The 2014 California Water Policy Seminar Series, presented by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and the law school’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center, focused on the concept of ‘reconciliation ecology’, an approach that recognizes that a return to a pre-development state is not possible for natural systems and that human uses will continue; therefore new ecosystems must be created and managed where human uses and species can coexist. But can this approach work in the Delta?
In this last presentation in the series, four scientists working in the Delta discuss how they approach restoration and reconciliation in the Delta. First, Delta Lead Scientist Dr. Goodwin discusses the Delta Science Plan, a newly adopted plan to coordinate the multiple science efforts underway in the Delta and to improve the outcome for the Delta by building an effective interface between scientists and policy makers. Next, restoration practitioners senior scientist Robin Grossinger from the San Francisco Estuary Institute, consultant Dr. Stuart Siegel from the firm Wetlands and Water Resources, and Dr. Valerie Connor from the State and Federal Contractors Water Agency discuss how they are working to restore and maximize ecological functions in the Delta’s highly altered environment.
Dr. Peter Goodwin, Delta Lead Scientist
Dr. Peter Goodwin began by saying he would be discussing the Delta Science Plan. “What I’d like to do is to give you an appreciation of just how difficult it was pulling together a Science Plan when you have either state legislature and Congress on one side with certain expectations which is basically saying, ‘Dammit! You scientists just need to tell us what to do and we’ll do it,’ on one side, and on the other side you’ve got of course a whole host of characters with very different ideas.”
In developing the science plan, we started by taking a close look at how science is being done in other large-scale ecosystem restoration programs both in the U.S. and Europe and tried to determine how to build a science program that effectively informs policy decisions so that society will make the best possible decisions.
Alan Blatecky, Cyberinfrastructure Director at the National Science Foundation, said several things during a recent presentation that resonated with how we might want to do things here in California, Dr. Goodwin said. “The first is that now science and scholarship are team sports,” he said. “It’s very unusual to see the brilliant individual genius sitting in a room cupboard somewhere coming out with the Nobel Prize. The challenge is the problems are getting bigger and bigger and more complex, and so we have to work together in order to accelerate knowledge discovery.”
Tools and computers are changing the way we do business and the way we interact with each other, he said. “There are some really interesting philosophical discussions between folks who say, ‘Why do we need models? Why do we need to set up hypotheses? Give me the data, and I’ll tell you the answer.’ And so I think coming from the modeling community we’d say, ‘Well, that’s fine, stationarity is dead with the things we do and so on.’ But there’s some really interesting discussions about what big data can actually tell us in the future, and community models, gaming, virtualization, and social networking are all changing the way how we communicate.”
In developing the Science Plan, we first needed to identify the problem, and we spent the first three or four months with members of the Stewardship Council just trying to define what the problem was that we were trying to solve, he said. “Here are some of the things which we heard. First of all, this is really urgent and high stakes,” said Dr. Goodwin, noting that everything he’s learned since he started his career just shows how complex this system is. “But the fact is if we don’t do something, the ecosystem’s going to collapse, and we are going to have a really major disaster on our hands, and you’ve seen some of the projections of what that could do to the state and national economy.”
“The second thing was we really need to view this thing as a system, and this means going from the ocean to the watershed and building those connections,” he said. “And using the word system is really important here because this is an open, rapidly changing and dynamic system, and the fact is that whatever we do to this system, we cannot be prescriptive in the outcomes. You might be able to do that on a 500-acre site perhaps, but when you’re looking at this massive system with so many changes, it’s not possible to say, ‘Thou shalt have X at some time in the future.’ So how do you build a science around that knowledge and understanding.”
A very important issue in the discussions was the issue of balancing the co-equal goals, he said. “How do you create a more reliable water supply for California and at the same time lead to greater resilience in the ecosystem and recovery of the ecosystem?,” he said.
But scientists cannot tell the policymakers what actions to take, he said. “Science can’t give you that because the ultimate decision that you make is going to have some sense of value in there,” said Dr. Goodwin. “The science can tell you so much, but how do you balance one endangered species against another? How do you balance your farmers or an industry in San Diego against some ecological value in the north part of the state? Science can tell you what the consequences of the various decisions are, but it can’t actually make the decision for the politicians.”
