National Research Council Meets to Discuss Biological Opinions

The National Research Council (NRC) held its first meeting on Sustainable Water and Environmental Management in the California Bay-Delta at the University of California, Davis from Jan. 24-28, 2010. During the meeting, the panel began the process of examining rules adopted by federal fisheries agencies to protect imperiled Delta fish species.

The NRC, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), appointed a committee of experts to review the scientific basis of actions to achieve both an environmentally sustainable Bay-Delta and a reliable water supply. The review, requested by Congress, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Commerce, will provide a report about the most recent delta smelt and salmon biological opinions (BOs) in March 2010.

The BOs, written last year by federal fisheries agencies, evaluated the effects of the proposed operation of the Federal Central Valley Project and the California State Water Project on the delta smelt and salmon and their critical habitats, and recommended “reasonable and prudent alternatives” (RPAs) to avoid jeopardy and adverse habitat modification. The 15-member panel of independent scientists met to address scientific questions, assumptions, and conclusions underlying the water-management alternatives recommended in the BOs.

The five-day meeting included briefings from the Department of the Interior, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the state Department of Water Resources, outside experts, stakeholders and the public.

During the opening welcome and introduction to the NRC, Stephen Parker, director of the Water Science and Technology Board of the NRC, pointed out that the principles of NRC are: independence, balance and objectivity. The NAS was created by charter in 1863 to advance science and technology and to advise the government in regards to policy for science and applications of science within policy.

A cornucopia of competing interests-including lawyers, landowners, legislators, biologists, environmentalists, farmers, fishermen, state and federal fish and water agencies and more-filled a meeting room at UC Davis the last week in January to offer their take on the Delta’s environmental problems.

In the Sunday opening session, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, told the committee, “Water truly is the lifeblood of the West-the San Joaquin Valley, the entire state.” He added that the fish protections have harmed his constituents and are based on “flawed science.”


“Water truly is the lifeblood of the West...”

--Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno


“I am a firm believer in sound science,” Costa said. “Clearly logic would tell you that if the salmonids are suffering in Washington and Oregon, you can’t blame it on the pumps.” Costa likened the BO’s approach to a pilot attempting to fly an airplane with the pilot controlling just one aspect of the flight-altitude. He thinks the panel “should provide us a roadmap as to what we’re doing right and what we’re not doing right.”

Several speakers offered input as to what the panel should do. For instance, Jeff Mount, a professor at the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis and a scientific expert on the Delta, recommended that the committee’s first task should be to develop its own definition of a key word in the NRC panel’s project title: sustainable. “Be as precise as possible,” Mount said. “This is where you can make a major impact [on policy and management] that will last decades.”

The panel is considering whether the RPAs in the BOs are based on the best available scientific information-a federal requirement. The panel also is to consider if alternative RPAs would have lesser impacts on water supply, but provide equal or improved protection for the relevant fish species and their designated critical habitat.

The agencies that developed the BOs and RPAs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for delta smelt and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for salmonids, green sturgeon, and orcas, defended their opinions and alternatives on Monday.

A goal of the RPAs is to keep the delta smelt away from the influence of the pumps and in suitable habitat. “Reading the Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives first in the BOs is like reading the end of a story first,” said Cay Goude, a senior biologist from USFWS. “You really should read the whole book.”

Steve Lindley, a research fishery biologist from NMFS, had a different take than Jim Costa on the concept of Delta governance. “It is like a plane with multiple pilots who all want to go to different places and each of them is pulling different knobs . . . and the back of the plane is full of passengers who are unhappy and have tickets to go to yet other places.”

He added that overall, the key to the process is going to be adaptive management.

During the open microphone portion of Monday’s meeting, one audience member told the panel, “I’m a member of a nearly extinct species, the Delta landowner.” She asked the panel to please consider the human factor; as most of the islands in the Delta are privately owned and farmed and pointed out that people living in the Delta will be the ones most impacted by the decisions made.

Tuesday morning and afternoon included speakers supporting and challenging the science in the BOs and offering alternatives.

Jerry Johns, Deputy Director of DWR, gave an overview of water supply impacts of the BOs and said delta smelt are not responding positively to the current efforts to curtail exports. “We need a more holistic approach that looks at all the stressors on the fish,” he said, referring to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) process.

Johns offered some alternatives to the RPAs, including:

  • The Potential Entrainment Index (PEI) for delta smelt-a simulation model to estimate the full spatial distribution of the smelt to determine the overall potential risk of entrainment of the overall delta smelt population instead of just one small fraction of that population. This model tracks particle movement (to represent delta smelt) but doesn’t factor in fish behavior.

  • Non-Physical Barrier for San Joaquin River Salmonids-a bubble, sound and light curtain that encourages salmon smolts to go down the main stem of the San Joaquin River where studies show they survive better than going down Old River where they are subject to more sources of mortality. Test results indicate this curtain deters fish about four-fifths of the time, but nearby predators eat young outmigrating salmon. Using a line from Dr. Seuss, (“one fish, two fish”) Johns showed an animated graphic showing a tagged striped bass (red) following a tagged salmon smolt (blue), until both were joined, indicating that the bass had eaten the salmon.

Cliff Dahm, Delta (formerly CALFED) Lead Scientist, presented a summary of the portfolio of research currently supported by the Science Program. Major areas of research are salmonids, food webs, invasive species and climate change. He said more research needs to be focused on sturgeon, hydrodynamics and flow. “Flow criteria is at the root of many of the issues in front of the panel in relation to the Delta; but this is also an issue worldwide,” Dahm said. “The key is finding sustainable allocations-it isn’t all about quantities.”

The tension between water for farms and cities and water for the environment was a central theme on Tuesday.


“California is living beyond its water means.”

--Christina Swanson, Executive Director of The Bay Institute


“California is living beyond its water means,” said Christina Swanson, Executive Director of The Bay Institute whose mission is to protect, conserve and restore the Bay-Delta. Nine out of 10 of the largest rivers in the Central Valley are dammed and five of those dams are controlled by the Central Valley Project (CVP) or State Water Project (SWP), Swanson said. She added that pumps-either CVP or SWP-export up to 65 percent of the inflow and the low fresh water outflow in the fall decreases habitat quality and quantity for the delta smelt.

Swanson’s suggestion to the panel was to look at the efficiency of how the water projects operate, as well as effectiveness and sustainability.

“We reached a tipping point at some point, it just wasn’t recognized until now,” said Peter Moyle, a fisheries biologist at UC Davis. The problem with sustainability is statewide; it is not just the Delta, Moyle added. The root cause of recent declines in the delta fisheries is water diversions. “The battle here is human versus aquatic biota.”

Other concerns regarding the science utilized in the BOs were voiced by Rick Deriso of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, who questioned the population modeling approach for fish species used in the opinions. David Fullerton, from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, was critical of the proposed Fall X2 action, suggesting lower, not higher, fall flows may benefit delta smelt and that ammonium levels upstream of Suisun Bay are inhibiting diatom growth.

During the open microphone segment on the third day of the public meeting, John Herrick, an attorney with the South Delta Water Agency, reminded the panel of what they’re not to do:

  • Solve the fiscal issues in California

  • Solve California’s water needs/over-allocation issues

  • Change water laws

He added that the panel is only here to review the BOs.

The NRC panel of experts will review decades of science to determine whether the Delta fish protections are justified and present their findings in an initial report scheduled for release in March 2010. The panel will release its second report about incorporating science and adaptive management into Bay-Delta programs in November 2011.