The Delta Stewardship Council meeting, part 1: How habitat restoration is done in the Delta

DWR Delta Minor Slough #5The Delta Stewardship Council has responsibility for overseeing implementation of the Delta Plan, which makes several recommendations with respect to ecosystem restoration including prioritizing and implementing restoration projects, restoring habitat at appropriate elevations, and avoiding introductions or improving habitat for nonnative invasive species.  Additionally, the biological opinions for the state and federal water projects set acreage goals of 8,000 acres of tidal marsh restoration and for between 17,000 – 20,000 acres of floodplain rearing habitat, with the Bay Delta Conservation Plan contemplating substantially more. With large restoration acreage targets and potentially billions of dollars to be spent by multiple agencies on Delta restoration projects, these multiple efforts must be effective and coordinated if the coequal goal of restoring the Delta’s ecosystem is to be achieved.

With this in mind, the Delta Stewardship Council dove into their oversight role focusing on habitat restoration at their July 25th meeting with Agenda Item 9, Habitat Restoration: Getting Restoration Done and Doing it Right.  The presentations to the Council included Delta Independent Science Board’s Dr. John Wiens presenting the findings of the board’s recent report on restoration programs and Campbell Ingram from the Delta Conservancy discussing his agency’s efforts to support habitat restoration in the Delta, as well as an update on the status of several restoration projects underway in the Delta.

This is the first of two part coverage of the July 25th Delta Stewardship Council meeting.  This first installment will cover the science board’s report on habitat restoration and Campbell Ingram’s presentation from the Delta Conservancy.  The second installment covers the specific restoration projects currently underway in the Delta that were presented to the Council – click here for part 2.


Wiens slide 1The Delta Independent Science Board’s Dr. John Wiens is here to present the findings of the science board’s report on habitat restoration projects in the Delta.  “I’m not sure the title of this session is correct,” he began.  “Getting it done but doing it right is perhaps a better way emphasize it, because there’s a lot of habitat restoration that is being done, can be done and is planned to be done, but if it’s not done right, it will be a drain on resources and, in the long run, be ineffective in reaching the goals that we want, so it’s a subtle change of wording, but I think it’s important to bear in mind.”

The Delta Reform Act charged the Delta Independent Science Board DISB) with conducting reviews of science programs in support of adaptive management and monitoring, and conveying those results to Delta Stewardship Council.  Dr. Wiens said that instead of reviewing individual restoration programs, the DISB decided to review thematic areas instead, because it would be a massive undertaking to review each project individually, and to do so would artificially fragment assessments of scientific efforts addressing the same issues.  Habitat restoration was chosen as the first thematic area because it is central to the goal of restoring the ecological integrity of the Delta as well as one of the chief means identified of mitigating any actions to provide more reliable water supplies, he said.

Wiens slide 2The DISB looked at what restoration was being done, what restoration was being planned, how science being used in the project, and in particular, how the project is incorporating future changes, such as climate change, into the project’s planning and implementation. Agencies and organizations made presentations to the Board on their projects, and board members conducted interviews and had discussions with various agencies, water districts, NGOs, and universities.  They also attended presentations at the science conference, reviewed documents and brought their own experiences into the mix.  The end product is the report, Habitat Restoration in the Sacramento San-Joaquin Delta and Suisun Marsh, which Dr. Wiens is presenting today.

The first thing I would point out is that there is a huge amount of skill and enthusiasm that is being used already in habitat restoration in the Delta,” said Dr. Wiens.  “There’s a lot of habitat restoration going on and the people who are involved in this are totally dedicated to it; they are very knowledgeable in it and they are enthusiastic about it.  There’s a lot there to be built on and there is a lot of restoration being done.  We’re not starting from a blank slate.”

Wiens slide 8One of the more difficult task was determining where habitat restoration is currently underway, has been done, or is in being planned.  “It struck us as rather odd that there would be all this habitat restoration going on and not a unified source of information on what was being done where and by whom,” noting the board members worked with DWR and the Delta Conservancy to create the map that is to the right.

