Monday, June 22, 2009

Prescott/Chino Valley water hearing wraps up (with some testimony that really bothers me)

The administrative hearing on Prescott's application to pump nearly 9,000 ac-ft of water from the Big Chino aquifer wrapped up last week, according to the local paper. If you're hearing about this issue for the first time check out my previous posts: here, here, and here.

Now it's a matter of waiting for the administrative law judge to review the testimony and filings of the parties before issuing his opinion, which the article indicates may come in the fall. That opinion then goes to the head of the Department of Water Resources (ADWR) who can then affirm or change his initial ruling. Then one of the parties can move the case into the regular court system by filing an appeal in Superior Court. In other words, this won't be resolved this year.

The day prior to that article, there was another article in the Prescott paper talking about the final day of testimony in the case that I would like to comment on because it really raised my hackles. This was a discussion of testimony by two experts on the validity of the studies conducted to estimate the effect of pumping from the Big Chino aquifer on flows in the upper Verde River. (Everyone acknowledges that the springs that are the source of the Upper Verde are outlets from the Big Chino aquifer, but there is dispute over the contribution of that aquifer to the flow from those springs and hence the degree of impact the pumping will have on those springs.) A USGS scientist, Laurie Wirt, published studies on her work looking at the geochemistry of the aquifer, the springs, and the upper river, where she concluded that the aquifer provided 80% of the flow in the springs. Unfortunately, Ms. Wirt died recently in a kayaking accident so she wasn't available to defend her work in the hearing. But two former USGS employees presented differing views on the robustness of her results. Ed McGavock, currently with the consulting firm E.L. Montgomery & Assoc., argued that Ms. Wirt was biased because of her personal beliefs in support of the river, leading to unreliable results. Hjalmar "Win" Hjalmarson, a retired USGS engineer, who assisted Ms. Wirt on her studies defended her results and her integrity.

Here's what the article says about McGavock's testimony:
McGavock kicked off the debate Monday by testifying that he believed Wirt, who died in a kayaking accident in 2006, rigged her studies to come up with results consistent with her passionate views about protecting the environment.
"Laurie had a different mindset than most of us in the USGS," McGavock said. "We had a long tradition of objectivity."
In contrast, "Laurie cared deeply about what was going on in the environment," McGavock said, adding that Wirt "became very impatient with Survey procedures. No one in the USGS ever accused Laurie of being objective."

Now I have no problem with another scientist getting up to challenge the results of someone else's studies, but to do so by attacking the integrity of another scientist who cannot defend herself because of her untimely demise really bothers me. I hope McGavock also discussed what was wrong with Ms. Wirt's methodology and the reporter just didn't discuss that part. Because to challenge someone's results by attacking them personally goes against most everything that I believe science should stand for.

Then if you go to the bottom of the story the reporter includes this:
Even so, McGavock allowed that he and most hydrologists agree that the Big Chino is the "primary source" of water for the Upper Verde. After the hearing, he estimated the Big Chino contribution at "somewhere between 60 (percent) and 80 percent."

So her results were biased, but not that far off from your own estimates and possibly irrelevant to the real point of the case? Must have been a pretty good cross-examination. This is the kind of work that consultants covet because they charge their highest rates for expert testimony. But at what cost? This sort of behavior can be incredibly damaging to the credibility of the profession. It's an unfortunate trade-off we have to make.

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