TRACY, Calif. -- Scientists tasked with unraveling one of the nation's most vexing environmental puzzles started their first field trip to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta at a fish processing facility here near one of the estuary's major water-pumping stations.
Assembled by the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists -- 15 experts in estuarine ecology, hydrology, fisheries science and water resources engineering -- were gathering information for a series of reports that could influence management of the West Coast's largest estuary for decades to come.
The stakes for the two-year study are high. All around the delta, demand for water is growing -- water for endangered fish, for farms and for 25 million people. Political pressure from California's senior U.S. senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, and others finally forced the White House to order the review this spring.
So the National Research Council panel has parachuted into a decades-long environmental battle being fought over a 700-mile-long maze of shipping canals, rivers, levees and aqueducts. The scientists are moving at a rapid clip to satisfy political pressure on all sides as they try to get a clear picture of the science behind two federal recovery plans for endangered chinook salmon and delta smelt and a number of proposals aimed at solving regional water problems.
All this while a major restoration program five years in the making -- the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) -- chugs forward.
The panel's starting point for its face-to-face confrontation with the delta is about an hour's drive from San Francisco, a federal fish processing plant that experts call "mile marker zero" for endangered fish diverted to the Delta-Mendota Canal, which flows 2 miles south to the federal government's sole water-pumping facility in the region. The state's sole pumping facility is also nearby, at mile marker zero for the California Aqueduct.
The pumps are the focus of a court clash between the federal government and water districts that has temporarily left Endangered Species Act recovery plans for fish and the related biological opinions in disarray. The fish processing plant, a series of warehouses surrounded by holding tanks and screening machinery, is the final way station before those pumps.
Here, the federal Bureau of Reclamation screens for fish, often by hand, to both protect them from the deadly pumps and to trigger water-pumping limits when smelt or salmon numbers start to swell. The operation is one of many ordered by federal fiat in a bid to balance pressures on all sides.
"The controversy has been going on for years and years," said Joe Pennino, a Reclamation engineer who led the scientists on a tour of the facility. "It's going to continue for years and years."
'To see it and feel it'
Pennino walked the scientists through the facility on a mid-July morning, explaining that fish caught here are held for 8 to 12 hours and then trucked to the delta for release just beyond the canal's entrance. Before dropping fish into holding tanks, technicians sorted through screened debris, finding one largemouth bass and dozens of threadfin shad but no smelt or salmon, neither of which were expected in mid summer.
Then the group boarded a Reclamation research vessel, the Endeavour, which launched from Rio Vista, about an hour north of Tracy on the Sacramento River, for a tour of the delta itself.
The panel chairman, Robert Huggett, a professor emeritus at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and former U.S. EPA assistant administrator for research and development, said a first-hand look was needed following the release of a study by his team that found federal science behind the smelt and salmon biological opinions lacking.
"I've never been on the Sacramento," Huggett said. "We're here to see it and feel it."
Seeing it and feeling it meant sitting at the stern of the Endeavor listening to federal experts explain the delta in dry 100-degree heat. Officials from Reclamation, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish and Wildlife Service had the vessel steered first toward Decker Island, a restored tidal marsh.
Jon Burau, a USGS civil engineer, used the marsh as a backdrop for his argument for rebuilding habitat along canals, rivers and levees to serve as natural protection zones for young salmonids and smelt. The smelt, which is nearing extinction, is considered a key indicator of the ecosystem's health.
After leaving Decker Island, the Endeavor moved north into the web-like delta, which draws most of its water from the Sierra Mountains to the east but also draws from as far north as the Cascades. The delta mostly resembles a series of man-made canals (or sloughs) running between rock levees, but it often gives way to marshes and tall grasses. It fluctuates, in other words, between concrete and grassy wildlife habitat -- what Reclamation calls an "exchange between terrestrial and aquatic environments" -- and a case study in the rush to divert water.
But water exports are not the only stressors on the watershed. There is also encroaching development, selenium and ammonia pollution, invasive weeds, nonnative wildlife and tides so strong they reach from the Golden Gate to Sacramento. The tides create a kind of fluid mixing bowl stretching north from San Francisco Bay to the delta, a point stressed by Burau.
"This is fundamentally a tidal system, a tidal system with a little bit of a river mixed in," Burau told the scientists. "The tidal excursion is everything."
And while more high-profile solutions have been floated to "fix" the delta, including a multibillion-dollar canal or tunnel, Burau emphasized the importance of harnessing and understanding how the tides convey or carry pollution, which is so complete that prescription drugs like Prozac are consistently found in delta fish.
