“Legendary” Bay Delta scientist Jim Cloern resigns from Delta Independent Science Board

USGS scientist emeritus Jim Cloern has resigned from the Delta Independent Science Board (Delta ISB), effective June 19, 2021. Cloern was one of six new scientists appointed to the board in June of 2020 by the Delta Stewardship Council after a nationwide search.

The 2009 Delta Reform Act created the Delta ISB as a board in state government, and mandated that the 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.” The scientists on the board are appointed to five year terms; each member may serve no more than two terms.

Michael Dettinger, a former USGS climate scientist and visiting researcher at the Scripps Institute for Oceanography, reacted with dismay to the news of Cloern’s resignation on Twitter, tweeting, “Biased I know, but there goes the biggest thinker re bay/delta that you had.”

Climate scientist Kris May also reacted with dismay, tweeting, “Jim was on my PhD dissertation committee. He’s a legend in this field, and one of the most amazing humans I have met. Four decades of amazing research and progress!”

Jim Cloern recently retired from the US Geological Survey water division in Menlo Park, California after four decades of research. Cloern’s research team’s investigation of San Francisco Bay included studies of primary production; nutrient cycling; algal and zooplankton community dynamics; ecosystem metabolism and food web dynamics; disturbance by introduced species; ecosystem restoration; and past and projected future responses to a changing climate.

Cloern was asked by the San Francisco Estuary News editor in chief if he ever got tired of plankton? “That would be like asking John Muir if he ever got tired of trees,” he replied.

Cloern gave keynote talks at the State of the San Francisco Estuary Conference in 2009, 2013, and 2019. He is a recipient of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s BH Ketchum Award, the Delta Science Program Brown-Nichols Achievement Award, the ASLO Ruth Patrick Award, the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation Odum Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Department of Interior’s Distinguished Service Award.

Cloern’s resignation came at the end of a very difficult year for the Delta Independent Science Board. The work of the board was essentially defunded for the entirety of FY 2020-21. For reasons which have never been adequately explained, contracts which had paid board members at professional scientific rates were abruptly discontinued on July 1, 2020. The best alternative that the Newsom administration could muster was the $100 per diem salary paid to members of minor boards and commissions. Additional Postdoctoral fellows to assist in the Delta ISB’s reviews, requested by the Chair in December 2020, will reportedly not start until 2022.

The compensation and staffing situation for the board has clearly been untenable. The board Chair, Stephen Brandt, stated frankly at the March 3, 2021 board meeting that he thought that there was “a real chance of losing board members by June if things don’t change.” Yet the Newsom administration still has not reached an agreement with the legislature on Senate Bill SB 821, a bill to restore contract compensation for the board members’ work.

Michael Dettinger commented on Twitter that “I always bragged on the role of (independent) science in the Delta. This past y[ea]r has frankly just been a crime.”

After Cloern’s resignation, the Assembly Water Parks and Wildlife Committee added an urgency clause to Senate Bill 821, so that the bill will take effect immediately after being passed and signed by the Governor.

The Delta ISB will be discussing the vacancy at their July 13, 2021 meeting. The board is in the middle of a review of the Bay Delta Monitoring Enterprise, one of the largest reviews the Delta ISB had ever done. Cloern’s decades of research and experience with water quality monitoring in the Bay Delta will no doubt be greatly missed.

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