Terraforming California 2.0: Dr. Anke Mueller-Solger on collaborating and cooperating in the Delta

Anke Mueller-SolgerDr. Anke Mueller-Solger is the Associate Director for Projects at the U.S. Geological Survey.  Prior to joining the USGS last year, Dr. Mueller-Solger was the Interagency Ecological Program Lead Scientist for six years. In this second speech from the plenary session of the 2014 Bay Delta Science Conference, Dr. Anke Mueller-Solger talks about the changing state of California, new approaches to resolving scientific uncertainties in the estuary, and how scientists and policy makers can work together better through collaboration and cooperation.

Dr. Anke Mueller-Solger began by saying that she was asked to come today and talk about the Interagency Ecological Program, now in its 44th year.

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I will do this, but I will actually really tell you three stories, the first of which provides context for the Interagency Ecological Program, also known as IEP, as well for all the science that we’re trying to do here in this system and throughout California, and I’ll finish then with some thoughts that I’ve titled California Terraforming 2.0, which is a bit about how we might go forward with all of this.”

In her first story, ‘California: State of Change,’ a title borrowed from the book by Laura Cunningham, Ms. Mueller-Solger said she wanted to talk about the exception amount of change regarding precipitation, people, and the place that we call California.

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_05She presented a slide of a graph by Michael Dettinger with the USGS that shows the interannual precipitation across the country. “These darker bluish greener dots mean that the amount of change from year to year is very large, and as you can see, California is the great exception here. It’s much more variable that elsewhere,” she said. “We also have this variation in space. It’s wetter in the north and much drier in the south; wetter in the mountains and drier in the valleys. It’s actually exceptional how much difference there is from one place to another within California.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_07Another thing about our precipitation is that most of it comes in just a few days or at most, weeks, of the year,” she said, presenting another graph by Michael Dettinger. “Without those, we get drought, and we have one of those right now.” She noted the slide on the right was prepared by her colleagues at the USGS. “It subtracts the baseline period from 1951 through 1980 from the precipitation we had in 2013 and 2014 to basically show the deficit in precipitation and as you can see, it’s all pretty darn red and pretty large.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_08“So we are seriously in a drought,” she said, pulling up the next slide. “Our Governor says so, ‘We’re seriously in a drought. And our Governor knows what he’s talking about because he was also Governor when we were in the previous really serious drought, right there in 1976-77. By the way, the Interagency Ecological Program also knows about it, because it was started 44 years ago, so it was around back then, and that drought figure pretty big in people’s thinking back then and through the time of the 70s and 80s.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_10Population is another thing that’s changed enormously, she pointed out. “In 1970, which is when the IEP was born, we had about 20 million people; we had just surpassed the state of New York as the most populous state in the nation, we had left Texas and Florida way in the dust,” she said. “Then we grew and grew and grew and grew until in 2013 here, we have 38 million people, almost twice as many as we had in that decade that the IEP was born and the decade that had the last really severe drought. That is a huge change and who knows where will this go.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_13Place. We all know and love California,” she said. “Obviously it has a hugely diverse landscape, a State of Change as Laura Cunningham says, and we’ve done our part to make it a little more diverse, or something. In any case, changes. For example, here in the Delta, cutting down on the tules in the wetlands to make room for agriculture, dredging channels and making them much deeper, connecting them in all sorts of interesting ways that they weren’t connected in before, and building large pumps to operate a whole new system of manmade rivers and lakes called canals and reservoirs. It’s a whole new system that’s added to the previous one, and that has made it possible for us to have this immense population growth, to have our beautiful large coastal cities, and to have become the top agricultural state in the nation.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_14It doesn’t just feed people in California, this agriculture that’s supported with this water, but rather throughout the nation and even the world. It’s incredible, said our Governor, just last week, and I totally agree with him. He thinks there’s probably no comparison anywhere regarding what we’ve done here with water as well as the other changes we made; it’s truly incredible.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_15Ms. Mueller-Solger noted that it was Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of the trilogy Terraforming Mars, who said ‘California is a terraformed space.’ “That’s how he looks at it, because we’ve changed it so incredibly and so incredibly fast,” she said. “He said, ‘I think we’ve accidentally become terraformers, but of course we’re not Gods, we don’t actually know enough about ecology or even about bacteria to do what we want to do here.’ This had led and continues to lead to lots of surprises; things we didn’t actually want to have happen.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_16A lot of things have happened that we wanted to have happen, but others not so much, like for example, this one,” she said, presenting the classic picture of Joe Poland standing by the power pole, depicting the immense amount of land subsidence that had occurred by 1977.  “I think it was something on the order of 30 feet or so, a lot, and that happens because of overdraft of aquifers in the San Joaquin Valley before the Delta Mendota Canal and the water projects came online. When they did come online, the levels of the water in the wells actually started rising again as the aquifers were replenished and recharged. As you can also see, during periods of droughts, indicated in yellow, it went back down kind of slowly, so by now we have lots of overdrafted aquifers.” She noted the newer picture of Michelle Sneed using a similar pole to show how there continues to be subsidence in many places in the Central Valley and what that does to the water infrastructure, such as cause canals to buckle.

