USGS Science in the Delta, plus other notes from the September meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council
At the September 25 meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, the council members unanimously approved the addition of the USGS to the core membership of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, the committee that the Council has formed to coordinate implementation of the Delta Plan.
After the vote was taken, USGS Deputy Regional Director Jeff Keay gave a brief presentation to the Council on who the USGS is and their current activities in the Delta. He began by saying that the USGS is not a political organization. “We don’t manage anything and we don’t regulate any activities,” he said. “We conduct scientific research and monitoring and we provide that information to management and regulatory government agencies to make decisions and choices. We help explore and understand what their options are and the implications of those choices.”
With about 10,000 employees scattered across 400 locations across the nation, the USGS is relative small for a federal agency. It is funded by a $1 billion Congressional appropriation. There are seven regions; the Pacific region includes Nevada, California and the Pacific Islands and is headquartered in Sacramento. Within the Pacific region, there are nine science centers, six of which those science centers are located in California and are scattered across 39 different locations in the state. “They have expertise in a variety of ecological areas: Water, groundwater, surface water, water quality, water flow, and modeling,” he said. “We do earthquake monitoring; we try to analyze and understand earthquake risk and earthquake probabilities. We investigate the ability of minerals, we do energy research. We do geologic mapping to understand the substrate underneath is.”
“We have a coastal marine science program that looks at the effects of coastal hazards like tsunamis and winter storms, coastal erosion issues, sediment transport and deposition issues,” he said. “We do ecological studies to understand invasive and endangered species, habitats, and geography – we have a geography component that takes our science and connects it more directly to human implications. In tsunami areas up in Washington and Oregon, what are the evacuation implications for the humans that live along the coast, and how do we best accommodate that.”
The USGS currently has over 100 research and monitoring projects active in the Delta totaling over $17 million, with most of that funding coming from partner state and federal agencies who need their help in different types of research, he said. “Our six science centers are all engaged in the Delta, plus we bring in a couple of science centers from outside the region to assist us,” he said. “Those 8 science center directors, the leaders of those organizations work with our regional office to create what we call the USGS Delta Executive Board which guides and coordinates all of our research efforts.”
The USGS has been at work in the Bay and the Delta since the late 1960s. “We’ve done some seminal work in water quality, sewage treatment plant effects and invasive clams – their arrival, implications, and what they do to the ecosystem,” Mr. Keay said. “We study sediment transport and discovered that the Bay is exporting more sediment than it is bringing with implications for tidal wetlands and sediment deposition.”
The USGS has a hydrologic flow network which helps them to understand how water moves through the Delta. “We’ve documented that the pumps actually reverse the river flow in Old and Middle Rivers, and we have some pretty significant modeling efforts that look at the effects of climate change and the implications on hydrology in the Delta,” he said.
The USGS joined the Interagency Ecological Program in 1985 and have been active participants since then; they were founding members of the Cal Fed program, and the USGS funds the Delta Science Program’s Lead Scientist position.
When the USGS talks about Delta science, it isn’t just about the work in the delta itself, he said, acknowledging that it took awhile to talk and sort it out. The USGS defines Bay-Delta science as ‘science that enhances understanding of natural processes and factors influencing the co-equal goals of the Delta Plan. “We’re interested in any science that we do that will affect the coequal goals of the Delta Plan – water reliability or ecosystem health – so that could be water arriving somewhere in the north or south ends of the watershed, or water that’s exported through what’s happening in the Bay, so any research that we do that’s within the watershed that relates to those coequal goals we refer to as Delta science.”
Mr. Keay said that the USGS’s Bay-Delta science addresses eight societal issues:
- Water Quality and Availability: The USGS has 500 stream gages statewide, 35+ of which are in the Delta that monitor contaminants, nutrients, salinity, sediment and temperature. “They are critical to the National Weather Service and they are critical to our understanding and modeling of what’s going to happen in the Delta, or is happening, and potential of storms,” he said. “We monitor water quality in the Delta, and all of the information that we’re gathering is used to inform the state and federal water operations.”
- Sediment transport: The USGS performs research to understand the source and movement of sediment in the water column. “Sediment in the water column is very important for secretive species,” he said. “It’s a nutrient-rich substrate that gets deposited upon tidal wetlands, we hope, and it carries contaminants, so understanding its sources, how it moves through the system, and where it gets deposited is very important so we’ve done quite a bit of research on that.”
- Environmental contamination: The USGS studies the sources of contaminants such as mercury, selenium, agricultural pesticides and pharmaceuticals, and studies how they move, transform and accumulate in the sediments and throughout the system, their impact on species, and the effects of agricultural practices and restoration activities on the availability of mercury.
