Mike Dunbar

State likes its old science even when new studies prove it wrong

A salmon makes its way up the salmon ladder on the American River.
A salmon makes its way up the salmon ladder on the American River. hamezcua@sacbee.com

When Ben Franklin wanted to learn about lightning, he attached a kite to a wire string and flew it through an electrical storm – discarding decades-old “science” that said lightning was a fluid.

When Louis Pasteur developed theories about invisible germs causing disease, he ignored the ancient belief that said disease arose spontaneously within unlucky humans.

When the state of California decided it wanted more water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to use elsewhere, it turned to 10-, 20-, 30-year-old studies – the “best available science” – to prove more water equals more fish.

“From the very beginning of this process, it was a foregone conclusion what they wanted out of this,” said Doug Demko, a very real scientist and one of the principles of FishBio, which studies fish populations around the world and right here. “I don’t think the science supports the justification for the unimpaired flows regimes the state is proposing.”

Nor do a host of others.

The state is required by law to use the “best available science” to inform its far-reaching, even devastating conclusions. To justify its demands, the state recruited five scientists to review the science in 2012. But not a single study they reviewed was published after 2011. Most were from the 1990s. Few were conducted on our rivers, and some were done in laboratories. This is what the state water board considers the “best available science.”

If the state bothered to look at more current, also peer-reviewed studies published within the past three years, it would have found plenty of data to refute the notion that more water equals more fish.

“Studies we’ve done, studies done elsewhere in the Central Valley and even in other states show that the (new) science isn’t supporting more flow equals more fish,” said Demko. He says flatly, up-to-date studies will not “justify the 40 percent unimpaired flow as a solution. … There are other, critically important factors such as predation, non-native species, habitat that they’ve completely ignored.”

The state knows it. The board has heard it repeatedly in testimony from irrigation districts, the scientists themselves and in blogs, conversations and conferences. These scientists agree that conclusions drawn from studies conducted a decade or more in the past are no longer valid.

“That’s been at the heart of my comments at every single hearing,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray, who testified before the board during two days of hearings in August. “These folks have continued not to meet with local scientists, technicians or anyone else. They’ve not demonstrated that there is any science.”

Why shut out new knowledge? Why ignore actual science?

Gray doesn’t know. But he has asked.

“We’ve continued to request records on who they’ve met with,” he said. “But they’ve denied those requests … they haven’t made public who they have met with.”

Meanwhile, the water board has shifted the emphasis of its demands. When it started talking about increased flows, the purpose was to save native salmon from extinction. Now, it’s to save the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Saving salmon is something we can get behind. Salmon on our rivers suffer from a triple-whammy – habitat degradation, a warming climate and being annihilated by bass infesting all three rivers.

The Stanislaus River was just as bad as the Tuolumne and Merced. But Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts started restoring the gravel beds salmon use for nests. This year some 15,000 salmon came up the river to spawn. That’s a great number, but none of them actually “returned” to the Stan. Those salmon all were born in hatcheries in the Sacramento basin; they just made a wrong turn on their way back.

Regardless, they proved that habitat improvements are worth the effort.

“We have to restore the habitat” on the Tuolumne, said Demko. But, “if you actually want it to function as a nursery for natural fish, you have to remove the non-native fish that the salmon are competing with; the fish that are eating the native fish.”

And while cold water is important, it’s not an essential factor – as newer studies have proved.

“You ignore 100 percent loss of juvenile salmon on the Tuolumne due to predation and then you’re arguing over a 10th of a degree? That’s asinine,” said Demko.

With adequate restoration and controlling for predators, all of our rivers can produce more salmon and more trout. Up-to-date studies prove it.

But having more fish isn’t the point. Not really.

It’s all about more water. That’s why the state’s goals have morphed from saving salmon to fixing the Delta. And no amount of water will do that when the state is planning to remove significant portions of the Sacramento River through twin tunnels – which provides 80 percent of the Delta’s water. So the demands will be never-ending.

“The Delta is not a delta,” said Demko, “it’s a water conveyance authority.”

Better science can alter the work of even the best science. But you can’t fix a biological problem with a 10-year-old engineering solution.

Mike Dunbar is the editor of the Opinions pages. Call 209-578-2325, email mdunbar@modbee.com.