National Academy of Sciences Confirms that Protections for Endangered Salmon and Other Species are “Scientifically Justified”

Today, the National Academy of Sciences’ National Research Council (NRC) publicly released its interim report on the science used in the biological opinions protecting salmon, delta smelt, and other endangered fish in California’s Bay-Delta estuary.  The NRC’s report confirms that the agencies used the best available science in developing these biological opinions, finding that these protections are “scientifically justified” and have a “sound conceptual basis,” as Mike Doyle reported yesterday and the Los Angeles Times reported this morning.

The NRC’s conclusion is consistent with the findings of the numerous internal and external peer reviews of the two BO’s and their methodologies, which were conducted both before and after the two opinions were released.  These BO’s, together, have 78 separate requirements.  Given the complexity of those requirements, the relatively few recommendations for improvements are striking.

It is important to read the NRC review in the context of the scientific and agency reviews of the previous biological opinions.  By contrast, those previous BO’s were found to have violated agency procedures and were found not to have incorporated the best available science.  Those reviews led a federal court to reject them – leading to these new, and clearly improved, BO’s.

Beyond the specifics of the BO requirements, the NRC also confirmed the impacts that water projects have had on the fisheries in the Bay-Delta, finding that “there is much general evidence that the profound reduction and altered timing of the delta water supply has been part of the reason for the degradation of these species’ habitats”.

Of course, peer reviews are supposed to be critical, and the Bay-Delta is a very complex ecosystem; therefore, the NRC panel did make several recommendations regarding implementation, particularly focused on ensuring that monitoring and adaptive management provisions in the BO’s are implemented.  Fortunately, the current implementation of the BO’s requirements is already being driven by careful monitoring, scientific input and adaptive management.

Some water users have argued that these BO’s have failed because delta smelt and salmon haven’t yet recovered after a year or two of implementation.  The NRC rejected that notion, concluding that, “[r]eversing or even slowing the declines of the listed species cannot be accomplished immediately.”  Indeed, given the three year life cycle of salmon, the salmon that returned in the past few years all migrated to sea before any pumping restrictions were imposed, and have never benefited from these protections.

In developing these biological opinions, the fisheries agencies carefully analyzed the impacts to water supply, and narrowly tailored the pumping and other restrictions to minimize impacts to water supply while still preventing the extinction of the species.  There is no question that under the biological opinions, less water can be exported from the Delta estuary than as compared to the record high levels of water exports that occurred under the prior, unlawful biological opinions.  But the NRC found that none of the other alternative measures that were presented to the panel would provide equal or greater protection to the species while allowing more water exports.

The NRC’s work is far from complete.  In its second report, due in 2011, the NRC is directed to develop recommendations for how best to adaptively manage the Bay-Delta ecosystem, including addressing so-called “other stressors,” and to identify sustainable levels of water exports from the Delta and advise how to best restore and sustain the Delta, which will help inform the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.  The NRC’s involvement in the Delta should help ensure that sound science is used in these processes to best restore and protect the Delta environment.

Ultimately, California must reduce its dependence on water exports from the Delta.  Last November, the California legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger made this a formal State policy, and the NRC’s second report should help the Delta Plan and BDCP to achieve this policy.  The best tools to help us get there are investments in the Virtual River of efficiency, water recycling, stormwater capture, and other alternative supplies  These water sources are environmentally sustainable, cost-effective and relatively resistant to impacts from climate change.  By investing in these tools, we can restore the Delta and its magnificent wildlife, and still meet our water supply needs, so that future generations of Californians will be able to enjoy grilled California salmon, asparagus, and tomatoes, rather than having to choose between them.

The NRC’s interim report lays a foundation for larger efforts to restore the health of the Delta and improve water supplies.  The NRC’s report next year should provide even more guidance on how best to adaptively manage the Delta and meet California’s water supply needs for the future.