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Council's Message of Policy and Science Collaboration Taken On-the-Road

August 2014
Integrated Water Resources Management Power point

The story of how policy makers and scientists are collaborating on difficult decisions is making the rounds. Both Chair Randy Fiorini and Vice-Chair Phil Isenberg have been teaming up with Lead Scientist Dr. Peter Goodwin to explain how the Delta Stewardship Council uses science in drafting and implementing what some may consider contentious policy choices.

Armed with PowerPoint presentations, their “road show” first played at the 2014 American Water Resources Association Conference in Reno, Nevada where Fiorini and Goodwin were the keynote speakers before a group of 200 water managers and purveyors. Fiorini says his message was that science is both a necessary and, following the enactment of the 2009 Delta Reform Act, legally required component in making decisions about the health and well-being of the Delta.

“The California Legislature has established that whatever is done in the Delta in the future must be guided by the best available science,” said Fiorini. “And so it’s important that I as a policy maker stand before an audience with our agency’s scientist, Dr. Goodwin, so that they recognize that we cannot operate separately – that we have to operate cooperatively.”

Their hour-long talk had Fiorini first setting the stage of California’s consistent struggle to meet its water needs. He spoke of the wide variability in the amount of precipitation California receives; how most of the rain and snow falls in the north, but most of the population resides in the arid south; and how California initially developed its water delivery infrastructure prior to the environmental movement of the 1960s.

“The infrastructure was designed to move water from areas of surplus to areas of need, but was engineered without much consideration for environmental impacts,” Fiorini said he told the audience. “Now laws demand that those systems be re-operated to achieve a greater sensitivity towards the environment.”

At the heart of the system, Fiorini said, is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Their PowerPoint offered statistics of the Delta’s value, and the risks and uncertainties the region faces.

He then turned the presentation over to Dr. Goodwin who showed the vulnerability of the Delta when dealing with the forces of nature – including phenomena known as atmospheric rivers.

“An atmospheric river is water that’s being carried in the air across the Pacific that Michael Dettinger and his colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have shown has the volume of 10 to 25 times the volume of the Mississippi River, and is potentially heading for a very narrow area of California like the Delta,” said Goodwin. “I wanted to make the point to the audience that although we’re deep into a drought, the statistics show that big droughts are often broken by big floods, and we have to plan for both extremes.”

Goodwin then illustrated with his PowerPoint other pressing issues facing the Delta, including the collapse of the Delta smelt population (as tracked by the Interagency Ecological Program) and how a sizable earthquake could result in a calamitous effect on the available fresh water in the Delta. Multiple levee failures, he says, could allow intrusion of salt water from the San Francisco Bay into the Delta affecting water diversions for agricultural irrigation and water supply for urban areas.

Fiorini returned explaining how scientific realities like these and others were the impetus behind the passage of the Delta Reform Act with its State mandated coequal goals of water supply reliability and Delta ecosystem rehabilitation, as well as the formation of agencies like the Delta Stewardship Council.

“Our dual presentations are more than just a symbolic effort,” said Fiorini. “They represent the reality of the world that we’re operating in – that smart people involved in the intricacies of science will help shape the direction of the State’s investments.”

Council Vice-Chair Phil Isenberg echoed Fiorini’s thoughts saying, “Science adds power and clout to what the Council does. We get better results when science and policy work together because the answers become more obvious.”

The Isenberg/Goodwin version of the presentation was offered at the Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE) Conference held in Atlanta. The event attracts more than 600 scientists and engineers interested in the emergence of big data and the use of supercomputers to improve public policy decisions. “We got invited because the organizer was interested in a science/policy interface presentation.”

Although he did offer some background on California water policy, Isenberg initially spoke in broader terms. He began this presentation with a history lesson on how science and government does, and does not work together. The focus was the 1960 Godkin Lecture at Harvard entitled Science and Government written by British scientist and novelist C.P. Snow, who was one of the smart young scientists involved in fighting World War II - as a scientist. Snow spoke of the dangers of science, and the limitations of policy-makers.

“I also referenced Snow’s more famous article, The Two Cultures,” said Isenberg. “It laments the disdain with which the ‘educated class’ viewed scientists and the reciprocal disdain scientists took of the British chattering class.”

Isenberg and Goodwin talked about the Bay Delta Conservation Plan as an example of how 21st Century science is now driving policy-making efforts. Goodwin followed with stories of the Delta’s policy dilemmas. And, as in Reno, he spoke of the development of the Delta Science Plan with its concept of “One Delta – One Science” where the entire science community works collaboratively to solve the Delta’s issues. Although the premise is focused on a California estuary, Goodwin felt the document’s underlying philosophy would ring true with scientists anywhere.

“We want to get to this other paradigm, one of true collaboration,” said Goodwin. “It’s where scientists develop projects that are transparent for everyone to see, where they can explore new concepts together, and allows the next group to pick up on what’s been done and improve on the weak spots. That way we’re continually improving our knowledge and growing together.”

The trio says they hope to continue their road show.

“I want to solicit audiences to make these presentations because I think it really is at the core of understanding the paradigm shift that has occurred,” said Fiorini.

“The notion of common presentations from different disciplines (policy-making and science) appeals to me a lot,” said Isenberg. “Policy-making and science meet uncomfortably, but meet they must.”

The Fiorini/Goodwin PowerPoint can be viewed here.

The Isenberg/Goodwin PowerPoint can be viewed here.

Both Council Chair Randy Fiorini and Delta Science Program Lead Scientist Dr. Peter Goodwin will be part of the Tuesday morning plenary session at the 8th Biennial Bay-Delta Science Conference held October 28, 29, and 30, 2014 at the Sacramento Convention Center. To register for the conference, please click here.

Coequal goals

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. "'Coequal goals' means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054)