Top U.S. scientists to study California irrigation practices

WASHINGTON — Some of the nation's most esteemed scientists will review recent environmental decisions that have curtailed California irrigation water deliveries, officials affirmed Tuesday.

Pressed by California lawmakers and the Obama administration, the National Research Council's governing board agreed to undertake a two-part, $1.5 million California water study. The study could lead to revised water delivery plans.

"Getting the best scientific minds together to look at the problem is a good idea," Environmental Defense attorney Cynthia Koehler said.

The new review will re-examine two "biological opinions" issued by the Interior and Commerce departments. The biological opinions are essentially management decisions, divvying up water to protect species including the Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead.

Together, the two biological opinions would result in less irrigation water being pumped out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for use by Valley farmers. The total irrigation reductions could amount to as much as 30 percent.

The first part of the new National Research Council study is due March 15, 2010. It will examine the "scientific questions, assumptions and conclusions" that went into the two biological opinions." This study will also search for "reasonable and prudent alternatives" to the irrigation reductions.

Theoretically, this could lead to letting farmers have more of their water back.

"I think it's great," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. "We have argued that it's not just the pumps that may be affecting the fish population, and we have to determine what those other factors are."

The second part of the study is due in two years. It will delve into what role other "stressors," such as predators and invasive species, might have on the decline of sensitive species. This could result in a unique ranking, showing how much blame to assign to each.

An arm of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council will provide the staff for the new study but also select scientists to serve pro bono on the research committee. One of the research council's next steps will be to invite applications from potential participants.

"We try to get a balanced group," National Academy of Sciences spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh said.

The research committees then meet numerous times during the course of their work. Currently, for instance, the National Research Council is studying the environmental consequences of a controversial oyster farm operating at Point Reyes National Seashore.

The new California water study will zero in on an 844-page National Marine Fisheries Service opinion issued in June and a separate 410-page opinion issued in December 2008 by the Fish and Wildlife Service. The latter opinion was completed after U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger ruled the original opinion was inadequate.

"Export of water from the Delta has long been recognized to have multiple effects on the estuarine ecosystem upon which species such as the Delta smelt depend," the final Fish and Wildlife Service report stated.

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, along with a number of House members, had urged the Interior and Commerce departments to request the new study from the National Research Council. Feinstein also secured $750,000 for the study in a fiscal 2010 funding bill.