The Delta Independent Science Board’s scientific reviews have essentially been defunded for Fiscal Year 2020-21, and the future of the Independent Science Board itself is threatened.
The Independent Science Board is part of the Delta Science Program, which was created in 2000 to “bring world-class science” to all elements of the CALFED program. The Delta Reform Act of 2009 continued the Delta Science Program, and mandated that Delta Independent Science Board members be “nationally or internationally prominent scientists with appropriate expertise to evaluate the broad range of scientific programs that support adaptive management of the Delta.”
In 2010, the legislature passed SB 1450, which authorized the Delta Stewardship Council to issue contracts to pay for scientific review and other services. Senator Joe Simitian explained the reason in his letter to Governor Schwarzenegger:
SBX7 1 […] established the Council and delineated its powers and duties. Primary among these was the right to contract for certain services, as a means to limit the size of the new bureaucracy
From 2017-2020, scientific review by the 10 Delta Independent Science Board members was funded by contracts which paid typical academic consulting rates. But for Fiscal Year 2020-21, the Delta Stewardship Council did not issue any new or renewed contracts to pay the DISB members.
The reasons for this bureaucratic decision are unclear. But after AB 5 was passed in 2019, the Delta Stewardship Council staff apparently initiated a review of the DISB contracts. The Delta Stewardship Council’s attorney reportedly found that the California Constitution suggested that the DISB members should be salaried employees of the state. While no legal memo has been published, Article VII, section 4(d) of the California Constitution does state: “[t]he following are exempt from civil service: […] (d) Members of boards and commissions.”
Since the legislature never considered funding the Delta ISB through salaries, there is no salary mandated for Delta ISB members in the Government Code, as is done for members of the State Water Resources Control Board, the California Air Resources Board, and the Central Valley Flood Protection Board. So for Fiscal Year 2020-21, the Delta Stewardship Council created salaried positions for Delta ISB members at $100 per day. After careful review, attorney Gwynne Pratt’s opinion is that there was no legal basis for this change in compensation, and that the legislature clearly intended that the Delta ISB members be paid through contracts.
The Delta ISB Chair, Stephen Brandt, explained at the March 3, 2020 DISB meeting that scientific review by DISB members has essentially been defunded:
One of the things that I think that you may have noticed that is in all of our recent agenda items, is something called the curtailment of the Delta Board’s science activities. And I’m going to explain that for those folks who may not be in the loop so to speak. The Board is compensated for its time. The nature of that compensation was pretty consistent for 10 years. Starting in July, this past year, the level of compensation and the way compensation was done has dramatically decreased the level of compensation.
To put it in perspective, what we would normally do prior to this last July. We would have regular board meetings that often would take one to two full days. We would meet for a full 8 hour day, and then a second 8 hour day. And what that would allow us to do is to really get in-depth discussions, and lengthy discussions of scientific issues. We would bring in panels, we would have debates. We would fully explore and immerse ourselves in these issues over half a day for an issue, and also have a lot of opportunities for public comment on these issues.
The compensation that we are now getting has been reduced – that compensation for an 8 hour day — by 94%. And if we work a full 8 hour day, we are making less than minimum wage for California state.
And the same is implied, that as most of you know, when you are doing a lot of our work, in fact about slightly less than half the work that we do is done by writing and doing research and deeply exploring scientific topics so that we can do a comprehensive review and write reviews on that. That’s done offline, it’s as most of you know that when you do that kind of work, it takes concentrated effort. It can’t be done 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there. It takes 3, 4, 5, 8 hours of concerted effort to make significant progress on these topics. What that effectively has done with our current compensation is that effectively Board members are volunteering much of their time.
Chair Stephen Brandt also expressed concern that members of the DISB will quit if the situation is not resolved soon, and stated “I am very concerned about the future of the Independent Science Board.” The past Chair, Jay Lund, stated that he was also very concerned.
When asked to comment for this article, the Delta Stewardship Council Chair, Susan Tatayon, stated “I value the DISB’s important contributions to assuring the best available science is used to guide decisions about managing the Delta’s natural resources. In addition, I also value the contributions of our legal team and trust the advice from this team. At the end of day, the Council must abide by all applicable laws, and we depend on our legal team’s advice in order to do so.”
This post was updated on June 14, 2021. Attorney Gwynne Pratt contributed to the research and analysis for this post.