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_17Passing the groundwater legislation was an important event this year. “We tried that once a hundred years ago, but didn’t work; now finally it did, The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which is supposed to make all of this better,” she said. “I heard Tim Quinn, the Executive Director of the Association for California Water Agencies say the other day in a public meeting, ‘Step aside Delta, Hello groundwater,’ as groundwater now being or surpassing the Delta as the most controversial and challenging issue in California water today.”

To me, of course, it’s connected,” she said. “That water that replenished those aquifers in that graph came from the Delta, and the water that will figure big in this groundwater management that needs to come now from this legislation, the Delta will be part of it, so it’s about making those connections.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_19We also have land subsidence in the Delta, another surprise which came from the peat soil oxidation, which makes it a very vulnerable place,” she said. “Another thing that shows its vulnerability is all the species declines we’ve had; the native species in particular.


940 Mueller-Solger_Page_20Other non native species, some of which we like, such as largemouth bass, and others that we really don’t, like egreria, a water weed that clogs canals, have shown up in droves and continue to do so.

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_21Finally, we always seem to be surprised when we’re hit again by another drought,” she said, noting that this drought is even worse than the drought we had a few years ago. “We also seem to not remember that we can be hit by floods just as hard or even harder. The ArcStorm scenario that tried to see what would happen if we had a storm like we did in 1862, an atmospheric river nowadays. We know about these things, and of course climate change, we need to get ready for that, but we seem to always be surprised by this.”

’We have a management challenge,’ says our Governor,” she said. “That’s a little understated. It’s probably a really big societal challenge, but he thinks it takes money, brains, innovation, creativity, and even takes magic to get on with this and over this and to be able to tackle this. Of course I totally agree; I think it’s going to take all of our brains, all of us in this room here. It takes the scientists to know enough as Stanley Robinson said, it takes managers to do something, and it takes the policy makers and stakeholders and all of us, the public, to figure out what it is we actually want to do or should be doing here.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_26My certain way of thinking about this is the slogan, ‘We are smarter than Me’ because our brains combined of course can make a much bigger difference than just one brain by itself,” said Ms. Mueller-Solger. “This is a model that applies to the Interagency Ecological Program, and really what it is and has been since it was started in 1970, is about scientists working together on important, good, and relevant Bay Delta science to inform solutions in this ever changing state of ours and to work together long-term on science.”

The Interagency Ecological Program has come out with a new strategic plan, she said. “One of the terms used in that strategic plan is that IEP has ‘on the water scientists’ and this is what I think of when I think of IEP scientists,” she said. “I think they are really working hard and they are highly engaged.” She noted that IEP scientists are part of the organizing team for the Delta science conference and always have been. “We show up in all sorts of other places, and I think our favorite thing is to be in science teams where we talk about science. figure out science and where we do science. Collaborative science teams, that’s the IEP, in my opinion.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_27The IEP does relevant, responsive, and adaptive work, she said. “We are able to change, and we have recognized results.  Our expertise is really highly regarded and in demand, too much in demand many times.” She considers Randy Brown the first IEP lead scientist, and credited him with trying to raise the scientific bar for the IEP and later the CalFed science program, among his other many accomplishments.