The report identifies nine criteria of a successful habitat restoration project.  “The first requirement to have clear goals,” he said.  “You can’t get somewhere if you don’t know where you’re going.“  While most of the projects had goals and desired outcomes, the goals were different between the different projects.  “The problem that we identified is that if we’re going to think about habitat restoration as being something that is going to contribute to the overall ecological integrity and restoration of the Delta ecosystems as a whole, there needs to be integration among those projects.  There needs to be some kind of common set of goals or sharing of goals, or at least the sense that people know what one another’s goals are.”

The DISB found that the goals of the projects varied: some projects were working to satisfy regulatory requirements and were sometimes focused on a single species, some projects were focused on ecosystem processes, and some project goals were fuzzy and unclear, he said.  More thought needs to be given to what the goals of a project are because goals and performance measures go hand in hand:  “You can’t really develop the performance measures for restoration projects if you haven’t clearly articulated what your goals are to begin with.  This is common sense, it seems to me, but it’s not something that falls out automatically of planning a restoration project.”

We tended to focus on the outcome performance goals as that’s the ultimate measure of how well a restoration project is going.  The number of acres restored gives you an approximate measure of are you doing what you said you were going to do; the outcome performance measures are telling you whether it did any good or not, and that’s the acid test, really, of it,” said Dr. Wiens.

The second criterion is the spatial context of multiple projects needs to be taken into consideration.  “We certainly recognize the reality of where one does restoration is going to be constrained by the availability of sites, permitting, funding, and a variety of other constraining factors on where you can do restoration,” said Dr. Wiens.  “The problem is, however, that this frequently ends up with one-off kinds of habitat restoration projects where each is done independently of what is being done elsewhere without considering either the surrounding landscape of that restoration project or what restoration or other activities are being done elsewhere.  A restoration project conducted upstream is going to affect what happens in a restoration project downstream, and to consider those as independent of one another is to miss the integration between them.”

A third factor that must be considered is time.  “The Delta is a very dynamic place and it changes on any kind of timescale that one might want to consider and this will be more so in the future as the effects of climate change and other environmental changes such as land use changes and so on play out,” he said.  “Most of the people we talked to were aware of the reality of climate change and factored it into their thinking, almost always in the context of sea level rise.  That’s appropriate, but there are other elements of climate change that are important: temperature changes, changes in the frequency of extreme events and so on.”

A lot of these changes are going to be nonlinear changes, threshold changes, and anticipating thresholds is an area of considerable discussion in academic ecology these days and science in general,” he said.  “People don’t know how to tell thresholds until you’re past them, generally, but it’s important that they be done and it’s important that we not think of habitat restoration projects as proceeding merrily along a trajectory that is uniform and linear over time.”

Adaptive management is repeated so often that it elicits a ho-hum response; it’s mandated by the Delta Reform Act and everyone we talked with talked about adaptive management,” he said.  “No one provided specifics about how adaptive management was going to be done and when we probed them, it was obvious that there were different perceptions about how adaptive management should be done.  Everyone viewed it as a circle of some sort, but the components involved four steps, nine steps, or sixteen steps, and the importance of different components varied,” he said, noting that the Delta Plan’s nine step approach ought to be the template for adaptive management moving forward.

Wiens slide 13On a personal aside, Dr. Wiens pointed out:  “Adaptive management, despite what the statute says, is not a panacea for everything; it is not appropriate in some situations.”  Adaptive management is appropriate when there is a high degree of uncertainty and a high degree of control of the system, he explained, but in situations where there isn’t much control over what goes on in a system and therefore a limited capacity to adapt management actions, it may not be appropriate.  “This is simply a caution to think carefully about when and where and whether adaptive management is going to be appropriate in particular circumstances, rather than assuming that it always must be done and it must be done in a particular way.”

