WASHINGTON — Some of the nation's most esteemed scientists will review recent environmental decisions that have curtailed California irrigation water deliveries, officials affirmed this week.
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 Fund 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.
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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 National Research Council study is due March 15. It will examine the "scientific questions, assumptions and conclusions" that went into the two biological opinions." The study also will search for "reasonable and prudent alternatives" to the irrigation reductions.
Theoretically, that 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 staff for the new study but also select scientists to serve, free of charge, 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.
Bee Washington Bureau reporter Michael Doyle can be reached at email@example.com or 202-383-0006.