Western Water Excerpt Gary PitzerRita Schmidt Sudman

Making the Connection: Sound Science and Good Delta Policy
July/August 2011


If there is one constant in all the turmoil surrounding California’s water, it is the pivotal role of science in decision-making. It is science that seeks to tell us what’s happening in the natural world and the possible actions that can be taken to affect change for the better.

But delve deeper and the complexities come into view. Just as there are many facets to the California water story, so are there elements to its scientific discussion. How much fresh water must flow into and out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta? How do physical changes to the Delta affect the ecosystem and its native species? Is it possible to reverse changes to the food web caused by the introduction of invasive species? And what can be done to help struggling fish populations rebound? While the particulars of any one science question can be rigorously analyzed, integrating science into policy decisions is far more imprecise.

“Science enlightens and informs, but it does not dictate solutions,” said David Blau, a water resource planner, at a June 1 meeting of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Sustainable Water and Environmental Management in the California Bay-Delta.

There are few other areas as rigorously monitored as the Delta. For decades, virtually every aspect of the Delta ecosystem has been examined to determine how it functions and what can be done to improve its conditions. Along the way, the analysis has expanded to encompass more than just the man-made conveyance system that has been the focus of so much Delta monitoring and research.

“For 30 years, we basically studied the pumps because that was thought to be one of the big effects in the system and that’s where the money was to study [it],” said Byron Buck, executive director of the State and Federal Contractors Water Agency. “The debate now is really around ‘is it a flow-dominated issue’ or ‘is it multiple interacting factors such as food supply and non-native species’ [and] in reality, they interact and sorting one from the other is going to be interesting.”

The role of science in California water policy is of the utmost importance as officials strive to complete the Delta Plan and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), two documents that are expected to be foundational cornerstones for many years. In the fourth staff draft of the Delta Plan released in June, staffers acknowledge that “the scientific body of knowledge of the Delta and California’s water conditions is constantly growing and changing, and that “Delta-related re­source management decisions are often made with incomplete information.”

The episode reflects the difficulty of marshaling science to provide water to a growing population while meeting the requirements of the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). Water users, frustrated by what they view as arbitrary limitations placed on the amount of water exported from the Delta, say the discussion has to be expanded to account for all the factors that are harming fish population levels.

“We are now at the point where no serious scientist is making the case that any single stressor is driving the system,” said Paul Weiland, an attorney representing farmers and public water agencies, at the Association of California Water Agencies’ (ACWA) spring conference. “We have to understand the various pieces of the puzzle to ultimately solve the puzzle.”

Connecting the results of scientific research with public policy is a continuing challenge. Biological opinions by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries to protect salmon and Delta smelt have been challenged in court, a testament to the uncertainty that lingers over trying to balance protection of the Delta ecosystem while relying on it for water supply.

U.S. Federal District Judge Oliver Wanger, whose Fresno court room has been the site of the science-related litigation, noted late last year that “in view of the legislative failure to provide the means to assure an adequate water supply for both the humans and the species dependent on the Delta, the public cannot afford sloppy science and unidirectional prescriptions that ignore California’s water needs.”

The dilemma posed by Wanger illustrates the long-standing difficulty in melding science with public policy. Lester Snow, whose long career included stints in top positions with the federal Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), California Department of Water Resources and the California Natural Resources Agency, said it is “absolutely” true that much of the problem stems from leaders avoiding tough decisions on water.

“We would like a scientist to come out with a definitive report that says, ‘yes, there is gravity,’” Snow said. “With ecosystems, there isn’t a bright-line scientific conclusion. You have more information with which to try and judge balance and how you make the tough decisions.”

Comprehensive scientific analysis “doesn’t guarantee that somebody actually uses it,” Snow said, adding “it’s a real challenge getting scientists to actually communicate with the decision-makers and for the decision-makers to ask the right questions.”

The problem lies with interpretation and expectations. Those in position of authority want scientists to provide certain, linear responses to their questions but science inevitably produces answers that are equivocal. “Science doesn’t give answers, it gives choices,” said Peter Moyle, professor of fish biology at the University of California, Davis, and a leading expert on Delta smelt.

Integrating science into public policy has its pitfalls. It is recognized that one of the suspected stressors in the Delta ecosystem is the undesirable level of food for growing open-water fish. The Delta ecosystem food web is complex and is one of the building blocks of a healthy estuary. Ammonium and other byproducts to the system from wastewater treatment may affect the food web and have driven scientific inquiry regarding the extent of total ammonia’s impact and what can be done about it. In December 2010, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (Central Valley Regional Board) ordered the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District (SRCSD) to upgrade its treatment process – something the district says could cost $2 billion.

The Central Valley Regional Board’s decision was aided by research conducted by Patricia Glibert with the University of Maryland regarding the impact of wastewater discharges on the quality of the food web. This research was done in addition to several studies conducted by local scientists, but Glibert drew perhaps the most far-reaching conclusion from her work. According to Glibert, “remediation of pelagic fish populations should be centered on reduction of nitrogen loads and reestablishment of balanced nutrient ratios delivered from point source discharges.”

The science behind the decision is being debated, given that Glibert’s study was partially funded by water contractors. Central Valley Regional Board officials insisted their data were sound, while those with the district said the economic stakes were too high to proceed in the face of uncertainty.

