Where Science and Public Policy Meet
In the world of water, biology and engineering often clash - especially when it comes to resolving the Delta dilemma. How do we manage such an altered system to ensure water supply reliability while restoring the ecosystem? How do we measure the results of efforts to restore endangered species and habitat? Why is biodiversity important?
Communication about these issues is key, especially to gain greater understanding of the concept of “adaptive management,” the core of CALFED’s Ecosystem Restoration Program.
On April 15, Chief Writer Sue McClurg and Education Director Judy Wheatley, a former high school biology teacher, met with four fishery biologists for a roundtable discussion on science and public policy.
Peter Rhoads is a principal resource specialist with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), where he works on a range of biological science and environmental planning issues, mainly the CALFED process. A biologist by training, he did his doctoral work on crayfish in the Everglades and spent 23 years at the South Florida Water Management District.
Peter Moyle is a professor of fish biology at the University of California, Davis. He’s done studies on Bay-Delta fishes since the early 1970s and has been involved in various policy/political issues. He served as head of the Delta Native Fishes Recovery Team and, more recently, on the CALFED Core Team, helping on their ecosystem restoration program.
Elise Holland is a senior associate with Environmental Science Associates, working primarily on water transfer issues, water recycling projects, and tidal marsh habitat restoration in the North Bay. She was formerly the director of the Fisheries Program at the Bay Institute of San Francisco, where she worked primarily in the CALFED Bay-Delta process.
Bruce Herbold did his doctoral degree work with Peter Moyle, looking at the ecology of native and introduced species in Suisun Marsh. He wrote a report about his findings for the San Francisco Estuary Project, which led to his job with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There, his primary duties have been to write new water quality standards and, since CALFED formed, represent EPA’s desire for integrated programs.
McCLURG: What is the definition of science and how does that compare to the phrase “good science” or “sound science”? Are they the same?
MOYLE: Science is an approach to knowledge where you’re assuming you can systematically gather information and put it into a coherent framework through testable hypotheses. Where the work you do is repeatable by other scientists, and can withstand the test of peer review, of being checked by other people.
HERBOLD: Science is an intentional effort to prove that your assumptions are wrong, to test your assumptions and to show that, no, you couldn’t prove that they were wrong. The better the science is, the more rigorous that effort is to prove yourself wrong. The words “good science” and “bad science” get thrown around a lot. There’s an implication often with bad science of two things; either you are representing interests so that you know what the answer is going to be before you come in and you won’t report any results that don’t agree with your assumptions, or you are so married to the assumption for any other reason that you can’t allow contrary evidence to sway your opinion of what is correct.
HOLLAND: Picking up on what Bruce said. In order to practice good science — and particularly in CALFED — as we develop long term solutions we want to make sure we all understand what good science means. Maybe this [discussion] will help people get a handle on that. Once we agree what good science is, we can go to the next step by putting our hypotheses on the table. What are our hypotheses? What are the assumptions behind those [hypotheses] and what are the critical questions that we want to answer? How will we prove or disprove those hypotheses? Then we have to deal with the end game. Here are your results and if you don’t like them, they’re still results. That’s the toughest part, I think, where the policy question comes into play.
RHOADS: One thing I’d add — science is not advocacy. The lack of advocacy associated with good science is what distinguishes science from most other fields. Policy considerations, the objectives and mission of different organizations or interest groups really don’t come into play in good science. Good science must be an objective process. I think it’s important to separate that from the advocacy world, the representative process that we have. My theme is that you need to put on the right hat at the right time when you’re either talking science or talking advocacy, that it’s important for our associates and colleagues to know which hat you have on.
MOYLE: I’d follow-up on that. Obviously scientists can be advocates, and many of us wind up being advocates. Usually it’s because we have some work we’ve done that we think has policy implications. I think the key, though, for a scientist who is also an advocate is, as Bruce pointed out, being willing to accept the fact that your science might be wrong. You must be willing to gracefully change your mind if somebody else comes up with alternative results that you find yourself agreeing with. The worst thing a scientist can do is to stick with some point of view as a matter of pride, no matter what the facts are showing.
WHEATLEY: How do you think we should agree upon, prioritize, and finance the research that needs to be done on the Bay-Delta ecosystem?
HOLLAND: I think the short-term restoration program at CALFED has taken a good first stab at that by identifying the priority species and habitats that are in need of an infusion of restoration dollars and projects in the Bay-Delta. But, they haven’t yet made the connection between what we need to do immediately to sort of put a tourniquet on the patient — as everyone is always making the analogy between the Bay-Delta and a bleeding, slowly dying victim — and the long- term restoration program, which will determine what we want the system to look like. What attributes do we want the system to have whether they’re geomorphological or ecological. …
What are the critical things that we don’t understand about the way the estuary works or doesn’t work? Toxics are a good example. Are they bio-accumulating in various species? Is that having a greater adverse effect than some of the other stressors that we’re very familiar with, like diversions? Then, go from there as far as establishing research priorities. Where are the real voids in the knowledge?
HERBOLD: There are two guidelines. If there are issues upon which most people agree but which are going to be very expensive to implement, then we really need to take a finer scale of detail of what we need to do. For instance, restoration of certain kinds of habitat in the Delta are broadly believed by most people to have real substantial potential for improvement of aquatic resources. That’s going to cost a lot of money and there are some unanswered questions about the fate of fish sharing those habitats with introduced species of plants or fish, some questions which we really need to get some answers to before we commit large amounts funding, even though everybody agrees that the general picture is correct. The other one that should give guidance to what we spend money on is where we have substantial disagreements over what we should be doing. …
WHEATLEY: When it comes to asking what issues to research, it brings up this question of advocacy versus research again in terms of who pays to do the research to answer those questions and does that cloud the result?
