Conserving ecosystems during droughts
Chuck Bonham, Sandy Matsumoto, Dr. Peter Moyle, and Tim Quinn discuss how to prepare for the next drought, including developing a plan, designating priority habitat, and securing water for the environment
As January ends as a record-breaking drought in some areas of the state and winter once again seemingly passes California by, a fourth year of drought is looking more certain. Anticipating such a dry future, in January the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) brought together agency officials, policy makers, and a variety of stakeholders came together to discuss how the state could be made more resilient to drought.
The event included presentations by state climatologist Michael Anderson (see coverage here), Australian official Jane Doolan (see coverage here), and a series of panel discussions on legislative priorities, managing water scarcity, and allocating water during droughts.
In this panel discussion, Chuck Bonham, Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife; Sandy Matsumoto, The Nature Conservancy; Dr. Peter Moyle , Professor of fish biology at UC Davis; and Tim Quinn, Executive Director of the Association of California Water Agencies discuss how to best manage ecosystems in a drought. The panel was moderated by PPIC fellow Ellen Hanak.
To get the discussion started, PPIC fellow Jeff Mount gave some opening remarks.
“Conventional biological wisdom suggests that native species are well-adapted to drought; we know that, and that they are likely bounce back when the rains come again,” began Jeff Mount. “So why do we sweat so much about the environment? That’s because conventional wisdom is out the window when it comes to native biodiversity here in California. First, the majority of our freshwater dependent species are already at risk due to low population levels, so we don’t have that natural resiliency within our populations for bouncing back. Second, our ecosystems have lost much of their ability to support recovery after drought because they have been dramatically altered by human uses of land and water, along with a host of invasive non-native species. We have both degraded populations and a degraded environment, so they don’t bounce back. That’s why you have to spend a tremendous amount of time and energy focusing on managing ecosystems during drought. This becomes one of the limiting factors and indeed, it leads to extinctions.”
“It matters greatly how we manage this during the drought, and there are very practical reasons to do this,” he said. He reminded how back in the 1987-1992 drought, the Delta was kept salty for an entire six year period with hardly a break. “Something happened during that period of time; a set of invasive species moved in, such as the Brazilian waterweed and the overbite clam. They became firmly established within the Delta, and that has a legacy effect which has cost us at least hundreds of millions of dollars and maybe even billions of dollars, so poor management during a drought can cost us a tremendous amount later.”
“The drought offers us a chance to learn,” Mr. Mount said. “I’m not implying that the agencies have made mistakes; in fact, I would argue that the agencies have done a heroic job of managing this drought. … However, perhaps it could be done better.”
He then gave his three overarching recommendations:
1. Improve drought preparation
The first is to prepare. “Pre-drought investments really pay off,” he said. “They have in the urban sector; the $12 billion that Southern California put into its water infrastructure after the 1987-92 drought really paid dividends. But we don’t do that on the environment side. For various reasons, we tend not to think about the environment in that way. Instead, the way we do it is we set a series of baseline conditions which we then repeatedly violate, and that’s basically our approach.”
“We are very reactive and passive and we make these decisions on the fly, such as we were doing this year,” he said. “So much on the fly that you’d think we thought drought would never come. There are no surprises in this drought when it comes to the environment; everything we saw happen over the last three years, we could easily have predicted it would happen. But what was surprising was how little preparation we had in advance.”
Drought preparations include:
- Designating priority habitat: “During droughts, it’s extremely important to identify where you get the most benefit per acre-foot of water,” Mr. Mount said. “The state needs to identify those rivers and streams that are of highest biodiversity priority and to begin to emphasize that which means being selective. … This is part of an overall biodiversity strategy is that we have to identify those things like spring fed systems, where the cold water is within these systems, potential high quality habitat, willing landowners, and identify drought refugia. These are all necessary and these were things that were done in Australia.”
- Secure drought water supplies for ecosystems: “It doesn’t matter if you find high quality habitat if you haven’t got the water to water it, so working before a drought rather than during a drought to identify your available water and to identify those sources to be put to priority to ecosystem uses. Acquiring water rights is key.”
- Conduct dry runs: “Had we done dry runs, we would have seen all of the things we came up against this year.”