“The question is, when is the science sufficient to make a decision?” said Stan Dean, district engineer with the (SRCSD). “Your answer will be dependent on the costs and risks of your decision because if the costs and risks are minor, you don’t need to have as much certainty.”

In an e-mail to Western Water, Glibert wrote that the science of the effects of nutrient enrichment “seems to be one of the most controversial topics in aquatic ecology and fierce debates about the potential value of nutrient reduction have taken place in many parts of the world and for many decades. Controlling nutrients is expensive and the public ultimately pays the bill.”

This issue of Western Water examines science – the answers it can provide to help guide management decisions in the Delta and the inherent uncertainty it holds that can make moving forward such a tenuous task.

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Editor’s Desk

School Drinking Water

A few months ago, I wrote about a law that requires California schools to provide free drinking water in cafeterias. The new state law took effect July 1 but the law allows schools districts to opt out of the law if they adopt a resolution stating they can’t afford to comply with it. A new federal law also takes effect in September and will require school districts to make water available to all children who are part of the National School Lunch Program. Water is not a reimbursable beverage from the federal government – like milk – and some school administrators are calling the state and federal laws “unfunded mandates.” If water was a reimbursable beverage, probably many schools would look more favorably at the federal law. Additionally, schools get revenue from vending machines providing soda and bottled water.

It’s clear that school children need opportunities to drink more water. Only 15 percent of middle school children consume adequate amounts of water according to the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Actually the CDC says that, since children spend a large percent of their waking hours at school, they should be consuming at least half their total water intake there. Even mild dehydration can affect learning, mental alertness and physical performance in children.

Researchers at the UCLA/RAND Center for Adolescent Health Promotion have been testing a way to encourage school children to drink more water. This program includes free cups and five gallon jugs for five schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Researchers say the program is a success. However, it’s now up to the school district to continue funding it. Los Angeles Unified says the cost to implement the program for the entire district would be $1.8 million to $2.3 million annually and is, therefore, too expensive.

Why don’t children just bring water to school in refillable bottles? The reason often is that many schools don’t allow children to bring liquids into their schools, fearing something harmful may have been put in the container. In Germany children are allowed to fill reusable water bottles at school and store them there.

One possibility for U.S. schools could be the new water filling stations. In San Francisco, the city’s Public Utilities Commission is funding the installation of five tap water filling stations in five schools now followed by more stations later. A Commission spokesperson says they are connecting children to their water supply and thus their watershed. The plan is to build up the next generation’s confidence in tap water and teach children to value their water supply. The Commission is looking to local nonprofits and other funding sources for the installations beyond these five schools. In other parts of California and the West, partnerships between local school districts and local water districts could increase the availability and appreciation of tap water for the emerging generation of citizens. Why not Adopt a School in your local area?

- Rita Schmidt Sudman

In the News

Waiver Extension Sparks Appeal of Water Board Policy for Irrigated Lands

The debate about water quality enforcement for farmers is heating up again after activists appealed the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s (Central Valley Regional Board) two-year extension of a waiver from the requirement of a waste discharge permit for agriculture.

Long controversial, waivers were routinely issued until 2003, when a law dictated that regional water boards would manage farm runoff under general waste discharge requirements, through a conditional waiver or a conditional prohibition.

Regional boards have continued with waivers for agriculture, which are generally renewed every five years. Such was the case with the Central Valley Regional Board’s most recent action. The waiver “is appropriate … in order to simplify and streamline the regulatory process” and because “it is neither feasible nor practicable” to assign permits to the more than 25,000 individual owners and/ or operators of irrigated lands who discharge waste, the Board’s resolution says.

The discharge waiver was adopted in 2003 and renewed in 2006. The waiver requires farmers to associate themselves with groups that conduct regional water quality monitoring. Where water quality standards were exceeded multiple times, management plans are required that describe the voluntary efforts coalitions will undertake to address problems.

Environmentalists say the waiver extension violates the California Environ­mental Quality Act, Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act and the Nonpoint Source Control and Anti-degradation Policies.

“Pollutant discharges from irrigated agriculture are the largest identified source of pollution to Central Valley waterways,” said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA), which filed the appeal with the State Water Board July 11. “It has turned our rivers into sewers, is a threat to public health and has been identified as a principle cause of the collapse of Central Valley fisheries.”

CSPA claims the coalitions “shield the identities of actual dischargers from the Regional Board and, consequently, the Board doesn’t know who is actually discharging, what pollutants are being discharged, the localized impacts to receiving waters, whether management measures are being implemented or if implemented measures are effective in reducing pollution.”

Farmers say it is wrong to depict the program as a free pass from water quality protections. In a May 25 commentary, Danny Merkley, director of water resources with the California Farm Bureau Federation, wrote that it is “misperception” that such is the case.

“State and regional water boards generally adopted conditional waivers for irrigated agriculture, which may be renewed every five years under certain conditions,” he wrote. “As a result, those programs no longer qualify as a ‘waiver.’ Rather, each is a regulatory program with requirements for compliance. The conditions include the performance of an individual, group or watershed-based monitoring. The monitoring requirements must verify the adequacy and effectiveness of the program’s conditions.”

- Gary Pitzer

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