeffrey Mount, a UC Davis geology professor and director of the UCD Center for Watershed Sciences. “And it’s great that UC Davis hosted this.”
Mount testified for the panel.
Members of the National Research Council will release a preliminary review in mid-March. They will look at the current water regulations and possibly create alternative solutions.
“The second charge for the panel is very long and broad – I call it ‘describe the universe and give three examples,'” Mount said. “Basically they will describe everything in the Delta that might be done to make things better – political, environmental, everything. This is not due for another 18 months.”
Mount stated that despite its qualified members, the call for the panel was not a cost-effective or necessary decision.
“The National Research Council only gets called when someone in Congress gets upset enough,” he said. “We should never be afraid to have science reviewed, but is this the right way to do it? I don’t think so.”
Peter Moyle, UC Davis professor of fish biology and associate director for the Center for Watershed Sciences, also testified for the panel. He asserted that the biggest cause of the decline of fish in the Delta has been the diversion of water by the pumps.
“We’ve been increasing the amount of water being diverted by the pumps for the last 30 years, and we’ve reached a point where we’ve changed the way the ecosystem works,” Moyle said.
Endangered fish include various types of salmon, striped bass and, perhaps most significant, a small fish native to the Delta called the Delta smelt. The smelt, which used to be abundant in the Delta, is now near extinction.
“The smelt is everyone’s favorite whipping fish,” Moyle said. “It’s a small, insignificant fish that seems to be good for nothing. But it’s a good indicator of the condition of the system because it’s the most sensitive of all the species.”
Despite the current rarity of the smelt and the suggestion it is of little importance to the ecosystem, Moyle believes the smelt – and the other endangered fish – should be saved.
“The Endangered Species Act means that it is morally incorrect to let a species go extinct,” he said.
Farmers and urban areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles depend heavily on water from the Delta, and many are asserting that money and jobs are being lost by the current restrictions on pumping.
The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit asking the U.S. Ninth Circuit of Appeals to strike down Delta smelt regulations, which the Foundation termed a “regulatory drought.”
“The Delta smelt has no role in interstate commerce, so federal regulators have no authority to issue any edicts about the Delta smelt, let alone draconian water-pumping regulations that threaten our economy and food security,” said PLF Attorney Damien Schiff in a written statement.
These are the issues the National Research Council panel will consider in the next year and a half. Ultimately, the panel will either affirm or reject the science behind water regulations. Either way, objections are likely to abound.
“Anything the panel says will result in about a half a dozen lawsuits,” Mount said.
SARAH HANSEL can be reached at email@example.com.