2. Fund drought preparation and response
Funding is important. “As the recent PPIC report on finance noted, the environment is one of the fiscal orphans in California water; it absolutely lacks a reliable funding source and bonds don’t really do much,” he said. “We need continuous regular funding.”
Mr. Mount then offered two suggestions:
- Spend bond money wisely: “In the bond, there is very little language about drought resilience associated for the ecosystem benefits that come from the roughly $1.5 billion that’s supposed to benefit ecosystems,” he said. “So to the agencies that are going to be actually doling this money out, ask a fundamental question: Does this improve drought resilience? Does an investment in 100 acre-feet of green, warm water really worth it, environmentally whereas 10 acre-feet of clear, cold water produces much greater benefit?”
- Establish a dedicated funding source: “We really need a dedicated reliable source of money for ecosystem health because the ecosystem is there every year,” he said. “We shouldn’t be looking at appropriations from the legislature in a drought emergency three months too late to do this, so I’m going to suggest the unthinkable: a per acre foot surcharge. That’s right, a public goods charge on water. We talk about it every year, and then we forget about it because it’s too controversial, but more and more, we’re seeing that this is probably the way we’re going to have to go in the future, in some way, shape or form, to meet ecosystem needs. It’s valuable to think about this because of the reduced costs associated with regulation after the drought is over.”
3. Have a plan for the next drought
“From my point of view, there were really no surprises this year,” Mr. Mount said. “There were some small little bits here and there, but overall, we could have predicted most everything on the ecosystem side that occurred this year, but we have no plan to deal with that. I am personally tired of plans … but we really don’t have a plan that is a deliberative approach involving coordinated actions which would have reduced the impact on the ecosystems.”
An overarching approach is needed to manage biodiversity to be resilient during droughts, he said. “So I’m going to suggest another plan to be put together by a biodiversity task force,” he said. “We need that biodiversity task force to do a retrospective and harvest the lessons from this existing drought and come forward with some proposals … for how we might take that knowledge, and what we gain from that knowledge, and apply it to the next drought. And maybe even in this drought.”
“It was Dwight Eisenhower who famously noted: ‘Plans are nothing; planning is everything.’ When it comes to ecosystem management during the latest drought, I think we would have benefitted from both,” concluded Mr. Mount.
At the conclusion of Mr. Mount’s remarks, Ms. Hanak asked the panel members to respond.
Chuck Bonham, Director of Fish and Wildlife
Chuck Bonham began his response by saying that while he liked some of what Jeff Mount had recommended, he thought it missed a more important point. “I think the two parts that are missing is one, an important acknowledgement to each other how hard this is, and then two, something about the human effect,” he said. “It was a hard as heck year for our Department and others.”
David Orr, an ecologist, coined the phrase ‘eco-literacy’ in the 1990s, and more recently in 2010, he published a collection of his essays titled, Hope is Imperative, Mr. Bonham said. He was recently reading one of the essays titled, ‘Hope in a Hotter Time.’ “A hotter time to me is the same as drought in some sense,” he said. “Here’s what David Orr had to say: ‘Optimism in these circumstances is like whistling as one walks past the graveyard at midnight. There’s no good case to be made for it, but the sound of whistling sure beats the sound of rustling in the bushes beside the fence.’ He says, ‘Hope however, requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions. It requires a level of honesty, self awareness and sobriety that is difficult to summon and sustain. Hope requires the courage to reach farther, dig deeper, confront our limits and those of nature, and work harder.’ And then he wraps up this essay by saying, ‘I know a great many smart people, and many very good people. But I know far fewer people who can handle hard truth gracefully without despair.’”
Mr. Bonham said in 2014, the Department was confronted with many ‘never been there befores’. They had to close fishing to some waters in the state; there was concerns of not having enough water to avoid dead pool conditions in reservoirs, and a zero percent allocation to the State Water Project; Thirty million salmon smolts were moved out of hatcheries due to river conditions, and other hatcheries were evacuated. “We’ve done over 300 fish rescues in over 25 watersheds in this state,” he said. “Just in the Scotts-Shasta tributary system to the Klamath, we’ve moved over 150,000 coho from dried up spots in those watersheds to wet spots in those watersheds. We’ve had the highest number of birds on the Flyway ever coming out of the Midwest and Canada to some of the driest habitat ever in the state.”
