Shopping at the science store

Posted on | September 23, 2009 | 8 Comments

Chinook Salmon. Source: NOAA

US Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has joined California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in an attempt to return inconvenient data to the science store, reports the New York Times today. They are not happy, not happy at all, with “biological opinions” of federal scientists to do with the health of California fisheries. They would like to hire expertise more to the liking of powerful Central Valley constituents served by water pumped from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta — and more to the liking of one constituent in particular, Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick.

9/25/2009 Update: Senator Feinstein responds to her critics in the San Francisco Chronicle. Link after the jump.

The New York Times report follows up on an earlier, news-breaking article in the Contra Costa Times on the senator’s demand to the US departments of Commerce and Interior to submit peer-reviewed biological opinions calling for fish protections for immediate third-party scrutiny by the National Academy of Sciences.

“The National Academy of Sciences … is the only body whose views will be respected by all the relevant parties as a truly independent voice,” Feinstein wrote, while attaching a letter of support for the request from power water-broker and agri-billionaire Stewart Resnick.

As the New York Times neatly noted, the attached Resnick letter castigated Interior and Commerce researchers for “sloppy science” while urging that the Academy review be fast-tracked.

Note: Kudos to the Times for cherry-picking the work of the Contra Costa Times’ Mike Taugher in producing this story, but more kudos for Taugher for doing the original work. To read his Pulitzer-worthy work tracing how Stewart Resnick has in effect gamed the California water delivery system, follow this inventory.

1. May 23, 2009: The Resnicks: Farming’s power couple

2. May 23, 2009: Pumping water and cash from the Delta

3. May 25, 2009: Gaming the water system

4. September 19, 2009: Farm baron gets high-level help

The move to bully federal scientists into reversing opinions concerning the Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and green sturgeon is the latest in a long series of assaults by the California governor on the Endangered Species Act, the law empowering spring pumping stoppages on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, which supplies water for two out of three Californians.

The most recent round of hostilities opened in May when Governor Schwarzenegger had his director of water resources write Interior requesting that it revisit fish protections recommended under the act by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (part of Interior) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (part of Commerce).

On September 1st, the Governor himself weighed in, prompting the federally-run Interior to suggest that Mr Schwarzenegger work with his own state’s legislature in getting a comprehensive Delta management program to his desk in the form of water bills by the close of session on September 11th.

Instead the governor blocked an entire package of proposed water bills, including one for Delta reform, by threatening that he would veto any legislation that didn’t call for a series of multi-billion dollar dam projects that he had tried unsuccessfully to put through in 2008.

On September 11th, shortly before midnight, the most promising effort in a quarter of a century in the California legislature to reform Delta management collapsed in failure after the governor described any bill without his dams as “Mickey Mouse.”

As an encore, Schwarzenegger then resumed fire on Interior and fish, this time via Fox News. Appearing last week via satellite feed on a Sean Hannity show broadcast live before an angry mob of  unemployed farm workers, the Governor declared, “We have federal judges for the salmon. We have federal judges for the smelt. Where is the federal judge for the farmers?”

Interior responded to the rabble rousing with a faintly exasperated written statement to the effect that fish are not responsible for the drought that has reduced Delta supplies by one third. In fact, pumps briefly stopped for spring fish migration were re-started in June. In all, Interior estimated that while 25% of water delivery cuts from the Delta did owe to fish protection, 75% of the shortages were due to drought.

Note: For those new to this saga, the “judges” referred to by Mr Schwarzenegger in his address to Sean Hannity’s audience were allusions to US District Court Judge Oliver Wanger, whose 2007 decision to stop pumps to protect Delta smelt provoked a series of lawsuits challenging federal protections.

Another note: The law suits, report the Contra Costa Times, have strong support from Mr Resnick.

Even seasoned devotees of absurdity might have trouble parsing the governor’s strategy, provided that he has one. Perhaps he imagines that he can undo the Endangered Species Act while securing more than $5bn in pork for California for construction of  the Sites Reservoir in Colusa County and the Temperance Flat dam on the northern San Joaquin River.

