Deputy Secretary Michael Connor opens Bay Delta Science Conference: ‘Policy making and scientific research must advance hand in hand with each other’

The 8th Biennial Bay-Delta Science Conference, held October 28 through 30th, 2014 in Sacramento, brought together over 1000 scientists, managers and policymakers to hear the latest research, understanding and ideas about the complex Delta ecosystem.

Science conference
Click here for more coverage of the Bay Delta Science Conference.

Over the upcoming weeks, Maven’s Notebook will be providing coverage of many of the sessions and presentations at this year’s conference.  Coverage will kick off this week with the opening plenary session, which began with keynote speaker Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor.  He was followed by former IEP Lead Scientist Anke Mueller-Solger, now Associate Director of Projects for the USGS; Delta Science Program Lead Scientist Dr. Peter Goodwin, Delta Stewardship Council Chair Randy Fiorini, and Fisheries and Wildlife Professor Stephen Brandt.

The theme for this year’s conference was “Making Connections”, and emcee Dr. Wim Kimmerer kicked off the opening plenary session at the conference by exploring what exactly that means.  He acknowledged that making connections between scientists is the natural purpose of a scientific conference, but at this conference, it’s particularly important to make connections between scientists and policy makers because there is a need for the two-way flow between what managers need and what scientists can provide.

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“We scientists are dealing with an extremely, really a devilishly complex ecosystem, but it’s embedded in an equally complex economic system, and I think we ignore that at our peril.” —Dr. Wim Kimmerer[/pullquote]

There are other connections, Dr. Kimmerer said. “Some of the connections that we can think of are strong and some are weak, and some are actually broken,” he said, noting that one such broken connection is between ecology and economics. “We scientists are dealing with an extremely, really a devilishly complex ecosystem, but it’s embedded in an equally complex economic system, and I think we ignore that at our peril. We have to acknowledge that there are impacts of the economic system on the ecological system that are often unavoidable or need to be corrected or mitigated for, and equally, there are impacts to the economic system by actions taken to protect the ecosystem. That’s obvious, but those connections often take the form of acrimony and court battles and political infighting and so forth, and for us scientists, we’d really like the keep the science, in a way, separate from the policy implications. In other words, we want to know what’s really going on, how the system works, irrespective of whether it’s good or bad for our clients, our friends or our opponents.”

We need to make connections across time at all scales, Dr. Kimmerer continued. “For example, we’ve been spending a lot of effort the last few years on the fall habitat for Delta smelt, particularly.   Well, the fall doesn’t happen by itself. What happens in the fall depends on what happened the previous summer, the previous spring, and even the previous years, so we need to keep that in mind and not focus so tightly on one period.”

Dr. Wim KimmererAt longer time frames, there are the effects of climate change, but also changes in water project operations and changes in plumbing of the Delta, either advertent or inadvertent, as well as changes in population and in technology. “We need to keep these in mind and think about them know and think about what we need to do to be prepared for these changes happening in the future.”

There are also the connections across the landscape. “We all wave our arms about how the whole estuarine ecosystem is connected together and then we focus on the Delta and I think that’s a big mistake,” Dr. Kimmerer said. “For example, the next fish in line for protection and for real attention is the longfin smelt. If you focus on the Delta, the longfin smelt would mostly escape our attention because they spend most of their lives seaward and in fact, out into the coastal ocean, so how do we deal with a system where we’re focusing on one little part of it? It’s not little but it’s not the whole system, and the important things that we’re trying to address are happening elsewhere.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]”The scientific community has been largely absent in the development of the BDCP, except in a minor advisory role, so that to me is a severely broken connection that we need to fix.” –Dr. Wim Kimmerer[/pullquote]

There are the connections between management actions and science. “We have some really strong connections but we have some broken ones,” Dr. Kimmerer said. “A good example is adaptive management. There are some really glimmering hopeful small scale examples of adaptive management going on here, but the big one – the Bay Delta Conservation Plan – it claims to embody adaptive management but it really doesn’t, because adaptive management is management as if the action were a scientific experiment. It doesn’t necessary mean manipulation, but you have to engage the scientists who actually know the system and have worked in the system to figure out how to do what you want to do. The scientific community has been largely absent in the development of the BDCP, except in a minor advisory role, so that to me is a severely broken connection that we need to fix.”

Finally, how are we supposed to keep this scientific enterprise going with the funding stream that we’ve had over the last decade or so?” he said. “We had a huge boom in funding … We have had a huge increase in the number of scientific publications and reports on this estuary and the watershed in both local and international journals, and that’s great, but the question is, what happens next? Are we going to keep on this trajectory? I’m not saying that these papers are important in and of themselves, but they suggest learning about the system as we go, so is this going to keep going up or is it going to flatten? I think that depends on the funding stream. … I’m encouraged by hearing that the Delta Science Program expects to have a steadier stream of funding and I really hope that goes ahead.”

