Expert committee begins study of California water decisions

WASHINGTON — Fifteen high-powered scientists have now begun their politically sensitive review of key California water decisions.

With Central Valley farmers and environmentalists watching closely, the newly formed National Research Council panel must move quickly to meet an initial March deadline. The scientists also must catch up with some long-running controversies, as most committee members come from outside California.

“Water is the single most important resource in California, and is in conflicting demand by municipalities, agriculture and the environment,” research committee member James Anderson noted Monday, further warning that “this conflict will only continue to increase.” The National Research Council is the direct research arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Urged on by anxious members of Congress and the Obama administration, the research council ordered up the study officially titled “Sustainable Water and Environmental Management in the California Bay-Delta.” Twelve of the new study committee’s 15 members currently work outside of California. The committee is chaired by an emeritus professor at Virginia’s College of William and Mary, marine scientist Robert Huggett. Anderson is a research professor at the University of Washington, whose doctorate is in oceanography.

“I have spent several decades studying issues of fish and water supply in the Columbia River and Sacramento River systems and feel my experience will be of value to this committee,” said Anderson, who like the other committee members is volunteering his time.

The committee’s first public meeting will take place Jan. 24 to 28 at UC Davis.

The committee is supposed to issue two reports over the next two years. The first report, expected March 15, in particular could be of more than academic interest.

The committee’s first task is to review the “scientific questions, assumptions and conclusions” underpinning two federal water management decisions called “biological opinions.” Both steered water away from farms and toward environmental protection.

One biological opinion being reviewed was issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service in December 2008. It protects the smelt found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The other biological opinion being reviewed was issued in June 2009 by the National Marine Fisheries Service. It protects steelhead and salmon.

Farmers think both biological opinions took away too much water, and they have pressed to get the decisions reversed or modified.

Legislative repeal efforts failed, leading to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s securing $750,000 to help fund the new reviews.

“A review would settle questions about whether the federal government used the best-available science in determining how much water can be pumped without violating the Endangered Species Act,” Feinstein declared earlier this year after meeting with farmers in Coalinga.

The new review will look for “reasonable and prudent alternatives” that might provide more water for farmers while still protecting vulnerable fish species.

The Californians on the committee are Santa Monica-based consultant Michael J. McGuire, UCSB hydrologist Thomas Dunne and U.S. Geological Survey emeritus senior scientist Samuel Luoma, who has worked extensively in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.