A restoration hub for the Delta: Better tools and processes for science-based restoration

Delta Restoration Hub open slideRestoration in the Delta has always been challenging, at best. Habitat restoration objectives already number in the tens of thousands of acres, and far more if the Bay Delta Conservation Plan should come to pass. But restoration on a large scale presents many challenges.  The proposed Delta Restoration Hub is an integrative model for planning, implementation, and analysis. intended to address the high levels of coordination and integration necessary to meet the challenges of designing and implementing multiple restoration projects.

In this presentation, Campbell Ingram, Executive Officer of the Delta Conservancy, discusses the Delta Restoration Hub.  The Delta Restoration Hub is a three-year pilot project, and is the result of a large collaborative effort with scientists and a broader group to improve restoration planning in the Delta, he said. “The intention is to be able to bring together technology, people, and process to better ensure that best available science, local input and adaptive management are really the cornerstones of this large-scale restoration effort that we’re getting ready to embark on and in some cases, are already engaged in in the Delta,” he said. “We’re also trying to address some of the fundamental problems that currently delay projects from moving from concept to construction.   There’s a very long time scale to get projects moving in the Delta. The hub would help coordinate and integrate Delta restoration initiatives.”

I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that there’s not a tremendous amount of work going on today, trying to address these issues and people making real progress,” he said. “But the reality is that when we start looking at restoration at scale, we have a lot to overcome. We have a huge need for better coordination and integration as we move forward.”

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About two years ago, the Delta Conservancy started the Delta Restoration Network, which encompasses all eleven agencies in and around the Delta that have any say or any permitting authority over restoration, the NGO community, consultants engaged in doing restoration design in the Delta, the Delta Counties Coalition, and community members. “This is a voluntary group, but they keep coming together out of the recognition that we don’t have good coordination and integration,” he said. “And when we really look at scale in the Delta, will we be able to achieve our objectives.”

We have many surrounding HCP and NCCPs in the Delta,” Mr. Ingram said. “We have the Central Valley Flood Protection Plan that envisions restoration in the Delta in the near term; we’re trying to achieve 8000 acres for the biological opinions currently in the Delta, the Suisun Marsh Restoration Plan is ready to move forward with implementation, and there’s the remainder of the Ecosystem Restoration Program under the DFW, so these are things that are happening today and we need to do a good job of making sure that they come together in a coordinated approach. Then you add to that the Delta Plan restoration expectations and then even potentially the BDCP’s restoration expectations, and that really get us into the world class restoration program.”

So a subset of the Delta Restoration Network consisting of the Delta Stewardship Council, the Delta Science Program, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, ESA and Newfields came together, and started by developing a problem statement for where we are in the Delta, he said. “I want to clarify, there’s a lot of work going on that I want to recognize, but currently we lack a broadly accepted a landscape-scale restoration vision for the six recognized restoration opportunity areas that are supported by conceptual and mechanistic models,” he said. “We lack sufficient and early engagement with the Delta community in our restoration planning. We lack the modeling, data inventory, synthesis tools, and support analyses and information sharing and adaptive management that’s necessary, and we don’t have a standing panel of experts that can engage and help us develop landscape visions as well as alternatives for projects, and that can help us consider the cumulative effects of restoration projects as we move forward.”

The Delta Restoration Hub consists of tools, a standing panel of experts and a process. It can be thought of much like your cell phone, he said. “Your cell phone is a really handy tool that guides your life. It takes numerous datasets, all of which probably wouldn’t fit in your car, but it’s all here in this very handy platform that really helps you navigate your life. We have the technology today to bring together the data sets, the modeling results in real time, with subject matter experts and the agencies that will have touch on projects into the future, as well as the community, and bring them together in real time to make much more robust, well vetted decisions. The intention is bring together data and experts to ensure that we have best available science, local input, adaptive management, and landscape vision.”

This is intended to speed up the processes that we currently experience,” he said. “Projects seem to bounce around indefinitely in shuttle diplomacy, moving back and forth trying to address these problems and the intent is to bring that together more in real time.”

Mr. Ingram said the Delta Restoration Hub would not be mandatory. “We want people to look at it as free tools,” he said. “We’re trying to create the space and time to come do the work and have access to these tools to be able to utilize them.”

We’re really trying to set up an expert hub team to develop regional landscape visions and strategies for achieving those visions, as well as restoration design alternatives, but also to grasp the ecosystem cascade, the complexity that we’re anticipating as we move forward in the Delta, and we need to do it in a credible way that is skillful, fast, and again voluntary.”

Ingram Slide 9So what exactly does the hub do? “This is a long list of the many complicated steps and processes in restoration, and the reality is that the hub doesn’t do any of that,” he said. “But, we think it can help the general workflow process. When you look at the many permits that are required, what we think is potentially transformative here is that the agencies that are going to be engaged in permitting, are sitting in real time with the information and the experts vetting alternatives for a project, so when they receive that project, they have the fundamental understanding, they’ve voiced their concerns, and they’ve tested their assumptions and all of that is available in a documentation of the decisions that have been made for that process, so hopefully as those agencies then receive that project and actually have to issue a permit on it, they have much more buy in and much more understanding of that project from the very beginning. So that’s one way that we’re very hopeful that the hub will help.”