Dr. Kimmerer then turned the floor over to the Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Chuck Bonham to introduce the first plenary speaker, Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor.

Mr. Bonham began by reminding conference participants that the most important connections that the scientific community can make are not in the room here today, and that is with the general public of California. “Why do I think you need to make that connection? Let’s contextualize it with regards to this state. California has the highest number of species of any state in the union. California has the highest number of endemic species of any state in the union, meaning found nowhere else. California in fact is one of the 25 biological hotspots on the planet. Simultaneously, we are the state that has the highest level of biodiversity, and sadly, we lead the nation in loss of biodiversity.”

Chuck Bonham roomMr. Bonham said that in preparing his remarks for today, he ran a Google search on the question, ‘What is science?’ and the search response was overwhelming. The most instructive response he found was from a page from the University of California Berkeley’s undergraduate science program that listed the attributes which defined science. “The university had this to say about science: Science is both a body of knowledge and a process,” he said. “The process point is informative when you consider the second thing they had to say was science is ongoing, meaning it will never be finished, which is something I’ve painfully learned about science in the Delta. So while it may be important to accumulate knowledge, it may be more important to confirm our process of doing science given its never finished. They also reminded us at the university on the website that science is exciting, useful and a global human endeavor. Don’t’ forget that when you leave after this conference.”

I am pleased to introduce someone I consider a friend and the right leader for the Department of the Interior at this moment in time,” Mr. Bonham said. “Michael Connor serves as Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of the Interior. The president nominated Mr. Connor for this position in 2013, and the U. S. Senate confirmed him without opposition. Let me say that again. The U.S. Senate confirmed without opposition in February of 2014. The Deputy Secretary is the second highest ranking official at the Department of the Interior. …

Making connections is all about building your network. Making connections is a fast track to cooperation, and cooperation in my experience, particularly in this field of science, can help us make a difference. Thank you and thank Mike for being the plenary speaker this morning,” concluded Mr. Bonham.

Michael Connor 1Deputy Secretary Michael Connor then took the podium. He thanked Mr. Bonham for the kind introduction, and joked that there are probably some senators that would like to rethink their approach on his nomination. “I nonetheless appreciate the fact that anybody getting through this tough confirmation process today has reason to be thankful for that, and I appreciate being here, so thank you very much to all of you, and welcome on the behalf of the Department of Interior …

Mr. Connor said that since he became Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation in 2009, he’s been involved in Bay-Delta issues, and science has been at the center of that involvement. Just six months prior to his appointment, the Fish and Wildlife Service had issued its revised biological opinion on Central Valley Project and State Water Projects operations on the Delta smelt, and just days after his appointment, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued it’s revised biological opinion affecting salmon and other salmonid species. “I was aware of everything going on at the Fish and Wildlife Service as I was preparing or coming into the Interior Department; I hadn’t quite focused on the fact that there was another outstanding biological opinion there, but rapidly had to address that situation as well as start working hand in hand with our good friends at NOAA fisheries,” he said. “I continue to be actively involved in Bay Delta issues, even with new responsibilities of Deputy Secretary, and it’s probably safe to say that no single issue or set of issues has taken as much time in the senior leadership as the California water issues.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“The Obama Administration continues to adhere to the coequal goals of increased water supply reliability and protecting and conserving and restoring the Delta environment, and we have to do that in conformance with the laws that we’re responsible for carrying out.” –Michael Connor[/pullquote]

Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight that the most important leadership that we have at the federal level comes at the regional level here,” Mr. Connor said. “And there are tremendous ongoing efforts by all of our federal agencies – the Bureau of Reclamation Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS, and our partners at NOAA fisheries, and of course the close coordination with the state of California, Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Department of Water Resources. That leadership collaboration and connections are critical and it’s the most important set of principles that have evolved as we work though these and water management issues.”

Strong science addressing every aspect of the Bay Delta ecosystem and the water systems that rely on the Delta is critical to everything that we, meaning all of us with a stake in the Delta, are going to need to address the many challenges facing this region,” he said. “I want to talk about how we can best connect science with policy and decision making, and how critical that connection is in both the near and long term.”

The simple truth is that the only way we are going to be able to both ensure a continuing water supply for the state and make progress in restoring the Bay-Delta’s health is if policymaking and scientific research advance hand in hand with each other. The key is to develop the mechanisms necessary to ensure that new science is continually fed into the ongoing Bay Delta decision making and policy development processes.”

