Suisun Marsh, photo by flickr photographer Matt Knoth

Delta Stewardship Council meeting, part 2: An update on Delta restoration projects, and scientists discuss the challenges of restoration

DWR Suisun Marsh #1
Suisun Marsh,
photo by Department of Water Resources

With large restoration acreage targets and potentially billions of dollars to be spent by multiple agencies on restoration in the Delta, these multiple efforts must be effective and coordinated if the coequal goal of restoring the Delta’s ecosystem is to be achieved.  The Delta Stewardship Council focused on habitat restoration at their July 25th meeting with Agenda Item 9, Habitat Restoration: Getting Restoration Done and Doing it Right.

Earlier in the meeting, Dr John Wiens from the Delta Independent Science Board presented the results of the board’s review of habitat restoration projects in the Delta and Campbell Ingram from the Delta Conservancy briefed the Council on the role of the Delta Conservancy in ecosystem restoration.  (Click here for part 1).  The remainder of the meeting was focused on individual projects currently underway in the Suisun Marsh, Prospect Island, and Dutch Slough.


Suisun Map 2The Suisun Marsh is the largest contiguous brackish water wetland in the western United States and an important stop on the Pacific Flyway for migrating waterfowl.  The Marsh provides essential habitat for more than 221 bird species, 45 mammal species, 16 different reptilian and amphibian species, and more than 40 fish species, as well as numerous sensitive plant species.

In 2001, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Water Resources and the Suisun Marsh Resource Conservation District were charged with developing an implementation plan for Suisun Marsh that would protect and enhance Pacific Flyway and existing wildlife values, endangered species, and water-project supply quality. “We’ve developed a 30 year plan to move forward to do ecosystem restoration as well as preserve and protect the resources that are currently in the marsh,” said Steve Chappell from the Suisun Resource Conservation District.

Click here for more from the Delta Stewardship Council.

I think 12 years is unacceptable amount of time to get there,” he said, “but the marsh plan is a programmatic and site specific EIR/EIS, and I’m proud to say that in the last three weeks, we’ve received our 30 year biological opinions from NOAA fisheries and USFWS for the marsh plan that will allow us to do tidal marsh restoration programmatically.  It’s analyzed 5,000 to 7,000 acres of tidal restoration in the next 30 years, as well as gives us existing take authorization for ongoing operations and management of the managed wetland habitats in Suisun.”

The Suisun Marsh is unique in that a group of landowners went to Legislature in the 1970s and asked for the marsh to be protected, so there are 116,000 acres have not been developed.  “We do have complexities: we have infrastructure, roads, pipelines, things like natural gas production that have occurred in the marsh, but as a whole, we do have a large landscape that has potential opportunity for continued resource protection as well as future restoration and recovery of listed species,” he said.

There are three projects currently identified with the marsh for tidal restoration: the 600-acre Hill Slough wildlife area, the 380-acre Tule Red Parcel on Grizzly Bay, and the recently-acquired 250-acre Overlook Duck Club.  “These are consistent with Suisun Marsh Plan and the idea that the EIR/EIS allows us a path forward in a collaborative process to look at ecosystem restoration with stakeholder involvement and to do restoration with other partners than just agencies,” said Mr. Chappell.

The adaptive management plan is integrated with the Delta Stewardship Council’s science program, he said, which is important “so that we can assure that as programs are moving forward, we can integrate agency level involvement, and we have a clear vision of regions of the marsh and what restoration opportunities and areas should be pursued, but also existing resources and values that should be protected and maintained,” he said.  “Suisun is different in that we have 52,000 acres of diked, managed wetlands and at the end of the day, we’re going to be through the marsh plan converting 10 to 15% of those existing seasonal wetlands back to tidal marsh.  How do you do that in a planned way under the ESA where you’re not having ecological and water quality impacts that are negative to the existing resources but also recovering listed species?

DWR Suisun Marsh #5
Suisun Marsh,
photo by Department of Water Resources

It’s an opportunity to step out of this quagmire of environmental permitting that takes 3 to 5 years to get to a project,” said Mr. Chappell.  “We have a programmatic EIR that if we get restoration sites acquired, we can do site-specific environmental documents and review, but the biological opinions require the Bureau, the Corps of Engineers, Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Fish and Wildlife to look at these projects to be sure they are consistent with the marsh plan, so we have a collaborative process that has been built over the last 12 years to move forward that allows ongoing operations and activities in the marsh to continue, so there aren’t as many conflicts with neighbors about restoration projects going forward.”

