Scientization in the Delta

How vulnerable is the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to earthquakes? Apparently the answer to that sciency-sounding question depends on your interests in various Delta solution paths.

The Delta is a giant, richly entangled example of what Dan Sarewitz talks about:

The necessity of looking at nature through a variety of disciplinary lenses brings with it a variety of normative lenses…. [S]cientific uncertainty, which so often occupies a central place in environmental controversies, can be understood not as a lack of scientific understanding but as the lack of coherence among competing scientific understandings, amplified by the various political, cultural, and institutional contexts within which science is carried out.

The Delta

The Delta

I invoke the dumb journalists’ prerogative here: I’ve not yet taken anything close to the deep dive necessary to understand the technical issues behind the debate over the Delta’s seismic vulnerability, and the risk that might pose for both Delta communities and California’s water supply. So I will simply note here that it was obvious during my recent visit to California that people’s beliefs about this apparently technical question seem to map quite nicely onto their interests and values in California’s Great Water Drama.

For water management types concerned about supply and worried about reliability, seismic vulnerability of the Delta is a key driver behind the argument for a Peripheral Thingie to carry water around the vulnerable Delta. This would, in their view, have other benefits as well, but reducing seismic risk to major water supplies is a key driver behind the argument.

Folks in the Delta? Not so much:

Nomellini cited studies about the Delta sustaining heavy damage in an earthquake. The research suggests that earthquakes on active faults, like the San Andreas, could also occur on inactive ones that run under the Delta, he said. The research is aimed at undermining the value and sustainability of the Delta so it can simply be mined for water.

“It’s a blatant water grab,” he said.

It’s not just seismic issues. As I’ve noted before, scientization is writ large in Delta discussions.

One Comment

  1. this apparently technical question seem to map quite nicely onto their interests and values

    Yes. Very much so.

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