But of course, the situation is more complicated than just combining good science with policy making. Given the intense competition for a limited resource, managing large scale ecosystems today must also take into account the tradeoffs and the synergies that exist between ecosystem health and the effects on regional economies and communities.”

Michael Connor 2There’s been an active and ongoing debate in Congress that has manifested itself in a range of legislative proposals, Mr. Connor said. “Overall, the Obama Administration continues to adhere to the coequal goals of increased water supply reliability and protecting and conserving and restoring the Delta environment, and we have to do that in conformance with the laws that we’re responsible for carrying out,” he said. “Achieving that balance, a difficult balance, will rely on the good science all of you are doing in creating the necessary connection and linkages between science and new policy development.”

Now I don’t have to tell you how critical the challenges facing the Bay-Delta region are, or how meaningful a successful resolution is to people and ecosystems alike. The Bay Delta ecosystem is arguably one of the most complex, most at risk and highest stakes ecosystems anywhere on the planet. The consequences of management decisions in the Bay-Delta are measured in billions, not millions of dollars. Decisions at the federal, state, and local level have serious implications for millions of people whose lives depend directly or indirectly on the Delta, and that includes agricultural interests and the industries that they support, urban water users and the industries that are supported in the urban environment, commercial fisheries and recreational interests – all of which have high economic value. We also know that climate change is already having an impact in this region and will very likely continue to present very difficult challenges. … ”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]The Bay Delta ecosystem is arguably one of the most complex, most at risk and highest stakes ecosystems anywhere on the planet. The consequences of management decisions in the Bay-Delta are measured in billions, not millions of dollars. –Michael Connor[/pullquote]

There are diverse, very diverse interests reliant on the Delta and that’s created a set of polarized stakeholders,” said Mr. Connor. “Their opinions on government actions run the full spectrum. For example, a common complaint I hear from water users reliant on the Delta goes something like this: ‘The federal government has instituted policies and taken actions over the past 20 years that have greatly reduced water supply reliability in the Bay Delta and have had no measurable benefit to the fishery or the environment.’ It is certainly true that many steps that we have taken to comply with the Endangered Species Act and water quality standards have modified and constrained how and when water can be exported from the Delta. This impacts water users, particularly those in the agriculture sector, and we need to be cognizant and sensitive to that fact.

It is also true, however, that there are many factors affecting water supply: hydrology of course being key. And overall, over that 20 year period, water supply has not been uniformly reduced. In the water year 2011, the CVP and SWP exported more water from the Delta than ever before – over 6.6 MAF; of course that was a record precipitation year. In the 1980s, CVP and SWP annual exports averaged approximately 5.1 MAF. In the 1990s, exports averaged just over 4.7 MAF. In the 2000s, rebounded and averaged approximately 5.5 MAF. And from 2010 to 2013, even with the drought conditions in 2012-13, exports averaged 5.2 MAF. Now, with 2014, exports will be less than 2 MAF, given the extreme drought situation, and that will bring the 10-14 average down to 4.55 MAF, so that will be the lowest level of average exports in the time frame that I’ve identified.”

There are other criticisms then just in the water user community and those reliant on the water supplies from the Delta,” he said. “There are those who say that the federal government has failed to take steps that are significant enough to avoid jeopardy, let alone initiate the recovery of imperiled species. I would agree that the ecosystem continues to be imperiled; populations of listed fish species continue to be in trouble, and the ecosystem is now more vulnerable to climate change or natural disasters. But I also think that the science developed by all of you and others convincingly demonstrates that absent the ESA restrictions and water quality permit requirements, the ecosystem would simply be in much worse shape than it is today.

Michael Connor 3The challenge the policy and decision makers face is how to move towards a sustainable system and that balances the coequal goals of water supply reliability and ecosystem health. To meet these challenges, greatly exacerbated by increasing populations, climate change, more complicated by the ongoing drought, we need sound scientific information and lots of it. Good science and technology provide the only available means for stretching our water resources farther while also protecting the ecosystem. Key to this effort is to develop new water management tools and continue habitat restoration activities. The status quo is not sustainable, either for economic interests or environmental needs.”

So how do we get there? This is how I see the challenges and the realities facing the scientific community. Notwithstanding the selective or even misuse of science by some in the policy area, you do need to continue to focus on providing the best possible information to ensure that policy makers can and should make informed decisions based on fair and accurate assessment of the scientific landscape. Your science will be most effective done collaboratively and strategically, a vision expressed as One Delta, One Science, the vision as I understand that is a guiding principle in the recent Delta Science Plan. Moving forward with proposals such as the Rio Vista Science Center will continue to help promote that much needed collaboration in the area of science.

We also need to recognize that science can help us answer many questions, but not all questions,” Mr. Connor continued. “It’s up to policy makers to recommend one alternative management action over another, gauging risk based on the best available science. We’re still struggling with the basic question of how to deliver water reliably to a growing population while also restoring, at least to a reasonable extent, the ecosystem that all of us treasure. If we are going to get beyond managing from crisis to crisis and manage for recovery, rather than avoiding jeopardy, then we need a broad enough understanding of this extraordinarily complex ecosystem to provide a basis for ecosystem-wide decision making. This is why the Governor’s Water Action Plan and the work being done to the Bay Delta Conservation Plan are so important. They represent comprehensive approaches to water management and restoration activity. They also represent a recognition of the need to continue to invest in the scientific processes of data gathering and research.”

Of course timing is also a challenge. It’s rarely possible to conduct science on the same time scale that decisions must be made. Nonetheless, long-term science increases our fundamental understanding of the system and results in better decisions in the future, but it also has benefits today.”

[pullquote align=”left|center|right” textalign=”left|center|right” width=”30%”]“Sometimes we policy makers collectively expect there to be a guiding principle, a guiding result or action that’s going to solve our problems with a silver bullet, and it’s not going to happen, but through the collaboration that you have, there’s a unique opportunity to bring scientific communities together to better collectively inform the decisions that need to be made and the investments that need to be made.” –Michael Connor[/pullquote]

Mr. Connor had praise for the ongoing work that continues to improve the operations of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project. “Increasingly we are using real-time data related to factors such as turbidity to try and limit water pumping restrictions to those times when the fish are most at risk,” he said. “It’s hard to see the value of that management during this period of drought; we don’t get the increased water supply reliability. You don’t see it because of the drought. But that change in operations will definitely have long term benefits for water supply reliability while maintaining the protections that we have to have in place for fisheries and the environment.”  He assured the crowd that they are working very closely with the state of California, and would be incorporating the improved operations into the 2015 drought plan as part of their preparations to address the significant upcoming challenges.

He then highlighted some positive developments intended to improve how science is conducted on a nationwide basis. “Regarding climate change, in 2013 President Obama, as part of his climate action plan, issued Executive Order 13563 preparing the United States for the impacts of climate change. In that executive order, the president directed the federal government to pursue new strategies to improve the nation’s preparedness and resilience to the effects of climate change and requires agencies to promote and engage in strong partnerships and information sharing at all levels of government; risk informed decision making and the tools to facilitate it; adaptive learning in which experience is served as opportunities to inform and adjust future actions; and preparedness planning. So bottom line is here in the Bay-Delta, you’ve got a head start on all of the actions the president has directed the federal agencies to undertake.”

Progress is being made on data sharing across federal agencies, Mr. Connor said. “This is a very high priority for the administration and consistent with the executive order, we are embarking on the open water data initiative to integrate currently fragmented water information to a connected national data framework. The objective is to leverage existing systems infrastructure and tools to underpin innovation, modeling, data sharing, and solution development. New satellites also continue to be developed and available potential remote instrumentation that enable collection of more complete and accurate data that will guide operational decisions in the future. These actions and directives at the national level are all consistent with an improved approach to California’s water challenges, and with more collaborative science in the Bay Delta, it will help make those connections incredibly important.

To conclude, I appreciate the opportunity to address this incredibly important conference and all of you who can and should profoundly impact the decisions that we as policy makers make concerning the Bay Delta,” he said. “You probably have to remind us at times that the science will not dictate with certainty those decisions that absolutely have to be made. It’s a collaboration, it’s informed decision making. Sometimes we policy makers collectively expect there to be a guiding principle, a guiding result or action that’s going to solve our problems with a silver bullet, and it’s not going to happen, but through the collaboration that you have, there’s a unique opportunity to bring scientific communities together to better collectively inform the decisions that need to be made and the investments that need to be made.”

It’s imperative that we all work together,” he said. “Looking out across all the friends I have and all the people I have worked with, I have no doubt that you’re up for that challenge. I hope that my attempt to connect the work that you do with the decisions and policies that we need to have in place resonates with you, and that from your standpoint, it does create a proper and appropriate way to look at these issues, to inform ourselves about them and to move forward in implementing those strategies. May the best take place and hopefully achieve what I think would be the best result possible, which is forward progress in the coequal goals of improved water supply reliability and environmental protections here in the Bay Delta.”

Thank you very much.”

Coming up tomorrow:  Dr. Anke Mueller-Solger talks about collaborative science in the Delta, ‘terraforming 2.0’, adaptive management and more …

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