A fifth component of good habitat restoration is an effective monitoring program.  “You can’t conduct adaptive management without monitoring, and even if you don’t do adaptive management, you have no way of gauging whether you are getting anywhere closer to your goals if you don’t monitor what is going on in the system,” he said.  “But monitoring can mean a wide variety of things. … There needs to be some consideration given to what to monitor, when to monitor, how often, and how long.  Monitoring is something that really requires very careful situation-specific design that is related to the goals of a project.  And in order to conduct monitoring and to use it for anything, you also need to have a very good data management system in place.  Monitoring generates data; the data are useless unless they are put into some kind of data management framework where they can be synthesized and made quickly available to the people who need the data and the information.”

Monitoring also requires a long-term commitment as well as funding, however, at the present time, neither the long-term commitment nor the funding exists for many of the projects that we heard about or are being planned,” said Dr. Wiens.

Modeling is a key component of adaptive management, he said.  “Modeling can be a very powerful tool, particularly in developing various scenarios and asking what if questions as a means of conducting mind experiments on the system without actually going out and doing pilot studies.  Modeling can be very involved, very sophisticated, and very expensive.  We heard examples of such models that are really elegant models in terms of the science that is involved, yet they are inaccessible to many of the people who are charged with doing the planning and the implementation of habitat restoration.”

There needs to be some way to dovetail the sophisticated complex expensive modeling efforts with simpler approaches so that one can validate the simpler approaches by comparing them against the projections of the more complex models,” he said.  “You don’t need a complex model to address every question in a habitat restoration or every question about what is going on in the Delta.  The models need to be tuned to the goals and the questions that are important.”

One of the major findings is that there is a need for coordination of planning and implementation.  “We heard examples of people at different agencies that talk to one another and tried to coordinate, but the reality is that restoration efforts in the Delta are not coordinated, they tend to go on independently, and they are not coordinated with other non-restoration management actions,” he said.  “If something is being done, for example, upstream on levee maintenance or levee breakage, that is going to influence the efficiency and effectiveness of a habitat restoration that is being done downstream.  You can’t do these things independently of one another and expect them to work.  It requires overall coordination.”

Sac River by USFWS

Sacramento River,
photo by US Fish and Wildlife Service

The reality is that you can’t do everything in the Delta, so there needs to be thinking about what to do first, what to do where, and that requires that you have coordination so that you don’t have everyone running off doing their own things simply to get x number of acres restored,” said Dr. Wiens.

All this requires science and science requires scientific expertise,” he said, noting that while those currently doing restoration work are enthusiastic and dedicated, they are also stretched very thin.  “If the magnitude of habitat restoration that is anticipated in the various plans is going to be done and going to be done based on science, it is going to require more scientific expertise behind it.  …  Science and adaptive management – none of this is going to happen unless there is the person power there to support it.”

The last element of successful adaptive management involves getting the stakeholders involved early and often.  “People are doing a good job of communicating with the stakeholders that seem to be most directly involved with habitat restoration projects, but that needs to occur throughout the process, from the very beginning on through the end …   that is a key to success and successful buy-in for the restorations.”

The Board has four major recommendations, the first being more coordination:  “We felt very strongly that if things are going to be done successfully for habitat restoration in the Delta to meet the coequal goals and to mitigate any actions for enhancing water availability, there has to be better coordination,” he said.  “The coordination is just not necessary for people to talk to each other, but that enables you to recognize the synergies, the fact that if you network restoration projects together, that you’re getting something much greater than the sum of the individual parts.  You’re moving toward treating the Delta as an overall ecosystem rather than a place for a whole bunch of individual projects.”

The only thing that is certain is that the future is going to be more uncertain than the past has been, and that uncertainty needs to be factored into the planning and implementation of restoration projects,” he said.  “The future is likely to be full of surprises and things that don’t turn out as well as they were expected to be, so there needs to be flexibility.  This is where adaptive management and modeling come into play, but for adaptive management to be useful in this regard, it needs to be nimble, flexible and fast.  If you think about that 9-step process of adaptive management that is outlined in the Delta Plan, and you realize that every one of those steps takes time … There needs to be ways to speed up adaptive management and make it more responsive to changing uncertainties, and this I think is a fertile area for thinking about and developing new approaches.”

