How to Deny that Fish Need Water

I recently came across this checklist for global warming deniers on Michael Campana’s post:

  1. Deny global warming.
  2. After global warming is determined to be real, deny that it's human caused.
  3. After it is determined to be human caused, deny that it will be harmful.
  4. After it is shown that it will be harmful, claim that it's too expensive to stop.
  5. After it is shown that it will be more expensive *not* to stop, send a threat to a climate scientist.
  6. Engage some scientists who may have ‘street creds,’ but in another field.

Insert the words “Delta ecosystem collapse” for “global warming,” and you have the playbook of some of the biggest water users in California who are driven by a desire to continue profiting from an unsustainable level of water diversions from the Bay-Delta. 

    1.    Deny global warming Delta ecosystem collapse.

The catastrophic crash of several Delta native fisheries, including delta smelt, was well under way by 2004. But this didn’t stop Westlands Water District, the San-Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority and the California Farm Bureau from suing the Fish & Wildlife Service that year to demand that the delta smelt be taken off the Endangered Species list.  These large water users insisted that the smelt was out of danger based on the analysis of B.J. Miller and Bryan Manly, who concluded that “the probability of extinction [of delta smelt] by the year 2050 is about one to two tenths of one percent.”   

When this Miller/Manly analysis was put to the test of independent peer review, the reviewers unanimously concluded that “the conclusions reached in the paper were not supported by either the data or the arguments presented,” were based on “selective use of the data and application of questionable analytical techniques,” and “ignored the results and implications of their work that were contrary to their conclusions.” Individual peer reviewers noted that the paper was “a seriously flawed analysis of a limited set of selectively chosen data, designed to support a predetermined conclusion,” based on methods that are “completely and totally inappropriate.” 

Despite this scientific trouncing, Mr. Miller and Dr. Manly’s work continues to underpin much of the “science” on the Bay-Delta ecosystem advocated by large water interests, which, not surprisingly, concludes that soaring water exports from the Delta have a small to insignificant impact on the Delta ecosystem.  Unfortunately, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s draft environmental documents currently rely on much of this information for its analysis, raising grave concerns about the ability of that process to seriously address ecosystem challenges. 

    2.    After global warming Delta ecosystem collapse is determined to be real, deny that it's human caused.

Blame other fish  (no matter that those fish managed to co-exist happily in the Delta for a hundred years).

    3.    After it is determined to be human caused, deny that it will be harmful.

Tens of thousands of Chinook salmon and other fish are killed at the Delta pumps every year, with a much greater number suffering mortality from being pulled off their migratory pathway into hazardous parts of the Delta due to the hydrological pull of the water project pumps.  Nevertheless, one of the water users’ “experts” recently testified in court that salmon survival increases as pumping levels increase from the south Delta, relying on a model that concludes that it’s actually good for salmon to be pulled miles off their migratory pathway and sucked into giant water pumps.  Unfortunately, BDCP’s current draft environmental analyses rely on the “Delta Passage Model” that was created by this expert and that generated these – shall we say – surprising results.     

    4.    After it is shown that it will be harmful, claim that it's too expensive to stop.

Thanks to Sean Hannity, we’ve all heard the false claim that a court’s action to protect native fish in the Delta “shut down” the pumps and caused unemployment to soar to 40 percent in the Valley.  It turns out that the court never ordered the pumps to shut down. And the widely cited unemployment rate in the city of Mendota that formed the basis of this claim was even higher in 2011 (42.7%) – during an extremely wet year with the highest exports from the Delta ever – than it was in 2009 (38.2%) – the third year of drought when south-of-Delta agricultural users received an initial allocation of 10% of their contract supplies. (Here’s a fact sheet produced by the University of the Pacific debunking claims that tens of thousands of jobs have been lost to protect fish.)  Huh.  The data sure seems to indicate that we face a different and more systemic employment problem in the Valley than problems tied to water supply. 

    5.    After it is shown that it will be more expensive *not* to stop, send a threat to a climate fisheries scientist.

While much attention has focused on Judge Wanger’s statements about two agency scientists who testified in support of the need for increased flow through the Delta in the fall, those statements did not come out of the blue.  They were the culmination of a relentless series of personal attacks by big water users against agency scientists who were doing their job to protect the public interest.  The two most heavily targeted scientists were recently vindicated by an independent review panel and their superiors are defending their integrity.   

    6.    Engage some scientists who may have 'street creds', but in another field.

The export water users have hired a sheep biologist to testify about what delta smelt need.  And a statistician who acknowledges that “this whole thing about delta smelt biology is not my area.”  And a tuna biologist who disdains the fundamental scientific practice of independent peer review and admits to knowing nothing about the Delta or delta smelt. 

Ultimately, the playbook is transparent – whether it’s used to deny climate change, Delta ecosystem collapse, or a host of other inconvenient truths.  But that doesn’t make it any less effective, unless agency watchdogs and decisionmakers get wise to these tactics and reject them publicly.  That can still happen in BDCP if state and federal decisionmakers exert the control that’s needed to right this foundering ship.  This kind of combat science may represent the litigation strategy of certain water users, but it won’t lead to workable solutions for the Delta, our endangered fisheries or the water supply for millions of Californians.