Delta Science Plan takes center stage at the Delta Stewardship Council: How should science inform policymaking?

How should science inform policymaking and how should that be outlined in the Delta Science Plan?  These questions as well as news from the 7th Biennual Bay Delta Science Conference were the topics of discussion during Lead Scientist Dr. Peter Goodwin’s report at the October 25th meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council.  This is the first of two-part coverage from the Council meeting.


The 7th Biennial Bay-Delta Science Conference (Conference) was held October 16-18 2012 at the Sacramento Convention Center. More than 900 people registered in advance, and another 100 were expected to register on-site. There were approximately 240 oral presentations and 150 poster presentations, plus the plenary session, the town hall meeting on the Delta Science Plan, and the other special events that made for a productive and stimulating three days.

Click here for more from the Delta Stewardship Council.

The Conference is a community-organized event which has developed a rich culture over the past six years.  At the Conference, it is the interactions between participants that are valuable, said Dr. Goodwin, noting that there were a lot of useful discussions and exchange of ideas, and people came together and developed synergy.  The Conference is an inspirational shot in the arm to the science community, he said; a place where new ideas and new teams are formed.

Dr, Goodwin said there were a record number of nominations this year for the Brown-Nichols Science Award. The Committee which chooses the winner ended up selecting two recipients, and noted that there was quite a lot of good science currently underway.  And while there were many abstracts submitted, the selection process was very competitive and not all were accepted.

Chair Phil Isenberg noted that there was a good expansion of the focus of the conference this year, but it has a ways to go before there is as extensive a focus on water reliability as there is on the ecosystem.  He noted that historically, ecosystem has been an afterthought and never been given the same prominence as water system management, but now California laws are bringing them together and treating them as coequal.  “I don’t get a feeling the science community has quite gotten into that discussion [water supply reliability] at the same level as the historic discussion of ecosystem, and I think you have to … actively going out and attempting to solicit opinions on both sides of the equations seems to me something the Council and the Council’s Delta Science Program should be doing,” Mr. Isenberg said.


As an example of the current science presented at the Conference, Dr. Goodwin highlighted the research presented on atmospheric rivers, which are high velocity storms of warm moist air that move across the Pacific and into California. Often dubbed the ‘pineapple express’, these events can be two or three storms following in succession or can be storms that last for two or three days.  Once the ground becomes saturated, they become massive runoff events.  Atmospheric river storms have been tracked from satellites, by plane and by radar.  They contain potentially huge amounts of water – about 20 times the entire volume of the Mississippi River – and they can cause some of the most intense precipitation in the U.S.

Dr. Goodwin recapped the presentation at the Conference by Michael Dettinger of the USGS, who presented research that is being done in conjunction with a large number of scientists to connect atmospheric river events to California issues, as well as looking into how they may change in the future and how that will impact California.  One issue Mr. Dettinger and his team has been researching is the relationship between atmospheric river events and levee failures.  In order to best determine this, they used well-dated levee breaks and compared those with known historical atmospheric river events.  Atmospheric river events typically occur at from December through March.  Most levee breaks have occurred between December and February, and the research found that most – 80% – have a direct correlation with atmospheric events.  The study was focused on types of weather events at the time of the levee failure rather than the actual cause of the levee failure, which could be due to several factors.

The research also looked at how the frequency of atmospheric river events are likely to change with climate change; projections are that they will occur more frequently and more intensely over the next few decades.

NOAA and other agencies have put together a 21st century observation system for California that includes new radars, new precipitation gauges, and an advance warning system so that the state can be more prepared and manage things more efficiently when these storms arrive. So in terms of disaster preparedness, this research is important, Dr. Goodwin said.  The early warning system will inform us of the greater risk and help with reservoir and flood control operations.


At the Conference, a town hall meeting was held to publicize the development of the Delta Science Plan.   Dr. Goodwin said that they’ve been working on the concept of “One Delta, One Science,” trying to determine how all the science being done through specific programs and agencies can be pulled together so we can get to the really big questions, such as how to link large policy actions and management actions to the science?  We need to look at the organization of science, data sharing, organization, modeling, visualization, and effective communication.  The science community needs to understand better what the policymakers need to know, and Dr. Goodwin said that they’ve given some thought to that within the plan.

