Delta Whopper: How Big Water Spins the Science on Water Policy


Posted on 07 February 2013

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By Zeke Grader

Fishermen are my constituents - I work with them every day. And when you hang around fishermen, you hear a lot of fish stories. Sometimes, of course, you hear some real whoppers, yarns that stretch the credulity of even the most trusting soul. But nothing I've heard on the docks can match the whoppers that originate from Sacramento.

Perhaps the most egregious falsehood comes courtesy of Big Water - the state's largest water districts and agencies, including Kern County, the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Big Water maintains a formidable presence in our state capitol, furiously lobbying our representatives to divert more and more water from our beleaguered Bay/Delta to the south state. Never mind that the Bay/Delta is the largest and most biologically productive estuary on the west coast of the Americas, and that it constitutes a crucial nursery and staging area for an array of commercially important fish and shellfish species, including Chinook salmon, Dungeness crab and Pacific herring. And never mind that the science community is in broad agreement that estuaries need abundant quantities of fresh water flowing through them to remain healthy.

Big Water has its own skewed and self-serving perspective. It claims they can pump ever-increasing volumes of Sacramento River and San Joaquin River water from the Delta without adversely affecting our fisheries. Further, they have the gall to claim that science supports their position.

Don't buy it. They're lying, pure and simple.

When the Bush Administration approved rules that allowed greater Delta pumping, Big Water danced a jig in celebration. These standards allowed water projects to seize up to 70 percent of the Delta's spring flows. It wasn't much of a surprise, then, when the estuary's ecosystem collapsed, sending our salmon into a death spiral. For the first time in history, the state closed the salmon season. Big Water's decidedly disingenuous response? It wasn't water diversions causing the problem. It was - well, everything except diversions. Contaminants, ocean conditions, non-native predatory fish, aliens from the planet Mongo - you name it.

Scientific peer reviews of the Bush pumping rules revealed their deep flaws, and a federal court threw them out. The court and federal agencies imposed new, stronger rules that were upheld by the National Research Council. But did Big Water take the opportunity to get behind this real science? Uh - no. In fact, they sued to block the new standards. And today, they're still agitating for a return to the old pumping levels, despite the fact that the scientific community is unified in opposing them, including analyses by the US EPA and the State Water Resources Control Board.

Big Water's latest ploy is pushing wetland restoration projects in the Delta to justify excessive pumping. They're still pushing this proposal, despite analyses from the state and federal agencies showing that this scheme could ultimately result in salmon extinction, not recovery. Don't get me wrong - I support wetland restoration, in the Delta and elsewhere. But a few new wetlands are no substitute for adequate through-estuary flows of fresh water. Big Water seems incapable of grasping this simple biological fact. Or rather, they know only too well they're peddling the Big Lie - but they want what they want, and they won't stop until they get it.

Their strategy is clear - control the Bay/Delta Conservation Plan that is now evolving by exerting control over agency science programs. They want to determine the questions the scientific community asks, interpret their results and influence how these findings are translated into pumping limits. Their new mantra is "collaborative science." That sounds good on the face of it - but it's just another whopper. Science is not a consensus political process. It is a search for truth, not something to be "cooked."

In any rigorous scientific inquiry, the facts must speak for themselves. And the facts in this case are unequivocal and explicit: we cannot deprive the Delta estuary of significant freshwater flows if we want to save our fisheries and wildlife. Big Water's call for "collaboration" is nothing more than a stalking horse for muzzling scientists and jacking up water diversions for a handful of San Joaquin Valley megafarms.

There are a lot of stakeholders in the Bay/Delta process. Bay Area urbanites, Delta farmers, senior water rights holders on the Sacramento River - all have a crucial interest in the way this plays out. But no one has a bigger stake than California's salmon fishermen. Our very livelihood depends on a healthy Bay-Delta, the nursery for most of the state's salmon. Without a functioning estuary, our salmon runs will disappear. That will doom our industry, and it will also have dire consequences for restaurants, seafood processors, and fish wholesalers and retailers - not to mention the millions of consumers who demand fresh, local, healthful salmon.

Big Water has fooled us before, and now they're running a new con. But as The Who so eloquently put it, we won't get fooled again. We wouldn't let Big Tobacco control the science on cigarettes and cancer, and we wouldn't let Big Oil control the science on atmospheric carbon levels and global warming. We can't let Big Water control scientific research in the Bay-Delta.


Zeke Grader is the Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations in San Francisco. He has served as the president of the western region of the old National Federation of Fishermen and the West Coast Fisheries Development Foundation, and he currently serves on the board of directors of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.