The Delta Independent Science Board (DISB) completed its review of the draft EIR/EIS for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) in May, 2014. While the ISB recognized the many strengths embedded within the BDCP and its associated environmental documents, the review also identified several substantive shortcomings in the technical underpinnings of project impacts and mitigation. These are all summarized in the review document. In this presentation for the 2014 Bay Delta Science Conference,Dr. Tracy Collier, Chair of the Delta Independent Science Board, focuses on the review findings as it pertains to the heavy reliance on habitat restoration as an offsetting measure of project impacts.
He began by noting that the Delta Independent Science Board was reconstituted under the 2009 Delta Reform Act and given the statutory requirement to review the draft EIR/EIS of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan. “We found that out on our first meeting; we were dreading it for years, and then finally it happened to us over the last year-and-a-half or so,” he said. “We did get the Draft EIR/S but of course in order to review that, which was our main charge, you have to understand the BDCP as well.”
The documents comprised about 35,000 pages, he said. “We asked at one point, we said, “Could we just have one copy, one physical copy, that we could actually have to look at and hold?” And the answer was ‘no,’” he said. “But I think a physical copy may exist because in preparation for this talk, I went to everybody’s best friend, the Google machine, and I said, “Where is a large document of around 35,000 pages that would be roughly 14 feet tall?” I went to Google Images and searched. And…this is, I think, the only physical copy of both the BDCP and the EIR/S together in its entirety. I don’t know where this copy is being kept but I can assure you it exists, although we haven’t seen it.”
“But Google doesn’t lie, and just by way of context, the only animal that I’m aware of that could actually see over the top of this document would be the giraffes in Africa that are 16-20 feet tall,” he said. “But as the 10 members of the ISB, we had to figure out how to parse this out. There are many chapters, there’s a lot of overlapping chapters, and multiple people had to read different section and then pull it all together. So we found that we couldn’t see over even our own individual portions of the documents as well; we literally had thousands and thousands of pages of documents to go through.”
“I’m going to go through our overarching findings and our primary concerns, but I’m also going to point out there’s a lot of really good things about the documents involved,” Dr. Collier said. “Then I want to bring it back to the habitat issues because again this is about habitat restoration and the BDCP relies so heavily on habitat restoration as a primary mitigation for many of the impacts of the project.”
Dr. Collier acknowledged the other members of the ISB: Jay Lund, Dick Norgaard, Brian Atwater, Stephen Brandt, Liz Canuel, Joe Fernando, Judy, Vince Resh, and John Wiens, and noted that they regularly attend this conference as many of the board members are from outside the area and it’s helpful to see the science efforts underway here. “Certainly in the BDCP Draft EIR/S, there is a great deal of science that’s very valuable that’s included in those documents.”
The Delta Independent Science Board presented their review of the BDCP documents to Randy Fiorini, Chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, and Chuck Bonham, Director of the Department of Fish and Game, in the middle of May of 2014. The review also went to other agencies, including the California Natural Resources Agency, Fish and Wildlife, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy, Delta Protection Commission, the State Water Resources Control Board, Bureau of Reclamation, NOAA Fisheries, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. “So the federal and state agencies are all recipients of our comments,” Dr. Collier said.
He then summarized the eight major findings in the ISB’s report. “Number one, and probably of the most relevance to this session is the effectiveness of conservation actions, especially and notably habitat restoration and the reliance on that as a primary mitigation approach,” he said. “The treatment of uncertainty and the use of modeling comes up in our comments repeatedly; the effects of climate change and sea level rise on restoration but also the implementation of BDCP itself and the outcomes of all the mitigation actions. We felt that was not adequately addressed in the documents that we had.”
