Success in the Delta through collaboration and coordination: The California Water Quality Monitoring Council, the Yolo Bypass Foundation, and the Cosumnes River Preserve

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The theme of successful collaborations in the Delta continued with the last agenda item of the March meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council.

This is the third presentation you’re going to hear that is built around the theme of how do you successfully do collaboration;  whether it is legislatively mandated, court ordered, it is built around relationships,” began Keith Coolidge.  “You heard that again this morning that you can’t mandate collaboration on the science community.  You heard yesterday from a panel of the Coalition that it’s really most successful if you have clear objectives, if you have strength through partners, if you have funding, and particularly, if you have a maniacal problem solver working behind the scenes or in front of the scenes to make things happen.”

He then introduced the three panelists who will highlight their successful projects and discuss how they were able to bring them to and see them through implementation: Sarge Green from the California Water Institute at Fresno State who will discuss the Water Quality Monitoring Council, Robin Kulakow who will discuss the Yolo Basin Foundation’s success, and Jay Ziegler with the Nature Conservancy will discuss the Cosumnes River Preserve.

Sarge Green, California Water Quality Monitoring Council

Delta Council Presentation on Monitoring Council_Sarge Green_4_2_14_Page_01The California Water Quality Monitoring Council was established in 2006 by SB 1070 over concerns that the health of the vast majority of the state’s rivers and streams was not being monitored.  The legislation required the California Environmental Protection Agency and the California Natural Resources Agency to integrate and coordinate their water quality and related ecosystem monitoring, assessment, and reporting.
The legislation and subsequent MOUs require the Council to develop specific recommendations to improve the coordination and cost-effectiveness of water quality and ecosystem monitoring and assessment, enhance the integration of monitoring data across departments and agencies, and increase public accessibility to monitoring data and assessment information.
The Council has established theme specific workgroups that work to develop user-friendly methods to deliver water quality and ecosystem health information to users in the form of question-oriented, theme-based internet portals.  To date, seven workgroups have been formed and four portals completed on safe drinking water, swimmable waters, eating fish and shellfish, and aquatic ecosystem health.

Sarge Green began by noting that his power point has a lot of detail, but he would be speaking more from his experiences as a member of the California Water Quality Monitoring Council and the processes they went through to understand how and why it works.

DSC2 Sarge 2He then began with a little history about the Water Quality Monitoring Council.  “There was a lot of data out there; we were data rich and information starved,” he said, recalling how there were stories of how multiple teams for different agencies would show up to take samples at the same place.  “They might even be doing different things for different agencies, but nonetheless, there was a tremendous need out there in the real world to figure out how to get things done in a better way, and that meant a lot more coordination.”

There was a lot of money spent on collecting water quality data which was collected by individual agencies under various orders, so there was a definite need for a systematic process that could translate the large amount of data into information, he said.  “That is the big result of what the Council has done is to convert all of the work into information and I encourage you to take a look at our web portals LINK because that is the end product,” he said.  “You can get questions answered about the conditions and certain types of water quality circumstances up and down the state of California, and it is statewide.”

swamplogoboxIn the past, people were doing different things for different purposes but yet they were gathering the same samples, and in some cases, running them into the same laboratories, so we wanted to make sure that in this process we had the right templates, the right process, and the right things to make data work better together,” he said.  “It did start with the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program or SWAMP program, so the way we work it now is that you have to have essentially what is called SWAMP Compatible and that gets the data into a condition where it can go into the system with the consistency and the quality control and all of the things necessary to make sure that the data is acceptable and usable.”

Housing the large amount of the data has been an issue, so one of the things that came out of the Council’s effort, under the guidance of the staff, is distributed management, he said.  “There are a number of locations up and down California now that house data and it seamlessly works together.  Southern California Coastal Water Research Program is one of the houses; Marine Laboratories at Moss Landing is housing information; we have information at San Francisco Estuary Institute, so there is then a model that we have with redundancy and these other locations that gives us a way to manage data where we don’t have this problem with crashing and losing a lot of good information.”

The Council developed a strategy in a document that outlines these elements and includes making data SWAMP-compatible, using distributed management, and the collaborative strategy, he said.  “Instead of structured data program where you have data on this, data on that, and you have to go looking for it, the portals are based on questions such as is it safe to go swimming today, or is my water safe to drink.  Then you go into the portal and you have the opportunity to look around and find out whether or not the data is there and whether or not there is data for your area.”