The extensive monitoring that the individual agencies require is a major impediment, he said.   “What I am hopeful is that through the marsh plan, we’ll be able to look at a specific site and it’s restoration planning and determine what scientific uncertainties does this site give us the best opportunity to learn from, and we can focus a monitoring plan as part of the project design so when we go to the agencies, we have a collective thought that if we’re going to direct limited dollars to science, that we’re actually collecting the science that answers the scientific uncertainty to inform future decisions, but also limits these astronomical costs of long term monitoring that don’t give us any outcomes.

There are many differences between the Suisun Marsh and other areas in the Delta, one of the main differences being that there are resource managers, not scientists, on the ground in the Suisun Marsh, he said. “As a resource manager, somebody on the ground has to make a decision day by day.  It’s difficult to say we need to wait for the science to inform us.  The tide is going to come in, the tide is going to go out, the weather is going to come, and you can’t be bound by indecision when there is a resource out there that needs attention and action.  We might not have all the answers but I think we collectively have enough knowledge to make good decisions and then plan a path forward so if our expected outcomes aren’t achieve, we have alternatives to modify that project or improve on the next one so we don’t have recurring failures and we can maximize our successes.”

  • Click here for more information on the Suisun Marsh Habitat Management, Preservation and Restoration Plan.


Dennis McEwan the updated the council on current projects underway in Cache Slough and the Suisun Marsh that are being implemented to satisfy the Fish Restoration Program Agreement (FRPA).  “We have two projects that we are in the lead in the Delta and Suisun Marsh: Prospect Island and the Overlook Club in Suisun Marsh,” he said, noting that the primary drivers are the Delta smelt biological opinion, the National Marine Fisheries Service salmonid biological opinion, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s incidental take permit for longfin smelt.

Suisun Marsh, photo by flickr photographer Matt Knoth
Suisun Marsh,
photo by flickr photographer Matt Knoth

Mr. McEwan recently did a rough calculation to estimate where they are in meeting the acreage targets of 8,000 acres of tidal habitat as mandated by the Delta smelt biological opinion, and he estimates that about half of that target has been reached.  “That means there are 4,000 acres are yet to be identified and developed into restoration projects, which is a big unknown,” he said.

They are currently drafting a conservation assessment for the Cache Slough complex that will serve as the road map as for identifying lands, acquiring property, developing restoration projects and then implementing those projects on actual sites.  “Elevation is everything in the Delta,” he said.  “That’s one of the reasons why the Cache Slough Complex is such a desirable place for restoration, not only because it has some of the most natural elements of anywhere in the Delta, but also it still retains the elevations necessary for tidal wetlands.”

FRPA’s strategy and implementation plan specifies the areas where science is injected into the process.  The first step is a technical team that convenes just to discuss the science.  “They love coming to this meeting because they can sit around and talk science,” said Mr. McEwan.  “One of the things that I have been very diligent about is keeping policy at the door.  I think that’s something that’s important in the initial stages of this process.  Just come and talk about the science and at some later date policy and reality will interject itself.”  Other steps include incorporating the DRERIP models into the assessment of the projects and having projects undergo an independent science review.

  • Click here for more information on the Fish Restoration Program Agreement.


Dennis McEwan also gave an update on the 1600-acre project on Prospect Island in Solano County.  The property, acquired by Department of Water Resources in 2010, was once used for agriculture, but has been lying fallow since about 1996.

Prospect Island is bordered by the Sacramento Deep Water Ship Channel to the west, Ryer Island to the east, Cache Slough to the South, and Clarksburg Reclamation District RD 999 to the north.  The project is a joint effort of DWR and DFW, and is being restored as a component of the Fish Restoration Protection Agreement (FRPA), which works towards satisfying the fish habitat requirements of the biological opinions.

The plan is to restore freshwater tidal wetland and open water habitat to benefit native species, and will involve interior grading, vegetation management, levee breaches, and possible fill for subsidence reversal.  The goal of the project is to support the recovery of Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and other Delta-dependent species, as well as enhancing aquatic food web productivity and improving water quality, and is being implemented in part to satisfy the 8,000 acre requirement for tidal marsh restoration.

