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Review of water decisions needed

By Dan Keppen for the Capital Press10/8/09

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is seeking a high-level scientific review of recent endangered-species decisions that are a primary cause for the economic devastation that has been leveled on rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the world's most productive farmland areas.

And she is already getting hammered for daring to suggest such an idea.

Some environmental groups claim that recent biological opinions for endangered fish in Bay-Delta completed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service were "exhaustively peer-reviewed by other scientific agencies."

Many of those impacted by these decisions on the ground disagree. Our organization -- the Family Farm Alliance -- filed suit in July to force the withdrawal of the federal government's latest order cutting back California's water supplies on behalf of the Delta smelt. It is not a step we took lightly. We want the court to order USFWS to revise its biological opinion to comply with the standards for the use of data that the Endangered Species Act and the Information Quality Act have set to protect the public and the environment from arbitrary, biased and unscientific abuses of federal authority.

USFWS failed to comply with the most fundamental requirements of IQA and ESA regarding the quality, objectivity, utility and integrity of scientific decision-making by federal agencies.

The opinion on smelt was based upon assumptions, not data. The methods relied upon were not transparent, the analysis was not reproducible, and the peer review employed was not competent and credible due to its lack of independence and expertise.

Federal law requires USFWS to base a biological opinion of this kind on the best available scientific and commercial data -- not on supposition, speculation or assumptions about the outcome that the regulators want to impose.

The existing biological opinion does not meet that standard. Notably, instead of conducting the independent peer review that the law requires, USFWS brought in the authors of the papers on which the agency's order was based. In effect, they were being asked to review the adequacy of their own work.

This level of review would not qualify under the standards set by ESA or the IQA. Further, although ESA requires USFWS to use the best available scientific and commercial data, the agency instead based its findings in part on an analysis which had not been published or peer reviewed and, supposedly, on data which USFWS refused even to disclose.

Moreover, it turns out the agency did not actually possess some of the data that it claimed it used to order the cutbacks in water supplies.

I suspect that some within USFWS, and their allies in the environmental community, know that an independent peer review conducted in an open and rigorous manner would quickly pick up on these deficiencies.

The resulting publicity, no doubt, would tarnish their credibility and undermine their arguments that state and federal pumps are the primary stressor to Delta smelt.

So, environmental activists are now busy trying to find ways to trash Feinstein's request by suggesting that wealthy agricultural interests will somehow find a way to corrupt the highest body of science in the land.

For the family farmers, ranchers and farm workers who are suffering the consequences of the flawed 2008 Delta smelt decision, the efforts to minimize the significance of an independent peer review conducted by the National Academy of Sciences are absurd.

Desperate communities in the Central Valley were looked in the eye this year and told, "Sorry, we know it may hurt, but 'the science' is compelling and requires you to go without water."

This was wrong, literally, and as a matter of policy. For whatever reason, the agencies have become too close to, and too much a part of, the side-taking that has come to dominate issues surrounding the bay and Delta.

For this reason alone, outside review is needed. Feinstein deserves kudos for advocating for such an approach.

Dan Keppen is executive director of the Family Farm Alliance, a grass-roots group of farmers and ranchers. He was previously executive director of the Klamath Water Users Association and worked closely with the National Academy of Sciences as it developed its 2002 and 2004 Klamath River reports.

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