Delta Council Presentation on Monitoring Council_Sarge Green_4_2_14_Page_07The Council created workgroups centered on each of these themes of water quality data, he said.  The Safe to Swim portal was one of the first, he noted.  “They were already working on it because millions of people go swimming in the ocean down in Southern California and there are still nonpoint source impacts to the beaches, and they get closed down every once in a while as a result, so we have to make sure that those people are protected,” he said.  “The agencies down there have been doing beach monitoring but nobody was coordinating it, so they formed a collaborative group to try and pull all the information together and create this capacity for you to go in and seamlessly and find out whether or not it was safe to swim at the beach.”

Mr. Green had a note of caution.  “If it is a collaborative group and if it is volunteers, they are not financed,” he said.  “These groups are working together based on the need for the information and the need to give it to their leadership.  … There was some external support, some money that came from the state to keep it going, but the workgroup itself has faltered a little bit.  Now the counties and cities still have some responsibility and the beaches are still posted, but I’m talking in terms of collaborating and pulling the work together, we’ve lost that one, it’s fallen a little behind.”

Some of the other workgroups have become extremely robust, Mr. Green said.  “We have six theme-specific interagency workgroups:  The Biological Accumulation Oversight Group, Wetland Monitoring, Healthy Streams, Estuaries, Safe Drinking Water, and Safe to Swim, and we’re working now on pulling together a new workgroup, Ocean and Coastal.”

The bioaccumulation group is the Safe to Eat group, he explained.  “We have a lot of people in the state who subsistence fish and we want to know how much fish can they eat in a week if it has something like mercury in it,” he said.  “That group has pulled all of that information together and now you can go into our web portals and find out what’s the weekly burden of fish you can eat before you get a dose of mercury that’s not good for your health.”

Delta Council Presentation on Monitoring Council_Sarge Green_4_2_14_Page_05The wetland monitoring group has developed an assessment process that helps define wetlands better, he said.  “There has been an argument at both the federal and the state level for a long time about what’s a wetland.  The assessment process not only helps define what a wetland is, what are the characteristics that it has to have, but then whether or not it’s in good shape or not, so it’s got a grade as to whether or not it is functioning.  This was all done by a collaborative effort by people who are invested in and very closely allied with the desire to improve wetlands.  We’ve lost 95% of the wetlands in California, well some of them are coming back.  They are making a concerted effort in many of the coastal areas as well as inland. We needed to know what makes them work and this workgroup is pulling that together.”

The drinking water group is the largest and is in beta testing right now, Mr. Green said.  “That is the number one beneficial use that everybody in the state is interested in,” he said.  “The Department of Public Health has a very large database over the years but it was practically inaccessible for the public, so we have brought them in as part of a multi-agency workgroup  … we now have safe to drink portal where you can go in an essentially ride over the map of California, figure out where you are, and find out what is the condition of your drinking water.

I can’t emphasize that enough that all of these portals and all of the work that’s gone into them has required a tremendous amount of work that people have had to sort out,” he said.  “Not all data is good, so they get it into condition so that it really works in the portal, and then lay out the parameters to make it work in the future.”

mwq_carEvery one of those portals has been built with very little financial investment, Mr. Green said.  “In fact there’s no money for the Council, and so there are staff that are maniacal that are behind it.  In the case of our Council, it’s John Marshack from the SWRCB and Chris Jones from DWR because we do serve under two secretaries,” he said.   “We just gave them a triennial report on our progress, and we’re asking for a little additional help, because it does take a lot of energy to keep this kind of collaborative work process going … It could be very tenuous at times because the workgroups themselves, if they don’t have a cheerleader, if somebody isn’t constantly doing a little care and feeding, then they could fall apart somewhat like we’ve had with the safe to swim group.”

The Water Quality Monitoring Council’s achievements include consistent tools for monitoring, assessment and reporting,  the wetland assessment process for determine what a wetland is, where, and what condition it is in, and contaminant survey for all of the sportfish in California, he said.

So that’s where we are, concluded Mr. Green.  “We do have a relationship with you and we want to make sure that the Delta science effort plugs into and stays in a collaborative mode with the Council so that all your good efforts and data get put into our system, especially the Healthy Watersheds and Healthy Estuaries portal.”

