Ellen Hanak on scientists and stakeholder views of Delta ecosystem management

At the State of the Estuary conference held at the end of October, Ellen Hanak gave a presentation that summarized the results of a set of surveys of both scientists and stakeholders on their views of the Delta ecosystem.  The surveys were conducted as part of a series of reports on managing multiple stressors in the Delta, Stress Relief: Prescriptions for a Healthier Delta Ecosystem, released earlier this year.

HanakThe surveys were conducted during the summer of 2012.  “The National Research Council had come out with their study confirming there are multiple stressors, it was very complex and hard to prioritize them, but also highlighting that we’re not doing a very good job of figuring out what to do about them,” she said.  “So we thought it could be useful just to get people’s and expert’s rough sense of what the problem was, what was key regarding the role of ecosystem stressors, both past and future, and also promising actions, because if you think a particular stressor is a problem that there may or may not be a solution to, you may have to use other actions to deal with that.”

Our goals were partly to synthesize scientific understanding and get a sense of how much consensus is there is among the scientists and how much agreement about what are people thinking,” said Ms. Hanak.  “Also by asking stakeholders and policymakers, we could get a sense of what kind of disconnect or not there is between the scientists and those who are actually making and living with policies.

Hanak slide 6Ms. Hanak explained that there were two different groups that were surveyed: one was a group scientists or experts that consisted of those who had published research on the Delta ecosystem since 1980, and the list was expanded somewhat during the survey, and the second group were stakeholders and policymakers who had participated in the Delta Plan or Bay Delta Conservation Plan process.

The scientist group had 122 respondents; about half of them from universities and research institutions, about one-third state and federal employees, and the remainder were consultants or from NGOs.

Expert surveys are becoming increasingly popular in the resource world, especially in areas where there’s a lot of uncertainty and still a need to make decisions, Ms Hanak said.  There are different methods to try and control for the level of expert knowledge; for this survey, they went with a democratic type approach that basically weighs experts equally, but also at the end of the scientist survey, included an option to allow respondents to identify other scientists who they thought had exceptional knowledge of the Delta ecosystem.  “So we built a list based on those who were named by at least 5 people, and the top 20% of the experts we analyzed as lead scientist,” said Ms. Hanak.  “Their views on this were very similar to the rest of the scientists … the basic story was that there wasn’t any significant differences except that people with broader expertise or longer expertise were kind of more pessimistic in general.”

The stakeholder and policymaker group had 240 respondents; they were further categorized  based into interest groups, such as Delta based interests, environmental advocates, water export interests, fishing and recreation interests, upstream interests, and then state and federal officials.  “We did a little bit of statistical analysis with this group, but it mainly made sense to look where the significant differences were across the groups,” she said.

Hanak slide 8The scientist’s survey was a little more detailed and a little longer, but the surveys were structured similarly in the sense that people were asked to give their views of the causes of stress in the ecosystem, and then their views on promising actions, she said.

The purpose of the PPIC report, “Aquatic Ecosystem Stressors of the Delta,” was to group the Delta’s multiple stressors into five categories in order to make it more digestible from a policy perspective.  The five categories are discharges, direct fish management (both hatchery related and harvest related), flow regime change (upstream, downstream, within the Delta), invasive species, and physical habitat loss and alteration.

Hanak Slide 9Ms. Hanak then presented a slide showing the results of both surveys to the question, ‘please indicate the level of impact you believe each stressor group has had on the historical decline of the Delta’s native fishes.’  The choices for answers were high, moderate, low or no impact.  “Each group is weighted equally, and you can see that pretty much we’re in at least the moderate impact scope across the board,” she said.  “There wasn’t a lot of broad disagreement between the stakeholders on average and the scientists on average; flows and habitat are definitely higher, especially for the scientists.”

Hanak Slide 10There were differences among the groups, although everybody pretty much said that everything mattered.  “There are definitely differences among groups depending on what their economic interests are,” she pointed out.  “Discharges – who is discharging into the Delta? It’s folks that are upstream in the Delta watershed and folks in the Delta, and they think that’s the least important.  Who is most thinking that flows are not mattering that much? It’s the exporters.  Who is most thinking invasives don’t matter that much?  The fishing interests who are depending on a large extent on invasive fish species that are good for tournaments and things.  And then habitat, obviously that’s the most impactful for Delta residents … but on the whole we thought it was a positive story in the sense that everybody kind of agreed in a confidential survey when they are not having to grandstand, that every stressor matters.”

Hanak Rec EcologyMs. Hanak then turned her focus to promising actions.  “As a little bit of background, our thinking and some of the other work we did in the context of this project that was discussed at last year’s Delta science conference was thinking about ecosystem reconciliation, which in our view, is really the way we have to be thinking about the Delta ecosystem,” she said.  “The idea is that you’re acknowledging human uses of the land and water resources alongside and trying to figure out how to make it work better for the critters.  If you go back to the origin of the idea of reconciliation, it’s a combination of trying to restore natural processes where possible and practical, but also recognizing that you can’t just go back to the pristine time before the human footprint was here, and that you’re probably going to need to use some infrastructure and technology to help you out.

Hanak Slide 14The survey presented respondents with a menu of actions, starting with the stressor categories of discharges, fish management, flow management, invasives, and habitat, and for then each of those stressor categories, listed various possible actions, and asked the scientists to rate their potential impact.  The promising actions listed included actions which were currently being implemented, actions that were planned, actions that were being considered, and even actions that are still considered conceptual.  “You can see it’s a pretty wide range of actions,” she said.

