“In a year of a robust state budget, there is absolutely no excuse for the DSC to starve the Delta Independent Science Board of necessary funding to maintain the ability to conduct scientific reviews,” said Osha Meserve, a Sacramento-based environmental lawyer. “Without a properly funded DISB, the Delta will have no reprieve from interest-based or ‘combat” science.’”
The Delta Reform Act of 2009 created the DSC, and it was tasked with advancing the state’s coequal goals for the Delta – a more reliable statewide water supply and a healthy and protected ecosystem, both achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique characteristics of the Delta as an evolving place.
A critical responsibility of the DSC is the exercise of its regulatory authority. It determines if Delta-related projects like WaterFix and the Dutch Slough Restoration are consistent with the Delta Plan. A project deemed inconsistent with the plan cannot move forward. In 2018, the Department of Water Resources withdrew its application for a certificate of consistency for the WaterFix project after it became evident that the DSC would not approve the project.
The project’s inability to obtain a certificate of consistency likely played a factor in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to kill WaterFix in favor of a single-tunnel project that is currently in development – the Delta Conveyance Project.
The DISB is a 10-member board of nationally and internationally recognized independent scientists who are experts in matters related to management of the Delta. Reports and recommendations completed by the DISB are intended to support DSC’s efforts to achieve the coequal goals of the Delta Plan.
Jay Lund, DISB past chair, explained that since the board’s inception in 2010, members were paid by contract at a professional rate of $200 per hour, commensurate with the knowledge and expertise members brought to the board.
“For reasons that are not entirely clear, the council decided that they could not fund us any longer with contracts, and the only alternative that they could muster was a $100 per diem,” Lund said. “Here you have internationally known scientists that have all the opportunities available to nationally and internationally renowned scientists that you’re basically paying minimum wage. We haven’t had anybody resign yet. They’re all waiting to see if state government can figure this out because the Delta has some really good scientific problems. It’s kind of important, and the people on the board would like to do the work.”
The DSC implemented the change in the fall of 2020. A recent request to discuss the reasons behind the DSC’s action resulted only in the issuance of a brief statement.
“The council deeply values the work of the Delta Independent Science Board (Delta ISB) and is actively identifying ways to continue to support the Delta ISB’s work.”
Several months after the compensation to DISB was changed, DSC Chair Susan Tatayon sent a letter to DISB members offering an explanation for the change.
“I am writing to provide information regarding the recent reclassification of Delta Independent Science Board members to being employees of the State of California compensated at $100 per diem, rather than independent contractors as had been the method of compensation prior to 2020,” wrote Tatayon. “This administrative change is not a change to the independent role of the Delta ISB. This change was initiated in 2020, when a routine review of council contracts and further analysis identified that pursuant to California law, members of a state board should be classified as state employees.”
However, Gwynne Pratt, an environmental attorney representing California Water Research, sent a nine-page letter to California Department of Human Resources in May asserting that the “Delta Stewardship Council acted beyond the scope of its authority and contrary to applicable law and procedure” when it reclassified DISB members as employees of the DSC. She goes on to provide an exhaustive argument outlining the flaws in the DSC’s position. To date, no response from the state has been received.
Director of California Water Research, Deirdre Des Jardins, has played a key role raising awareness of this situation and in pressing the DCS to provide justification for its action. She believes that the change in funding could be related to a budget cut.
“The Delta Stewardship Council had a cut of $650,000 in funding for fiscal year 2020 - 2021,” she said. “In retrospect, it looks like it got allocated to the science board. That’s about the amount of funding they lost.”
Des Jardins’ efforts to shed more light on the issue were stymied when she discovered the DSC stopped providing quarterly budget updates in July 2020. No budget information has been available since that time.
Speaking at the May 21 DSC meeting, Des Jardins said, “You cannot delegate to your executive director the authority to reduce the funding of the Delta Independent Science Board’s work below what’s needed to do their duty. So we’re very concerned that this decision would seem to have been made in secrecy. It was never brought for consideration before the full council. And if there was a major change in compensation, we believe it should have been noticed to the council, to the public, to the Independent Science Board members.”
The path to a solution remains murky. Senate Bill 821 was introduced in March by the Committee on Natural Resources and Water in an attempt to offer a legislative solution. That bill is still making the rounds in the Senate.
The Delta Counties Coalition sent a letter to Newsom noting that, while SB 821 clarifies that DISB members are not employees of the DSC, it does not restore funding to levels necessary for the DISB to complete its task.
With no immediate solution on the horizon, work at the DISB has slowed considerably, Lund said. With a number of significant challenges facing the Delta including drought, saltwater intrusion, climate change and a proposed tunnel project, the timing is perilous.
“Having preeminent scientists who bring a dedicated effort to whatever research they’re working on at any particular time is really, really important to the overall health of the Delta,” said Don Nottoli, DSC member and Sacramento County District 5 supervisor. “I think it’s really important that we have good qualified people willing to perform the task and feel fairly compensated for doing it.”