“I didn’t’ know we would have human-wildlife interface like we had because of drought in a way that required me to think about my capacity,” he said. “Now we have placed the right number of bear traps and other equipment in hotspots around the state to deal with what we project will happen again this summer. We’ve built and moved fish trucks to certain spots in the state where if we have to bring fish into captive breeding, we can do it in a local watershed.”
Mr. Bonham said he agrees on the need for dry runs, noting that as the Director of the Department that has the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, they drill all the time. “It seems we could transfer that skill set into drought as well,” he said.
“I’m all for priority habitat, but that’s easy to say,” he said. “I’m certain you, Dr. Mount, and you, Dr. Moyle, may not agree on what you think I should prioritize, which is the art of prioritization. But we’ve done that, right?”
He noted that this year, the Department together with the NMFS launched a voluntary drought initiative with Chair Marcus and the State Water Resources Control Board. “We picked Mill Creek, Deer Creek, and Antelope Creek in the Upper Sacramento River system, the Russian River and the Scott and Shasta on the Klamath, and we said, if landowners will work on this fish front and we can design a flow regimes, we’ll go with them to the Board and suggest the board not do emergency curtailments,” he said. “We’ve done over 20 of those around the state.”
“More funding would be better, and I agree with you on the planning front, although I’m not persuaded we need a new plan,” he said. “I could be persuaded though. We take planning to heart. Perhaps we were caught unaware in a planning sense which is why we’ve done 46 and counting contingency drought plans to cover about 280,000 of our own acres, so that this coming year, we can do better with our own water efficiencies, … and sort through our own decision making matrix to have those plans ready before we arrive.”
“So those are my initial remarks,” Mr. Bonham said. “I like some of it, but I’m not persuaded by all of it, Jeff.”
Sandy Matsumoto, The Nature Conservancy
“This is the heart of the Pacific Flyway; this is one of the last great migrations on the planet earth and we are responsible for stewarding it,” said Sandy Matsumoto. “We have millions of animals that come thousands of miles every year that land in the Central Valley. We have an obligation to protect this natural resource; it’s amazing.”
It’s a fraction of what is used to be, she said, noting that historical accounts talk of clouds of birds darkening the sky and gathering at night and being so loud, people weren’t able to sleep at night. “Those were the densities that existed historically,” she said. “In the eighties, we were down to about fifteen percent of the waterfowl that used to be on the flyway. It’s actually a great conservation success story. We took action as a community, we restored habitat, we worked with farmers to put habitat on private land, and we’ve been able to bring the flyway up to a healthy state.”
Ms. Matsumoto said she agreed with what Ms. Doolan, the Australian water official, had said in her presentation about creating robust and resilient ecosystems go through those drought cycles. “It’s about creating the refugia and making sure that the system is robust enough to handle those downturns,” she agreed. “I’m all for preparing, all for funding and preparation response.”
There are specific measures that can be taken with respect to migratory birds, she said, and she offered three suggestions:
Enforce the mandates of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA): “We have an existing law that requires that water be delivered each year to the wildlife refuges that the public has invested in,” she said. “There are 19 refuges in the Central Valley, and these refuges are supposed to get enough water to manage it properly. Since the Central Valley Project Improvement Act was passed in 1992, we’ve managed to utterly fail in delivering that water in almost every single instance. This is a mandate, this is a law, similar to the Endangered Species Act. … If we want a resilient Pacific Flyway to withstand these drought periods, then we need to make tough tradeoffs, I get it. We have to have those refuges and we have to have those flyways in a healthy state, so making sure that we have full refuge deliveries especially in the non-drought years is critically important.”
Develop new tools for conservation: “We have to think about new tools to deliver conservation,” she said. “In this case, some of what we need to do as a conservation community is to better define what water is needed, when and where. Be more specific. Then we need to have the ability to deliver that habitat and it may be that that habitat isn’t permanent. It may have to be dynamic and temporary, and we don’t currently have a lot of ways to do that or funding with public dollars to support those efforts.”