There would be fans for this, if not the water.

As for Senator Feinstein’s reasons for standing alongside a self-interested billionaire water broker rather than federal scientists employed by an agency that she in part oversees (the senator is chair of the Interior appropriations committee), she too seems content to blame fish for the drought. She is recommending that Interior spend $750,000 pursuing the review sought by Mr Resnick.

At its most noble, her move allows Interior and Commerce to take fire that she herself would prefer to duck.

In the face of Interior’s and Commerce’s refusal to reverse the opinions of their researchers without new data, the senator, the governor and Mr Resnick hope to spend the $750,000 at a new science store, this time the National Academy of Sciences.

Whether or not our tax dollars will buy them a new answer is unknowable. However, Interior and Commerce along with the Obama administration secretaries now facing the Californians’ hissy fit deserve high marks for refusing to pander.

9/25/2009: Update: To read Senator Feinstein’s response to her critics in the San Francisco Chronicle, click here. Via Aquafornia.

9/24/2009 Correction: Early versions of this story carried as banner art historical drawings of the wrong kind of fish. The California smelt is not a true smelt or the same thing as the Delta smelt. Please refer to the comments for the more detailed remarks of the reader who caught the mistake.  I regret the error and red-facedly thank the reader who pointed this out. The image has been changed to that of a Chinook salmon, one of the subjects of the June 4, 2009 biological opinion from NOAA in which federal biologists and hydrologists concluded that current water pumping operations in the Federal Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project should be changed to ensure survival of winter and spring-run Chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, the southern population of North American green sturgeon and Southern Resident killer whales, which rely on Chinook salmon runs for food.

This post has been updated.


8 Responses to “Shopping at the science store”

  1. John Bass
    September 24th, 2009 @ 12:14 am

    lovely writing about an ugly subject, once again.

  2. EmilyGreen
    September 24th, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    Thank you! The struggle was to make it comprehensible. It seems that all the wrong people understand how our water system works while a few accomplished profiteers really work it. I particularly recommend this installment of Taugher’s series: … it shows how Resnick managed to pocket 20 cents of $200m tax dollars spent on Delta restoration between 2000 and 2007. And now that the water and $$$ went to him, he still want’s the fish’s share of the water and the ESA taken down.

  3. Munko McCentral
    September 24th, 2009 @ 8:21 pm

    Interesting article, thanks. But your picture is of two species from the family Atherinopsidae (neotropical silversides); the smelts in decline (delta smelt and longfin smelt) are true smelts, family Osmeridae. Quite different fish.

  4. Dave Simmons
    September 24th, 2009 @ 10:24 pm

    I am a family farmer in the Westlands. I don’t know that much about Resnick but, I know that feds are taking more of our water than they say.
    1977 was the driest year on record for the CVP. That year we (Westlands) received a 25% allotment. This year (2009)a mild drought year Westlands received a zero then it was bumped up to 10%. 95% average rainfall for Northern CA where the delta gets its water from and the reservoirs were 80% of average.

    No matter how you feel about farmers, farms and goverment. You’ve got to ask yourself where is this shortfall of water and why is the gov lying about it.

  5. “Just get it done.” Expediency over extinction | Chance of Rain
    October 1st, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    […] For an earlier story on California’s assault on the Endangered Species Act, click here. […]

  6. loves_nature
    December 17th, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    Great work there for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    Nice post too! 🙂

  7. The Resnick touch | Chance of Rain
    December 17th, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    […] “Shopping at the science store“ — Chance of Rain, September 23, 2009 […]

  8. The week that was, 2/7-13/2010 | Chance of Rain
    February 14th, 2010 @ 12:01 pm

    […] opinions affording endangered fish protection in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, click here. These demands were superceded last week by her announcement that she would be adding a rider to a […]

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