The third recommendation is that there needs to be a prioritization of restoration projects.  “This is part of coordinating among projects.  The thinking of projects as a network of interrelated parts in which you look at each of them in terms of not only what is accomplished by that individual restoration project, but by that project in relationship to other projects,” he said.  “And you then prioritize them in terms of not just what they contribute in terms of an overall acreage goal, but what they contribute in terms of reaching those outcome performance measures of enhancing the health of the Delta ecosystem.”

And finally … strengthening science expertise, strengthening information management, and strengthening communication, so that all of this can in fact happen.  Creating the infrastructure that you will that achieves the integration and coordination of habitat restoration.”

Dr. Wiens added a fifth recommendation, a personal aside, that is not formally part of the report: “All of this not just going to happen.  It requires commitment and in particular requires funding and long-term funding, and if there’s not any thought given on how to create reliable long term consistent support for habitat restoration, then we’re likely to get into a situation where a lot of projects start off and then they falter,” he said.  “The adaptive management isn’t completed, the monitoring isn’t completed, and so we don’t really see how well things are doing.  The critical elements of a restoration project are not completed, and if that’s the case, then that might as well not have been done.  It’s a piecemeal effort of what we really need.”

Dr. Wiens concluded, describing the Delta as a labyrinth:  “It’s certainly a physical labyrinth, but it’s also a labyrinth of people and projects and priorities and agendas, and I think this simply illustrates the challenge that all of us face trying to navigate through this labyrinth of interests and people and programs and priorities, and it effects habitat restoration as well as everything that is done.

Chair Phil Isenberg discussed with Mr. Wiens the need for adaptive management to be nimble, asking him about the notion of giving scientists a time deadline, such as 90 days:  “Scientists have not notoriously been wildly enthusiastic about time deadlines of a short nature.  But since you mentioned expedited processing of adaptive management, I thought you might have some thoughts on that.”

Sacramento River in the Delta, picture by US FWS

Sacramento River in the Delta,
picture by US FWS

Scientists working in the Delta need to recognize the need to move out of their comfort zone to be effective and I think a good many of them certainly are,” said Dr. Wiens.  “They are good scientists but they recognize that business as usual, meaning plod along and ask more questions than you have answers, is not the recipe for doing things. …  you can’t debate the problem forever.  Getting a good enough solution is enough to work on if you are prepared then to reexamine it as you go forward. … Something that pulls together things together quickly and in a very focused way – panels, study groups, whatever you want to call it but really have a very sharp focus and a sharp timeline; it’s something that’s possible.”

Your presentation was excellent at defining what should be done, and we’ve heard similar outlines, but what is lacking is how and by whom,” said Councilman Randy Fiorini.  “We are on the verge of trying to determine, from a habitat restoration point of view, what ought to be done on a coordinated planning, implementation, and prioritization basis.  Can the ISB help us answer the questions of how and by whom in the next six to eight months and help us find those projects that meet the criteria that you just defined as what we should do in terms of interconnectivity and Delta wide planning and so on and so forth?”

The specifics of the ISB are that we’re charged with doing a variety of things, one of which is reviewing the EIR/EIS of BDCP which may take a bit of time, so how we orchestrate all of these things is one issue,” he said.  “Putting that aside, the point you raise is something we talked about in reference to what we should put in this report.  Should we go a step beyond this?  And there were some on the Board that said we ought to specify for each of those recommendations who does it, and there were others, myself included, that said that isn’t really our function.  We don’t know enough about the institutional responsibilities of these various agencies and organizations to … put a big target on their chest and say they should do it because the DISB says they should do it.  But I think that psychologically, the ISB is prepared to go down that route if we can manage to do so.”


Next to address the Council was Campbell Ingram, Executive Director of the Delta Conservancy, the new state conservancy with the coequal responsibilities of ecosystem restoration as well as economic development in the Delta.