The Delta Restoration Hub is a place to bring the tools together to work on regional landscape visions, he said. “We look at all the objectives in that region: the surrounding HCPs, the BDCP if it exists, the current restoration efforts, the agricultural overlay, the high value crops, the drainage issues, ag infrastructure, flood protection system and what constraints does it put on restoration in that particular region; we bring all the information together in real time to help to identify a vision for that region and how do we get the ecological lift that we’re looking for in the context of what we can actually do in that region.”

It’s the same process for restoration design alternatives, he said. “It’s taking the people, tools, and information in real time to look at a given project, to vet different alternative futures for that project, and to come agreement as to how we think we ought to move forward,” he said. “That really culminates in a DRERIP style review.” He explained that the DRERIP process are conceptual models that allow actions to be evaluated based on their effectiveness and the level of certainty of that effectiveness. “It helps us to look at cumulative impacts because that helps to put the projects in that landscape vision and understand how that project helps you achieve that landscape vision. Probably one of the fundamentally most important things is that it allows you to come together and really helps you identify your science gaps and how you might move forward with the project to answer some of those questions.”

So what is the hub, really? “Think of the hub as a place,” Mr. Ingram said. “Think of the hub as the having recognized multi-disciplinary experts, the key agency and stakeholders, the data and modeling analysis center, and a center for decision support. It’s really the place where we sit around and we ask the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘so whats’. The key here is that it is a place; it has the resources it needs, it has the contracts in place for the subject matter experts, it has the resources to help the agencies engage, it’s got resources to help the community engage, and it is a routine collaborative environment where we’re bringing folks together. Experts are in the room, models are running in the room, data is at hand, and it’s the technology and the capability that we have that is fundamentally transformative.”

The Delta Restoration Hub is needed due to the complexity involved. “We know that changes are going to change the changes and we know that effects are going to affect the effects,” he said. “We know that restoration effects are not linear; there are thresholds and there are feedbacks; and there’s this concept of ecosystem cascade – in a word, it is complexity. Almost overwhelming complexity, but we think if we organize ourselves effectively, and use these tools, we can manage that complexity and make much richer database decisions.

He then flipped through the slides to highlight the complexity. “We know that restoration is going to both increase and decrease salinity. It’s going to increase and decrease channel velocity. It’s going to cause sedimentation and it’s going to cause erosion. It’s going to make water warmer. It’s going to make water colder. It’s going to increase and decrease turbidity. These are things that are actually happening in places right now, it’s going to make tides bigger and smaller throughout the system, it’s going to methylate and sequester mercury, and so restoration is going to require systems consideration. So again, best available science, get the right tools and the right people in a routine collaborative environment.”

Mr. Ingram then gave an example of how the proposed Delta Restoration Hub would work at the project-scale. “A project concept and proponent would come to the hub with specific objectives, a site evaluation, and idea of constraints and opportunities. Again, we’re creating a routine collaborative environment where the experts are on contract and those agreements are in place. The tools and the analytics are on site, and the modelers are on contract and ready to go, and so we set up this first hub meeting to run through this project.”

Essentially in advance of that, you have analysts that are out there collecting all of the relevant data sets and bringing them in together in this platform so they are ready to use in these meetings,” he added. “That takes a fair amount of time and effort, but obviously a critical first point to make sure we have the information compiled.”

We’re going to work on common understanding, scope some of the initial modeling and output metrics; it’s probably a one to two day meeting. At the second meeting, we’re going to review the initial modeling and then we’re going to get into this design charrette opportunity, and again you’ve got this collaboration of all these people doing this in real time. The expected outcome is effective, acceptable, permittable alternatives and then at a third meeting, you’re going to basically refine those alternatives, use the DRERIP style analysis to evaluate that project, and the proponents are going to leave with a suite of alternatives that are suitable for CEQA analysis. What they do with those alternatives, how they value them, which one they select as their environmentally preferred alternative is completely up to them.”

This is a place where you can come use the tools, use the process, to move forward with what you need, and iterate as needed,” he said. “This is going to be challenging. There are opportunities to spin out indefinitely when you have all the data at hand, so we recognize that this has to have strong leadership and facilitation so that we all recognize what our time constraints are, what are questions are, and we recognize the relevance of the sort of concentric rings of relevant data. Where are you going to stop and make a decision and move forward and where are you are not going to spend another three months iterating as needed on data that is less and less relevant.”

The Delta Restoration Hub is envisioned as a three-year pilot project to test how the process and technology works in the system. “We’re very optimistic, but we really are in a ‘design build and prove its effectiveness’ mode,” he said. “We’ve made requests to software providers, big data providers, to donate software to this hub for three years so we can demonstrate the effectiveness. We have a budget request in for funding to fund this for three years, but we’re also working with foundations to look for bridge funding to help move this forward. We recognize that all the agencies are going to use it but it’s very challenging to lay something like this into the existing world without essentially building it and letting people use it to determine that really that we can’t live without it when we’re trying to do restoration at scale.”

We’re also starting to take some existing resources and trying to lay some of these hub concepts onto near-term project planning efforts that are happening, so that we can incrementally start to demonstrate value without necessarily having to wait until we can create this big thing with the funding that we’re hoping to find,” he added.

Mr. Ingram then addressed some of the concerns they have heard. “These are all very valid concerns,” he said. “We live in a world where restoration is fundamentally constrained in so many ways, and it takes so long to get projects done. People that are actually out there doing that work are very concerned that this group of heavy thinkers is going to lay on a new process on top of what exists, and that’s a justifiable concern. Everything we’ve tried to design here is to try and take a process that sometimes takes a decade and try to take the process and really truncate it down into maybe a year. That’s optimistic, but we think it’s possible.”

Paralysis by analysis is another concern. “You have to have strong leadership and you have to strong facilitation to keep people focused. A lot of folks think we’re already doing this and we are doing components, but we can do a much better job.”

There’s a lot of concern that the proponents will lose their control over the designs they come up, or that they just lose control of the process at the hub – that the hub sort of subsumes their control and their role, and we’re trying to create it so that’s absolutely not the case,” said Mr. Ingram. “It’s a place where the tools exist, come in, use the tools, engage, do the work that needs to be done, and move along.”

So, expert team, regional landscape visions, restoration design alternatives, grasp the ecosystem cascade in a hopefully incredible skillful, fast, and voluntary manner,”   he said.

Question: This seems like a great way to look at projects prospectively, and you mentioned the likelihood of cascading unexpected impacts from projects like this. It also seems to set the stage for monitoring success – that these experts will have looked at the possibilities, so it’s potentially an adaptive management framework, but I don’t think I heard you address that. Does this framework better enable you to come back in a few years and assess what worked and what didn’t and how to modify the project?

Really I didn’t intend to leave that out, but that’s foundational to both developing landscape visions and strategies, as well as individual projects,” Mr. Ingram replied. “In that landscape vision process, you’re going to be looking at all the components in the system, you’re going to be identifying your objectives, you’re going to be identifying what you’re trying to achieve while you’re trying to achieve it, how you think you’re going to try to achieve it, what you’re going to measure along the way, and what you might do in the event you don’t get the expected outcomes that you intend. I think the beauty of the process is that with these tools, it allows you to document that whole logic chain out for the whole process … it’s not really a document, it’s a vision, but as information changes, you put that new information into the process and you look how it cascades through that vision you’ve created.”

Similarly with a project level design, it’s very much the same process. You have the experts there, what are your alternative designs, but then what re your expectations of those alternatives, what are your objectives, what are you going to measure, what are your science gaps, how can you design that project to help resolve some specific science questions.”

Question: I notice when you look at the list of agencies that are participating in the restoration network, it’s pretty broad. When you get down to the restoration hub, however, it seems like a lot of the agencies aren’t at least yet participating. But I see perhaps, and I’m wondering if you agree with this, it to be an important part of the restoration hub to have the participation of the permitting agencies in that. Is that a challenge and if so, what’s the plan for bringing them on board?

Let me clarify,” said Mr. Ingram. “We view the restoration hub as a proposal from the Delta Restoration Network. We’ve had tens of meetings with that larger list, meeting with them individually and collectively to help them understand what we’re trying to achieve and what we’re trying to do. For the most part, most agencies including the permitting agencies are very excited and interested in the potential of how this in concept ought to work and ought to improve things. A couple agencies, those that are actively engaged in doing the restoration today and feel those daily constraints and pressures of getting things done, they are the ones that have the most concern, and they are the ones we’ve worked most closely with and I think there’s really progress there. I think all those agencies now do support moving forward as a pilot to demonstrate its effectiveness . In some ways we’ve said let us build it, let us prove to you it works, and if it works you’ll want to use it. But until we demonstrate to you its effectiveness, we won’t get in your way.

Question: Is the hub going to be working on projects that the Delta Conservancy funds, and if so is that going to create any conflict between the Conservancy and other funding issues?

I would say that the hub is all of the agencies together and not necessarily just the Conservancy,” he said. “It will create a vision for a region, it will help projects fit within that vision, and then design alternatives that ensure best available science, local input, and adaptive management approach. What I envision then if a project comes, we will have an open solicitation that will have criteria that will recognize the importance of best available science, local input and support, and adaptive management, and so we will score projects on those criteria. You would probably get points for having gone through the restoration network, but it will be an open solicitation for projects that will then be evaluated with a technical panel and approved by our Board. So it’s a long way of answering your question, but I think the short answer is that it’s quite possible that projects that go through this restoration hub would then come to the Conservancy for funding, in part or in full.”

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