A scientific panel charged with reviewing federal plans to rebuild imperiled Central Valley salmon and Delta smelt populations has been “hijacked” by advocates of increased water pumping from the California Delta, fishing and environmental groups charge.

Fishermen and environmental justice activists are alarmed that no coastal or Delta Representatives, commercial fishermen, recreational anglers, Indian Tribal leaders, Delta farmers and others who are directly impacted by the collapse of Central Valley salmon and other fish populations are being asked to testify before the panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

The team of scientists empanelled by the NAS begins a five-day meeting on Sunday, January 24 at the University of California, Davis. The federal fish restoration plans (biological opinion) under review are strongly opposed by western San Joaquin Valley corporate agribusiness, southern California land speculators and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The NAS panel came about after one of the biggest corporate agricultural operators in the San Joaquin Valley, Stewart Resnick, asked Senator Diane Feinstein to request the review and earmark $750,000 in taxpayer funds to make it happen,” according to Zeke Grader, PCFFA executive director.

Feinstein and the Obama administration complied with Resnick’s request to reexamine the biological opinion after Resnick sent a letter to Feinstein on September 4. In the letter, Resnick claimed that the biological opinion to prevent endangered salmon and smelt from becoming extinct was “exacerbating the state’s severe drought” because it reduced the water available to irrigate farmland. He claimed that “sloppy science” by federal fishery agencies had led to “regulatory-induced water shortages.” “I really appreciate your involvement in this issue,” Resnick stated.

Resnick, a major campaign contributor to leading California politicians in both the Democratic and Republican parties, has made tens of millions of dollars from buying public water on the cheap and reselling it back to the state at substantial profit. He has contributed heavily to the campaigns of Senator Feinstein, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Governor Schwarzenegger.

Resnick is a Beverly Hills billionaire, philanthropist and major political donor whose companies, including Paramount Farms, own more than 115,000 acres of land in Kern County, according to the Contra Costa Times. The “limousine liberal” also owns Westside Mutual Water Company in Bakersfield, which has taken control of the formerly public Kern Water Bank. Other companies that Resnick and his wife, Lynda, own include POM Wonderful, Teleflora, the nation’s largest floral wire service, FIJI Water, and Suterra, a pesticide company.

Resnick’s agricultural companies, based in Kern County, Kings, Tulare, and Fresno Counties, comprise the largest farming operation of tree crops in the world, processing citrus fruit, pomegranates, almonds, and pistachios.

Is the Obama Administration Repeating the Same Blunders As the Bush Regime?

Grader said the strategy of getting the NAS to review salmon restoration plans was first used by then Vice President Dick Cheney when federal plans in 2001 restricted the water diverted by agribusiness in the upper Klamath River in an effort to protect threatened salmon from extinction during drought.

“The Cheney strategy was to have a rushed NAS review identify enough areas of scientific uncertainty that the salmon restoration measures might be cast in doubt,” said Grader. “Six months later, the resulting change in the federal water plans on the Klamath helped spark the biggest adult salmon kill in Western U.S. history.”

Over 68,000 salmon perished in the unprecedented environmental disaster, spurred by warm, low water conditions on the Klamath at the height of the fall salmon spawning run.

“The good news is the science is solid behind this salmon rebuilding plan,” Grader stated. “The truth supports salmon fishermen who have been warning that too much water is being taken from the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary and its salmon. Those who covet the water needed to keep our salmon and the Delta alive are piling on to sway the NAS panel against salmon conservation.”

“The federal National Marine Fisheries Service did a good job developing the salmon restoration plan. The NAS panel will also hear at length from the federal fish scientists who put this plan together, which is good,” added Grader.

The Delta is the largest and most important estuary on the West Coast of the Americas and provides habitat and a migratory pathway between Central Valley streams and the Golden Gate for the West Coast’s second largest salmon run. The chinook (king) salmon of the Central Valley that depend on the Delta are the “backbone” of ocean salmon fisheries off California and Oregon, according to Grader.

However, the NAS panel will also hear from U.S. Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno, CA and a representative of U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza of Merced, CA, who are the Democratic Party “water boys” for corporate agribusiness.

“Both Congressmen are well-known proponents of maximizing water diversions from the Delta,” emphasized Grader. “Both are strong advocates for corporate San Joaquin Valley agriculture operations and their quest for ever-more northern California water from the Delta. Western San Joaquin growers and their Congressional representatives have overlooked or belittled clear evidence that Delta water withdrawals have exceeded the ecological carrying capacity of the Delta.”

Grader said twice before Western San Joaquin interests and developers have pressured sitting California governors to quash scientific information and findings by the State Water Board – in 1988 and again in 1993 – because the science indicated water exports from the Delta would have to be reduced in order to save the Delta, its fish, and the economies that rely on the health of the estuary.