More monitoring: “If we want to understand what’s going on out there, we need to be monitoring,” she said. People want to know what is happening and how it compares to historic records, and it’s really hard to tell. “Ecosystems are dynamic and the impact of drought is multi-year; the only way for us to know is to have a good monitoring system.”
Dr. Peter Moyle, Professor of Fish Biology at UC Davis
Dr. Peter Moyle began by saying he agreed with everything Jeff Mount said. “Really the key here is the need for a game plan for water allocations for the environment,” he said. “That’s why I really liked the language that was expressed in the Australian drought about clear and unambiguous water rights for the environment, and I think if we could figure out how to do that, it would go a long way. Right now we rely way too much on the Endangered Species Act to protect our aquatic species and species in general, … It’s the Endangered Species Act that seems to come down to making that final decision about how much water to allocate and that always seems to result in endless lawsuits. It would be really nice if we could get away from that.”
Dr. Moyle said he appreciates that the Department of Fish and Wildlife engaged in protective actions in places like Deer and Mill Creek. “Obviously it needs to be done, we need to even to a lot more of it, and we need to have ways to first systematically identify these key places statewide,” he said. “They aren’t just going to be the places we know about like Deer and Mill Creeks, but some of these smaller streams as well around the state, some of which are spring fed, some of which need to have water rights purchased and things of this nature.”
Dr. Moyle said that many of the priority actions for water right now are aimed at the more charismatic species, such as the salmon and the steelhead which also tend to be the endangered species. “But we have to recognize the issue goes way beyond that,” he said. “We currently have 31 species of fish alone that are listed as threatened or endangered under either the state or federal acts. My group has just completed a report … on the fish species of special concern in the state, and there are 62 species on that list. These are species that are not listed now but have the potential to be listed in the near future.”
He noted that part of the problem is that these fish are species such as the Clear Lake hitch or the Red Hills roach or the hardhead. “Not exactly charismatic species and they don’t even have charismatic names,” he acknowledged. “It’s things like this that we really need to include in all these plans, and this takes a fairly large scale effort to make sure all these things are protected.”
Re-regulation of the state’s reservoirs is also important, and it goes along with the idea of having definite water allocations for the environment, Dr. Moyle said. A recent study was completed that provided a tool for identifying which reservoirs have streams below them that can be remanaged, and which ones will get the most bang for the environmental buck, he said. “I think we need to do that systematically statewide,” he said. “We need to identify those places and do some prioritization. Figure out which streams would benefit most from having flows reallocated for them. We have tools, we have even have legal tools for this now, so I think there’s a lot of things we can do for the fish and the aquatic environment, but it needs a greater prioritization of action.”
Tim Quinn, Association of California Water Agencies
Tim Quinn began by saying that he agrees with a lot of what Jeff Mount said, but not everything. “Now you might wonder since I’m the executive director of the water supply agencies, why am I sitting on this ecosystem panel,” he said. “I wasn’t quite sure when I got the invitation but I am going to turn it into an opportunity to talk about the coequal goals and what coequal goals means for us to be successful during droughts and non-droughts in the future.”
“Who can disagree with the notion that we need to plan, and we need to plan for the ecosystem,” said Mr. Quinn. “I come from an industry where we’ve got contingency plans A, B,C, D, and E for the next dry period. Of course, you find that the contingency plan gets immediately interrupted by the politics of current drought conditions, but we do plan from a water supply perspective. I’m not sure the same is quite as true on the ecosystem side, and I think we can do a lot more, and we should do a lot more.”
There have been a number of bright spots this year, Mr. Quinn said. “One that is very prominent in my mind are the experiments that they are doing to operate the system with real-time turbidity data and to move away from rigid rules,” he said. “To move away from fixed, rigid systems which are inherently inefficient toward real time data and real time monitoring of the system, that’s something that we’ve been interested in that for over a decade. I was really encouraged to see managers moving in that direction.”
“One of the important things about real time management is they have to work together, so they are spending lots of time together figuring out how to move in this or that direction based on what the data is telling them,” he said. “It is inherently something that forces the silos to work more closely together, and if I have any wishes, it’s that we continue to break out of the silos that we’re in as we move towards a world of coequal goals, because we still haven’t figured that out.”