Robin Kulakow, founding and acting director of the Yolo Basin Foundation

The Yolo Basin Foundation is a community-based organization that was formed to restore wetlands in the Yolo Basin and is universally credited as the driving force behind the establishment of the Yolo Basin Wildlife Area.   The Yolo Basin Foundation is funded by individuals and organizations through membership dues, fundraising events, and grants.
Yolo Bypass Feb 2013 #25Today, the Yolo Basin Foundation continues as the communications link between the many people and organizations working in the bypass, as well facilitating environmental education in the Yolo Wildlife Area for all ages by organizing school visits, educational programs and tours, as well as publishing a newsletter.
The Yolo Basin Foundation has organized an ad hoc stakeholder group of over 40 people with an interest in the Yolo Bypass that include landowners, farmers, state and federal water and resource agencies, local conservation districts, cities, wildlife groups, environmental organizations, and others.  Current agenda topics include the development of the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan, improving salmon passage and rearing habitat as proposed by the BDCP, vector control, water quality, and methylmercury production.

Robin Kulakow began by saying that the Yolo Bypass Working Group started in late 1989 as a grassroots effort to restore wetlands, and although it’s had various names over the years, it’s always been a forum for stakeholders with an interest in the bypass.  “It’s a huge number that includes people from state and federal agencies, elected officials, NGOs like California Waterfowl, Ducks Unlimited, Nature Conservancy, and various Audubon chapters,” she said.  “We’ve worked with all the federal and state agencies that have an interest in some sort of regulation of land management in the bypass, so that includes water quality, flood control, agriculture, and wildlife.  The best thing to come out of the Yolo Bypass working group is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area – 16,800 acres owned by the state of California that Yolo Basin Foundation works in partnership with to provide public use programs.”

DSC2 Robin 1I’m the maniacal person behind the effort. but I don’t like to think of myself as a maniac,” Ms. Kulakow said.  “I think that what these big restoration efforts need is someone with passion behind them, and I really think that one of the keys to our success is having an NGO that was willing to lead the effort.  As the leader of a nonprofit, I didn’t have a career path to worry about as people in agencies do.  I had to answer to my board, but I didn’t have to answer to the Governor or the Resources Agency, so when this very complicated project got bogged down, I could call my Congressman or a general at the Army Corps of Engineers, or the Resources Secretary – you really need someone that can work hard to keep all the parties talking to each other.”

I’ve been working with the Yolo Bypass working group for a long time, and what I think the best thing that’s come out of this collaboration is a bunch of smaller collaborations,” she said.  “As a forum, the working group doesn’t make decisions, they don’t really make recommendations, what this group has done is share ideas and concerns.”

Yolo basin foundation logoIn the beginning, we used our CalFed money to hire a facilitator because there were so many conflicting opinions in the room – farmers, regulators, passionate people about wildlife, water quality people, and we needed someone to maintain order and help us get to areas of agreement and to learn to listen to each other,” she said.  “Now that we’ve been working together for almost 25 years and a lot of the people are the same, we trust each other, we know each other, so one thing I’ve learned about this long term collaboration is that longevity is a very good thing.  You need a group of people who have some sort of community or institutional history.”

There are several factors that led to the success in establishing and managing the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, which is seen by many as a model project, she said.  “It is community based; this was not mandated by a judge’s ruling or a biological opinion.  This was an effort to create habitat where there used to be habitat that was a good idea, and we’ve had the privilege of working on a project that is good for habitat’s sake.  It hasn’t been about mitigation, it’s not about regulation, it’s about doing the right thing.”

We’ve believed in working with all the landowners first, she said.  “That means listening to the farmers, the hunters, the duck club owners, the environmental interests, and the scientists,” she said.  “Everything we’ve done has been based on the science at the time and the management of the wildlife area has changed as there’s been new science.”

Another key to success was getting support of all the local elected officials, she said.  “Our congressman at the time, Vic Fazio, said that he would help us find federal money for restoration but we had to have the support of all the elected officials from the city councils to our state representatives.”

Yolo Bypass Feb 2013 #22From the very beginning, we’ve included all the interests in the room, she said.  “I’ve been doing this so long, the working group predates the words ‘stakeholder,’” she said.  “We’ve always been a made an effort to listen to those who know the land best – the landowners, the farmers, and the wetland managers.  Our goal has always been to balance uses, which are hunting, wildlife viewing, environmental education, and all the various functions of wetlands.”

