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Ready. Fire. Aim.

On Jan 12th and 13th the Delta Independent Science Board (ISB) hosted a Delta Stressors Workshop.  According to the posted agenda, “The goal for January 12 is to identify alternative classifications of stressors and ways of evaluating their relative importance, especially considering interactions of multiple stressors. The goal for January 13 is to begin preparation of a synthesis report intended to assist the California Senate, Assembly and the Council in identifying approaches for addressing multiple Delta stressors.”

Some members of the Board questioned the applicability or usefulness of the document they had been charged with producing. Many balked at the directive, saying that they lacked a goal, sufficient direction, or ways to measure the effectiveness of their product.

Several board members admitted that it was unclear to them what aspects of the system needed “protection, restoration and enhancement.” One contingent could argue that current law calls for the doubling of anadromous fish populations, including striped bass, while another contingent could argue something entirely opposite.  This is, after all, a group of scientists, not policymakers.

Calls for clarification make some policymakers and export interests impatient.  The ready–fire–aim  technique may work well in the political arena, but is can undermine a career’s worth of credibility in the scientific realm.

Scientists on the Board as well as those offering their thoughts seemed well aware of the dangers of not properly prefacing their comments, as these may be cherry-picked or whitewashed by policymakers’ press offices to promote political agendas.

As the Board discussed, we don’t have to understand all the mechanisms of gravitational interaction in order to describe systems in which gravity plays a critical role.  Similarly, setting up a hierarchy of stressors or identifying additional stressors will do little to provide real-world, on-the-ground solutions for improving water supply reliability or ecosystem health.

It is tempting to think that the Delta Stewardship Council handed the task of ranking stressors to the ISB in order to produce some political ammunition or cover fire to justify a particular policy position.

Policymakers could be posing much more useful questions if they are truly in search of effective solutions to problems upstream, downstream, and in the Delta.  The ISB is a group of innovative and disciplined scientists who are certainly capable of compiling a list of feasible solutions for improving the health of the estuary.

As Jay Lund of UC Davis commented, “Any effective solutions for the Delta must be designed before they are negotiated.”  There may be some truth to this, and the ISB may be the correct venue for these discussions to take place.  But these are not policymakers, and they must follow the direction of those who sign their checks.

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