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Independent science to solve Delta water problems is slipping away

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San Joaquin Delta

FILE - In this March 24, 2020, file photo, people fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta's Elk Slough near Courtland, Calif.

When the legal battle over employees vs. contractors wrapped up in California, no one thought it could throw a wrench into the long-established independence of the scientific body charged with protecting a precious California resource in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: water.

That is, however, precisely what happened.

State counsel advised members of the Delta Independent Science Board that they were employees, contrary to the independent status required by the board. This threatens the independent science on which our state’s water decisions depend.

In this drought year, with water supply warnings increasing, we cannot afford to lose the independent scientific knowledge because the board slid through an administrative crack.

In response, the board’s leadership requested state assistance, warning that [f]orcing the board’s members to accept employment and oversight by agencies and managers whose science the board reviews would destroy that independence and undermine the credibility of the science from both the board and the agencies it reviews.”

While disagreements may mark the history of water, in California one thing we have collectively agreed upon is that good solutions to our state’s water problems require the best available independent scientific information.

The 2009 Delta Reform Act created the Delta Stewardship Council and the Delta Independent Science Board, establishing both as independent state agencies.

The mandate to the board was to “provide oversight of the scientific research, monitoring, and assessment programs that support adaptive management of the Delta …” and stated “… Members of the Delta Independent Science Board shall be nationally or internationally prominent scientists with appropriate expertise to evaluate the broad range of scientific programs that support adaptive management of the Delta. The Members shall not be directly affiliated with a program or agency subject to the review activities of the Delta Independent Science Board.” 

This approach recognized that Delta water decisions had to bring the best scientists together — not an endless array of scientists hired by interested parties battling over water. 

For the last 10 years, the Delta Independent Science Board has reviewed and ensured that the best available science has been incorporated in the Delta Plan, the plan’s actions, assessments and comprehensive scientific reviews.

The state Senate recently adopted and unanimously passed corrective legislation. Senate Bill 821 declares that the board members are not employees of the Delta Stewardship Council, reaffirming law that prohibits the direct affiliation of the board with the agencies and programs it reviews. Water agencies and the environmental community strongly support SB 821, but the bill is still not the law.

As time passes, the damage to the Delta’s independent science program mounts.  Some contracts have gone unpaid and important work products are delayed or canceled, including urgently needed scientific recommendations on how to handle accelerating environmental change in the Delta.

So far, there is no formal position on the bill from the Newsom administration. Restoration of the board’s independent-contract status and funding must be at the forefront of the state’s discussions in the coming weeks. 

We strongly urge voters to contact their state legislators and ask them to expedite SB 821. We also urge the governor to sign this bill to clarify that “independent” really means “independent.” 

Phil Isenberg is the founding chair of the Delta Stewardship Council and vice chair from 2014 through 2016. David Guy is president of the Northern California Water Association. They wrote this for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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