The secret is that these projects take a long time and they don’t ever get easier, they just get more complicated,” she said.  “At the beginning, we didn’t have to worry about methylmercury; now we’re looking at the methylmercury TMDL and trying to come up with BMPs.  At the very beginning, we didn’t have to deal with West Nile virus; now we’ve had to learn to manage wetlands with the goal of not being associated with a deadly disease.

One of the challenges has been working with many different agencies, she said.  “We’ve been blessed with working with a number of people for the entire time, but that really worked when we initially worked with the Army Corps of Engineers in the early 90s.  However, as the Corps changes, every six months we had a different person we were working with – same with Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.  That makes it very difficult to build consensus or to collaborate when you’re working constantly with a new person because you have to respect that they don’t know the history, they come with their own ideas, and you have to bring them up to speed.”

Yolo Bypass Feb 2013 #46The Yolo Bypass Drainage and Infrastructure Study was an idea that started at the working group, she said.  “The County has worked with very single landowner that I was able to find in the Yolo Bypass and I think that we have a very good group of projects that will move along the flood management plan and Bay Delta Conservation Plan that’s totally based in the local community,” she said.  Other efforts to emerge from the working group include the ag economics model for the County, various water quality studies, and the Yolo Bypass Fish Enhancement Planning Team.

Yesterday, we had a meeting where we were hearing about the lower Sacramento River Delta North Regional Flood Management Plan and a proposal by the County to do an integrated plan for the entire Yolo Bypass that looks at both flood control efforts, habitat efforts, preservation of agriculture, and meeting the needs of the biological opinion and the BDCP,” said Ms. Kulakow.  “I think that’s ultimately what we’ve all been trying to do is trying to integrate all these different efforts.”

Jay Ziegler, The Cosumnes River Preserve

The Cosumnes River Preserve is a broad-based effort to restore and protect the Cosumnes River and its surrounding landscape.  With only two small diversion dams that cross it, the Cosumnes River has the distinction of being the only river in the Western Sierras that does not have any major dams blocking its path.
Cosumnes River by David McSpaddenThe Cosumnes River Preserve consists of nearly 46,000 acres that is centered along the Cosumnes River, its floodplains and riparian habitat and it is home to 250 bird species, including songbirds, raptors, and greater sandhill cranes, as well as endangered giant garter snake and other terrestrial species.  Forty species of fish and over 400 plants are found at the preserve.
The lands of the Consumnes River Preserve are owned by The Nature Conservancy and Ducks Unlimited, as well as federal, state, and local wildlife agencies.  One of the goals of the Preserve is to manage and protect a multitude of habitat types, such as grasslands, vernal pool, wetlands and riparian forests for wildlife; the partners in the Preserve agree that this is best accomplished by integrating the management of wildlife areas with other human and economic pursuits, such as agriculture, in the areas surrounding the Preserve.

The Cosumnes Preserve is something that hundreds of thousands of people drive by on a daily basis and take it somewhat for granted, began The Nature Conservancy’s Jay Ziegler.  “It is really an inspiring example of what can begin with a small idea and a few hundred acres that has caught the attention of both state and federal agencies as an invaluable multiple objective resource conservation partnership,” he said, noting that besides habitat, there are multiple recreational opportunities such as canoeing and bird watching.

DSC2 Jay 2It is really a model for ongoing interagency collaboration between BLM, the State Lands Commission, and multiple private entities,” he said.  “UC Davis has played on ongoing role in scientific monitoring at the preserve for multiple habitat values, and in addition to ongoing partnerships with Duck’s Unlimited, the California Water Fowl Association, Point Blue, Audubon, and Friends of Sandhill Cranes, we really have engaged from the beginning and really grown that model of integrating multiple value resource monitoring, resource management, and restoration.”

We have identified in our scientific assessment that the preserve really has the opportunity to be the eastern hub of the central Delta for multiple value habitats as well as an important resource for the region, serving as a hub to open up the northern Delta more to public access, such as bicycling, hiking, and bird watching on an even greater basis than it is today,” he said.

Mr. Ziegler said that in 2009, they applied for grants as part of the president’s economic recovery program for the Onetta-Denier project, an 861-acre riparian and wetland restoration project.   “It’s an opportunity to integrate multiple values and look at the potential for sustainable habitat in the valley,” he said.  “In 2009, we hoped that we would be planting in the summer of 2011, and bringing back native riparian vegetation there.  Now we’re approaching summer of 2013, and we still don’t have the permits.”

