[env-trinity] Tom Birmingham in Fresno Bee 6/29/2010
bwl3 at comcast.net
Tue Jun 29 09:43:40 PDT 2010
How far have we come in resolving the water crisis?
By Thomas W. Birmingham
Thomas W. Birmingham is the general manager of Westlands Water District.
In the past few weeks, the Westlands Water District and other public water
agencies, with the support of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and the Valley
congressional delegation, have made progress toward improving the rules that
have crippled the operation of California's water system and driven
west-side communities toward an economic catastrophe. How much have these
reforms really accomplished and will they prevent more water shortages in
In 2010, for the second year in a row, farmers on the west side faced a zero
water allocation due to federal environmental restrictions. The prospects
for the 25 million urban water users who depend on water pumped through the
Delta were not much brighter.
But when Sen. Feinstein in February proposed that the federal rules should
allow at least 40% of the state's normal supplies, she ran into intense
criticism from environmentalists and many editorial writers around the
Sen. Feinstein acted to prevent a repetition of the severe cutbacks in water
deliveries that in 2009 had thrown tens of thousands of people out of work,
imposed rationing in many urban areas and fallowed hundreds of thousands of
acres of farmlands.
In support of her proposal, she distributed a letter summarizing the
questions that scientists, engineers and public officials were raising about
the science underlying the federal restrictions. Reporters, however,
fastened on who signed the letter and ignored the substance of those
Fortunately, the Obama administration was much smarter. Early in the year,
they agreed to administer the environmental restrictions with greater
sensitivity to the impacts on water supply.This meant allowing water
deliveries to continue at the upper end of the range allowed by the federal
biological opinions for salmon and Delta smelt.
This was all that Sen. Feinstein had proposed. And indeed, with rainfall
returning to normal, the millions of water users she sought to protect will
receive even more water this year.
More important for the long term, the questions she and others in Congress
asked about the scientific basis for the biological opinions got the careful
review they deserved.
First the federal departments of Commerce and Interior joined to create a
special panel of the National Academy of Sciences to review the biological
opinions. Their initial report this spring found that, while there was a
theoretical basis for the opinions' general prescriptions, there wasn't
enough data to support many of the actions they required.
The seriousness of those lapses in the scientific record were more precisely
detailed in May in 250 pages of factual and legal findings by U.S. District
Judge Oliver Wanger.
Among other things, Judge Wanger found that the federal agencies "completely
abdicated" their responsibility under the National Environmental Policy Act
to consider alternative actions that would do less harm to the human
environment. By failing to perform certain fundamental calculations that
"any prudent and competent fish biologist and statistician would have done"
the agencies committed a "fundamental and inexplicable error" that reduced
their restrictions to mere "guesstimations."
The court cited numerous examples of the agencies' failure to link pumping
to the survival of endangered species. Judge Wanger was particularly
critical of the agencies' "not rational" misuse of data. Their
misrepresentation of other scientists' research "raises the spectre of bad
faith," he wrote. "The absence of explanation and analysis for adoption of
(pumping) limits uses no science, let alone the best available, and is
The immediate relief that we sought from the court was very limited, and the
federal agencies and environmental groups have now agreed with us on a
short-term plan. But the problems that Judge Wanger and the National Academy
of Sciences identified in the biological opinions are fundamental and can
only be resolved through substantial revisions to both.
As better science is applied, the old orthodoxy that blamed the pumps for
all the Delta's problems is beginning to crumble. On June 9, federal
officials announced their commitment to an extensive research program to
fill in the gaps and correct the agencies' mistakes. The operational
flexibility that helped us get through the first half of 2010 will be
continued. Now federal agencies will be required to assess the benefits of
their actions for the public water supply as well as the fish.
On other fronts, the Obama administration is calling for an unlimited open
season on striped bass to reduce a major cause of the salmon decline. New
research from the University of Maryland and the University of California
suggests that another important part of the problem lies in the changes in
the food chain for aquatic species that are the result of contamination by
human and industrial wastes.
Clean water, good science, cooperation and respect for the human environment
-- these are all values that responsible environmental organizations have
long endorsed. The Endangered Species Act is not being weakened by our
progress. Judge Wanger's findings will merely compel the federal fish
agencies to live up to its standards.
The Delta is not being endangered. Rather, we are learning more about how to
protect it without sacrificing the public water supply.
Byron Leydecker, JcT
Chair, Friends of Trinity River
PO Box 2327
Mill Valley, CA 94942-2327
415 383 4810 land/fax
415 519 4810 mobile
<mailto:bwl3 at comcast.net> bwl3 at comcast.net
<mailto:bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org> bleydecker at stanfordalumni.org
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