Opinion

Mike Dunbar: Counting casualties as state weaponizes ‘combat science’

Some 1,200 rResidents of the Modesto area came to Modesto Centre Plaza to testify to the damage that will be done by the State Water Resources Control Board demands for more environmental flows on the San Joaquin River tributaries. Few of their concerns were addressed and the board’s demand were not altered.
Some 1,200 rResidents of the Modesto area came to Modesto Centre Plaza to testify to the damage that will be done by the State Water Resources Control Board demands for more environmental flows on the San Joaquin River tributaries. Few of their concerns were addressed and the board’s demand were not altered. jlee@modbee.com

Up in Sacramento, they call it “combat science.” Most forms of combat leave casualties behind. If the State Water Resources Control Board gets its way, we are those casualties.

The water board is making some wrongheaded demands for increased flows on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. In what the board insists is an effort to save salmon and flush the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, it is demanding 40 to 50 percent of our rivers flow unimpeded to the ocean. That’s more than double what flows away now.

Our rivers supply drinking water for Manteca, Modesto and 23 Bay Area cities; they provide water for crops grown by thousands of farmers, feeding millions of people. They sustain life in our Valley.

Everyone living here wants healthy rivers. But instead of seeking a compromise, as ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown, the water board is doubling down on its demands while pretending to take the high road.

We’ve already written about how the water board cherry-picks data to justify its demands.

We’ve written about the economic peril to the 1 million people living here. How it could cost us hundreds of millions each year in ag losses, thousands of jobs and vastly diminished land values. We’ve noted how the dams we built have little worth without water.

We’ve even written about the state’s apparent lack of concern for the hardship its demands will cause. The state offered ridiculously low figures on our losses, at one point even saying losing a few thousand acres of crops would result in greater income, not less.

California’s regulatory agencies are required to decide issues using the “best available science.” But in dealing with the water board, said Turlock Irrigation Director Michael Frantz, “the outcome seems predetermined and the science is used to support a foregone conclusion. That’s not the way science is supposed to work.”

Consider recent comments from Jennifer Nevills, a scientist who works for Metropolitan Water District, when the plight of our rivers arose in a board meeting last week. She told directors that “natural flows” are “not a good indicator of improved species abundance.” She explained that before they were dammed, our rivers spread out over huge flood plains and seeped into the ground. There wasn’t any more water available then than there is now, she said.

Her thoughts echoed those of renowned UC Davis watershed sciences professor Jay Lund, who said last year, “I always have had a little bit of skepticism behind the so-called ‘natural-flow’ doctrine.” The theory that higher flows equal more fish, he said, is based in “scientific laziness.”

So, are water board regulators being lazy, or does the “best available” science simply not fit their agenda?

TID hired another UC Davis scientist, Nann Fangue, to study the Tuolumne River. She found salmon here have a higher tolerance for warmer water than salmon on the Columbia River – where studies from the 1970s established a temperature benchmark of 72 degrees. Tuolumne salmon are fine in water up to 77 degrees. Why is that important?

Because the water board is demanding access to “cold pools” behind New Melones, Don Pedro and Exchequer dams. That access will tie up some 970,000 acre feet of water, say the districts, making it unavailable for drinking or irrigation. This accounts for the disconnect between what the state says it wants – 300,000 additional acre feet – and what the districts say it will cost. Losing that much water would destroy agriculture as we know it.

Where does the state get its combat science?

In a water board rebuttal to a comment from our region, a staffer cited a “study” by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC is the former employer of water board chairwoman Felicia Marcus and a potent advocacy group; but it is not a scientific organization.

The state loves to say how much increased flows will help California’s salmon-fishing industry, which it insists is worth $1.4 billion a year. Los Angeles Times reporter Michael Hiltzik cited that number in a story just Friday. But the number comes from a report by Southwick Associates, which specializes in doing studies for environmental groups. Cross check those numbers with state data, and you find only 1,032,000 pounds of salmon were caught in California the year cited. At $1.4 billion, that means each pound of salmon was worth roughly $1,400 in 2006. That’s insanity.

Paul Wenger, a Modesto farmer and former California Farm Bureau president, says one reason Sacramento bureaucrats weaponize bogus science is that they have nothing to lose.

“If their home was at risk, their 401(k), you can bet they’d want to use the best data available,” he said. “If you told them that if you’re wrong, you forfeit everything you have, then you’d get a different outcome.”

Sound drastic?

Then realize the state is asking people in Manteca, Merced, Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale and across our region to do exactly that. If the bureaucrats and regulators get this wrong – and they are according to a multitude of peer-reviewed studies – they lose nothing. We, however, could lose everything.

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