February 2019

Providing a safe, clean and reliable source of water for people, farms and fish has already become a challenge for Governor Newsom. While water issues are not new in California, conflicts over operation of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project have entered a new chapter marked by hope for Voluntary Settlement Agreements and modernization of the Endangered Species Act regulations governing operation of the projects.

But not all the suggested solutions are created equally, including simplistic calls for more water for fish and vilifying some of the most vital beneficial uses of water. As the Governor sorts through the clutter of conflicting interests, he must remember that more water being diverted from cities and rural communities to benefit the environment will lead to inevitable impacts on regional economies, particularly in the state’s Central Valley.

Water policy decisions must better balance the human, social and economic needs with impacts to the environment, including fisheries. Equally important, water policy decisions must rely on well-informed science. As resource managers continue their efforts to conserve threatened and endangered species, they are required to make decisions based on the “best available science.” A recent article in BioScience by Drs. Dennis Murphy and Paul Weiland confronts this central challenge of how to ensure well-informed decision making. Murphy and Weiland describe the challenges that have plagued past decisions and the opportunities for future decisions to benefit from enhanced independent scientific review.

The article, Independent Scientific Review under the Endangered Species Act, provides some practical solutions. While some agencies have issued policy guidance and others have suggested guidelines, there fails to be a standard that produces a credible review of these critical decisions. The authors, Murphy and Weiland, identify nine clear attributes of a credible independent scientific review for agency decisions.

  1. Deliberative body of at least three panelists
  2. Balance in perspective
  3. Neutral third-party administrator
  4. Appropriate task description
  5. Adequate scope of materials for review
  6. Agencies must show their work
  7. Adequate time and resources
  8. Appropriate timing relative to decision
  9. Agency response to the review

Let’s face it, the Delta is a highly complex and ever evolving ecosystem. Given the huge social, economic and environmental consequences of decisions being made by resource managers, they have an obligation to ensure they get it right. And, part of ensuring these decisions are right is going through a credible independent review process as described by the recent paper.