“We have a culture of combat science, I think,” said Dr. Goodwin. “It gets a lot of air time and litigation, and also it’s mission driven silo science. This is not being critical of an agency. If you are an agency with a legal mandate to do something – recover a species, provide water, whatever that is, you’re going to be gearing your staff and your objectives in order to achieve that mission. The difficulty is when you have 231 different local government, state government and federal government agencies each with their own missions and ideas, how on earth do you begin to mesh those?”
The Science Plan also discusses developing an infrastructure for science which is looking at the future intellectual capacity to solve problems and the barriers to scientists working across disciplines, as well as what resources are needed, he said.
The Science Plan was finalized in December of 2013. Dr. Goodwin said he received some advice from Dr. David Wegner in Washington DC, who put together the artificial flood program on the Grand Canyon and now heads up the Congressional Science Office for the Environment and Energy. “He said to forget about making the plan perfect; get something out there, but tell people you’re going to monitor. You’re going to have a performance matrix and you’re going to come back and adjust as you go, which is what we’ve done.”
Here are the nuts and bolts of the Science Plan, he said. “What we realized is that the innovation and the ideas need to come up from the scientists who are actually on the ground, but at the same time you have to have agency directors, you have Congress on board at the top looking down to make sure the resources and things actually happen,” he said. “So the Policy Science Forum is where you can sit down with agency directors and ask what’s their big challenge? If you listen to Mark Cowin it’s, ‘How do I manage uncertainty?’”
“So you start out with these grand challenges at the top, and at the bottom there are mechanisms by which the brilliant ideas can be implemented through research activities,” he continued. “That comes together through a science steering committee that translates those grand challenges to really big things which are facing the agency directors on one side, and meshing that with what the scientists might want to do at the other end.”
Dr. Goodwin said they are also updating the State of Bay-Delta Science Report, which was last completed in 2008. “We are updating that in 2014 which will be a baseline that will say not only what is our current co-understanding of the science, but also what was the state of science before we started reorganizing ourselves.”
He then presented a slide of a conceptual model from a large tributary to the Columbia River. “This is a very large, open, dynamic system and like many other systems, we can build these conceptional models and link into disciplinary models to the conceptional models to try and understand the consequences of climate change of different management actions, to, in this case, endangered species sturgeon and bull trout, and we do that everywhere,” he said. “But if you look at the outcomes in California, particularly around the Delta in terms of science, and yes, this is an immensely complex system, but when you’re in this culture of litigation and if 50 people are going to criticize you either in public, in the courts, or whatever, it’s very, very difficult for people to stand up and say, ‘This is really what I think is going to happen.’”
“This is the BDCP summary where they shut all of the experts in the room from the agencies, and looked at various modeling outputs and came up with how they thought the various endangered species’ parts of their life cycle were likely to change under different management actions, and we end up with a series of nice coded boxes,” he said.
“Let’s contrast that with a project in the Northwest,” he said, putting up a slide with a prediction regarding salmon smolts. “This is put up by some really outstanding scientists, and I’m not being funny here, but there’s a number there and quantitative models that people can tease apart … I just wanted to use this as a contrast, that if we’re too locked into this combat science and litigation, we really lose the ability to be brave, to throw out numbers like this.”
“I think also because of the stress and the very, very high stakes science, we’ve forgotten to use what my colleague, Jörg Imberger, refers to as ‘academic loafing,’ an actual term in philosophy,” said Dr. Goodwin. “He was on an independent review panel for one of our projects in the Columbia basin, and he really beat up on us, big time. He said that he spent a day going through student posters and talking to researchers, and he said first of all, everybody’s exhausted as it was the end of the academic year, and you’re no fun to be around because everybody’s tired, and because everyone is so exhausted you weren’t explaining yourselves very well. And he introduced us to this term, ‘academic loafing,’ which surprisingly the National Science Foundation didn’t appreciate. But what it is, we’ve forgotten to take the time to think and be creative. We’re so busy. You’re getting that next report out, doing that next study. How often have we actually had the time to sit back and be creative? So part of the Science Plan, we’re trying to put resources to allow our best scientist to be creative.”
