Delta science in a post-Wanger world

Jeffrey F. Mount, Founding Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California – Davis

The Chief Scientist for the Delta has retired.  No, not Cliff Dahm. He’s the Lead Scientist for the Delta Science Program (although he is returning to the University of New Mexico).  Rather, it is Oliver Wanger, the mercurial judge of the United States District Court, who has moved on, and now apparently works for one of the more enthusiastic litigants in his court (Westlands Water District– yes, this was a bit of a surprise).

During his tenure overseeing the many lawsuits over the operation of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, Judge Wanger became the arbiter of scientific disagreements.  In effect, the least qualified scientist in the Delta was making decisions about what qualified as Science.

Now that Judge Wanger has moved on, what’s next for Delta Science?

Delta Science—that is, the science used to inform decision making–is rarely advanced by these endless court proceedings.  Instead, combat science is the staple of litigation, where litigants fund science primarily to support pre-existing legal and political positions.  Combat science is effective in meeting short-term legal needs in court, but works to no one’s advantage over the long run.  Combat science is costly, inefficient, and untrusted by the Delta scientific community when the case is over.  It diverts resources from more useful scientific efforts and, under Judge Wanger, damaged the environment for agency scientists.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons user: Luc Viatour /

Budget cuts, loss of critical staff, significant management missteps, and the dominance of combat science have weakened agencies that support science in the Delta.  The “floggings will continue until morale improves” approach—a favorite of Congress, the legislature, and some stakeholders– only worsens this problem.  The scientific capacity of agencies is essential for protecting the public trust resources of the state, for providing assurances that water is being used wisely, and for conducting the bulk of the science needed to manage the Delta.  There are no alternatives to this, and weakened institutions work to no one’s advantage.

The legislature implicitly recognized this problem in the 2009 Delta reform package that set up the Delta Stewardship Council.  Oversight of the science used for decision making in the Delta is delegated to the Delta Independent Science Board (I am currently a member).  As the initial phase of a four-year effort to review how science is organized, resourced and delivered in the Delta, the Board will be conducting a series of public workshops.  The first workshop will be held December 1st and 2nd in Sacramento.  The public and stakeholders are encouraged to attend and offer comment.

There really is only one choice.  The warring parties have to commit to rebuilding the strength of and trust in the scientific institutions that support Delta decision making.  If not, combat science, which is largely counter-productive for solving the Delta’s real problems, will overshadow useful science indefinitely and hinder the development and acceptance of effective solutions.

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