On political winds, adaptive management and the Delta Independent Science Board

Signs saying respect ethics scientific integrity

The Delta Reform Act of 2009 created the Delta Independent Science Board as a board “in state government,” and tasked the board with “oversight of the scientific research, monitoring, and assessment programs that support adaptive management of the Delta through periodic reviews…” (Water Code section 85280(a)(3).)

Senate Bill 821, chaptered in October 2021, added language to the Delta Reform Act mandating that “notwithstanding being appointed and administered by the council, members of the Delta Independent Science Board…  shall exercise their scientific judgment and perform the functions set forth in this section independently from the council.” (Water Code section 85280(a)(4).)

However, the Delta Stewardship Council appears to have a very broad definition of “administer.” In 2020, the Delta Stewardship Council’s Executive Director for Science, Louise Conrad, suggested that the Delta Science Program perform an assessment of the value and impact of the Delta Independent Science Board under her direction. Previously, the Delta Independent Science Board had done self-assessments.

The assessment was performed by Delta Science Program Manager Lauren Hastings, together with Delta Independent Science Board support staff Edmund Yu and Chelsea Batavia, under the direction of Conrad. Hastings was assigned as support staff for the Delta Independent Science Board in 2021.

The final assessment includes specific recommendations on how the scientists on the board exercise their independent scientific judgement in reviews. (Hastings et. al. 2022, p. 75-76.) The recommendations warn the nationally and internationally prominent scientists against “inadvertent advocacy,” citing an opinion by George Wilhere, that “inadvertent advocacy” or “stealth advocacy” is “misleading or even manipulative.”

These are very strong words. George Wilhere, a biologist in the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, wrote them about a peer review of a recovery plan for the Northern Spotted Owl developed under the Bush administration in 2008. (Wilhere 2012.) The recovery plan was strongly criticized for reducing protected habitat by one third. The peer review of the plan found that “[g]iven that the [spotted owl] has been experiencing about a 4% annual rate of population decline for the last 15 years, any reductions from current levels of habitat protection cannot be justified.”

Wilhere criticized this statement as “inadvertent advocacy.” Wilhere commented, “[t]he reviewers failed to recognize a legitimate justification for reducing the current levels of habitat protection—a different attitude toward risk—and tolerating a greater extinction risk allowed a reduction in habitat protection.”

NGO and academic researchers wrote a response to Wilhere’s essay (Carroll et al. 2012), noting:

The Department of the Interior (DOI) inspector general ultimately confirmed reviewers’ concerns when he concluded that Julie MacDonald, a high-level political appointee, spurred efforts to make the new recovery plan less protective of the owl and its habitat…  DOI subsequently developed a scientific integrity policy to prevent such interference in agency decision making (USDI 2011).

The Delta Science Program does not have a scientific integrity policy.  Metropolitan Water District, Valley Water, and the State Water Contractors were interviewed for the assessment of the Delta ISB. The interviewees also reviewed the draft assessment. No environmental or fishing groups were interviewed for the assessment, although they had made extensive use of Delta ISB reviews in comment letters and in testimony before the State Water Resources Control Board.

Our comments raised concerns with the lack of balance in the interviewees selected for the assessment, and also that the discussion of inadvertent advocacy was unbalanced. We suggested a more appropriate framework from Carroll et. al.:

The objective of peer reviews appropriately encompasses both the underlying science and the context in which science is used to inform policy… Scientists and scientific societies have the responsibility to identify when recovery plans deviate from Congressional intent and past agency practice and to suggest revisions that better achieve the goals of the ESA and other conservation statutes. (p. 745.)

The legislation creating the Delta Science Program and the Delta Independent Science Board was clear in its intent. We commented

The Delta Reform Act stated that “[t]he policy of the State of California is to achieve the following objectives that the Legislature declares are inherent in the coequal goals for management of the Delta:

(c) Restore the Delta ecosystem, including its fisheries and wildlife, as the heart of a healthy estuary and wetland ecosystem.

(d) Promote statewide water conservation, water use efficiency, and sustainable water use.

(e) Improve water quality to protect human health and the environment consistent with achieving water quality objectives in the Delta.

The Delta Independent Science Board reviewed the use of adaptive management in the Delta (Delta ISB 2016.) Under “factors that might limit adaptive management in the Delta”, the Delta ISB included:

Support for adaptive management and its goals may shift with the political winds, creating administrative uncertainty that inhibits implementation.

Support for the goals in the Delta Reform Act does appear to have shifted with the political winds. Our comments on the assessment of the Delta ISB state that:

To the extent that these statutorily mandated policies are controversial for some stakeholders, the disagreement should not be embedded in science in a non-transparent way, but explicitly considered.

Further reading

[CSPA et. al.] California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, AquAlliance, California Water Impact Network, California Water Research, San Joaquin Audubon Society, Southern California Watershed Alliance, 2022. Letter to Delta Independent Science Board Re: Assessment of the Value and Impact of the Delta ISB, March 9, 2022.

Carroll, C., Daniel J., Rohlf, D., Noon, B., Reed, J.M. 2012. Scientific Integrity in Recovery Planning and Risk Assessment: Comment on Wilhere. Conservation Biology, 26(4):743-45.

[Delta ISB] Delta Independent Science Board. 2016. Improving Adaptive Management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Submitted to the Delta Stewardship Council.

Des Jardins, D. 2021. Letter to the White House Scientific Integrity Fast-Track Action Committee, Re: Comments on scientific integrity in federal agency decisions regarding water management by Reclamation’s Central Valley Project. https://cah2oresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/SI-FTAC-comments-Reclamation-Central-Valley-Project.pdf

Hastings, L., Batavia, C, Yu, E. 2022. Assessment of the Impact and Value of the Delta Independent Science Board. Prepared by the Delta Science Program. Sacramento, California.

Wilhere, G. 2012. Inadvertent Advocacy. Conservation Biology: the Journal of the Society for Conservation Biology. 26(1):39-46.



One thought on “On political winds, adaptive management and the Delta Independent Science Board

  1. “Support for the goals in the Delta Reform Act DOES appear to have shifted with the political winds.” (emphasis mine). Consequently, “to the extent these these statutorialy mandated policies are controversial for some stakeholders, the disagreement SHOULD NOT be embedded in science in a non-transparent way, but explicitly considered” (emphasis mine).

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