It’s ideally situated for a restoration project because it sits at the interface between the Yolo Byapss historical floodplain as well as some of the more interior estuarine waters,” said DWR’s Dennis McEwan.  “It takes us from riverine habitat to floodplain habitat to upland freshwater marsh and then down into estuarine, so with this project and hopefully some of the other floodplain restoration projects in the Yolo Bypass, we will have a continuum of habitat types that is pretty rare in the Central Valley.

The project started out with about 30 alternatives which went through a 2-day workshop at UC Davis where we applied the DRERIP models where the alternatives were winnowed down to about 15, he said.  Chris Enright compiled a report which has been one of the guiding science documents for the project, he added.  “After we applied a little bit of policy and reality to the science, we have now about 9 alternatives that will be put through the environmental analysis process,” said Mr. McEwan, noting that the scoping session was held a couple of months ago and they are now moving on to drafting the environmental impact report.  The project is about 50% through the planning processes with construction hoped to begin in 2016, with a five-year monitoring period after that.

Talking to stakeholders is absolutely critical to the success of these projects and we’ve really taken that to heart in the FRPA program,” said Mr. McEwan.  “We’ve conducted 18 informational briefings for the general public, public agencies, targeted stakeholders and reclamation and water districts; we’ve gone through three science and technical reviews so far; we’ve made presentations and posters at four different science conferences; and we have a website and a listserver to provide continuous information as we develop it out to the public and the stakeholders.  It’s been really critical and a big part of our program to go out and talk to people.”

One of the major concerns of the project are the possible impacts to Ryer Island.  “Ryer Island is a very productive area of the Delta; it’s almost entirely in agriculture,” he said.  “There is a concern that if we breach the levee on the Miner Slough side, that would introduce wind and wave erosion to the Ryer Island levee and potentially compromise that levee system which is a federal project levee, and so we’re very cognizant of that and that is something we will look closely at in the environmental review process.”

The other issue with Ryer Island is the potential for hydrologic connection between surface water on Prospect Island and seepage on Ryer Island.  “This is something that the farmers on Ryer Island are extremely concerned about,” said Mr. McEwan, noting that one of the terms of the sale was that DWR would investigate the potential hydrologic connection.  “The idea is that when there is surface water on Prospect Island, it causes hydrostatic pressure and it causes seepage into Ryer Island and the seepage areas aren’t farmable so it’s land being taken out of production,” noting that this has happened elsewhere in the Delta.  Mr. McEwan said the issue was turned over to surface water investigations unit, who have just produced a data summary report with a final project report expected this fall that will hopefully definitively answer the question.

Mr. McEwan echoed the need to keep stakeholders apprised of your plans and actions.  “We’ve been keeping the reclamation district on Ryer Island apprised of our process; we have had regular meetings with them, letting them know what we’re doing and so far, they are happy about the fact that we are investigating it.  It will depend on our conclusions are whether they’ll be happy with us or not, but they are happy with the process and they’ve told us that.”

  • Click here for more information on Prospect Island.
  • Click here for more information on the Fish Restoration Program Agreement.


Dutch Slough was originally tidal marsh that was reclaimed for agriculture during the Gold Rush days.  In 1997, Contra Costa County approved the parcel for the development of 5000 homes.  In 2001, the Natural Heritage Institute and DWR began working with the landowners to acquire and restore the property, subsequently purchasing the 1178-acre parcel in the fall of 2003.  Department of Water Resources’ Patty Finfrock, project manager for the Dutch Slough Restoration project, updated the Council on the efforts underway.

The last ten years have been spent planning, and much of the project is in the final stages, with permits applied for and construction to hopefully begin next year, she said.  The project consists of three parcels with each having a variety of elevations: some low and medium elevation marsh, dendritic channels, open water, and terrestrial habitat.  The westernmost parcel will have a recreation component, as well as open water.  The middle parcel will be managed marsh and be maintained for the California blackrail, with the possibility of this area becoming tidal marsh in 20 to 30 years with subsidence reversal.  The easternmost parcel will be tidal marsh and upland habitat, providing foraging habitat for Swainson’s Hawk.  There is funding for the westernmost parcel and the middle parcel, but there currently isn’t any funding in place for the easternmost parcel.

