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Sitting on the Science of the Bay (as the Bay Dies)

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ come
Watching the ships roll in
And then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watching the tide roll away
Ooo, I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

Look like nothing’s gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes
~~~ Sitting on the Dock of the Bay Otis Redding (1967)

[Update below]

I want to take a different tack on science and DEP decision-making today.

My typical argument is to focus on scientific integrity and complain about political intervention or economic considerations being injected into the science. I then argue in support of rigorous science.

But, the science issues with respect to Barnegat Bay are different and more complex.

In the case of the Bay, a misguided and mismanaged quest for scientific certainty is impeding good decision-making.

DEP Managers’ tendencies to dodge accountability by seeking a false scientific certainty is the flip side of the industry game of  “manufacturing uncertainty” – both approaches paralyze regulatory decisions and delay necessary action.

Available science is being ignored by the policy makers. Policy must be supported by science, but not limited by it. Science will not tell us what we should do. See the lessons learned in the Puget Sound with respect to the role of science, which include:

Best Available Science and Restoration Policy

The published literature is rich with insights into the often troubled relationship between science and policy. Throughout our interactions with the five projects, we were reminded of several basic principles of an effective working relationship between science and policy that further suggest fundamental strategies for optimizing science’s role in the decision making processes.

To avoid the misuse, and ensure the best use, of science, we must understand the fundamental limitations of the scientific discipline. Science is a process of inquiry grounded in hypothesis testing and observation. Scientists aim to produce objective, value-free information from data gathered from the natural world. Thus, scientists are comfortable collecting information that can be used to understand the potential consequences of actions; however, scientists generally begin to feel uncomfortable when asked to advise decision makers regarding what should be done given the scientific information presented. Scientists who abandon objectivity for advocacy run the risk of loosing credibility in the eyes of other scientists and the public (Boesch and Macke 2000). Therefore, scientists should not be asked what should be done, but rather to define the possible range of actions and evaluate the consequences of those actions. Decision makers should then consider other factors, such as social, economic, and legal issues in addition to scientific input (Boesch 1999, Huxham and Sumner 2000).20

In order for science, and problems addressed by scientists, to effectively influence decision-making, the science must be judged to be relevant. Clark et al. (2002) defined three attributes that influence the effectiveness of science:

  • Saliency”whether science is perceived as addressing policy relevant questions;
  • Credibility”whether science meets standards of scientific rigor, technical adequacy, and truthfulness; and
  • Legitimacy”whether science is perceived as fair and politically unbiased
  • Clearly articulated problems are essential for program success. For scientists to translate program goals into technical objectives and assess the feasibility and associated uncertainties of potential actions, science must be involved from the earliest (planning) phase of the program.
  • Maintaining the independence of science from policy pressures ensures legitimacy and quality. However, science activities must be coordinated with other aspects of the program. Vertical integration teams help ensure communication between policy and scientific aspects of programs.

In Barnegat bay, so called scientific uncertainty is being exaggerated by DEP and used as an excuse to avoid tough decisions.

As we wrote previously, DEP takes a hands off approach in Barnegat Bay, deferring to the voluntary partnership National Estuary Program. This management weakness is compounded by the fact that despite very clear DEP regulatory jurisdiction and responsibilities under the Clean Water Act, there are few clearly articulated goals and virtually no vertical integration at DEP and between DEP and the BB NEP strategy.

Under this management void, DEP is literally on a course to science the Bay to death.

DEP policymakers, water quality scientists, and regulators seem to misunderstand the difference between basic science and regulatory science. DEP scientists are not academic scientists. Their role is to guide DEP priorities and support DEP decisions.

Scientists never have enough data and always want to collect more. If allowed to, scientists will study a problem forever, regardless of the need to make decisions.

Proof of causation is virtually impossible. Waiting for absolute proof is a fool’s errand, and is not good science or policy.

Decisions must be made under conditions of uncertainty. Statistical correlation or association – supported by a technical rationale or simplified model – are adequate.

Bullet proof mechanistic causation is not required to support regulatory decisions. The law merely requires that decisions be based upon “the best available science“.

3. Nutrient Studies
New Jersey recognized in the mid-1990s that relying on chemical concentrations alone as
indicators of nutrient impacts did not adequately identify or protect waters with nutrient-related
problems. Nutrient-related problems (e.g., excessive algae or excessively low dissolved oxygen
(DO)) were sometimes observed in waters with low concentrations of total phosphorus and
sometimes not observed in waters with high concentrations of total phosphorus.

The best available science concludes that nutrient (and sediment) over-load are the primary cause of the Bay’s decline. Other factors are important, but reduction of nutrient pollution loads demands immediate action. [Update: Restoring reduced freshwater flows and the Oyster Creek cooling tower NJPDES permit decision also fit this obfuscation and paralysis by analysis paradigm. The cooling tower permit decision can be made right now and does not require any additional science or regulation by DEP, so it is actually a more reprehensible evasion. end update]

Immediate action depends on enforcement of a regulatory mandate.