Ms. Mueller-Solger then turned to her position as IEP lead scientist, a position she held for six years. “What did I think I was supposed to do and what did I actually do?” she said. “Well, first and foremost, I simply tried to make sure that the scientists doing all these things could actually do them. I think that role of the leader is simply to prevent things from getting in the way of good work, so that was a very important thing to me. I did try to work hard to get more analysis, synthesis, and computational results into the system – that’s been the hardest thing to find funding for and still is, but it’s so important because it’s about understanding what we’re seeing out there.” She said she also functioned as a nexus to the Delta Science Program and the Delta Stewardship Council, and she had an oversight role and seizing opportunities to do really good work when they arose.

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_28I didn’t have much of chance to truly set the direction for the program other than those things above, which are about doing good work, because really is about these nine individual member agencies and their needs,” she said. “Only one of them is a science agency, that’s the USGS; all the others are resource management agencies or regulatory agencies. Science is important to them, but it’s not the most important thing to them, so science has then basically follow and satisfy these other needs. I had to see what those might be and what I could do. And with that, I didn’t have much say over dollars, either.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_30The IEP does science both on and off the water, she said. “One example is the Pelagic Organism Decline observations that we made in the early 2000s where the long term consistent monitoring that the IEP has been doing since 1970 and before allowed us to actually see this crash in these particular species,” she said.

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_31The IEP, work with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, developed conceptual models in an effort to understand. “Conceptual models are a great tool to both organize your thinking and your investigations, your projects, and then try to analyze and synthesize what you’re seeing in a way that leads to more understanding.  We received some kudos from the NRC in 2012, who thought what we did there led to ‘a landmark change in thinking,’ because we found it wasn’t just one thing, which to an ecologist is no surprise, but that it is instead many things that acted together that resulted in the fish decline.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_32We tried to think more about the things that act and happen at different scales and then effect an annual fish species such as the Delta smelt throughout the season and how those work together,” she said. “There is a report that is going to come out soon, and interestingly, even though it is not published yet, it has actually spawned a whole lot of work based on the conceptual model, including work to predict, and then look and see and understand the effects of the current drought on Delta smelt and its habitat.” She noted conceptual models were also now being used to design monitoring programs for tidal wetlands restoration, as well as work within the Collaborative Science and Adaptive Management Program.

Conceptual models were used to figure out the effects of the Fall Action which increased outflow from the Delta in the fall to benefit Delta smelt, an action having to do with the biological opinions. “Here we used conceptual models to then predict what the effects of this fall action would be before it even happened, and then it did happen, amazingly. We had a large investigation then to really observe and see if those predictions that we made were true or not – when they were and especially when they weren’t and to understand what was really going on there. It’s been published since, and we got some kudos for it, too. It was a nice collaborative effort.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_35This is not the first time the IEP has large, collaborative investigations, she said. Prior to the 1976-77 drought, predictions based on modeling at the time said that if there were a drought with low flows, there would be huge phytoplankton blooms throughout the estuary and it didn’t happen. “What this study here was trying to address was where they actually manipulated in the summer and fall, July through October of 1978, the outflow from the Delta to the bay, very similar to what we did in 2011, and then looked specifically at what was happening with the phytoplankton,” she said. “And they had some interesting results and I encourage you to read this whole report.”

The Interagency Ecological Program has a tradition of doing and learning by predicting things and seeing if they actually come true, which is a big part of what adaptive management is all about, she said. She noted that the term ‘adaptive management’ was coined in 1978 by C.S. Holling. “The idea is really simple. If we don’t know enough to do what we want to do here, which is kind of always because we’re not Gods, we should do everything as an experiment, and surprises are an opportunity for learning. We really learn all the time while we are trying to do something.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_38Ms. Mueller-Solger used Google N-gram to find out how many times the term ‘adaptive management’ shows up in Google’s scanned books and reports. “I found that adaptive management really took off in the 1990s and into the early 2000s and then sort of leveled off,” she said. “That was the same period we had CalFed, and that’s the period where leadership from the Department of the Interior was really important in this state. Under the Clinton Administration and Secretary Bruce Babbitt really promoted that science would be brought to bear on management and we would experiment and then learn.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_39The Department of the Interior has a technical guide, and the Delta Plan as well as the Delta Science Plan put out by the Delta Stewardship Council and the Delta Science Program has this more elaborate version, but the premise is simple: let’s do something that we think we want to do, and let’s experiment with it and let’s learn. Let’s really do that.”

This is what I think we need to do as we go into Terraforming 2.0 which is to do what we want to do simply with more of and all of our brains involved, and of course, that means funding,” she said.

It also means a few more things. Controllability – you can’t really do an experiment if you can’t control what you’re experimenting with or your environment that you’re experimenting in, but you can also do other things when you don’t have that that are interesting.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_41It is important to agree on what it is that we want to do on our goals and our management policy goals, she said. “If you don’t have this, if the agreement is low, there’s this really scary red box there where we actually know a lot and uncertainty is low. I think in this system, we know a lot – uncertainty is not really super low but we still know a lot, but our goals are unclear or simply there are different goals out there. This lends itself to partisanship, which is cherry picking of the science that you want to hear, the science that sounds good. Others have called it combat science, of course, but it comes from all the cherry picking and all the constantly doubting or trying to attack what we all think we actually know.”

A way out of this might be this collaboration, Ms. Mueller-Solger said. “What’s been talked about quite a lot lately is this concept of collaborative adaptive management where scientists, managers, policymakers and stakeholders are all much more closely connected so that the outcome of this is credible, relevant and legitimate science and management actions that everyone can buy into. That would be much better of course than fighting all this out in the courtroom.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_44She said she spent some time thinking about what the word collaborate actually means, as being from Germany, it has another meaning. “In Europe and throughout the world, this was used a lot during the second World War when there were some countries that collaborated with the evil Germany, and Germany really was evil against their own people. Those were called the ‘collaborationists,’ so I think that’s something that we have to be aware of, and that’s not what we want here when we talk about collaboration.”

Another word that the IEP has used is cooperation, which is closely related to the word collaboration, but it’s a bit looser of a term, and isn’t associated with working with the enemy. “One way I think about this is that collaboration is a tighter thing where you have to have a clear leader and everybody has one score, such as in a classical orchestra, while cooperation might be more like a drum circle where people can do their own independent thing but altogether still have an overall goal that they want to reach of simply having a great time and making good music together.”

940 Mueller-Solger_Page_49What I would like to see and what I would like to urge us to do is to absolutely make those connections within these bubbles and collaborate as much as we possibly can. Science is working together to answer a question that’s of interest of all, and it’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “While with stakeholders, managers, and policy makers, they need to do their own collaboration within these circles and then they need to come together and cooperate with scientists in this looser sense.”

One thing that I’m seeing and that scares me is that there is something like arrows going from stakeholders and management and policy folk to the scientists, where these guys really seem to want to dictate how we do our science and exactly what questions we answer,” she said. “It’s to me a very top down feeling sort of thing. I don’t think that’s the best approach; I do think we need the lead scientists to take the lead in One Delta, One Science, the science of collaboration within this bubble and trying to really understand the system and figuring out the questions that need to be answered to meet the needs of the stakeholders and the management and policy makers. We really need to know what they need from us, but we really still need to be the ones to figure out what it is that we do as scientists. We need to maintain a certain amount of independence and we need to be unbiased; I feel that’s very important.”

So I think it’s going to take all our brains, all our brains together to know enough to do what we want to do here, so let’s make connections.

‘We are smarter than me.

Dr. Anke Mueller-Solger wins 2014 Brown-Nichols Award

sci_news_Anke_fluoroscopeAt the 2014 Bay-Delta Science Conference, Dr. Anke Mueller-Solger was named recipient of the Brown-Nichols Science Award. The award, named in honor of the late Randy Brown and Fred Nichols, recognizes the contribution of scientists for their significant research and active involvement in facilitating the use of science in managing the San Francisco estuary and watershed. It has been given biennially since 2008.

In accepting her award, Dr. Mueller-Solger gratefully acknowledged the contributions of those around her who have supported her in her work throughout the years. “What you really need are mentors, a great team, hard work, your heart, and your head,” she said.

Dr. Mueller-Solger also had words of encouragement for the other female scientists in the room. “If this can happen to me, so this can happen to you,” she said. “You, too, sisters, can do this, okay?

For more on Dr. Anke Mueller-Solger, see: IEP Lead Scientist Loves Algae, from March 2009 Science News

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