Right from the beginning, science was a huge part of the design of the process and it will be a big part of the implementation as well,” said Patty Finfrock, recalling that when the property was purchased, a conceptual model and feasibility study was done to determine the potential of the site.  “We had a lot of scientific input on what does the site look like now and what can we do with it.  We had a restoration team, we had an adaptive management team, we had good consultants, and good scientists that created a lot of background material for what can we do to have this be the most ecologically beneficial project that we can do.”

tidal marsh
Emerson Parcel, Dutch Slough,
photo by US FWS

The project was designed to do a lot of adaptive management experiments,” she said, noting that the central parcel especially is divided up into different marsh areas to see what gives the best benefits for fish.  “The primary purpose of this project is to have fish habitat.  We don’t think it’s going to be good Delta smelt habitat; we hope it will be good rearing habitat for Chinook salmon, and spawning and rearing for Sacramento splittail, and then have some larger food web benefits for the local area.”

Unfortunately, there isn’t funding for the third parcel or to conduct the adaptive management experiments that have been designed, so it would be helpful if the Council of the Delta Conservancy could help find funding to complete the project, said Ms. Finfrock.

Involving stakeholders from the beginning is key, emphasized Ms. Finfrock.  There are a lot of local entities that surround the project – cities, cities, private interests, ongoing development to the east and south – so it has involved a lot of collaborative work on issues that have had to be overcome.

Dutch Slough map 2Ms. Finfrock gave an example of one of the active issues they have had to deal with involving Contra Costa Water District.  The unlined Contra Costa Canal runs immediately to the south of the property, and the water district was concerned that the introduction of tidal waters would cause the more-saline groundwater to seep into their canal and impact their drinking water.  “We’ve had a very long collaborative process with CCWD to try and come up with good mitigation measures for how we are going to not impact this drinking water,” said Ms. Finfrock.  “When we did our final EIR in 2010, what we said in our EIR is that we would not breach any of the parcels until the adjacent section of the canal was put into an underground pipe.”  At the time, CCWD anticipated being able to do so by 2012, and at the time, it appeared the two projects would line up time-wise, but it has turned out that the Dutch Slough project is ready to move forward before the CCWD project.    “So we went back to CCWD to try to figure out alternative mitigation measures, and that’s been about 18 months of negotiations.  Meanwhile, they did get funding to do an encasement of the canal adjacent to the parcel that we’re going to start implementation on next year, so on one of the parcels, the problem is solved.  But we may have issues as we go forward with our central parcel and our easternmost parcel because the canal may or may not be encased.”

Ms Finfrock said there is a long list of other problems they’ve had to work out, but the lesson here is that “you’ve got to talk to your neighbors, you’ve got to talk to your stakeholders, you’ve got to coordinate, you’ve got to let them know early what you’re doing to try and coordinate all these issues so you can actually move forward with your project and not create headaches for anybody else.”

  • Click here for more information on the Dutch Slough project.


Scientific involvement:

As far as getting the scientists together, scientists and engineers love to get into a room and talk about science and engineering; they really hate getting into a room and talking about policy.  I am a strong advocate for isolating science in the very beginning stages; I think scientists need to get together and just talk science,” said Dennis McEwan.

I couldn’t disagree anymore vigorously,” said Councilman Randy Fiorini.  “When you get a group of scientists together to discuss a problem, in the absence of practical experience, practical on the ground experience, you’re likely to get headed in the wrong direction that is going to have to be corrected later on by the practical realities of moving water around or dealing with land issues.  You made have had a success with it, but I think we need to forge a path that brings together stakeholders and scientists at the very beginning, define what the problem is, and then work together cooperatively to figure out what the next steps are.

We did get scientists together to talk about what could we do with this land,” said Patty Finfrock.  “We would get ideas from them, we would get ideas from the public, and then we would interject the policy, so we didn’t do it all at once but we did put the pieces together, because sometimes you can’t get to a solution if you’ve got too many disparate people in the room together.”

How can the Council help?

Councilman Randy Fiorini asked what could the Council do to help better facilitate coordinating, planning and prioritization of habitat restoration in the Delta?

It would be nice to see some sort of overarching principles,” said Dennis McEwan.  “We do have that for the FRPA program, but it would nice to see some of that for the restoration in general … to come up with a suite of restoration principles, both scientific and sociologic.”