A regulatory mandate requires promulgated DEP surface water quality standards (also called “criteria”).

Those water quality standards require monitoring, measurement and assessment methods and programs at DEP.

All this must be based on thebest available science”.

From 2002 – 2004, I led a DEP clean water team initiative that put all these pieces together to draft a Technical Manual to enforce phosphorus surface water quality standards in NJ freshwaters – it’s not rocket science, it’s regulatory science! (and that is far different than the industry “junk science” lie).

The same results can be accomplished for nitrogen in the Bay in a reasonable timeframe if the leadership and political will exists at DEP (which it does not at the present moment).

The below excerpt from the DEP’s 2009 Nutrient Criteria Enhancement Plan is a perfect illustration of those problems. Read it closely and see how DEP is misguidedly setting far too high a scientific burden of proof. DEP confuses causation with merely linking stressors to biological response:

3. Nutrient Studies

New Jersey recognized in the mid-1990s that relying on chemical concentrations alone as indicators of nutrient impacts did not adequately identify or protect waters with nutrient-related problems. Nutrient-related problems (e.g., excessive algae or excessively low dissolved oxygen (DO)) were sometimes observed in waters with low concentrations of total phosphorus and sometimes not observed in waters with high concentrations of total phosphorus. …

The Department is conducting technical studies linking stressors (i.e., total phosphorous, nitrogen) with biological responses (i.e., periphyton diatoms, biomass, chlorophyll a, diurnal DO, turbidity, etc.). Active field investigations and site-specific studies are currently underway to investigate the relationships between nutrients (stressors) and response indicators (e.g., chlorophyll a, algal biomass and algal community structure) to determine if predictive stressor response models can be developed that are protective of designated uses and can be used in future assessments. The following studies are being conducted to develop appropriate biological indicators and indices to correlate between chemical concentrations of nutrients and the biological responses. (@page 19) […]

Shallow Coastal Bays (including Barnegat Bay):

The federal government (USEPA and NOAA) has already developed a suite of indicators (e.g., EPA’s National Coastal Assessment Report 2005 and NOAA’s National Estuarine Eutrophication Assessment update) and applied them to New Jersey’s coastal bays. The Department is working with Rutgers, USEPA Region 2, USEPA Office of Research and Development, and NOAA to evaluate existing indicators and establish New Jersey-specific benthic indicators to assess aquatic life use in New Jersey’s shallow coastal bays by 2010. The Department has also begun collecting real-time diurnal DO data, in partnership with Monmouth University and the Barnegat Bay Estuary Program. These benthic indicators will also help identify aquatic life use impairments that are nutrient related. Existing data on benthic communities in the near shore ocean waters and estuaries of New Jersey has been compiled and additional data has been collected; however, additional research is needed to develop cause/response indicators to determine if nutrients are the cause of any use impairment found in these waters. The Department has applied for a USEPA grant to collect sediment cores from the tidal region of Barnegat Bay and determine the chronology of nutrient changes (N/P) and associated ecosystem level responses. Changes in various biogeochemical proxies (biogenic, stable isotopes of C and N, etc), along with changes in diatom community structure, will be used to infer changes in nutrient loading and land use throughout the watershed.

These benthic indicators for coastal waters, once they are developed, will be used to reassess aquatic life uses in these waters. Where assessment results indicate use impairment based on these new indicators, the Department will need to determine if nutrients are the cause of impairment before proceeding with nutrient criteria development for these waters. (@page 18)

DEP does not have to have science documenting the cause of eutrophication before it can establish nutrient standards and enforceable load reduction requirements.

If DEP is allowed to continue to follow this long and winding road, the Bay will die before the data come in.

And there will be no boats or people sitting on the docks of Barnegat Bay.

[Update: 8/25/10 – a source just forwarded DEP Bay Science seminar held on July 14. Check it out by clicking here. Look at Professor Kennish’s presentation. His Mid Atlantic Lagoon system slide shows 7 ecological indicators of eutrophication. All are rated as “high” except one, dissolved oxygen, which is “low“. Dissolved oxygen is the only indicator DEP uses for surface water quality standards, monitoring, and assessment regulatory purposes. So obviously, DEP is regulating the wrong thing. Then look at the DEP presentation, it gets worse. DEP bacteriological monitoring (fecal coliform) actually says the Bay is improving! (shellfish acres prohibited are improving (despite hardclam landings going to zero) and beach closures). The EPA benthic index shows one isolated local problem. DEP regulatory assessment says Bay OK, despite all the conflicting evidence. DEP refuses to change regulatory standards, monitoring and assessment to account for science. But DEP did change all those things in 2003 for purposes of enforcing phosphorus load reductions in inland freshwaters. BBay NEP has the science but not the regulatory power. DEP has the regulatory power but not the science. This is insane. All it takes is the will and leadership to change. End update]

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