"We can't just look at conveyance options in isolation," said Burau, explaining how tidal forces move organisms throughout the system like a high-speed conveyor belt. "Things move a long way here. That's something that doesn't happen in rivers."
'Building an airplane in mid-flight'
In the same breath, Burau admitted to knowing little about the behavior of the endangered smelt. Such was the argument of attorneys who convinced a federal judge to suspend pumping limits earlier this year, driving a big question mark into the biological opinions, or bi-ops.
The science, Burau seemed to say, is an ever-changing reality in an ever-changing system, and researchers appear to lack the funding to keep up with a system that many say is vulnerable to collapse.
"We really know almost nothing about delta smelt behavior," Burau admitted in a response to a question from the panel.
Burau's briefing on the water came two days after the NAS panel heard from state and federal bureaucrats in Sacramento who asked the scientists to act faster than their charter stipulates to add their analysis of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, or BDCP. That would add to a report due in November 2011 by the panel on the science behind building a "peripheral" canal around the delta or tunneling underneath it, both of which would cost billions of dollars.
Jerry Johns, a senior official at the California Department of Water Resources, had much the same message as Burau, telling the panel during a question-and-answer session at a hotel in Sacramento that long-running efforts to manage the delta -- including the defunct Cal-Fed federal/state program -- often failed to account for the delta's complexity and wasted millions of dollars as a result.
"It's kind of like building an airplane in mid-flight," said Johns of delta management. "The complexity is mind-boggling."
Still, Johns, a veteran of the delta struggle, said he believes the conservation plan can make progress where Cal-Fed and other efforts have failed. Johns said that while tidal-marsh restoration is "complicated and hard," he believes between 100,000 and 125,000 acres in the estuary could be restored ultimately. He favors a 14,000-acre pilot project at first to weigh the effect on the smelt, "to see if it would do what we thought it would do" before moving forward.
"Cal-Fed assumed the delta would stay in the same state in the future," he told the panel. "We don't think that's an adequate assumption anymore."
Johns is also a big believer in new conveyance to move water more efficiently across the delta throughout the year rather than just during the summer. Under the current system, managers have three months to move water, "so we pour a bunch of water through in the summertime, while we're constrained the rest of the year," Johns said. "This unnatural movement of water that we designed back in the 1920s doesn't seem like the best way to move water."
Michael Tucker of the National Marine Fisheries Service made much the same point. "Right now, we're holding all the water in our reservoirs and dumping it like crazy in the summer when there's not a lot of fish," he told the scientists. "The system is backward."
As for the science behind the bi-ops, Tucker and Dan Castleberry of the Fish and Wildlife Service said their agencies are trying to merge separate bi-ops on the salmon and smelt into a single document under the conservation plan, which they hope would solve some of the uncertainty and convince the federal judge that the agencies have done their homework.
Drafting a single bi-op of the BDCP, which is scheduled to be released as a draft in November for final completion early next year, might withstand the glare of public scrutiny and help take politics out of the delta equation.
"It's a very ambitious effort," Castleberry said. "A lot of what we're talking about is being developed right now."
Scientists asked to lean into the BDCP
Over its five-year drafting process, the federal/state BDCP has already been subject to three workshops with independent scientists. Those behind the effort view the plan as a landmark shift for the watershed, a document that will spell out new obligations for the agencies, determine how much water can be exported, set new points of diversion, lay out a blueprint for toxic pollution and prepare the way for new conveyance.
The plan will also propose to restore 80,000 acres of habitat, 65,000 of which would be the kind of tidal marsh in evidence at Decker Island. Its architects see it as a break with the past, when, as Johns said, managers approached the delta one day at a time, without much regard to adaptive management.
So why involve the National Research Council panel at this late date? The idea for doing so comes from officials in the Interior Department who want more feedback. State officials have taken the federal study in stride, saying it will add more information and likely confirm what they already know.
The scientists themselves were cagey about the request during their Endeavor trip, responding that their work is voluntary and urgent. Officially, an National Academy of Sciences spokesman said the scientists were still waiting to hear formally from the Obama administration.
"When this formal request occurs, and a draft of the plan are provided in a timely manner [such as on its current schedule for November release], the National Research Council will consider honoring that request by undertaking an additional report focused on the BDCP," the spokeswoman said.
A member of the scientific panel, Hans Paerl of the University of North Carolina, said the last-minute request comes with the territory.
"I think there is always political pressure," Paerl said of the academy review. "All we can do is work on translating science into management. We're trying to set an example of science serving management, and policy."
Sullivan is based in San Francisco.
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