- Animal health and status: “We do quite a bit of research on animal health and status,” he said. “We track salmon and Delta smelt movements through the Delta; we study the habitat requirements of other endangered species, giant garter snakes and birds. We do quite a bit of work on migratory species that are national and international significance and for which the Delta and the Delta ecosystem is extremely critical habitat for them. And we study phytoplankton and other species that are important to the food web.”
- Habitat Restoration: The USGS researches sediment and water availability, examines and predicts contaminants associated with restoration activities, and assess terrestrial and aquatic species needs and considerations. “We have been restoring salt ponds out in the Bay for quite some time and have some real interest in the big habitat restoration efforts that are proposed for the Delta,” he said. “There are some issues there that we’re concerned about and we’d like to explore and help find solutions to.”
- Natural hazards: The USGS is working the characterize the substrate of the Delta, identify and understand Bay-Delta faults, examine the nature of Delta levees, and model impacts of extreme flood events for emergency preparedness. “We’re trying to understand the faults in the Bay Area and the Delta, and the risk of levees to seismic activity,” he said. “We also led this major ArkStorm activity that looked at the influence of floods in the Central Valley and their implication for levees.”
- Land subsidence: The USGS studies subsidence both in the Delta with the agriculturally-induced subsidence – what causes subsidence and how to reverse it, and in the Central Valley where groundwater pumping having an influence on the water delivery system.
- Climate impacts: The USGS has hydrologists working with the National Weather Service studying atmospheric rivers and the nature of droughts and storms. The USGS is developing models to examine the local effects of predicted temperature and precipitation changes on water availability and quality, water operations, and species ranges and survivability. The USGS also studies sea level rise impacts to marshes, tidal mudflats and shallow water habitats and their species.
“Our leadership is working to support the Delta Science Plan,” Mr. Keay said. “We feel like that’s a strong partnership for the USGS and the Delta Science Program, to work together. It’s a tremendous plan with a great vision and opportunity and if we can successfully implement it, we can really do a lot of good for the Delta and for the state of California.” He said they were also supportive of the Interim Science Action Agenda and are providing funding and staff support for the State of the Bay Delta report.
Mr. Keay said the USGS was trying to spearhead other efforts, such as habitat restoration issues. “If we create the kind of habitat that we need to for the Delta, it’s also good habitat for invasive clams, and if they become established, then they compromise all the investment,” he said. “It’s also the habitat that makes mercury bio-available, so we’re embarking on some efforts to try to explore what can we do about that. We’re doing some pilot studies to see if there’s some direction we can go.”
“That was a whirlwind tour of the USGS and what we have to offer. We’re deeply ingrained in the work here, our scientists have been engaged for many years. Our leadership is deeply engaged and committed, and we appreciate the opportunity to participate in the implementation committee and anxious to help in any way that we can,” concluded Mr. Keay.
Councilmember Judge Damrell notes that the Council will be taking up the levee issue, and just by looking at map, the faults would affect levees no question, he says. “Is there a connection with the USGS work on hazards and levees, is there interaction there? … We’re going to be talking about levees and it strikes me that if we have those kinds of issues, we should at least have a basic understanding of what the risks are.”
“There’s a very significant relationship between earthquake hazards and levee stability,” replied Mr. Keay. “The science has been funded right now to monitor some of the levee deformation. How are the levees changing in their height and shape since 2007, so in the last seven years, what’s happening to them, are they changing and our efforts to understand the geologic substrate in the Delta and the risks – it’s not just the earthquakes in the Delta, but the earthquakes in the Bay Area. The Hayward Fault, a significant rupture there could easily create liquefaction in the Delta and be hazardous.”
Councilmember Patrick Johnston asks, “Hypothetically, there’s a direction set by the federal government or federal agency that is the lead, something that there is already a substantial commitment by the federal government in some direction, say with regard to the CVP or anything else, and you’re doing research and the effect of that research potentially is to hamstring or put in conflict or slow or change or make it more difficult for your sister agencies or your bosses to pursue what they’ve already identified as their course of action. What happens?”
“It’s never our objective to be a problem for our sister agencies,” said Mr. Keay. “Oftentimes, what really happens is that if science is brought into a management issue late in the game, then often that’s what happens. We end up finding out things that you really didn’t want to hear because you headed down the wrong path, but if science is brought in early and we’re able to gather information, we can often help guide you towards solutions that are more win-win than becoming problematic.”
“The credibility of science always is that you call them as you see them,” said Mr. Johnston. “If the suspicion arises that recommendations are tailored to achieve some other result or suppressing of information because it didn’t’ fit whatever the agreed upon priority was, then over time that would undermine you but it would also make it more difficult presumably to do things that are science grounded.”