Egret by Tim DickeyIt’s a lesson for our organization that we need some help, he said.  “We need some agency recognition of the complexities of the restoration permitting process and the layers of that.  We are now certainly hundreds of thousands of dollars deeper into an investment than we ever would have imagined for air quality permitting tied to the project, the modeling that needs to be done for restoration, and the multiple layers that have to be undertaken.  We are not a small NGO.  We do a lot of this.  We’ve done it from the top of the Sacramento River watershed into the Delta … This is the right place to do it, it’s the right kind of habitat design, and yet three and a half years later, we’re still in the permit process for relatively small habitat restoration project that we just can’t get over the line.  … It’s fraught with challenge.  I just wish that we could draw more attention to the complexities of the permitting process and I think if we could have the Council’s attention as a forum in which to elevate those issues, that would be really important for us.”

A second issue that is complicated for NGOs such as The Nature Conservancy is what level of liability the NGO can absorb and carry, he said.  “When they are creating wetland habitat and all the hydrologic modeling suggests that there is flood benefit to the project and that there is general public buy-in, is the NGO expected to carry that property indefinitely?

Cosumnes River Preserve by JerkylickerWe need to look at projects beyond narrow interests and single habitat elements that might be benefitting someone else’s mitigation requirement or another parties narrow permitting needs, because these projects that include integration of recreational values and multiple habitat values for multiple species are much more than that, he said.  “They truly become an extraordinary public resource when you give them time to develop, but there needs to be a trajectory in which NGOs can have more predictability in delivering those properties to long term management by the state of California,” he said.

The third issue is that we need to recognize that if we’re taking lands out of agricultural production, there has to be some offsetting economic value that’s injected into the project to provide some basis for ongoing operations, management, and maintenance to sustain those habitat values, levee conditions and the like, he said.

cosumnes-river-preserveWe take great pride in having a project here that has incredible community buy in that has involved multiple stakeholders for many years with a great public access program brings a lot of outdoor education opportunities to area youth, and yet we need to get around the corner,” he said.  “In the bigger picture, there is a continuing land use management challenge as Southern Sacramento County,  San Joaquin County, and frankly the continued growth of Elk Grove has significant implications for protecting the natural resource values that we see as critical to the mission.”

Additionally, as we continue to tap groundwater resources to meet human needs, we’re drying up the ecosystem, Mr. Ziegler said.  “Last year, the Cosumnes River went dry at the beginning of June, and that’s happening earlier and earlier as each year goes by, so there is a clear need for integrated water management and a better understanding of what’s happening in the basin in order to protect the basic natural resource values that we set out to achieve when the vision for the Cosumnes Reserve was launched in 1984.”

Discussion highlights

Chair Fiorini asks if the diminishing amount of water in the Cosumnes is attributable to more upstream diversions, a particular factor such as increased of grape growing, or is it drought related?

“It’s really reflective of long term trends,” Jay Ziegler responded.  “But you’ve underscored a really important point.  If you were to fly over the Cosumnes Preserve and look at land use patterns, you’d see more and more permanent cropping, such as conversion to grapes or orchards, which in the long run, has a direct negative correlation to the value of the habitat that’s there.”

We have ongoing monitoring with regard to the health of the aquifer, and we have some exciting potential partnerships underway with public entities looking at potential for groundwater recharge in the basin, but if you look even further up the Cosumnes, you’ve got a small boomlet of wineries in the Upper Cosumnes, in El Dorado and Amador counties, so it’s hard to look at our part of the basin in isolation,” continued Mr. Zeigler.  “We are trying through a series of partnerships to do things completely differently there and to hopefully turn around that basin, but we’re struggling with this continued conversion to permanent crops that really surrounds the preserve now.”

Councilman Phil Isenberg asks which permitting processes Mr. Zielger was having trouble with right now.

It’s the scientific background reporting for information required by the county that we didn’t readily have available before, so I think what we’re encountering is that it has been very inefficient for us as an organization going through and getting baseline data, trying to comply with information, and having additional information requests over time,” said Mr. Ziegler.  “I think if there were some ability for the state to fund an ombudsman or a facilitator for permitting to work with these agencies, who would have the ability to consolidate the individual permitting steps as well to bring a higher level of attention to these projects at the local level earlier in the process, by which there may be hopefully an earlier buy in on the final project design, that would be helpful …

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