Rich Pedroncelli / AP file, 2005

Tiny delta smelt and other fish are seen through a microscope in this 2005 photo. Water exporters claim that improved habitat, not flows, is essential for survival of smelt and other fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But a survey of scientists suggests that flows are equally important, if not more so.

Editorial: If BDCP were science-based, Delta flows would be a priority

Published: Sunday, May. 12, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

For more than a decade, the big farm and urban districts that have grown dependent on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have tried to discredit scientific findings that greater Delta flows are needed to recover endangered species.

"We don't think that these (proposed flows) do a lot of good for fish," said Daniel J. O'Hanlon, who represents the Westlands Water District and other contractors, at an April law conference in San Francisco. "We can't find a relation between fish abundance and flows."

The water contractors, which include Westlands and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, have argued that restored habitat and reduced ammonia pollution would be better for smelt, salmon and other fish. In fact, they are trying to make the claim – through the Bay Delta Conservation Plan – that new habitat and other non-flow measures should be enough to allow them to divert extra water from the Delta through a pair of proposed tunnels.

It's a convenient theory for water exporters. The only problem? Few, if any, independent scientists agree with them. Recently the Public Policy Institute of California asked 122 scientists with Delta expertise about the major stressors facing the estuary. The PPIC compared their responses with those of water exporters, Delta interests and other stakeholders.

Asked which stressors were most important in the degradation of the Delta ecosystem, 78 percent of scientists included flows in their top-two list, with 77 percent including habitat restoration. By contrast, water exporters ranked flows the least important, putting a high value on improving habitat and reducing discharges and invasive species, according to the report "Scientist and Stakeholder Views on the Delta Ecosystem."

As the PPIC concluded, "The lack of shared understanding on Delta science is a major obstacle to effective ecosystem investments. Most engaged stakeholders consult scientific and government reports regularly, but key groups that would be affected by change often come to different conclusions than most scientists (and other stakeholder groups) on the nature of both the problem and solutions."

As the PPIC is careful to point out, it is not just water exporters who put their own self-interested stamp on science. Delta interests put a low value on restoring parts of the Delta for new habitat, even though scientists put that in their top-two list of priorities.

Yet it is not the Delta interests who are driving the train in the Delta. Quite the opposite. For six years, the water exporters have been the force behind the hugely expensive Bay Delta Conservation Plan, arguing that little or no extra water is needed for the Delta, even though freshwater flows through the estuary have been reduced by half in most years. Meanwhile, the exporters have teamed up to finger ammonia from Sacramento's treatment plant as a major stressor, even though most scientists see it as a lower priority to flows and habitat restoration.

This editorial board has called on Gov. Jerry Brown not to approve any tunnel or other "conveyance" project for the Delta until there is a clear understanding among all parties on how much water would be available for the ecosystem, and how much is leftover for water exports. He and his aides want to study that question while the tunnels are built. That is unacceptable. It doesn't mesh with sound science. It won't pass legal muster, and if it is put to a statewide vote, there is a good chance Californians will reject it.

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