Mr. Quinn said there isn’t anybody that could convince him that the coequal goals are not the right policy. “It is the right policy,” he said. “It’s better than the low-cost water policy that we have had for decades and it’s better than the protect the species at any cost philosophy that we’re confronted with in ESA management, but none of us know how to put it into action and we’re living that during this drought. We have a goal of coequal goals and we’re surrounded by armies that want to do single purpose management of this system.”
“We have had single purpose management for decades for low-cost water and we have had single purpose management for environmental species for the past 25 years, and I submit to you that when we figure out how to operate in a world of coequal goals, it will not look like any of those single purpose strategies,” Mr. Quinn said. “We’ve got to invent something completely new, and we need to do it together … We haven’t even begun to climb this mountain that is the coequal goals and to figure out what it means to how we operate the system.”
“I think it’s doable,” responded Chuck Bonham. “I mentioned David Orr because this is hard. And the thing I forgot to say is that it’s so hard, you can literally see the human effect. You look at any one of the water supply districts last year and you can see how hard it was for them personally. You go down to the south part of the valley and you can see the human effect.”
“We need empathy. This is about California,” Mr. Bonham continued. “I have to understand that it’s hard for Tim’s folks and expect that they’ll understand that it’s hard for my folks.” He recalled how Thad Bettner at Glenn Colusa Irrigation District worked with the Department of Fish and Wildlife and NMFS to take delivery of water at a different time so that the salmon could benefit from the water. “We got to that outcome because we understood we each had a problem. So it’s on all of our shoulders to make it through this together.”
“All the emergency actions are great, but we need to be able to anticipate these and have facilities that are already set up, for not just the salmon and trout but for things like the red hills roach – the legal tools are there,” said Dr. Moyle citing the public trust doctrine, Section 5937 of the Fish and Game Code, and the Central Valley Project Improvement Act. “There are a lot of tools out there that we can use to do a better job of protecting our aquatic critters. Chuck also made a very important point that these are California – the birds, the fish – these are California phenomena, if we don’t protect it, nobody else is going to.”
Ms. Hanak noted that funding for environmental water acquisitions is an issue, with either legal rulings or legislation determining water for the environment or environmental water being purchased from public funding sources such as bonds that tend to run out. She noted that there is $200 million in the new bond that can potentially be used for improving instream flows through acquisitions. She asked what they thought about the idea of having a more active way of acquiring some rights for the environment.
Chuck Bonham offered three thoughts. “The first is to agree with Sandy,” he said. “It is helpful from the resource management side to help demystify what it is when we say flow. It’s not always the case that the environmental perspective is insisting on full flow 365 days a year around the clock, so I agree with Sandy, the more specific you can fashion the discussion. For example on the salmon front, on this particular period in that month we need this kind of flow at a riffle for migration purposes … if you can really control the problem solving dialog down into something that’s specific, I have found helps produce results.”
Mr. Bonham offered a comment on funding itself. “I think you need to remember that David Orr says that we need to be really self aware and direct in this conversation on these difficult issues,” he said. “The best we’ve ever done under CVPIA to get level four is in 2011, and even then, we were 25% short. It’s almost cost prohibitive when you are really advocating from the environmental perspective if you need to acquire all the water necessary particularly in this state if you’re talking about permanent acquisition, so I think that’s worth understanding and discussing more.” He noted that Proposition 1 (the water bond) does include $200 million to the Wildlife Conservation Board, but there are important limitation conditions in the proposition on leasing or permanent acquisitions.
“One of my priorities for 2015 is to help stand up a legitimate and transparent enhanced streamflow type program that is an implementation step of the California Water Action Plan,” said Mr. Bonham. “I think that would be good for California, I think it would be smart ecological and environmental program building, and I think it’s entirely consistent with Prop 1 and the California Water Action Plan.”