“That’s exactly right, and that’s why we have policies in place that prevent that kind of influence on our science,” said Mr. Keay. “That’s why we’re really happy as a science agency to not manage or regulate anything. We have none of those biases or influences so we are free to speak what our findings are.”
Notes from the meeting …
Data Summit update:
The Data Summit was held in June, one of three priority actions called for in the Delta Science Plan. Over 1300 people participated from 8 different counties. A writing team of scientists, agency staff, non-governmental organization representatives and private sector experts has been assembled to prepare a report that will lay out a plan for transforming how environmental data is managed in California.
The draft of the white paper will undergo review and revisions with a final report scheduled for release the second week of December. “The outcome of this white paper is going to be an expression of the needs of managers and researchers and how we can use these enabling processes to work together more efficiently in the future,” said Dr. Goodwin.
Delta Independent Science Board
Lessons learned from review of the BDCP draft EIR/EIS: The ISB discussed the review process for the BDCP’s EIR/EIS and the lessons learned; overall, members thought the process worked well and were satisfied with the product. Dr. Vincent Resh said it was important to consider since they’ve received indication they might be asked to review the revised EIR/EIS. “We are hoping that there will be some type of red-lining of the previous document or comments on what’s been changed, rather than starting from scratch.”
Workplan: The ISB reassessed workplan for remainder of year and identified members for five program review groups: Fish and Flows, Adaptive Management, Water Quality, Delta as Place and Delta Levees, and Water Supply Reliability. In addition, the ISB is planning to review the Interim Science Action Agenda and the State of the Bay Delta Science 2014 which is targeted for completion in August of 2015.
The Fish and Flows review is furthest along and is anticipated to be ready in December. The Adaptive Management review also has made good progress which is looking at how adaptive management is currently being done or is planned to be done by the various agencies working in the Delta; this is part of the legislation, Dr. Resh noted. “The idea is not just to see what’s done and to look for shortcomings, but really to look for ways that adaptive management can be improved in the Delta, this is our overall goal with that.” The other review groups are in their initial stages.
Draft Interim Science Action Agenda
The Interim Science Action Agenda was a priority for the Council that was set at the beginning of the year; it is the initial step towards the full Science Action Agenda. The interim agenda was posted on September 9th, with a public comment period that closed on October 7.
The interim agenda is a transition to a full action agenda, and is not an exhaustive list, said Dr. Goodwin. “This is not an attempt to subvert agency missions, because many of the science activities are mandated either by the agency mission or by court orders and similar,” he said. “The intent is not to interfere with that work that has to take place, but to provide a much broader context for how these various activities align and where significant gaps are occurring. It’s also intended to highlight the most important needs and activities that need to be conducted. And also it perhaps most fundamentally, it gets at the National Research Council’s review where they identified this really great science that’s being done in narrow areas, but very little attempt was made to connect the science to understand system-wide response, and so by pulling it together under these needs, it starts also getting towards a cohesive way of quantifying uncertainty and sensitivity.”
“By the time we’re done, we hope that this will reflect the various agencies and entities science priorities, enabling an agency director to explain internally and outside their organizations where their science fits in the larger context,” Dr. Goodwin added.
Lindsay Correa then presented the basics of the document. The Interim Science Action Agenda contains a list of 315 individual science actions arranged into 17 priority action areas. The actions were identified through interviews with 21 different agencies and organizations and reviews of 13 existing documents. “It is an expression of the science community,” she said. “Getting this draft out to where it is now wouldn’t be possible without the broad cooperation and participation of programs and organizations that we interviewed as part of this process, as well as those who participated in the workshop, with support from the DPIIC.”
She also noted that on October 29th,the interim agenda will presented at the Bay Delta Science Conference as part of a special session on implementing the Delta Science Plan. In November, the Delta Science Program will be working to finalize the interim agenda, and on November 17th, they will present the Interim Science Action Agenda to the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee.
Upcoming Bay-Delta Science Conference
The 8th Biennial Bay-Delta Conference is scheduled for October 28 through the 30th in Sacramento. The theme of this year’s conference is “Making Connections”, in the spirit of “One Delta, One Science” and highlights that the management of the Bay-Delta ecosystem is at a critical juncture. This year’s conference features talks on numerous hot topics including drought, food webs, climate science and public policy, advances in technology, fish and water management, the Delta Science Plan, floodplain ecology, resilient landscapes, estuarine geomorphology, restoration, predation, water quality, modeling, science and the media, and nutrients.
For more information …