In 2000, California state and federal agencies made a commitment to using the best available science for management of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The 2000 CALFED Record of Decision made a 30 year commitment to “bring world-class science to all elements of the program; ecosystem restoration, water supply reliability, water use efficiency and conservation, water quality, and flood management (e.g., levee stability).”
In order to better integrate scientific review into the new program, the Governor of California and the Secretary of the Interior committed to “appointing an independent science board to provide oversight and peer review for the overall program.”
In 2009, the legislature enacted the Delta Reform Act, which created the Delta Stewardship Council as an independent agency in state government. The Delta Reform Act provided that the Delta Stewardship Council appoint a lead scientist to oversee the Delta Science Program, stating:
The mission of the Delta Science Program shall be to provide the best possible unbiased scientific information to inform water and environmental decisionmaking in the Delta. That mission shall be carried out through funding research, synthesizing and communicating scientific information to policymakers and decisionmakers, promoting independent scientific peer review, and coordinating with Delta agencies to promote science-based adaptive management.
The Delta Reform Act also established the Delta Independent Science Board (“Delta ISB”) as a board “in state government.” The members were required to be “nationally or internationally prominent scientists with appropriate expertise to evaluate the broad range of scientific programs that support adaptive management of the Delta.” The legislature mandated that the board “provide oversight of the scientific research, monitoring, and assessment programs that support adaptive management of the Delta” and provide “independent science advice” to the Council. (Water Code section 85280.)
The seven members of the Delta Stewardship Council were seated in 2010. The Council appointed ten prominent scientists to the Delta ISB. Over the next decade, the Delta ISB produced over 30 scientific reviews, averaging over 3,000 hours of work per year.
But in 2020, the work of the Delta ISB stalled. The Delta Stewardship Council reduced funding for the Delta ISB by over 90%. Contracts which had funded individual board members at professional scientific rates were abruptly replaced by $100 per diem payments. As a result, work on pending reviews was greatly delayed. Unlike any other state board, the Delta ISB had no staff that reported to the board. Requests by the Chair to fund senior staff positions were refused, as were requests to hire independent scientists through short-term contracts to assist with active reviews. Currently, the Delta ISB is completing multi-year reviews on Water Supply Reliability and the Delta Monitoring Enterprise, with work that is for all intents and purposes volunteer. Both reviews are essential to inform water management decisions and should have been fully funded by the $7.8 million / year Delta Science Program.
In previous years, when the Delta ISB needed support, staff were informally provided by the Delta Stewardship Council. For the 2021-22 fiscal year, the Department of Water Resources has stepped in to fund two Postdoctoral positions to assist the Delta ISB. However, rather than reporting to the scientists with whom they are working, the Postdocs will report to the Department of Water Resources. This new manner of staffing, combined with the 90% reduction in pay to the Delta Independent Science Board members, will largely end the independent oversight of the Delta ISB.
The Delta Stewardship Council also convenes what are referred to as “Independent Peer Review” panels. In reality, these panels are anything but independent. The planning committee, which recommends who will be on the peer review panel, may include employees of the agencies whose work is being reviewed. The peer review planning committee may consist of “members of the requesting party, authors of the document(s) subject to review, and interested agency/stakeholder representatives.” The planning committee exercises significant control over the peer review panel; not only does it decide “panel-member composition”, it also provides “input on the Charge to the Panel,” and “pertinent background documents.”
The “Independent Peer Review” planning process contradicts the Delta Stewardship Council’s own guidelines on Best Available Science. The guidelines recommend that independent peer reviews “shall be coordinated by entities and/or individuals that … have had no direct involvement in the particular actions under review.”
While the Delta Stewardship Council leadership has repeatedly stated that they support independent science, their defunding of the Delta ISB speaks for itself. It is difficult to imagine anything more intimidating for a standing board of independent scientists than reducing their pay by 90% and refusing to fund requested staff.
 Delta Stewardship Council, Delta Science Plan, Appendix H, Policy and Procedures for Independent Scientific Review. https://deltacouncil.ca.gov/pdf/2019-delta-science-plan.pdf