Going back to being more specific about water needs, it’s a science challenge, and we have new tools available to us to step and to meet this challenge, said Sandy Matsumoto. She gave the example of a pilot program that the Nature Conservancy is working on called Bird Return which uses satellite imagery and ebird data from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “The idea here is to determine exactly what weeks and how much water we need to support migratory birds in California. We’ve successfully done this, defining two windows in the spring and the fall, and this year we’re delivering about 14,000 acres of cost-effective habitat that’s temporary. … It’s actually cheaper to do this temporary habitat paying annually each year than it would be to buy some more habitat today. It’s not a replacement for permanent protection, but we also need to start to think about new tools to get the habitat on the ground.”
“As we develop these new funding sources and have more stable revenues, we need to think about allowing for new tools and allowing to experiment with new ideas and bring the next kind of idea forward,” said Ms. Matsumoto. “We need to solve this problem through a combination of what we’ve done in the past that has worked, thinking forward and pushing the science to be more specific, and then challenging us from a policy front to create those enabling positions that can support new approaches.”
Tim Quinn said that he was one of the architects of the environmental water account and that didn’t necessarily work out all that well. “While I agree, let’s experiment with market forces, I think we need to be careful and a bit cautious,” he said. “More importantly, we need to restructure our working relationships with each other to where we’re all willing to embrace the objectives of the other side and work for something that looks like coequal goals. That requires rearranging your DNA for most all of us.”
“It’s not that there are good people and bad people; it’s when you’re in control of the system, you drive it to meet your needs and you shift risks to others,” continued Mr. Quinn. “We did that when we were in control and ESA regulators do that when they are in control. Both of those line up to an economist as highly inefficient, and if we figure out a way to do coequal goals and share benefits, we can create a lot of added wealth for both interests and end up a lot better off than where we are. But people have to let go of their single purpose mindset in order to get there, and that’s what I think we’re struggling with right now.”
Dr. Peter Moyle said that we need to hear more examples of success stories, and he offered the example of Putah Creek as another success story. “Putah Creek is a system where we’ve designed a flow regime for it that really takes a minimal amount of water,” he said. “It also has a very good drought contingency plan associated with it, it’s been very successful and we got lots of native fish, native birds, and everything else is responding. I think one of the key things is that it has strong local support, including the support of the Solano Water Agency. It also has a full-time streamkeeper whose job is to simply go around and solve the various small problems that develop, so I think there are good models out there that we can follow for a lot of these projects or potential projects around the state.”
There was time for just one question, which was asked by Bruce Herbold, retired scientist from the EPA. “I’m just astounded that in this call for multi non-single species controls and all that the Clean Water Act does that, the State Water Board is addressing Delta flows, but nobody mentioned that. Why is that? What’s wrong with the Clean Water Act as the tool to address all of these issues?” he asked.
“Bruce, all I can tell you is that if you went to my constituency and picked at ten at random and said do you think we’re getting coequal goals out of the current application of the Clean Water Act through the State Water Resources Control Board, you wouldn’t get a single agency that thought we were,” responded Tim Quinn. “We need to figure this out. In implementing the Clean Water Act and the Environmental Species Act and our own supply reliability plans, nobody is getting it right and we’re at each other’s throats. In the mid 90s, the Bay Delta Accord, there was actually a spirit of trying to recognize the legitimacy of the other folks objectives, and I think we made a lot of progress for about 6, 7, 8 years, and then it fell apart, and we’re back at playing gotcha politics today and we need to get back to someplace like we were in the 90s.”
“I think the failure for us to mention the water quality control planning proceedings at the Board is not because I don’t believe in both the validity and importance of that proceeding,” responded Chuck Bonham. “In fact, I can contemplate a future where our Department is a catalyst in watersheds around the state, trying to work with water users and conservationists at a local scale to design projects which include ag efficiencies, infrastructure investment, taking water savings and dedicating them to the environment, potentially figuring fish passage and putting salmon back in historical habitat where they haven’t been for a hundred years … and that outcome then needs to be plugged in completely to the jurisdictions over at EPA and the State Water Board because most of these parties want the same result … If we can get to this spot where you can foster a, ‘I don’t’ have to oppose you getting your interests met so long as it’s reasonable in exchange for you working with me to get my interests met,’ I actually think we’re more likely to have product we can push through all the appropriative permitting and regulatory restrictions. That’s how I see this hopefully working, fingers crossed.”