Monday, June 7, 2010

Uncertainty and the latest Wanger Decision

According to my brief review and the commentary of others, it seems uncertainty was critical in Judge Wanger's recent decision in favor of water exporters and against Delta pumping restrictions from the salmon and smelt biological opinions.

The key uncertainties seem to be related to science. Judge Wanger acknowledged economic losses to both the farming and fishing communities, but he determined that there was uncertainty as to whether increased pumping this month would substantially harm the endangered fish. Following that logic, I think we should also wonder about the certainty of gains to the "human environment" from increased pumping.

As noted by others, the Judge seemed to accept serious accusations of not just economic damage, but social ills such as domestic violance and poor school performance were blamed on the biological opinions with little more than anecdotal evidence to back them up. There is at least as much uncertainty, if not more, about whether - and how much - the biological opinions are responsible for these problems. Most importantly, where is the definitive proof that an injunction against the biops will actually help these long-standing local issues? Consider the following:

1. The west side is the poorest place in California with the highest unemployment, and high rates of social problems even when water deliveries are high. In fact, there is lots of long-run evidence that large supplies of irrigation water are positively correlated with higher unemployment, poverty, etc.

2. There are lots of "other stressors" on the region's economy related to the recession and other factors. Construction in the area is down more than 90%, and food processing plants in the area closed due to planting decisions unrelated to water. In addition, most of the reductions in water deliveries in 2009 were due to drought, not endangered species protections.

3. Although there is no doubt that specific agricultural operations endure financial losses when water is restricted, there is a lot of uncerainty about how much it impacted the regional agriculture industry, other farmers may have profited from Westlands woes. In addition, how much of the income that was lost normally flows out of the community through non-local farm owners and migrant workers. One could argue that the construction and food processing closures may have much higher local impacts per dollar of output. In addition, how much of the local unemployment was driven by unemployed construction and service workers crowding back into the agricultural labor market?

4. What are the hard facts on increased crime and education problems, and how can they be definitively linked to water supplies? As one data point, California Department of Education shows school test scores in Mendota in 2009 are substantially higher than in 2006 under full water deliveries.

There are even more sources of uncertainty, but I'll stop there.

Just as a scientist may not be able to definitively say that reduced pumping in a given period will help fish stocks recover, I am confident that no social scientist could definitively say that increased water pumping will substantially help the serious economic and social woes that have long plagued the area around Westlands and that have increased substantially since the CVP started delivering water to the area.

It will be interesting to see if this decision is appealed.

Disclosure: I submitted a declaration in support of Earth Justice and the Natural Resource Defense Council's defense of the biological opinions, just as I did in May 2009. In 2009, Westlands asked Richard Howitt of UC-Davis to challenge my declaration and Judge Wanger referenced this heavily in his 2009 decision. This year - after much back and forth debate on the economic effects of water shortages - I am told that Westlands did not submit a declaration from Dr. Howitt or challenge my declaration with other experts, and the Judge has now acknowledged off-setting economic harms. Obviously, it wasn't enough to change the outcome of the case, but at least it moves the issue more squarely onto the scientific and legal questions where it should be.

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