The Delta Science Plan will be one plan with many contributing programs, each with its own monitoring programs, objectives, and goals, remaining separate because many of these programs have been established by law or by objective of that specific agency.  The Plan will involve truly interdisciplinary science – hydrology, ecology, social sciences, and policy as well.  The big question is how do we truly conduct interdisciplinary science?  “We’re not there yet as a science community.  We tend to work within our disciplines and look for overlap,” said Dr. Goodwin.   With so many existing programs that often cross agency boundaries, it is very difficult to create overnight a structure where all the various scientific disciplines can work together.  “I think it’s more effective to look at existing clusters or collaborations that are focused around agency missions or questions and look to see how we develop the science, what are those important connections between the various disciplines.  That’s what the science plan should be looking to exploit,” said Dr. Goodwin.

Chair Phil Isenberg:In the first draft of the Science Plan, I want to see a structure recommended that a policy person like me can understand that says whether it’s a BDCP, Central Valley Flood Board, a major ecosystem restoration project, this is how science is involved in pursuit to ensure the coequal goals.  I want to see in the plan:  Does it require that scientists be involved in the decision making?  You may want to be on the side yelling at everyone …but if it is a theoretical discussion, it is not applicable and the principles are not clear. “  Mr. Isenberg noted that the statute in California says essentially there’s going to be a higher role for science in ecosystem and water, and the Governor and the Secretary have said that science will guide water export levels and ecosystem.  “How do you do it other than doing it?  Getting in there and making the hard, tough choices based on the best available science and information.  If you don’t engage that issue clearly, specifically and directly, policymakers are likely to ignore what you’re saying, or say “nice methodology, but give me something real.”

Councilman Hank Nordhoff:If we were funding everything, we’d have an element of control.  But we’re not.  And of the three main components of the strategy, the what, the why and the how, for me, this is all about how.  All about coordinating and then disseminating the information in a fairly structured way.”  He noted that a good suggestion was to form a committee of five or six people that represent the various facets of the science involved  that would meet on a regular basis to not only try and coordinate what’s going to be done and how studies can overlap and collaborate, but also how what sort of information will be provided and how it will be disseminated.  “It’d be nice to get some agreement and some conclusions and not be like academic scientists where you’re into discovery but not implementation and you just argue all the time.”

Dr. Peter Goodwin: “We don’t view this as the Delta Science Program Science plan.  If we’re going to be successful, this is the science community science plan, so this should be the framework that unifies science in the Delta. Scientists are never going to fully concur or fully agree on everything; in fact it would be very unhealthy if that were the case.”  What we’ve been discussing is how can we avoid groups of scientists using different models, selectively using different data sets and therefore coming up with different conclusions, Mr. Goodwin said, and we’ve also been looking at building this one community.  What do we actually know, what can we all agree on?  “It’s quite okay not to agree, because we need to know where those uncertainties are and the science community will judge if that’s legitimate or not.  If it is, that’s where we target research.”  There are two steps, he noted: the first is to build an open science community with trust where people can actually participate and engage, and the second step is to determine how science can then feed into the decision making process in a way that’s not all tied up in the courts.

Councilman Hank Nordhoff:  “I think it’s going to be a rare event to get people from disparate aspects of science to agree, but I think this is about efficiency.  We have to spend the money wisely and use it wisely, and there has to be an element of coordination that most scientists would bristle at.  And I think it would be good if we could find areas of common agreement – there have to be some things we agree on. … Sometimes, we cannot wait for everybody to agree on something.  We have to use probability theory and then use the adaptive management that we’ve talked about so much.  And if more information comes out that’s contrary, then change.  But we have to move and they have to give us enough information to move on.”