The Science Plan also addresses scientific conflict through a series of steps, he said. “How do you deal with scientific conflict? We know it’s always going to be there, it’s unavoidable. But how do we move these debates into the scientific arena where it can be conducted in a very supportive and constructive way … and when our scientists are standing up in front of a judge or a public hearing, they should not be out there talking as Dr. So-and-so with such-and-such an agency. On these very tough issues, they should be talking on the basis of a body of knowledge, so how do we build this common body of knowledge, firstly and secondly, how do we create that protection for scientists who are out there.”
We also realized there were some really big gaps, such as in data management, he said. “I mentioned the era of big data. There’s some really, really cool stuff going on … and so, the question is, how can we pull together these great initiatives … how do you get the data that you want to analyze quickly and easily, and how do you find out where it is?”
A 2005 report by Professor Lund guided our thinking on looking at how we build the interdisciplinary models and the integrated models that will allow folks to work together to exchange data between models in a much more efficient manner, he said. “With modeling and the data interactions, our tools change how we interact with one another and how we behave, and therefore it changes our thinking. If you just think back in the time that you’ve been in school, how are your tools – your smartphones – how’s that actually changing the way that you are thinking compared with when you entered.”
The Science Plan has been called idealistic, but we need to make it realistic, said Dr. Goodwin. “It’s a common body of knowledge and a shared body of knowledge; it’s inclusive, it’s open, and it’s transparent,” he said. “And best available science is a whole topic unto itself, but I can tell you that it gets a knee-jerk reaction from most scientists. How can something be best available science for policy makers? As scientists we have to deal with that, because it’s written into state and federal law. We cannot avoid it.”
“Developing shared priorities through the Science Action Agenda which is basically a four-year work plan, and developing common, transparent and accessible tools and managing scientific conflict,” he said. “So I’m going to stop there.”
Robin Grossinger, Senior Scientist, San Francisco Estuary Institute
Robin Grossinger began by saying he had been catching bits and pieces about reconciliation ecology from the seminar series, and he did spend a day with Michael Rosenzweig when he was here, and he has been enjoying thinking about reconciliation ecology. “As a term and as a concept, I like the idea and I think I’ve been really pursuing this idea in my career,” he said. “It’s really about how you can maximize the ecological functioning everywhere, not just in your “natural areas” or your wildernesses, but in the parks, throughout suburbia and even into urban areas. There’s probably always some additional level of function that can be gained. So I really like how it has captured that idea and it’s integrating with the built landscape. There’s so much of the land surface that could be more functional, and especially agricultural areas, too.”
“It does encourage thinking at the landscape scale, above individual parcels or projects, to a much broader initiative,” he said. “One of the things I have been hung up on is that even though I think it’s supposed to be an add-on to restoration, it often is posed in conflict with restoration. Even though I think that’s not in theory the intention, it does seem to be how it plays out – you can either restore or reconcile.”
“But after I read his book, I think it’s that you try to do restoration where you can go big picture and really reestablish functions and you do reconciliation where you can’t do that,” said Mr. Grossinger. “I think it’s a complimentary thing that seems to make most sense to me. In truth I find it hard to figure out where the divide is between one or the other of those because really, I don’t know that we have any true restoration, at this point. It’s all reconciliation or it’s all restoration. I think the way we’ve always thought about it as it’s restoration to something, but really, it’s restoration to your goals and objectives as a society.”
You’re informed by the way things used to function and the way they function now, but your targets are different from that, he said. “This is, maybe a little bit harsh, but I fear that it could lead us to think too small sometimes and maybe not about the larger dynamics and physical processes that shape the landscape. We want to do what we can in these developed landscapes, but we also need to really make sure we’re supporting resilience and dynamics at a big enough scale and that these species can persist and adapt. So sometimes I feel like it might short-circuit us from really thinking what’s necessary, by just thinking what’s possible, and those may change over time. So we want to be thinking having the long view and the big scale.”
Mr. Grossinger said that by the term, ‘physical processes’, he also means engineering. “Landscapes are always being redesigned – flood control projects, agricultural crops, reservoirs, dams, pavement, the Bay Bridge – everything has a fairly short lifecycle, 50-75 years. … so we don’t want to assume everything is fixed and given. Water infrastructure is going to be reshaped over the next decades,” he said. “I think the idea is that we’re trying to move our priorities just from people towards ecosystem.”
He then gave three examples of reconciliation ecology that he’s involved in. The first example draws on the work that Alison Whipple has been doing, reconstructing the historical functions of the Delta, analyzing past and present, how things have changed and then trying to project what’s possible at the landscape scale, he said. He then presented a slide of the McCormack-Williamson Tract, and noted that it’s in a physical setting of natural levees which are all still there – a Pleistocene-era landscape that’s been created. He pointed out that the basins were shaped by being positioned in between the fan and the levy, and there’s a natural pinch point which causes back up and flooding. “These things are hard wired into the landscape and if we just look at fields and plants and birds and butterflies, and we don’t actually look at this level of how the landscape works, we’re going to be missing the bigger opportunities, so they really shape what’s possible.”
So when we overlaid the historical landscape over the contemporary photo, there are still a lot of elements remaining, he said. “They’re actually still there in the landscape, like the natural levees, the basins, the low spots – that topography is actually still there in the Delta at the margins. We mostly focus on the subsided majority of the Delta in the middle but once you get on the periphery, it’s amazing the remnant topographies that are there.”
There are some places such as the Cosumnes River which as a pretty decent hydrograph and some sediment supply, he said. “But no one was talking about this natural levy as an incredible opportunity to restore broad riparian forest using natural processes. It’s still not actually really in the equation because there’s too many constraints right now, but in the long run, that should be part of our vision – to create a functional resilient landscape with a number of elements that add up over time.” He noted that it takes a vision for the future which occurs in multiple steps which occur over multiple decades. “All of these things take a long, long time,” he said.
The second example is an engineering project funded by EPA called Flood Control 2.0, he said. “The project is trying to integrate landscape-scale ecological thinking with the need to redesign flood control channels in many cases,” said Mr. Grossinger. “How could we do it better this time around? And the short answer is that it’s possible to do that differently this time around, but it’s not very easy or automatic. It’s a lot of responsibility for flood control agencies. So what’s needed is more science that helps them integrate as well as the tools.”
The area is a part of the San Francisco Bay with different kinds of marsh, but now almost all of those habitats are gone, he said. “The vision that a team of scientists came up with working with the engineers for the future, and this is a draft pie in the sky at this point, but the long range vision is a real integrated approach that reconciles flood protection with tidal marsh restoration using the tidal prism to hopefully increase the transport of sediment and reduce flooding and deal with these sediment management challenges – reduce dredging and provide a way that sediment can be moved out into a natural Delta-type area. Part of this ideally in the long run would be reuse of waste water, creating brackish zones. So this is starting to reconcile a lot of different aspects of our landscapes, from water reuse to sediment reuse, tidal prism and restoration, etcetera, etcetera.”
A third example is the oak savannas, he said, noting that this is again from Alison Whipple’s research. “We discovered that many of the valleys throughout California were covered with these beautiful oak savannas that were really ecological key stones in the landscape. They support so many species. They are the only trees that can really live out in these hot, dry landscapes in many places. And they were much appreciated by native peoples and later by the early European settlers ’cause they provided the only shade in many of the valleys in the hot summer. Towns were built into the groves. But then they competed with agriculture and with orchards, and so they basically incredibly diminished, and almost, not extirpated, but mostly gone so there’s very little on the way of savanna. But, if you look closely, these trees actually persist within developed landscapes a lot. And the more you look, the more you see.”
He then presented a slide, and noted that it was an example of a wonderful, linear oak savanna with a mixed age canopy that’s shading the road mostly and the vineyard a little bit, keeping it cool. “That’s a really functional piece of ecological infrastructure; that’s reconciliation right there,” said Mr. Grossinger. “So we had this idea that you could re-oak. … There’s really nothing stopping this from coming back,” he said. “It’s not going to support all the characteristics of an oak savanna; the ground-dwelling birds are probably gonna have a hard time. But a lot of the other birds and bat species could actually really use this. And if they’re close enough together they can actually communicate genetically, and potentially have more adaptability over time, whereas now they’re isolated, typically in landscapes. So that’s an example of re-oaking, potentially at a broad scale throughout suburban landscapes to support a lot of different ecosystem services.”
Dr. Stuart Siegel, consultant with Wetlands and Water Resources, Inc.
Dr. Stuart Siegel began by noting that he runs a small consulting firm and has been doing wetland restoration work throughout the Delta for about 30 years, and he’s been engaged in a lot of regional planning and applied science research. He said that today he will be talking about the notion of how you get at what you ought to do. “This has been an interesting challenge because I’ve spent a lot of time with Delta Vision and everyone has their view of what’s going on and what they ought to do. They’re oftentimes very divergent. … We don’t necessarily have a very good handle on what it ought to be which is why we talk about science and reconciliation.”
“One of the things that we tried to do a few years ago was understand how we got into the mess we’re in and look at the questions of that mess – what can we change and therefore what can we fix,” he said. “Peter Moyle is really the one who’s advocated reconciliation because we’re reconciling what we like to do with what we can do. .. There are a lot of things that we can’t fix, but if you don’t know why we have a problem, the chance of you fixing it is incredibly low. And that’s the key piece is to understand what we have and haven’t done.”
We made a lot of changes to the system, but not with the intention to mess up the ecosystem, but because we wanted gold, we wanted water, we wanted flood protection, we wanted agriculture, all kind of things that society valued from statehood on and before even, he said. “All of those things were done fully independent of each other and altered how the place works. There’s a number of natural processes that drive modern ecosystem function … We went in and changed everything in all sorts of varying ways with no intention whatsoever and no design, and we’re left with that system today.”
For example, there is a big effort underway to fix California’s water supply, he said. “If you were to ask the question, “We have all this water in the north of California and we want to send it all to San Joaquin Valley to the south for a water supply, how would you engineer a system that would do that well?’ and I can guarantee you what we have today is not what you would do. There are a lot of things you would do very differently, but we’ve backed into today’s system and we’re trying to see how we can fix it.”
All of the altered processes give us the things we don’t like such as endangered species, poor water quality, and loss of habitat, he said. “They’re just the indicators,” he said. “When we fix things, we’re not fixing the indicators; they’ve changed because we fixed the processes up here. And that’s the key piece here is that if we have it right, it will follow suit. Getting it right is really critical.”
Dr. Siegel recalled how he worked on a study of the coastal lagoon in Half Moon Bay where the objective was to determine how to make the lagoon lake the rest of the lagoons up and down the Central Coast. After they examined the data, they were able to determine that the lagoon couldn’t be like the others because its geomorphology was completely unlike the others. “When we figured this out and presented this, everyone’s jaws dropped. They said, ‘We have been spending 10, 15 years planning in Pescadero here, and Pescadero will fail unless you do an awful lot of digging which nobody wants to do.’ So you have to get into the details of how your place works and understand your landscape in order for anything that you’re going to do to have a chance of working.”
Suisun Marsh is a very large area –about 100,000 acres, he said. “If you want to do restoration, you have to understand things like the topography. It’s a subsidal landscape, just like the Delta but much less so. You have a set of elevations that it presents you. If you threw a bunch at sea level rise and didn’t do anything, a hundred years later the place goes deeply under. So understanding the geomorphology of the landscape is really critical,” he said.
Because most wetlands are subsided, if you want to have vegetated wetlands, you need to understand the elevation range at which tidal wetland plants grow in tidal marshes, he said. “They grow up near the top. They can’t handle the inundation in the salt … so understanding where plants can grow relative to the salt and your vegetation is a big piece.”
If you are doing restoration and you want emergent vegetation in the marsh, then you’ve got to fill the place back up, said Dr. Siegel. “You have a choice: you do it with sediment that comes in the tides or with plants, or a combination of the two. And then so you ask yourself the question, “Well, what does the sediment supply look like in the system? And what do you have to work with?” He said there is more sediment in the southern part of Suisun Marsh than in the north and there’s some transport around the system, but since the northern areas have much less sediment supply the restoration will go slower. In the south of Suisun Marsh, you have more access to sediment, and those sites would accrete much more rapidly. So it’s important to know your sediment supply and how that works.”
The sediment supply coming in from the Central Valley watershed which moves into Suisun Marsh and ultimately down into the San Francisco Bay is changing, he said. The many billions of cubic yards of sediment dumped into the system from gold mining is now working its way out of the system, he said. “The more recent work is suggesting that the supply of sediment into the bay is on its way down. We crossed the threshold about 10, 15 years ago. We built dams and made a huge effort on water quality managing sediment. If you’re a sediment person it’s about water temperature and water clarity, ad if you’re in the Delta, it’s about turbidity. It’s the exact opposite. You want that sediment in the water column for fish in the Delta, but you don’t up in the watershed.”
“You have to look at how water moves around the system and how that moves particles,” he said. “Part of restoration is the habitat itself. Marshes import and export materials, so how does that move around? If you’re producing food for fish and the fish don’t go in there, but you want that fish to get that food, that food has to leave and go somewhere. How do the tides mix around the whole system?”
And you have to accommodate for sea level rise, he said. “If you have a nice gentle slope, as sea level rise happens, your wetlands can go in,” he said. “But most of the bay for example is a hard shoreline so there’s no room, and a lot of places are steep. The Delta has a huge amount of gentle slope, but it’s all agricultural land, and you get this conflict between land uses.”
“I’m a big fan of conceptual models,” said Dr. Siegel. “Conceptual models are thought-organization tools and nothing more. They’re not the end all. They’re just to help you think something through.” He then presented a slide of a conceptual model of water quality in the Suisun Marsh. “We’re interested in dissolved oxygen concentrations and there’s a problem out there. There are times when it’s called ‘black water’ and it kills fish. We’re trying to fix that.”
He explained that the size of the arrows indicate the relative importance of a particular controlling process and the color of the arrow describes how much we know about it. “Sometimes we have great knowledge; sometimes we’re really speculating,” he said. “Sometimes the process itself might be very predictable. The tides you can chart out in advance. Will it rain on Tuesday? We don’t know. So you put all these pieces together, and then we added the piece that if you’re gonna try to manage the system, what knobs can you turn and what knobs are outside your control. Everything in red is something where you might have a management control. And so this is just a tool, and nothing more, to help you decide if you want to improve water quality, what kind of things might work, which ones are important, and which ones will really hit the bell strong, so to speak.”
These are critical pieces, but they don’t exist for a lot of things that matter right now, he said. “If you’re trying to restore for Delta smelt or salmon in the Delta, this doesn’t exist. There are a few ideas, but it doesn’t put things in this forum,” he said. “If I’m doing a restoration project and I want to support Delta smelt, there’s not a single conceptual model that says that microbial respiration is more important than photosynthesis or rainfall. It doesn’t exist. And so it makes it very hard and this is the challenge.”
During Delta Vision we had the idea that there’s an ultimate goal to improve the ecosystem, he said. “The idea of ecosystem resilience and the coequal goals, and there is a lot of things to do there. Restoration is what I do and everyone thinks it’s very important and it is, but there are other things in the mix here … flow for example, Delta outflow or inflow to the Delta, and then there are all kinds of stressors, there’s entrainment, there’s water quality issues and other things. You have to do all these things. The key here is all that gets packaged up going back to how we mess the system up, what you might want to do and you can’t focus on any one of these things – it’s a combination of them all.”
“Since you don’t really know the answer to how a Delta smelt or salmon uses the Delta, you can step back and say, ‘Well, historically, it looked like this,’” Dr. Siegel said. “There are all kinds of characteristics it had. The key thing was a lot of habitat but also there was a lot of variability in every aspect of the environment somewhere in that system, someday everywhere. And in today, we have incredibly low variability and so we don’t have all those things in all of those places. So if you’re an organism you can’t find a place that works for you very easily. So if you don’t know exactly what you have to do, you step back to the scale which is what Robin and Alison have worked on and try and say, ‘Well, how did it work in a big picture and what of that can we put back in the system and try to make it work?’”
“I think I’ll close with that. Thank you.”
Dr. Valerie Connor, State and Federal Water Contractors Agency
Dr. Valerie (Val) Connor began by saying she works for the State and Federal Contractors Water Agency, a joint powers authority whose member agencies are the folks that try to export water out of the south part of the Delta, either through the State Water Project or the Central Valley Project. The JPA was formed to do a number of things, she said. “One of them is that the biological opinions require a lot of restoration – they require 8,000 acres of restoration with the idea that we can provide a food subsidy for Delta smelt, and then 17,000 acres of salmon either flood way or restoration habitat to again improve chances of salmon survival.”
With Delta smelt and habitat restoration, there is an a lot that we don’t know that we need to learn so that we can do this effectively, she said. “One of those questions is, can we do it effectively? And so that’s one of the challenges that I have is that my agency is starting with a couple of the first restoration projects and so we’re trying to decide how to monitor those and how to adaptively manage them.” Dr. Connor said she would be discussing the monitoring and the evaluation of restoration projects.
The first step with the restoration projects is to define what success is, she said. “With the eight thousand acres that we’re focused on initially, we know that what we we’re trying to do is restore areas that can produce fish food, essentially food subsidy for fish like Delta smelt and longfin smelt,” she said. “But restoring a really small piece, one piece at a time – it’s not like you’re going to see a change, this immediate rebounding of Delta smelt. So we have to think a little more locally in terms of what indicators do we think are important if we’re trying to build a system that’s going to produce food for Delta smelt. So the conceptual model that we have is that if you take a restoration action, you’re going to have these physical processes that are going to interact with a physical habitat and that’s going to create biological habitat and we’re hoping for some functional outcomes.”
Dr. Connor said her focus is on designing the monitoring and assessment program for the projects that they are building. “What we’re trying to do is see are we moving these restoration sites in the direction where we’re going to be producing food for endangered fish species? … We’re really thinking about sort of the food web restaurant that we’re trying to create. So if we have the restoration action and we take down some berms and some levees so we start getting tidal inundation, we’re starting to let it cook and we need to see if we’re going to be producing food.”
That food can be produced on site, but what is important is if that food is being exported, she said.
Compliance monitoring or proving that we have met the requirement to build 8000 acres won’t really tell us if it’s working, so we also need effectiveness monitoring, she said. “We’re looking at a combination of what’s going on at our site and what’s going on in the region, and because we don’t know very much, we’re just frankly admitting that, we’re trying to design the site so that we can do experiments,” she said. “If you’re trying to produce fish food, one of the things that you need is you need sufficient residence time so that you can have nutrient cycling producing phytoplankton and zooplankton. So the site’s been designed in a way that will allow us to control tidal circulation patterns and residence time so that hopefully we can come up with an approach that does maximize our ability to produce food for fish, and then see whether or not that’s effective.”
The first piece is just 1,000 acres, she said. “We don’t expect to see a dramatic response in Delta smelt in response to this 1,000 acres, and it’s not like we’re going to be monitoring Delta smelt,” she said. “We’re going to be looking at indicators that would suggest we’re increasing production and that that production is moving off-site. We’ll be looking at phytoplankton and zooplankton and then working with USGS to actually look at flux off the site.”
“The challenge is that our little piece has to fit together with the regional piece, and we have these different scales that are interacting, so we want to make sure that the work that we do at our site informs the regional picture as well as the landscape picture,” she said. “So we’re working closely with the fish agencies now to try and figure out anything that we can monitor in the same way, where comparability makes sense.”
“The biggest challenge now is we have this Science Plan and we all agree that that’s our north star, but we’re starting to restore while we’re building these systems to help us do restoration effectively, so it’s like we’re driving the car as we build it, and I don’t even have a driver’s license,” she said. “That’s where we’re really relying on the Delta Science Plan, because it does lay out a vision for how we can work together and how investigations at different scales, including my little postage stamp piece, can fit into our understanding, region-wide and system-wide.”
“What we’re trying to do is look at the impact that these projects will have on one another, again, so that when we build them, we’re doing it in a broader context,” Dr. Connor said. “I think that there is agreement that we have to do this smarter than we’ve done it in the past and that we need to coordinate, and I think pretty much everybody is on board to do that, even the contractors.”
Discussion Highlights …
The panelists are asked about mercury.
Dr. Val Connor: “We’re very worried about mercury. There are what are called total maximum daily loads that have been developed by the water boards for mercury. Unfortunately, there are two water boards in this system and so the Central Valley Regional Board has a different plan of attack than the San Francisco Bay Regional Board and so people are struggling with that. But you’re right that there’s huge concern that when you start building wetlands that you’re going to start methylating mercury, and so there are several projects that are going on now looking at that at the Yolo Wildlife Basin. … They’re starting to look at different management measures and how that effects mercury methylation. But anybody that’s building a restoration project in the Central Valley region, we all have to evaluate the mercury methylization risk of our sites.”
Dr. Stuart Siegel: “For tidal marshes, mercury methylization is very dependent on the environment you’re in. The big problem areas are places that stay dry for a long time, wet for a long time, and dry for a long time, wet for a long time. So Yolo Bypass flood plains are perfect methyl mercury factories, it’s just the nature of how their hydrology is. A lot of the duck clubs in Suisun Marsh are the same way. … And then you have tidal marshes that flood and drain every every single day, and the very recent findings are that in places where the tide’s coming up everyday is a very minimal to non-issue for mercury methylization. It’s too rapid of an inundation regime to produce much methyl mercury at all.”
Regarding the difference between the Delta and the San Francisco Bay …
Robin Grossinger: “Another aspect I’ve noticed is the extreme transformation of the Delta is actually much more than the Bay. The Bay actually had 83% of tidal wetlands lost, and that sounds pretty bad, but there were still a bunch of chunks left. So people did dissertations; many people studied the tidal marshes and the endangered species that we have in the bay, they’ve been studied in sort of their natural environment. Whereas in the Delta it has a 97% loss – It has incredibly extreme loss, so you have Delta smelt living in a completely unnatural environment, and we have all these questions about what they would actually do in a more natural environment. We don’t really know. There’s nothing to study. Nobody’s done dissertations. Nobody… Very few people have actually studied wetlands in the Delta. And so we have this weird gap – the system is probably the dominant wetlands system in the entire west coast of North America and nobody has ever really studied it.”
Professor Jay Lund: “You just have to study with modeling because we don’t have it.”
Dr. Stuart Siegel: “The San Francisco Bay had an 82% loss, which means 17% retention, and there are some very large patches of natural wetlands left in San Francisco Bay. This notion from the wetland science field is that you compare your restoration site to a reference site, and you could sorta kinda do that in San Francisco Bay. There were places to go and extract some pretty insightful knowledge. There is nowhere in the Delta. Of the few percent left, that represents hundreds of little tiny patches, and so there aren’t half a million acres. There aren’t even one thousand acres. There’s little five-acre patches here and there … a few on the banks of some islands. There’s nothing. And then there are sites that have been restored through natural levee failures that have been studied a little bit, but that’s all there is.”
Dr. Val Connor: “This is the only large ecosystem that I know of where there is significant push back against strength to do things, like control nutrients or do restoration … I think we have to be pretty clear that it’s sort of the socio-political situation that we have, that has lead us to where we are now and what we’re trying to dig out of by having the Science Plan.”
Dr. Connor is asked what their greatest challenge is in advising policy makers?
Dr. Connor: “The monitoring doesn’t cost, it pays.”
The panelists are asked what structures for science in the Delta do they see as promising and exciting.
Robin Grossinger: “There was a project that Stuart and I and Val were all a part of on Lower Yolo and that convened a bunch of scientists to discuss and debate what would make most sense there, and I thought that was fun. That was big thinking, and everyone got all their ideas out on the table, and people coalesced around similar ideas. I would say with Prospect Island, we had that tact – collective discussions where you get people focused in a room for a day. But we don’t have a real structure for that yet. There has been a lot of talk about is having more of a hub as Campbell Ingram has been calling it that organizes those conversations and keep them going on over time to review the data and see how things are going and apply lessons from one to another. I mean that to me seems to be one of the gaps sometimes, but also the best part too is when that happens, and we have some continuity amongst projects and sort of scaling up over time.”
Dr. Stuart Siegel: “We used to have this thing that is dwindling away called the CALFED Ecosystem Restoration Program and the CALFED Science Program. The Ecosystem Restoration Program is fading away, unfortunately. And it functioned in part with the science program to have a big vision and to work through the details … there are those that spent 20 or 30 years thinking about this stuff, and as it filters away into nothingness, their knowledge filters away into nothingness. … one of the things that is really critical is there needs to be this idea of transition planning. You folks in this room are going to be in our shoes, 30 years from now or 20 years from now, whatever it may be. But you have to get here. So part of that process is making sure that people that are interested in this stuff are engaged in it and developed a skill set. The key thing is context. You have to have context. If your studying fish or geomorphology or hydrology, that’s wonderful. Then you put it in context then you can understand what the management questions are, what the policy folks are asking. And go, “Oh, I put it over here and it all makes sense.” And that’s the really critical piece that would do wonders.”