How often does one see an outright confrontation between state bureaucrats and federal scientists?
In my experience, well — never.
But that's what I saw last week at the Chapman Conference on California Drought.
Organized by the American Geophysical Union, at a National Academy of Sciences center at UC Irvine, this conference brought together a hundred or so highly respected weather and climate scientists, many of whom work at a NOAA center in Colorado, with water authorities and bureaucrats in California.
The brilliance of those at the gathering was not in dispute, but, to my surprise, a real conflict surfaced between the two parties.
After hearing a solid day of bad news about drought, wildfire, groundwater overdrafting, and on and on, Jeanine Jones, a thirty-year veteran of California's state Department of Water Resources, took the podium, and — politely but unsparingly — unloaded on the uselessness of National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration science.
She spoke for well over an hour. Towards the end of her presentation, to a shocked audience that kept asking her the same basic question, Jones noted:
"I came into this meeting intending to be provocative and it's obviously worked."
Jones is not the biggest person in the world, and she doesn't bang the table and engage in dramatic displays, but her words clearly took her audience aback.
[picture of Jones at another drought event in Irvine from San Gabriel Valley Tribune]
What did she say that shocked the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration scientists so?
In part she dismissed a great deal of their work.
"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. We don't need to know if we're in a drought or not. We rely on precipitation and expected run-off."
When asked what she might do differently if scientists could with skill forecast a season or two, or even better, a year or two, in advance, she all but scoffed.
"Since we can't predict if next year will be wet or dry, shouldn't we plan for the worst? It's lucky for us that this drought occured during a time of general funding surplus."
"Like politics, all drought is local."
"In a recession, your neighbor loses your job. In a depression, you lose your job. It's the same with drought. Impacts increase with duration."
What is not useful, Jones said:
US Drought Monitor
Drought Impact Reporter
PDSI (drought index)
Climate Prediction Center drought outlook
Climate Prediction Center precipitation
Clearly her department did not take the NOAA's guidance regarding El Nino seriously.
When pressed on the question of how much skill was needed, she said:
"We don't use skill numbers [from the scientific literature]. All I can tell you is what a Supreme Court justice said once, that I'll know it [a useful seasonal prediction] when I see it. Our view is colored by the fact that in recent years we have had some notable busts with the AO (Arctic Oscillation) and ENSO (El Nino/Southern Oscillation). ENSO connection in particular tends to be over-hyped."
Jones indicates that she's interested in Atmopsheric Rivers, and in research at the NASA-affiliated Jet Propulsion Lab into a linkage between a phase of the Madden-Julian Oscillation that seems to have a propensity for forming Atmospheric Rivers. But she had no use for most of NOAA's work.
Repeatedly the scientists asked her version of the same question — why aren't these forecasts any good to you? — and repeatedly Jones, who serves as the "interagency drought manager" said that they "didn't tell a story" and added that she wasn't interested in the statistical "process" that produced the forecasts.
Never seen anything quite like it.