Chair Phil Isenberg:I’m inclined to think that you may conceivably have the ability to influence important short term actions in the very near future if you had a clear recommendation to make.”  While operators of systems want certainty, what they really want is authorization to proceed, Mr. Isenberg said, noting that the details are very complicated have to be hammered out.  “If One Delta One Science doesn’t do anything else, it ought to be presumed to be the best available science on the question asked, and that should be an actionable determination, meaning policymakers and operators of ecosystems and water systems should be able to rely upon that for a set time period until its reviewed or something, because otherwise there’s no end to the process and ultimately there’s this dissatisfaction with science and complaint.” Mr. Isenberg pointed out that there’s no way to guarantee that science can ever be excluded from public criticism, as science is deeply enmeshed and has been forever in important societal issues.  Now, if BDCP were to ask the Delta Science Program what the science structure of BDCP ought to be to set the right water level and restore the ecosystem,  “that’s the question I want answered, because I think if you answer that successfully, that translates into other water ecosystem areas, you begin to develop a system, a prototype, and the notion of actionable determinations by scientists seems to be a very valuable one.”

Executive Officer Chris Knopp to Mr. Isenberg:  “I hear you say you have a desire for scientists to have a more active role in the decision making process; I’d like give you a caution on that point, because one of the things we are striving for is unbiased science, and credible unbiased science, if we move scientists too much into the policy arena, we lose that credibility and that unbiased perspective.  I think we can maintain the independence of the science group and have efficient decision making as well.”

Chair Phil Isenberg:  “At some point, maybe next meeting, we ought to have a discussion of what the Council expects to see in the Science Plan.  And I’d ask the staff to develop a set of possibilities – even ones you don’t like but include the ones you do, and let us think and talk about those.  Not a massive list.  There’s a point at which rather than be unclear; if there’s an majority opinion on the Council on expectations in the Delta Science Plan, we ought to make that clear, take a vote, and have it happen.  Argue it out in advance, but I don’t see a reason not to do that.  Next meeting is a good time to do it.”

Mr. Knopp: “We are working on putting together some ideas at the next meeting so we can do exactly that.”


Dr. Goodwin then went on to discuss the role of the town hall meeting in the development of the Delta Plan.  He noted that they’ve completed an analysis of about 15 other science plans that have been developed for similar large scale programs, looking specifically for plans that would be relevant so that the Delta Science Plan won’t be starting from scratch.  Dr. Goodwin then held the town hall meeting last week with the objectives to publicize the development of the science plan, solicit feedback, engage people in the process, and get an idea of what the barriers might be to completing the science plan.  Now, the next step will be to put out a straw skeleton of what the science plan might look like.

Dr. Goodwin said they have looked at the adaptive management process, and specifically where things break down, noting that one of the key areas highlighted by the NRC report was the science-policy disconnect.  After meeting with several agency representatives, Dr. Goodwin determined that a new way of conducting science was needed.  How do we do the synthesis activities required by NRC that go across programs and how do we build this long term system understanding?  These were the issues that went into the planning of the town hall meeting.

At the Conference’s town hall meeting, a panel was assembled consisting of Councilman Randy Fiorini from the Delta Stewardship Council, Mark Cowin from the Department of Water Resources, and a representative Ren Lohoefener from USFWS.  The panelists were asked to throw out what they perceived to be a grand challenge for the science community – not that it can be resolved now, but over the next 10 to 20 years.  The idea was then to open to the science community to contribute ideas as to what do we need to do in order to change the way we do business to meet those grand challenges.  Dr. Goodwin noted that the science community response was overwhelming; it was the first chance to meet face to face with leaders and engage in a very frank discussion.

One of the challenges offered was that there are 41 animals and 33 plants in the Delta that are threatened or endangered, so how does one balance the conflicting needs between all of these various species, particularly when one or two of those species tend to dominate the discussion?  Just how do you balance these conflicting requirements?  “Whatever we do needs to be sustainable and obtainable. We can’t do everything for one species if it isn’t obtainable.  Obtainable speaks to the balance,” Dr. Goodwin said.