Hanak Slide 15She then displayed a slide showing the actions the scientists agreed were good and had high potential impact. “The scientists agreed on some flow management actions and some habitat management actions; varying flows for native fish which is kind of the reconciliation idea, more natural processes, reducing exports, and then actually a lot of habitat actions, including actions upstream such as habitat improvements and removing selected dams,” she said.  There weren’t many actions that the scientists agreed didn’t think would be helpful, she added; the only two were fish screens and more efforts to control poaching.

Hanak Slide 16Ms Hanak then presented a slide that displayed the actions that received low scores from the scientists.  Other actions received low scores because of a wide divergence in views, she said.  Actions marked with a red star were actions that over 20% of the respondents didn’t even want to answer, reflecting the uncertainty, and those actions were the canal/tunnel, using gates to steer fish, and increasing sediment.

Hanak Slide 17The scientists were then asked to pick their top five actions, considering how they would work together and not considering economics.  The actions were grouped into 9 functional areas, such as different habitat actions or different actions to control discharges, so we could get a broad sense of where they were heading, she said.  “We did some cluster analyses on these, so looking at the habitat and flow cluster, these are the percentages of scientists that picked at least one action in each of these categories,” she said.  “We were astounded by the consensus on Delta habitat and how high that one was, but if you look in combination it’s basically Delta habitat, flows, and upstream habitat management too; in the cluster analysis, over 100 of the scientists fell into that cluster.  There was only one respondent who didn’t pick anything in any of those four areas, and otherwise there was no particular pattern on who was picking what in the other categories.  Many people said they wished they could have picked more than 5.”

Hanak Slide 18Looking at the stakeholders, in contrast to thinking that all stressors matter, once you get to priority actions, there’s just tremendous divergence in views on what their top 5,” continued Ms. Hanak.  “I highlighted some of the highs and some of the lows that really drive home the point that although they were also instructed not to think about the economics of it but just the fish, that’s very much harder when you know that the economic effect is going to affect you directly.  So reduced diversions – almost no exporters picked any action that would reduce diversions.  The upstream folks, while it looks like they are very middle of the road on that, it’s because they were able to take reduced exports as one of the ways of reducing diversions that wouldn’t impact them.”

Almost all of the fisheries and Delta folks picked reduced diversions. … Upstream management, the folks that are likely to be hit by that are exporters and upstream interests as that relates to their dams and it relates to how they operate that.  Discharges, maybe not surprising to see, but I think 100% of exporters picked that as a priority impact action.  … The fish guys do not want harvest management and they don’t want invasive control – other people do.”

Ms. Hanak then focused on the contrast between the scientists and the stakeholder groups.  The stakeholders were asked where they read and obtained their information.   “They consult scientific and government reports regularly, but they are arriving at different conclusions about the nature of the problem and especially about the solutions,” she said.  “The gaps are really widest on the actions that could be costly for some stakeholder groups.”

Hanak Slide 21She then presented a slide that combined the actions the scientist chose along with their potential costs.  “We did not ask the scientists to think about costs, so they were feeling unconstrained … what I’ve done in this slide is taken all those actions; the percentage is the number of scientists that picked it in their menu of top 5.  … We did a rough cost analysis, looking at roughly what it would cost annually to implement these different things.  And it’s just astounding how so many of the top priority things from a science perspective are the actions that are higher cost, with a lot of them going into the hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

A lot of the flow actions are expensive, not in terms of taxpayer dollars, but expensive in terms of people not getting water and having their activity reduced,” she said.  “Some of the actions for reducing toxic substances can also be really expensive.”

The actions at the bottom of the list were ones the scientists didn’t pick in their top five or had high disagreement on their impacts, she said.  “A lot of those would be pretty cheap to do, actions like conservation hatcheries, actions for invasives management, trucking fish around the Delta – people don’t like it but it’s actually pretty cheap.  So in terms of thinking about strategies and plans, it’s probably worth trying some of these actions, even if they are not at the top of the list.”

Hanak Slide 22She then presented a slide that showed how the different stakeholder group’s views correlated with the scientists views.  “Groups that can bear the cost tend to disagree mostly with the scientists … so the state and federal agency folks are aligned with the scientists very closely, and also the enviros; their ‘skin in the game’ is not the same as Delta interests, exporter interests and upstream interests, all of whom have economic issues at stake.”

Hanak Slide 23We recommend building a common pool science approach where all the parties would be involved in putting in money and in helping to state what the science questions are that need to be answered, and then keeping that science transparent, independent, and sort of not designed for courtroom use,” she said, noting that it in some ways consistent with the Delta Science Plan and the One Delta, One Science vision.

She noted that she had coauthored an essay with Jim Cloern on linking science and policies in the latest issue of the San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science Journal that suggests things such as rapid synthesis to identify research priorities, consensus-based synthesis for policy, collaborative processes to move beyond combat science such as what’s going on with the development of the biological opinions for flows, and better communication training and opportunities and skills for scientists.

Hanak Slide 26“In a survey of Californians in December of 2012, we asked them if they supported spending money to help fish that were in trouble,” said Ms. Hanak.  “Sixty-one percent said yes if it was state funding; when we asked, what if it meant higher bills, only thirty-nine percent were supportive.  All Californians, if you count eating fish and using imports, use the Delta, and we all going to need to get to the public to be on board with it.”

For more information:

  • Click here for the PPIC Report, Scientist and Stakeholder Views on the Delta Ecosystem.
  • Click here for the PPIC’s series of reports, Stress Relief: Prescriptions for a Healthier Delta Ecosystem.
  • Click here for Ellen Hanak’s full power point presentation.
  • Click here for Maven’s Notebook coverage of the June 2013 PPIC Seminar, Prescriptions for a Healthier Delta.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email