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By Scott Hamilton, President, Hamilton Resource Economics 

When a private company fails to function efficiently and fails to provide a good or service at a price the market is willing to pay, either the company undergoes a serious shakeup, or it goes under. The employees are let go and the assets are sold. But what happens when a government department fails to perform? With strong employee protections, replacing ineffective employees is difficult.  

How can government agencies be held accountable when they fail to perform their intended purpose?  Sixty years ago, the Department of Water Resources was formed to operate the State Water Project. Now DWR, like the Bureau of Reclamation, manages their water resources for multiple beneficial purposes, presumably based on the best available science. But what happens when they don’t?  Who watches over government departments to ensure they are doing their job? 

When it comes to water management, entities founded in Kern County are taking on that challenge with some piercing observations and commentary. Why? Because bad science leads to bad policy. And bad policy results in the misallocation of resources, not only hurting farmers and farm workers but diminishing state revenues which has tax implications for all Californians. 

The Center for California Water Resources Policy and Management (Calwatercenter.org) publishes “Delta Currents,” a blog on topical issues, written by experts in ecology, fish biology, and water law. Currently, 36 blogs are posted on their website. Below are titles from a few examples, with some context. 

“Is the longfin smelt population in the San Francisco Estuary really endangered? It’s not a rhetorical question…”.  

Longfin smelt is abundant in the cold waters off the Pacific Northwest.  The California population may be dwindling but this blog suggests we don’t have the data to know that, and the species does not show the signs of one that is endangered. Is this listing just another attempt to divert water away from other beneficial uses? 

“Water, water everywhere — but where is the science supporting its management in the Delta?”  

This blog points out that wrong-headed management decisions have done nothing to help the imperiled delta smelt and contributed to perpetuating the economic and social pain caused by years of drought across much of California. Better science will lead to better resource management, but the science in the Delta is failing. 

“Are threatened and endangered species better off without a definition for habitat? The federal wildlife agencies think so.”  

In July of 2022, the Biden Administration issued its final decision, striking the existing definition of habitat and refusing to set forth any single definition for critical habitat. This shift away from an explicit definition of habitat that provides for transparency and consistency in agency decisions is contrary to sound public policy. Under the new rule, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has discretion in designating areas as critical habitat, even if those areas do not and cannot support the species during one or more of its life stages. That is, even if an area is incapable of providing habitat during any life stage for a listed species, it can be designated as critical habitat. That presents a considerable threat to private property rights.  

“California’s resources agencies and the delta smelt’s slide toward extinction.”   

The causes for the decline of the delta smelt are many and most are well-recognized. This blog argues that the decline is not just due to a daunting list of environmental stressors but also due to the management and science of California’s resource agencies. Tasked to protect the delta smelt and its habitat, they have resisted managing the species “adaptively” which requires resource managers to utilize the best available science and “learn while doing.” The California Department of Fish and Wildlife defiantly refuses to use best professional practices in their efforts to monitor and manage the Delta’s at-risk fishes — all the while claiming to do so. 

“Half measures aren’t enough: California must confront hatchery and harvest impacts to achieve salmon recovery goals.”   

Governor Gavin Newsom recently released a salmon recovery plan and although it is unclear who formulated such a plan, the Center felt it fell short. Most salmon recovery efforts focus on in-stream habitat restoration, managing warm water in rivers, and sustaining minimum flows in rivers. But this blog calls attention to the need to address hatchery and harvest issues if a recovery plan is to be successful. 

There is no disagreement that California’s resource agencies have failed to meet recovery targets for endangered fish species. What is concerning is that they have failed to recognize their shortcomings and improve their management and science. Rather they continue to employ failed management measures—like increasing delta outflow—that have significant social and economic costs. Blogs call attention to their need to do better. 

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