Administration mulls new science review of California water

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration must now figure out whether to let scientists second-guess some key California water delivery decisions.

Potential problems await, whichever way the administration moves.

On Thursday night, the Senate approved an Interior Department spending bill that includes $750,000 for a proposed National Academy of Sciences study. The proposed study would review two "biological opinions" that protect species and curtail irrigation deliveries in the Central Valley.

"I know there is a problem with the biological opinions," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in Senate debate. "I understand that."

Feinstein proposes an "overarching but quick" study lasting six months, in which scientists can look anew at the biological opinions issued in June by the National Marine Fisheries Service and in December 2008 by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Fish and Wildlife Service study protects the smelt found in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The National Marine Fisheries Service study protects steelhead and Chinook salmon. To protect the species, farmers must sacrifice water.

While providing money, though, the Senate bill does not explicitly order a National Academy of Sciences study. Instead, in a Sept. 11 letter that amounts to a bank shot, Feinstein asked the Interior and Commerce departments to request that the study be done.

"We carry out most of the studies requested of us by the federal government," National Academy of Sciences spokesman William Kearney noted Friday, adding that so far, "we haven't received any request, either from Congress or from the agencies."

Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said Friday that "we're still reviewing" Feinstein's study request.

Through its National Research Council, the National Academy of Sciences completes about 200 studies annually. With its elite reputation, the research council generally commands wide respect for its studies. In June, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, introduced a bill directing the scientists to study the California water decisions.

The research council's stature, though, has also sometimes been deployed by politicians as a hammer.

The Bush administration, for instance, used an interim 2002 National Research Council study of biological opinions in the Klamath Basin to justify providing less water for salmon and more water for farmers. Some 70,000 salmon subsequently died in the Klamath River.

Earlier this year, mindful of the Klamath Basin debacle, House Natural Resources Committee staff members sharply debated the wisdom of ordering a new scientific review, according to individuals familiar with the private meeting. Similarly, in a private August meeting at the Harris Ranch in Fresno County, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes voiced concerns about "politicizing the science" with a new study, according to one meeting participant.

Hayes also reportedly questioned whether a useful study could be completed within six months. The biological opinions being targeted were prepared by scientists working over many months and, in some cases, years.

The biological opinion prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service, for instance, spanned 844 pages

Federal law requires the biological opinions to shape federal irrigation delivery decisions, because the fish are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say that if the biological opinions were blocked entirely, then no federal water deliveries could take place at all.

"The biological opinion allows the ... pumping which impacts the endangered species to take place, in exchange for conducting activities to limit impacts to the species," noted Alexandra Pitts, Sacramento-based acting deputy regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. "Without (it), the Bureau of Reclamation and the state cannot operate their pumps."

An amendment recommended by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, and introduced by Republican Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, would have stopped federal officials from reducing water deliveries as part of the biological opinion. The amendment, though, apparently would have left the toothless biological opinion itself in place.

Numerous California farm groups supported DeMint's amendment, but Feinstein and Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer opposed it, and the Senate overwhelmingly rejected it Tuesday.