HOLLAND: It’s good that there’s been consensus from the stakeholder community on the fact that we need federal funds to answer some of these research questions. That’s gone a long way in getting congressional support [for CALFED's ecosystem restoration program] because the stakeholders can all agree that maybe somebody else should be paying for this. Advocacy is going to come into it [when it comes to] making decisions about where money should come from and how it should be spent, particularly if stakeholders are in Washington advocating for those funds. Everyone has an idea of what the first thing is that should be done. For some groups, it’s “We need more shallow water habitats,” for others it’s “We need improved stream flows in the upper part of the watershed,” And you might be in Washington, D.C., advocating for the same chunk of money, never articulating that, but knowing that when it gets out here, that’s what you’re going to want. That’s where the conflict comes in, how do you prioritize these needs.
MOYLE: One of the things I find very interesting is that some people regard money that comes from sources like the Department of Water Resources or one of the water agencies to be tainted somehow, somehow the research is not going to be as good. And yet right now, some of the best research that’s being done is research that’s funded from sources like that. That’s partly a change, I think, in the attitude of the agencies who are funding the work. They are allowing people more flexibility in the kind of questions they’re asking, allowing their employees more flexibility. This is resulting in some really good work being done. I think that’s the way it’s going to have to continue because the water agencies really do have a lot of flexibility in funding and can shift money to research projects fairly quickly. At the same time, though, there has to be independent verification of the worthiness of the research and of the results. There has to be publication of the results. [Research results] must go through the peer review process so that people can realize that the funding source does not make that big a difference.
HERBOLD: Oh, good, I get to disagree with my former professor. Almost all the good work that I know that’s being done right now in the estuary is being done or funded through the Interagency Ecological Program [IEP] rather than through DWR. The work teams that make up the IEP represent many agencies and those groups are coming to agreement about what we want to spend our chunk of the pie on. And it’s the interagency nature of that, I think, that has caused people to believe what goes in and what comes out. It’s a very open process, there’s stakeholders involved in IEP. It’s become much more credible in doing research and assessing research priorities.
MOYLE: But the Department of Water Resources participates in that.
HERBOLD: Yes, but if they were doing it on their own, if the neat work that we’re getting out of the Yolo Bypass was entirely done in-house by DWR, I — and I think a lot of other people — would be much more skeptical about the results. But it’s so open and it has so much multi-agency involvement that it crosses the skepticism barrier.
RHOADS: One additional point. I agree with Bruce that the project work team tradition of the Interagency Ecological Program is really a good one — I haven’t seen it anywhere else — where you bubble up from a technical staff the best ideas of what should be done. Where we disagree is the decision making process on what should be actually undertaken because the IEP is not transparent in terms of how those budgetary decisions are made. In that regard, I think CALFED’s integration panel process for selecting projects is a much better process. …
NOTE: Other issues addressed during the interview included protection measures for the Delta smelt and Sacramento splittail, adaptive management, CALFED’s Ecosystem Restoration Program and peer review. A complete copy of the 16-page magazine is available from the Foundation for $3. Visit our on-line store and add the May/June 1999 issue of Western Water to your shopping cart.
Or, purchase a transcript of the entire 90-minute discussion, which was edited (shortened) for publication in Western Water. The transcript is available for $5. Visit our on-line store and add the Where Science and Public Policy Meet: A Roundtable Discussion to your shopping cart. Or call the Foundation, 916-444-6240.
A fascinating conversation took place recently in our office. Chief Writer Sue McClurg and Education Director and former biology teacher Judy Wheatley engaged four scientists in a roundtable discussion on good science. The conversation is important because all of us involved in water issues often hear references to “good” or “sound” science. Usually these comments are made by advocates of one position about the science being used by the other side!
So we thought it would be interesting to hear from some scientists, actually biologists, on a few scientific points involving critical water issues. My small part of the discussion was to take notes on the conversation, as a back up to the tape recorder. Development Director and talented photographer, Christine Schmidt, took the photos.
This magazine contains an edited version of the conversation. A couple of the discussions, which did not make it into the magazine, are worth mentioning here. While talking about biodiversity and genetic diversity, Judy told the story of what happened in Russia in the ’20s and ’30s when scientists developed a monoculture of wheat that was perfectly adapted to Russian Steppe conditions. Soon along came a wheat rust that totally destroyed that particular monoculture and Russian society was absolutely devastated because they had gone down a single-minded scientific path. That point helps non-scientists like myself understand the value of preserving endangered species to maintain genetic diversity.
Another point which I was glad to see all the scientists support was the need for more public education. All agreed with Elise Holland when she said that education should be society’s No. 1 objective. As she noted, “how can you make informed decisions about any part of your life unless you know how to educate yourself about some issue or another?”
On the subject of education, in the last Western Water we inadvertently left education out of our description of the functions of the Department of Water Resources. The department has stepped up its work in water education in recent years.
I heard from a lot of you concerning the interview with new Resources Secretary Mary Nichols. A lot of people in the sometimes narrow world of water issues liked the opportunity to hear a member of the administration talk about resource issues in her own words. I plan to do a similar interview with DWR Director Tom Hannigan after he’s on the job a while.
There’s still some space on our Bay-Delta tour. We recently hosted about 20 reporters from all over California on a shortened version of this tour. There’s nothing like seeing the places we write and read about up close. So join us!