Fisheries agency rewards a loyal bureaucrat

  • The Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta supplies water to 22 million people and some of the world's most productive farmland


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Conscientious Objectors."

People who worry about the Pacific Coast’s endangered salmon runs are likely to recognize James Lecky’s name. In 2002, Lecky, an assistant administrator for NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Region in Long Beach, Calif., reworked his agency’s flow recommendations for the Klamath River. The changes accommodated a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation plan to pump more water out of the river for farmers on the California-Oregon border. The Bureau’s pumping led, later that year, to the death of 58,000 salmon and endangered steelhead in the lower reaches of the river when they became trapped in shallow, warm water and contracted a fatal gill rot disease (HCN, 6/23/03: ‘Sound science’ goes sour).

In 2003, biologist Michael Kelly, who blew the whistle on Lecky for ignoring warnings about the fish kill, resigned from NOAA Fisheries after another dispute with Lecky, this one over a proposal to rebuild a levee on the estuary of California’s Eel River (HCN, 7/19/04: Scientific Principle: Klamath whistleblower throws in the towel).

Now, a recent incident in Northern California has put Lecky back in the spotlight. Pat Ford, executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, charges that Lecky and others in the Bush administration are "monkeying with basic science" at an unprecedented level. Others say Lecky’s story reveals a government culture in which a get-along attitude with industry is rewarded, while environmental protection falls by the wayside.

In late October, the Bureau of Reclamation released its long-term strategy for managing water in the Sacramento Bay/Delta, which is formed by the confluence of the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers. The Delta supplies water to 22 million people and some of the world’s most economically productive farmland, and it is also home to five threatened or endangered species of anadromous fish, including the endangered Sacramento winter-run chinook salmon. The Bureau’s long-term Operations Criteria and Plan describes the workings of the federal government’s massive Delta water project, and it spells out ways for the project to become more efficient at delivering water to farmers and cities.

The Bureau needed to create the plan before it could renew about 280 water contracts with irrigation districts and municipalities — good for 25 to 40 years — that were due to expire this year. But before the Delta plan could be implemented, it needed to pass inspection from NOAA Fisheries, the agency charged with salmon recovery under the Endangered Species Act.

NOAA’s official biological opinion, released in late October, says the project is "not likely to jeopardize" the winter-run chinook salmon, and gives the plan a green light. But that final document contrasts with an earlier draft someone inside NOAA leaked to the Sacramento Bee in early October, which had concluded the opposite: It had warned that the plan was "likely to jeopardize" the continued existence of the winter-run chinook.

Lecky, a biologist who has worked for NOAA Fisheries for 28 years, says that he changed the biological opinion after NOAA sent the draft to the Bureau in a routine interagency exchange. Biologists at NOAA hadn’t understood the Bureau’s project, says Lecky, and NOAA had questions about some of the scientific models the Bureau used to predict water temperature and flow rates. The original document had "exaggerated impacts in some areas," says Lecky, "and when I went back and fixed the exaggerations, the jeopardy finding was no longer warranted."

Lecky defends the role his agency plays in endangered species recovery. NOAA Fisheries, he says, forces the Bureau of Reclamation to maintain adequate temperatures in spawning grounds and keep minimum amounts of water in rivers; it requires irrigators to install screens to keep fish out of water diversions; and it curtails ocean fishing. And since 1994, the population of winter-run chinook returning to spawn in the Delta has increased from 121 fish to slightly fewer than 10,000. Lecky says that the revision of the biological opinion "was blown way out of proportion by the Sacramento Bee article."

But others aren’t so sure that science, and not politics, is responsible for what happened. Lecky "rolls his own scientists," says Zeke Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, a group that sued NOAA Fisheries and the Bureau in 2003 for violating the Endangered Species Act on the Klamath. "He’s not protecting the fish, he’s giving the store away."

Nonetheless, on Oct. 31, a week after he oversaw the approval of the Delta plan, Lecky was promoted to the Senior Executive Service — the highest echelon attainable for a federal employee — which entitles him to earn between $100,000 and $160,000 a year. Lecky will now work part time out of NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., overseeing the protection of all the species NOAA regulates under the Endangered Species Act.

Agency watchdogs aren’t surprised by Lecky’s promotion. NOAA administrators don’t want "to get the agency too far out on a political limb," says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "Loyalty to the agency itself is prized above everything else." The bureaucratic layers between NOAA science and NOAA policy, Ruch says, "are designed to dilute the science and come up with rationales for continued inaction."

A coalition of congressmen, led by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., has asked the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA, to investigate whether the Bureau hindered NOAA’s environmental review process. But Ruch is skeptical that the congressional investigation will lead to any real change. "In our view, the malefactors count on the public and Congress having a short memory span," he says. "They wait until the heat dies down, and then they go back to what they were doing."

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