The water exporters have further refused to acknowledge the economic damage done to Oregon and California’s multi-billion dollar sport and commercial salmon fishery caused by the excessive water withdrawals from the Delta.

“Why weren’t our congressional representatives that represent the coastal communities invited to address this group? We’ve been reeling from two consecutive years of no salmon fishing, and our voices deserve to be heard,” said Larry Collins, a San Francisco-based commercial salmon fishermen.

While commercial salmon fishermen aren’t even represented on the witness list, the NAS, in a bizarre move, has invited a representative of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, which studies skipjack and yellowfin tuna populations, to testify before the pane. These deep sea fish breed in Mexico and in warm years are sometimes found as far north as Point Conception in Santa Barbara.

“It is ridiculous to suggest that the West Coast’s largest salmon run can be replaced by increased fishing of skipjack tuna in Southern California,” quipped Grader. “This leads me to question whether the Department of the Interior is serious about restoring the West Coast salmon fishery and the thousands of lost jobs in coastal communities in Northern California, Oregon, and Washington.”

Delta Residents, Fishermen Are Insulted by Exclusion from Panel Testimony

The NAS will also hear from a representative of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that supports increased transfer of water from the Delta, where it’s needed to keep Delta farms and fish thriving, to new residential developments in southern California. The NAS panel will also hear from water transfer advocate B.J. Miller, an independent consultant who has made a career representing many of the largest water agencies in California.

Miller, who is listed on the panel as a “consultant,” is expected to testify that he has found no correlation between Delta smelt populations and Delta pumping, according to the fishing and environmental groups. Miller has no University affiliations and his research has never been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. He has been listed as a “Consulting Engineer” for agricultural groups, including the San Luis&Delta-Mendota Water Authority, a major beneficiary of Delta pumping.

“The panel has also unexplainably invited testimony from Scott Hamilton who is with a group called Coalition for a Sustainable Delta, which is anything but,” said Grader. “This group is housed in Stewart Resnick’s Paramount Farms in Kern County.”

The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta is one of four “Astroturf” groups – front organizations set up by big business and water agencies to portray themselves as “grassroots” groups – lobbying for increased pumping of northern California and Delta water to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and southern California.

“This is an insult to Delta residents who will be most affected by the decisions of this panel,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla of Restore the Delta. “Delta farmers and Delta cities rely on water from the Delta, which has suffered from water quality problems from overpumping in previous years. The collapse of Delta fish populations has also severely impacted the Delta’s and California Coastal commercial, sportfishing and tourism industries, to say nothing of the natural environment. Neither Restore the Delta staff, nor any of its 4500 members were invited to testify before the panel.” 

Representatives of fishing and environmental groups wonder whether these industry groups even belong as “expert witnesses” at a hearing for an “independent scientific review” of the biological opinion determining freshwater flows needed to restore salmon, smelt, and other species of fish.

“We had expected better from the current administration,” said Byron Leydecker of Friends of the Trinity River. ” Seeing that the National Academy of Science review will be an extended process, we hope that representatives from the salmon industry, Delta communities and the independent, University-affiliated biologists who are studying the decline of Delta fish populations will be given an equal opportunity to testify in the near future.”

A Political Farce Disguised as “Science”

I have called and emailed representatives from the National Academy of Sciences. However, I haven’t yet received any response to my question as to why big agribusiness and water district officials have been invited to testify before the science panel, but no coastal or Delta Representatives, fishermen, Delta farmers, California Indian tribal members or environmental justice communities have been asked to speak before the panel.

I am appalled that Feinstein, Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar and the Obama administration have agreed to conduct a political farce under the guise of “science.” The irony is that the biological opinion that is being “reviewed” by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) is a plan that a federal judge ordered rewritten under the Bush administration. Now the Obama administration is doing a review of court-ordered biological opinion that was started under the Bush administration!

Doesn’t that put the Obama administration to the environmental right of the Bush administration, since it was the re-written biological opinion begun under the Bush administration that “limousine liberal” Stewart Resnick and southern California water interests are challenging because it is “too protective” of salmon, smelt and other fish?

The same agribusiness and southern California interests that are pushing for the gutting of Endangered Species Act protections for salmon and smelt are campaigning for the construction of a peripheral canal and new dams. These big water interests collaborated with Steinberg, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to ram a water policy/water bond package through the Legislature in November 2009 that creates a clear path to the construction of a peripheral canal and Temperance Flat and Sites reservoirs.

If the canal is built, fish advocates believe that it will result in pushing Sacramento River winter run and spring run chinook salmon, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales over the edge of extinction. For more information, go to http://www.calsport.org or http://www.restorethedelta.org.

Dan Bacher is an editor of The Fish Sniffer, described as “The #1 Newspaper in the World Dedicated Entirely to Fishermen.”