The Obama administration said Wednesday it would seek additional scientific review of permits that reduced Delta water deliveries to farms and cities from the Bay Area to Southern California, but it was unclear whether the inquiry would be as pointed as some water users would like.
The decision to seek an outside review by a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences came in response to a request by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who on Sept. 11 forwarded to the administration a proposed study plan developed by one of the state's most influential water users, Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick.
The Obama administration responded by expressing confidence in the science underlying the permits, which are meant to protect Delta smelt, salmon, sturgeon and other fish from extinction.
"Nonetheless, given the unique importance of these matters, we do not object to having the science associated with Bay Delta fish protection activities presented to the National Academy of Sciences for additional scientific review," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke wrote Feinstein on Wednesday.
There were several other developments Wednesday in California's water crisis:
While the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit clearly backed the Stockton-area water agencies, it was unclear at press time how the government would respond, what was left to be decided in court or how far-reaching the decision would be.
Feinstein is seeking $750,000 for the study to be done by the research arm of the academy. The plan she forwarded from Resnick would guide the inquiry in a way critics saw as a gambit to weaken and challenge the permits, or "biological opinions" issued last December and in June.
"I applaud Secretary Salazar and the Obama administration for calling upon the National Academy of Sciences for an independent review of the biological studies that put a tiny fish over hard-working Californians," said Schwarzenegger, ignoring the fact that the studies also address salmon and killer whales.
Although Feinstein forwarded the Resnick proposal, and specifically mentioned it in her letter to administration officials, she also said the final study design would be determined by administration officials.
And the design of the study is key, experts said.
"It all depends on how you ask the question," said Jeff Mount, a UC Davis geologist and Delta expert who was on a committee that looked at endangered species permits on the Klamath River in 2002 and 2003.
Requiring full blown science reviews of endangered species permits could put federal regulators, who have to rely on the best information available and are forced to make judgment calls, in an impossible position, he said.
"It could simply paralyze the process of trying to protect endangered species," Mount said.
A spokesman for the West Coast's commercial salmon industry said he hoped the review would look at one question he said should have been answered by now.
"How much water must we leave in the Delta in order to have a healthy Delta and abundant salmon runs?" said Glen Spain, northwest regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "That is a question that is systematically ignored."
The Obama administration's letter said a review could help on three fronts: by assisting ongoing efforts to write a "Bay Delta Conservation Plan" that is meant to eventually replace the endangered species permits; by exploring whether less costly water use restrictions could be effective; and to determine whether requirements to protect Delta smelt are inconsistent with other requirements in the permits.
For example, federal biologists say to improve habitat for Delta smelt water, must be held in reservoirs over the summer to keep fresh water in the Delta during the fall of wet years.
That requirement could conflict with rules that require the release of cold water not rivers through the summer because, in effect, the water being released to keep salmon habitat cold is no longer available to keep smelt habitat fresh in later months.
"While our regional teams are comfortable with the two opinions' compatibility, since questions have been raised, the NAS's views on that subject would help put those questions behind us," Salazar and Locke wrote.