It’s really good to have those principles and it would be good to have a document that documents all of the guidelines from CalFed and the science board and all these people about what we should be doing,” said Patty Finfrock, “but the problem in my mind was then how do you get it out to the people who are thinking about doing restoration projects? It’s not just people in state and local agencies, it’s conservation banks, and mitigation banks, and a lot of other entities involved.”

Willing seller

You’re going to have regional differences, and one mold is not going to fit well for the entire Delta,” said Steve Chappell, noting in the Suisun Marsh, land is acquired from willing sellers only.  “We did regional planning, but we didn’t get down to parcel-specific, because in my professional opinion, as soon as you draw a map and identify these parcels and the landowner feels that you’re going to condemn his property or take away his right to use his property if he doesn’t want to participate in your program, and you create animosity and discontent.  People don’t trust any agencies because they are afraid what the outcome may be or that their neighbor may participate and it will affect them, so the marsh plan has been open and transparent and based on willing seller with the understanding that over time we’re going to be implementing activities and how do you do that with shared expectations and trust,” he said, adding “You can’t have one group that has a veto, and not all projects can be everything to everyone.  There’s compromise and a sweet spot where you optimize potential, but you don’t get that last 5% out of the project.”

Willing seller is an important premise, but not everyone employs that premise because they think either there are higher biological values or the greater good,” said Councilman Don Nottoli.  “[Willing seller] is a real important premise and ground rule for fostering cooperation and confidence amongst the folks your seeking to work with … More than hundred thousand acres being planned for the Delta … if willing seller, willing buyer isn’t a premise of doing that, they shy away pretty quickly because they think they are going to be a target.”

Patty Finfock agreed with Councilman Nottoli.  “I work for the Delta levees program within DWR; we don’t have anything to do with BDCP, and we definitely only operate on the willing seller premise.  But I know BDCP has built up a lot of resentment in the Delta and we get questions all the time.  I get this question every time I attend a public meeting .. what does this have to do with BDCP?  Fortunately I can say that it has nothing to do with it, because there’s a lot of resentment about it … I can imagine willing sellers to the BDCP may be few and far between, but I think you’re right … when we’re talking about tens of thousands or a hundred thousand acres, the thought of willing sellers selling that much land in the Delta stretches credibility.

The specter of condemnation can last a long time,” said Dennis McEwan.  “A good example of that is Ryer Island.  One of the alignments for the peripheral canal was right down the middle of the island and that was ground zero in the locals minds.  Shortly after that we come in with this idea for a restoration project on Prospect Island and there was a lot of concern about the connection between the peripheral canal and what we’re doing on Prospect Island.  It took a number of years to convince folks that we weren’t part of the BDCP or peripheral canal or alternative conveyance.  We are operating under the premise of willing seller, but that is probably something we need to get out and say more often.”

A different funding model for restoration and a suggestion for a standing panel

During the public comment period, Byron Buck from the State and Federal Contractors Water Agency added these thoughts to the discussion:  “It’s going to take many players to do this.  There are a lot of them in there already, and there’s at least three models for doing this but we’re only using two at this point.  There’s one – the agency model, like my agency, like DWR, go out, get the land, do the permits, hire the contractors, build it.  There’s a public-private partnership model, we’re doing a project like that and The Nature Conservancy and Department of Water Resources is another.  There’s a third model that we haven’t tried yet and one that we might want to be thinking about and that’s the service delivery model, where we basically put out an RFP under certain conditions to the private sector that says we want to build x amount of habitat acres and these kind of conditions in these kind of places, and ask for a proposal on doing that – what’s the unit cost?  Competition is good, we ought to be thinking about implementing that third service delivery model.

Mr. Buck also suggested to the Council that they assemble a standing Delta expert panel that would include resident experts on Delta hydrology, geomorphology, sediment, aquatic and tidal ecosystem ecology, invasive species biology, coastal and marine engineering, and would review projects going in, thereby getting science involved early in the design process.  Such a panel “would give us some continuity and consistency and build some institutional memory on these projects that I think would be very helpful.”


  • Click here for the staff report, Habitat Restoration: Getting Restoration Done and Doing It Right
  • 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.
  • Click here for more information on the Fish Restoration Program Agreement.
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