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

    BUREAU OF RECLAMATION
 

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...