Dr. Collier said that the linkages between species, the landscapes and the proposed action, must be taken into consideration. “There is the need to consider the system and to consider the linkages, but in the documents that we had, we had to point that out that it was, in our view, lacking,” he said. “Several things that were more or less legally excluded from the analysis we still felt from a scientific basis and a technical basis needed to be included. You really needed to include the downstream effects of BDCP actions on San Francisco Bay, and what about the effects of levee failures, and effects of increased water availability which would change agricultural practices, cropping patterns, etc. Are those taken into account? My understanding is that there are reasons why those are not included but again, from our more scientific oversight and the need to point out the realities of the document, we felt that those should be there.”
Implementation of adaptive management is important. “I understand some people are now starting to put jars in their offices and every time somebody says “adaptive management” in a meeting, you have to put five dollars in the jar and they’re getting wealthy,” he said. “What we can do is we can give that money to the person who comes up with a way to actually implement adaptive management and shows that it works. As Jay said two years ago at this conference, the one thing we’ve gotten consistently right about adaptive management is how we spell it. But even then I’ve seen it misspelled.”
“We felt that a big failing was—I don’t want to say failing, I’m trying not to be judgmental—but a big need was that there was a lack of risk assessment and decision support tools,” he said. “There are many formal tools that help get you through risk assessment and decision-making, and that would strengthen the implementation of BDCP.”
“And then finally, the presentation of the document itself,” Dr. Collier said. “I’m sure many of you looked at it, and it was just really difficult to find the different pieces.”
“There are several areas that we thought in which BDCP was noteworthy,” he said. “The background descriptions are clear and detailed. This set of documents, this stack of documents provides a tremendous resource for the region as far as the descriptions of what we know about the system. Certainly there are things that are inconsistent and some things are missing but overall, it’s a tremendous resource for people now and into the future.”
“We thought the presentation of alternative water conveyance designs was comprehensive and reasonably well-balanced, and many—not all—of the resource chapters were extensive and comprehensive. We did feel that when impacts were anticipated, there were appropriate mitigation measures, or avoidance and minimization measures that were described for many of the impacts. Although we felt modeling should have been more used, the models that were used were employed effectively and with frequent reference to the importance of adaptive management in monitoring in all of this. And then in-depth evaluations of some individual species but again, not of all.”
“There was a tremendous amount of effort that went into these documents and there are a lot of legal constraints under which these documents have to be produced, so we tried to keep that in mind but still try to maintain our science oversight while we were providing what we hope was constructive suggestions for any redo or any evaluation of the BDCP and the EIR/S,” he said.
The overarching mitigation or compensation for the BDCP itself is 150,000 acres of habitat restoration, Dr. Collier said. “Our specific language on that was that many of the impact assessments hinge on what we think are overly optimistic expectations about the feasibility, effectiveness, or timing of the proposed conservation actions, especially habitat restoration.” He noted that at the science conference, many sessions talk about how hard it is to predict habitat restoration outcomes and how much more studies are needed. “We were pointing out that this needs to be reflected in the BDCP documents. So, as the documents are going to be re-circulated, we will see how much of that mindset is hopefully reflected in the re-circulated Draft.”
Dr. Collier noted that there was another Independent Review Panel report on the BDCP Effects Analysis contained in Chapter 5 of the BDCP that was released a few months prior to the ISB’s. “We were already well into our drafts so we didn’t copy back and forth, but it was gratifying to us how similar many of our comments were,” he said. “Their finding on habitat was that the critical uncertainties associated with the presumed beneficial effects of tidal wetland restoration were not recognized in this Chapter 5 [the Effects Analysis]. So you have two independent groups, you have convergent evolutions saying the uncertainties associated with habitat restoration are not well reflected in the documents and in the planning.”
Dr. Collier said that ISB member John Wiens has given the ISB the mantra to, instead of say ‘the best available science,’ to say, ‘Is the science good enough?’ “In this case, we say right up front, for a project of this importance and this scope and this complexity and this much investment, the science currently is not good enough to support us to say that we would say go forward with the science that you’ve presented in these documents.”