As a state conservancy, one of our primary objectives is to be a partner to the Delta community and bring resources to priority issues for the Delta community,” he said.  “We do not have significant funding until a water bond passes … so that has put us in the position of having to be entrepreneurial and creative and focus a lot on developing relationships, and that outreach and effort to bring good information to the Delta community to help to coordinate and integrate the efforts moving forward in the future.”

Bird in the brush at Three Mile Slough #2 04-2008 smaller

Photo by Chris Austin

With large restoration targets and multiple agencies doing restoration in the future, the Delta Conservancy has taken a lead role in coordinating the multiple efforts.  “Currently we lack the infrastructure to be able to coordinate and integrate and make sure that that restoration happens in an effective way over time,” he said.  “So we convened a Delta Restoration Network, and we invited all the agencies actively engaged in either permitting or actively doing restoration to come together in a regularly scheduled forum to have discussions.  We also invited the Delta community, recognizing they have a great deal of input and interest in what happens in restoration and a great deal of information that can help guide restoration in the future.  These meetings have been very well attended and we have been happy with the overall approach and where this group is heading.”

The first meeting of the network focused on planning: the how, where, when and why of restoration.  The Conservancy brought in the San Francisco Estuary Institute, the Ecosystem Restoration Program and others with projects underway to hear about what the others are doing and discuss how to scale up those efforts.  The participants discussed the development of a framework – the overarching guidance.  “We know the estuary institute historical ecological information is very important, we know the DRERIP models are very important, and we know we need mechanisms for the projects that are coming through the door today to understand what sort of review and who they need to be talking to and what should guide them in developing their designs and their approach now,” said Mr. Ingram.  “We also know we need to build on that information.  We need landscape scale models and we need regional models that look at the hydrology in the regions and think about tidal excursion and how that might be affected by breaching levees for projects throughout.”

I start to envision this framework where you have information that guides projects today, you articulate the information that you need and how you are going to get it over time, and that allows you to concurrently provide guidance to projects that walk in the door today, as well as build out the understanding and the information that we need in the future,” he said.

The most recent meeting of the restoration network focused on Delta science with presentations by Dr. Goodwin, the BDCP, the Interagency Ecological Program, and the San Francisco Estuary Institute.  “We were very encouraged to see the Delta Science Plan recognize the Restoration Network as a potential forum to help bring people together and focus on the issues of good adaptive management, good performance metrics, and how we identify where, when and why we do restoration,” he said.

A tracking workgroup has been developed within the network which brings together the agencies that have some level of interest in tracking projects current and into the future in the Delta.  The workgroup agreed that the EcoAtlas website is a very appropriate and effective tool for tracking restoration in the Delta.  The group has received a grant of $250,000 to work collaboratively to provide the enhancements to the EcoAtlas tool so it is an effective tracking mechanism for all restoration projects that happen in the Delta in the future, he said.

The Conservancy is a member of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, and there is potential that the restoration network could be a workgoup for restoration in the committee.

There are programs that are actively planning restoration which have strong regulatory drivers like the biops, he said, “but the development of these frameworks for restoration in the Delta lacks the resources and the those strong drivers that push it, so what we do need from the Council some push behind getting to this level of planning and coordination and making it happen.”

Part 2:  Click here for part 2, An update on Delta restoration projects, and scientists discuss the challenges of restoration.


  • Click here for the staff report, Habitat Restoration: Getting Restoration Done and Doing It Right
  • Click here for Delta Plan recommendation ER R2, Prioritize and Implement Projects that Restore Delta Habitat
  • Click here for the Delta Plan’s Figure 4-8, Recommended Areas for Prioritization and Implementation of Habitat Restoration Areas
  • Click here for the Delta Independent Science Board report,  Habitat Restoration in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Suisun Marsh_A Review of Science Programs
  • Click here for the Delta Independent Science Board’s recommendations for habitat restoration.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: