Big Break, Oakley, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Photo by Chris Austin. All rights reserved.

Delta Stewardship Council endorses habitat restoration issue paper; an update on the Delta Levee Investment Strategy

Big Break Oakley
Big Break in Oakley, Photo by Chris Austin (Note: I heard this structure collapsed so this may not be there anymore. Picture taken March 2013.)
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At the August meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, council members spent the morning touring the Antioch Dunes and Dutch Slough restoration projects in the western Delta. After lunch, they reconvened at the Big Break Visitors Center in Oakley to discuss endorsement of a new habitat restoration issue paper and hear an update on where the Council staff is with development of the Delta levee prioritization strategy.

Habitat Restoration Issue Paper: Survey of Habitat Restoration Efforts and Proposed Areas of Focus for Future Work

Council staff has prepared a final draft of an issue paper, “Restoring Habitat with Science and Society in Mind” and is requesting the Council review and endorse the paper. The purpose of the paper is to provide key areas of focus for the Council and other agencies to focus on over the next two years, as well as discuss the progress and challenges related to restoration.

Jessica Davenport, Program Manager for Ecosystem Restoration and Land Use, began by saying that it was the Independent Science Board’s review of habitat restoration last July that was the inspiration for the drafting of this paper. She noted that the first draft was presented in January, and was revised based on input from stakeholders and agency staff.

DSC Davenport 1There are a few things that remain more or less consistent with the January draft, Ms. Davenport said. “One of those things is the need for balance in restoration projects. We know that we need the best available science but we also need to make sure we don’t have paralysis by analysis and that’s why we require adaptive management. Another point is to have realistic expectations about habitat restoration. We all know that we’re not going to take the Delta back to the way it was, so we have to understand what the system is now and what the potential is to enhance it to benefit the species and habitats that we care about.”

The paper emphasizes the importance of a landscape-scale perspective when doing habitat restoration, and the importance of tracking and reporting on our progress and making that information available to the public, as well as the importance of stakeholder involvement and interagency coordination, she said.

What has changed since the January draft is that this draft acknowledges the progress that’s been made by a lot of different groups that are already working on habitat restoration, she said. “The Fish Restoration Program has released their annual report,” she said. “The IEP has started a tidal marsh monitoring workgroup to develop monitoring protocols that will help us with adaptive management. There’s productive collaboration in the Yolo Bypass; there’s an agriculture and land stewardship workgroup that’s been developing good neighbor policies that are currently being vetted with the agricultural community and other Delta stakeholders. Under the Delta Restoration Network, which has been convened by the Delta Conservancy, there is a land management workgroup that is promoting discussion about different approaches to land management acquisition and long term management issues as that’s still a major challenge in the Delta.”

There is also a section that discusses the Delta Science Plan that was adopted in December, she said. “Another important aspect of the science plan and science coordination in general is helping with permit coordination because one of the things we heard is that there’s sort of this spiral that goes on with projects as they’re proposed. They go through different agency reviews and have to be continually revised and it takes a really long time, so there’s been some discussion how to bring all the important regulatory agencies and scientists together at the early stages of the project design can help accelerate that process.”

The paper also focuses on the role of Council staff. “On the planning division side, one of the areas that we are interested in focusing on is the early consultation with respect to covered actions under the Delta Plan for habitat projects,” said Ms. Davenport. “Also, we have our commitment to the performance measures process, and as part of that, we will be coordinating with other agencies on habitat restoration.”

DSC Hastings 2Lauren Hastings from the Science Program said that the science program’s focus is on best available science and adaptive management, so the science program coordinates with the Council staff in the planning unit on many of these activities, such as helping with the early consultation efforts, and with coordinating with the many other groups out there doing restoration work. “It’s part of our motto, “One Delta, One Science,’” said Ms. Hastings. “We do a lot of coordination with other groups and are continuing to work with them on these efforts.

The paper concludes with areas of focus for both the Council staff and for the actions of other agencies and stakeholders that they have committed through their own processes, said Ms. Davenport. “One of the things that we wanted to suggest today was if the Council endorses this paper, we would transmit it back to the ISB, we would also share it with our agency and stakeholder partners, and if Chair Fiorini would like to, we will also share it with the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee.”

That’s our report,” concluded Ms. Davenport.

After a brief discussion, the Council voted unanimously to adopt the paper, with staff allowed to make non-substantive changes in the final draft.

Delta Levee Investment Strategy Update

The final item for the day was the monthly update on the progress on the project to develop a strategy for prioritizing state investments in Delta levees.

There are over 1000 miles of levees in the Delta in varying conditions and protecting different sorts of assets; the cost of maintenance and repairs for all of the Delta’s levees are beyond the state’s limited funds. Recognizing this, the Delta Reform Act called upon the Council to develop a long-term approach on how best to apply available funds to those levees that are most critical to the state’s interests.

Over the next 18 months, Council staff will be working with the consultant Arcadis to assess, island by island, the state of the levees, the extent and value of the assets to be protected, and the cost of maintaining each of the Delta islands over the long-term. The ultimate outcome of the project will be a tiered priorities list for state investments.

DSC Messer 1The focus of the update this month is on the independent scientific review panel. Cindy Messer, Deputy Executive Officer of Planning said that the staff has been working on coordinating the panel under the guidance of Dr. Goodwin and following the established procedures and process for the process. “Just as a reminder, the independent scientific review is focused on the methodology portion of this project, so as we together the information and the data, and develop the methodology, it will ultimately be teamed with our computer-based decision making tool that in the end will generate the recommendations that the Council makes in terms of state investments in Delta levees,” she said.

Ms. Messer then turned it over to Dr. Peter Goodwin, Lead Scientist, to discuss the process and the progress to date on the independent review panel.

Dr. Goodwin began by saying that besides the best available science, the practical reason to undertake the review is to bring in an outside panel that have no vested interest to evaluate the approach. “Where is this analysis very strong? Where is the tool working well? Are there areas in the tool that can be strengthened somewhat?” he said, noting that the peer review is going on concurrently so as the tool gets closer to final development, the Council has assurance of the quality and its underpinnings of the tool that the decisions will be based on.

There is an organizing committee that develops a draft charge to the panel, identifies the technical areas that are needed for the evaluation, and suggests experts who would be qualified for the panel. However, it is the Lead Scientist who has the responsibility of approving the final charge to the panel as well as the panel members.

The panelists are selected based on several factors, including their standing in the scientific community, their local knowledge, expertise in the selected disciplinary area, and the technical abilities. The planning committee identified several areas, including geotechnical seismic, economics, social sciences, risk management, environmental and land use, and flood management/hydrology.

DSC GoodwinI just want to say how much we agonize over the panel membership because this is obviously critical,” he said. “We try and have a blend of people who really know what’s going on, but that membership of the panel is never enough to overwhelm the outside expertise. You want people that have in-depth knowledge about what’s happening that can get the other panel members up to speed, so typically there are one or two people who’ve been working in the past on some capacity on the Delta, but most of the other people are experts from the outside.” Dr. Goodwin added that they also look for conflicts of interests, and try to ensure the panel members have diverse backgrounds and bring different perspectives.

The list of nominations for the panel has been approved and Science Program staff are contacting the individuals to secure their participation. “We’re almost at the conclusion of that, but we do have the chair of this panel confirmed, which is Professor Jim Mitchell,” said Dr. Goodwin, noting that Professor Mitchell is a giant in the geotechnical-seismic field.

Discussion period

Vice-chair Phil Isenberg notes that in the charge to the panel, the first paragraph explains that policy prescriptions will not be made by the panelists but instead this review will be technical or analytical. “It is the absence of clear policy preferences in law on who is responsible or not responsible and who will pay and not pay for Delta levees that brings us to the duty given us by the legislature, and I look forward to our white paper coming out that will provide the definitive guidelines – this may be a complaint that we are starting the technical discussion of the scientific panel prior to the Council staff or the Council actually adopting a series of principles that will guide the activity. The order escapes me; it doesn’t work. Number two, bringing together a group of people of the level of Dr. Mitchell and not asking for his comments on policy prescriptions on levees is nuts. He’s one of the biggest names in the field.”

DSC Isenberg“It seems to me the basic fundamental questions of levees are who is responsible for what, at what point are individuals responsible for their own protection and at what level does government and responsibility come in, and who is willing to pay for it – those are the necessary conclusions before you get technical analyses of methodologies to apply the principles. Maybe I’m wrong,” said Mr. Isenberg.

I don’t think we’re asking the scientific review panel to tell us what to do, we’re asking them to give us guidance on whether the approach that we’re taking is accurate and consistent and is supported,“ said Executive Officer Jessica Pearson.

If we had a policy-recommended framework, and after all, we were asked in statute to do a recommended investment strategy for the legislature,” said Mr. Isenberg. “It has 5,6,or 7 principles – it’s those choices that are at the heart of the issue, so if you want a group of scientists to come in, you’d hand them the adopted principles you are considering, and ask them to critique them in a policy preference technique; I don’t really care. You can’t define their scope of activity when we have not yet defined the principles we are going to probably recommend to the legislature, seems to me.

DSC Messer 2Keep in mind the timing,” reminded Cindy Messer. “We will be convening this review panel and they will begin their work in the spring of next year, so we will have our white paper done, we will have had discussions around that white paper, and there will be information we will be able to provide to the technical review panel. We can provide that to them for framework in terms of the policy principles, but again we have a very specific ask of this panel which is around the methodology and the inputs to that. But I do understand that to bring those two together makes a whole lot of sense.”

In order to lock down the caliber of the people that you have, you have to start now,” Ms. Pearson added.

It’s the save the date game,” said Ms. Messer. “It’s trying to get the right people and getting their time set aside when we need it is why we have to start so early.”

Chair Fiorini clarifies that the appendix attached with the council item is not specific to the Delta levee investment strategy but is the Council’s policy for the way we utilize peer review science.

What this review is doing is reviewing the science that will inform policy,” said Dr. Goodwin. “I’m not sure with these scientists are going to be willing to pass judgment where there’s a lot of values associated with it, so this is the tool that will allow the policy to be enacted, but this is all going to be about flood risks, risk of levee failure, how an area is going to be impacted by sea level rise in the long term, so it’s actually the tools and the science that’s going into those decisions that’s being reviewed, which is what’s referred to as the tool.”

DSC LarryRuhstaller notes that the Delta Protection Commission’s job is to figure out who is going to pay for levee repairs. “We have to get down eventually to fixing the levees, which ones, and who’s going to pay for it, because there are a lot of folks that ride free on this particular deal in the Delta, and if we’re going to have a system-wide fix, it’s going to take everybody, every beneficiary, paying their fair share. I’m for cutting through all this stuff and getting down to where we should be, which is here, are the levees, we know where they are, some are good, some are not good, who needs to pay in, and then let’s start turning some dirt …

Chair Fiorini notes that Ruhstaller is referencing the work that the DPC is doing on a potentially establishing a levee investment district in the Delta, so it would be looked upon as a funding mechanism and our work is to help recommend how to prioritize state money that is going to be invested in Delta levees. They are parallel products, but they will intersect at some point, he said.

DSC FioriniThis is going to be a difficult project, and that’s why Jessica is bringing us monthly updates,” said Chair Fiorini. “Because when there are decisions made as to where to invest money, it suggests that there are potentially areas that will be recommended not to invest money. I don’t’ know, we’ll see how it goes. It’s a big project, it’s long overdue in the Delta, and we are the ones that the legislature has asked to do it. … “

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