Dr. Collier said that the ISB had several recommendations for improving the scientific framework of the BDCP. “One of those was to initiate pilot restoration actions as soon as possible,” he said. “We know there’s a lot of restoration going on, but when we say pilot restoration projects, we’re saying in the construct of the BDCP and how to evaluate restoration. These restoration actions should be addressing critical uncertainties and they should be started as soon as possible, but within a scientific framework that will allow the BDCP and others to test and refine and improve the effectiveness of restoration.”
He said there are some studies already underway that can be incorporated into the BDCP once or if it is permitted, and others that are being planned that could address the needs identified in the BDCP.
“Finally, there is a Delta Plan with its constituent part, the Delta Science Plan, and we think that there are priorities that are being developed in both the Science Plan and the Interim Science Action Agenda, and as restoration projects are implemented, planned and used to try to determine habitat effectiveness – if those are done in accordance with some of the priorities given in those plans, hopefully as a regional community we can all come together and agree on what the results mean.”
Dr. Collier said that the ISB’s comments state that the effects of recent marsh restoration in the Delta and Suisun Marsh could help test the benefits of habitat restoration that are assumed in the DEIR/S in concluding that a net impact is beneficial under NEPA or is less than significant under CEQA. “We’ve got both federal and state environmental laws that are the reasons for these documents being written,” he said. “But you can test these assumptions that are currently in the documents and say, do we in fact have no net impact or is there a beneficial outcome to some of these actions? And those are again legal constructs that the science is being conducted and if it’s structured properly, it could help answer those administrative issues.”
And then finally contingency plans. “What are we going to do if it doesn’t turn out as planned?,” he said. “The history of ecological restoration shows that restoration projects rarely have the outcomes that we’re expecting – either exactly or in many cases totally differently than what we expected. There will inevitably be situations where there’s a large-scale failure of restored habitat to function as anticipated. What are we going to do then?”
Dr. Collier said that when he and colleague Dr. Jay Lund presented their comments to the Delta Stewardship Council, they asked ‘what do you mean by contingency plan?’ “So Jay and I were both looking back and forth, and Jay just says, “Well, simple. I mean, D-Day. General Eisenhower. He didn’t have just one plan, he had many plans. Well, what happens if the weather’s this way or the weather’s that way, or this doesn’t work or that doesn’t work. As it turns out, none of the contingency plans that he had in place actually got implemented because they didn’t cover the contingencies that happened, but at least they’d gone through the thinking of “what if this doesn’t work?”’
“So what we’re saying is, what if this doesn’t work? Think about it. Put something in there, show us, show the region, the agencies, and the people you’re asking to buy off on this that you’ve actually thought about what happens if things don’t work – especially habitat restoration since so much relies on habitat restoration.”
Dr. Collier noted that Dr. Lund acknowledged that it isn’t the fate of the free world they are talking about here. “It’s important but it’s not quite that important,” he said. “But we think some contingency planning and a mindset about contingency planning would be really helpful.”
Dr. Collier pointed out that in the ISB’s 330+ page report, they used the word ‘restoration’ 159 times and the word ‘stressor’ 9 times. “So my question is, what does this say about the reliance on restoration versus reducing pressures to compensate for the impacts of human activities on the Delta? This is my personal predilection coming from a lot of work I do in Puget Sound where my mantra is, “Reduce the pressures, let the system respond.” I realize that the loss of habitat is a huge pressure on the Delta and that’s why there’s so much emphasis on habitat restoration. But there are other pressures as well, so I would just say we should think about our approach. Are we going to rely totally on habitat restoration or are we going to talk about a pressure-reduction approach?”
“When we think about this and how we’re going to approach it, are we going to have our head in the sand?” he said. “I don’t think this region does at all; I think that we are really thinking about these outcomes but I’m saying more from a large-scale administrative and management approach, let’s make sure that we don’t let our policy-makers and the decision-makers put their heads in the sand and focus only on restoration. Let’s make sure that people are thinking about the big picture.”
“As humans we tend to have a mindset: if we can’t change our reality we’re going to ignore it. This group, you guys are focused on changing the reality; let’s make sure the region focuses on changing the reality as well,” Dr. Collier concluded.