Federal agency congratulates itself for illegal delta smelt biop


Author: Brandon Middleton

From the Stockton Record's Alex Breitler:

One of the Delta smelt scientists so sharply criticized by former federal judge Oliver Wanger has received an in-house award for her work on the contested biological opinion.

Jennifer Norris last month was given the Star Award from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Southwest Regional Manager Ren Lohoefener, along with fish biologist Matt Nobriga.

The announcement makes no reference to the controversy, though it does mention that Norris and Nobriga both testified before Wanger and "performed outstandingly while working under intense pressure."

In addition to Norris, the judge criticized the work of U.S. Bureau of Reclamation scientist Frederick Feyrer. Specifically, Wanger called Norris a "zealot" and claimed she had not been honest with the court.

Wanger’s words made political waves and, earlier this month, the Department of Interior said independent experts would review the science behind his allegations.

Talk about chutzpah!  Breitler rightly notes the irony of a federal agency giving its employee high praise shortly after a federal judge's determination that the staffer provided court testimony in bad faith.  But it's important to note that the delta smelt biological opinion is not simply being "contested"–it is in fact illegal.

Of course, you won't find that in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's award announcement:

During the award presentation at a Pacific Southwest Region All Hands meeting on Sept. 26, 2011, Regional staff members were addressed by Fish and Wildlife Service Deputy Director Rowan Gould, via phone from Washington, D.C., and Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director Don Glaser.

In December 2008, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established court-ordered criteria for managing water flows through the Delta and issued a biological opinion that determined the effects of operating the state and federal water projects were putting the delta smelt at risk of extinction. Since then, there has been a series of court challenges on various aspects of the biological opinion, and earlier this year, Norris and Nobriga both testified before U.S District Court Judge Oliver Wanger in Fresno.

Left unmentioned by the Service is that the court has found the biological opinion to be unlawful, time and time and time again.  To say that the Service's annoucement lacks context is just a bit of an understatement.

Moreover, given the circumstances, the awards presentation is of questionable taste, suggesting that it's business as usual at the Service.  This is unfortunate, and it reminds me of Judge Wanger's admonition to the Service and the Bureau of Reclamation in his recent X2 decision:

The agencies still "don't get it." They continue to believe their "right to be mistaken" excuses precise and competent scientific analysis for actions they know will wreak havoc on California's water supply.

Based on this latest self-lauding at the Service, who knows whether the agencies will ever fully grasp the importance of what is at stake?