Another challenge was how to begin to develop a suite of tools and models that will model the impact, whether its restoration, diversions, or water exports, and follow that through the whole cascade of processes so that the consequences can be understood in a transparent method.

Another challenge was to go and do something bold and intensely monitor that, so that we can understand everything from permitting to what the outcomes are, and to develop measurable objectives and test the methodology, particularly for adaptive management, before we move into full scale production.  One of the comments that emerged was that adaptive management should be an enabler and not a barrier.  There needs to be a comprehensive adaptive management program that people can tap into.

A pervasive theme was decision making under uncertainty, and there are two sides to that, Dr. Goodwin noted.  Can we make decisions on what we know already – because we know a lot, and can we quantify that uncertainty so that those people tasked with making decisions can balance that uncertainty themselves? Because it’s not going to be scientists that will be making that decision.

The town hall meeting participants were then asked for their one big idea that would really make a difference. Some of the suggestions received were common knowledge of understanding of what we know now, high-level translators to go between the science community and the policymakers, and bold interactions to test hypotheses.

Councilman Fiorini was then asked what he had said in the town meeting.  Fiorini answered that he offered two grand challenges.  The first challenge was to create a master model for the Delta so the independent science work going on in isolation from similar types of work occurring simultaneously could be plugged into a master model to determine what impact science recommendations might make on a managed system.  “I think I used the term, ‘If we can put a man on the moon, we can develop a master model for the Delta.’

Mr. Fiorini noted that while there is a mutual healthy respect between policymakers and scientists, “there is an inherent skepticism that policymakers think that scientists take too long to come to an answer and oftentimes answer a question with another question and delay reaching a conclusion with more study.  Scientists are critical of policymakers in that they believe we’re too quick to pull the trigger on doing something and they believe we’re not well informed oftentimes when we authorize an action or a spending function.”  Mr. Fiorini’s second challenge, then, was to pick a project in the Delta and to form a team that includes scientists of the appropriate disciplines for that project, engineers, and all relevant stakeholders, as well as policymakers.  The science team members can talk about what we ought to do, and the stakeholders can talk about the practicality and the limitations.  For example, managing a reservoir that the multiple functions of hydroelectric power, water supply, and flood control, and to work this through into actually implementing something and creating a monitoring program so we can evaluate what is likely to happen.

Mr. Fiorini said that he had looked at the lawsuits where mid-level scientists were dictating how to operate a system in absence of the people that are responsible for operating that system and having no communication with them about the limitations and the practicalities of those decisions.  “I think we can bypass a lot of court action if we bring the policymakers and the scientists together and agree upon the problem, determine what the solution is, implement it, monitor it, evaluate its success and adaptively change as necessary.  The grand challenge is to pick something, try it and see if it doesn’t work any better than what we’ve been doing.


Upcoming State Water Board Workshop:  Dr. Goodwin noted the upcoming State Water Resources Control Board workshop on analytical tools for modeling in November, a continuation of the work towards revising the State Water Board’s Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan.  The Delta Science program has been asked to supply a panel for the workshop.

Annual review of SWP and CVP operations:  Also on the schedule for October 31st and November 1st is the 2012 Integrated Annual Review of Coordinated Operation of the CVP and SWP, conducted by the Delta Science Program to inform NMFS and USFWS on how effective  required regulatory actions affecting water operations have been.  The panel will look at the outcomes, what lessons can be learned and taken forward, and what new science should be incorporated by those agencies into their decision making process for the upcoming year. The NMFS and USFWS have asked the panel to focus specifically on how well spring 2012 operations worked, and also on one particular creek, Clear Creek, and how effective the regulations affecting steelhead were.

Latest issue of the SFEWS journal: – The current issue of the San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science Journal is now available online; it is a special edition that looks at several conceptual models of the Delta ecosystem developed over the past decade and how these help to inform environmental decisions.


Up next on Maven’s Notebook:  Part 2 of coverage from the Council meeting: Near-term actions for the Delta, an update on the Delta Plan, and the Army Corps, FEMA, and levees in the Delta.

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