U.S. District Court judges aren’t known for using inflammatory language in deciding the weighty issues that come before them on the federal bench. So it was remarkable to read the scorching indictment of a federal agency and two of its scientists last week by Judge Oliver W. Wanger. The case concerns how the government should manage California water supplies and at the same time seek to preserve the Delta smelt, an allegedly endangered species of minnowlike fish.
Some claim the Delta smelt is threatened with extinction by diversion of water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers to supply farms in California’s Central Valley and cities in Southern California. Those diversions are handled by the Central Valley Project, a Depression-era federal water project designed to move water from California’s northern area to its arid southern region. The issue before Wanger was where Department of the Interior officials should set boundaries between the fresher water of the rivers the fish prefer and the saltier waters from the San Francisco Bay. The 2-inch-long fish mainly breeds in marshy estuary areas where the fresh and salt water mix.
By diverting more fresh water for the Delta smelt, federal officials reduce the amount available for the people on the farms and in the cities. California’s Central Valley was long among the nation’s richest agricultural areas, producing fruits and vegetables shipped to grocery shelves across the country. Increased water diversion, however, has wreaked Depression-like economic havoc on the region, costing thousands of jobs, increasing food prices nationwide, and destroying a way of life for many California farm families. Unemployment in some areas of the valley has reached 40 percent.
Wanger was angered by testimony from the two scientists, Frederick V. Feyrer and Jennifer M. Norris, that he said was “false,” “contradictory” and “misleading.” He accused the Interior Department of “bad faith” in providing the two scientists as experts, and claimed their testimony was “an attempt to mislead and to deceive the court into accepting not only what is not the best science, it’s not science.”
An Interior Department spokesman defended Norris and Feyrer, telling The New York Times that “we stand behind the consistent and thorough findings by our scientists on these matters and their dedicated use of the best available science.”
Wanger and the Interior Department scientists cannot both be right. The judge’s assessment of their testimony and his conclusion about the agency’s conduct in the case raise profoundly serious questions about the integrity and honesty of all federal officials involved in the Delta smelt case. And if the judge is correct in that case, taxpayers should be wondering if other government “experts” have given impeachable testimony on behalf of questionable federal policies.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare, who represents a large portion of the Central Valley, is right to call for a congressional investigation into the actions of Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar and others at the Interior Department in relation to California water policy. The recent U.S. District Court Ruling, citing illegal actions and abuse of power on the part of Interior, must be addressed.