Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, Pt 2: An update on California Eco Restore and the Yolo Bypass

Eco Restore_Page_12Agency officials discuss the progress made towards Eco Restore’s goal of 30,000 acres; Committee is also updated on the ongoing collaborative effort in the Yolo Bypass

The Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee (DPICC) held the second of two semi-annual meetings on November 16 in Sacramento.  The Committee is comprised of eighteen heads of the state, federal, and local agencies that are responsible for implementation of the Delta Plan, and serves as a forum for these agencies to increase their coordination and integration in support of shared national, statewide, and local goals for the Delta.

In this second of three installments of coverage of the meeting, David Okita, Delta Restoration Coordinator, and Kris Jernell, Special Assistant for Water Policy with the Natural Resources Agency, updated committee members on the California Eco Restore program and the many activities underway in the Yolo Bypass.

(The first installment of coverage from this meeting is here: Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, pt 1: Delta Challenges: Complex, Chaotic or Simply Cantankerous.)

California Eco-Restore

As the former general manager of the Solano County Water Agency, among David Okita’s many job duties was to oversee the implementation of habitat restoration projects, one of the more notable projects being along Putah Creek.  As the Delta Restoration Coordinator, Mr. Okita is in charge of overseeing the California Eco Restore program and helping to streamline the permitting process for projects that will be launched in the next four years.

Mr. Okita began by saying that the Eco Restore program can be broken down into three categories: restoration projects, planning, and monitoring and adaptive management. You can consider them three separate elements, but they really are integrated, and science and adaptive management are woven throughout the whole program, he said.

Eco Restore_Page_03The Governor set out a goal of 30,000 acres of restoration in April. “As Chuck said, it is a floor,” he said. “The state plans to do a lot more than this, but we plan to get this done in the next two to three years, or at least get started turning ground on projects.”

Eco Restore_Page_04He presented a map showing projects that were in consideration when the map was published in April. “We’ve added a few to that list and actually one is done,” he said. “The Knight’s Landing Outfall Gate is under construction and will be completed by the end of November, and a wetland restoration project on Sherman Island that was completed at the end of October.”

In 2016, they plan to start the Wallace Weir project in the Yolo Bypass and the Hill Slough project, a wetland restoration project in the Suisun Marsh. “We’re also trying to start an RFP process for tidal wetland projects. This is a new concept that we’re trying to get through the state bureaucracy which will allow us to put out an RFP for tidal wetland projects in the Suisun Marsh and Cache Slough. This would allow the private sector, NGOs, and other public agencies to propose projects that meet the requirements of the Delta smelt biological opinion. We hope that will be a competitive process where we will get some good prices on projects and allow for a variety of means of delivery of these projects. We hope to get that RFP out by the end of this year, and at your next meeting, I hope to report some progress on that. If the RFP process really works, we could add several more projects to that 2016 list and hopefully more in 2017.”

Part of the reason it takes so long to implement restoration problems is due to regulatory projects. “I want to report that we are getting good cooperation from each of your agencies at the staff level,” he said. “I’ve been in several meetings where we have NMFS, USFWS, DWR, the Bureau, and CDFW and they are constructively working through the problems that they are having with some of these sites.”

4 OkitaA lot of the regulatory problems have to do with environmental tradeoffs. “For example, when you are converting a Delta island to a tidal wetland, there are some existing habitats that are there – maybe giant garter snake or valley elderberry longhorn beetle habitat, and those habitats are going to be disturbed as you build a tidal wetland for Delta smelt, so there needs to be a tradeoff for the permitting agencies to allow this conversion to happen,” he said. “Those things are being worked through and some of them may rise to the point where they need to go to your level to resolve, but so far we’re working real hard on resolving these issues.”

Another example is in the Suisun Marsh. “The salt marsh harvest mouse needs gently sloping levee slopes in order for the mouse to leave the wet area to the dry area, but when you do these very 20:1 slopes, it results in more bayfill, so the tradeoff is mouse habitat versus bay fill,” he said. “That is a tough decision for some of these agencies to deal with. That’s another one we’re working on, and there’s a whole bunch of them in the Delta.”

So far, your staff has been very cooperative, but some of these may be so hard they need to be elevated to a higher level, and some of you may need to step in and help us on that,” Mr. Okita said.

Mr. Okita said he was starting to explore an adaptive management program for habitat restoration projects in the Delta and Suisun Marsh. “My feeling is that these restoration projects are going to go in the ground in the next couple years, and if you’re going to do an adaptive management program, you need to start monitoring those programs and have an adaptive management program going. My thought was that maybe we don’t want to wait for the larger program to get established, so let’s start with a restoration project adaptive management program, so I’m working on trying to establish that.”

There is a lot of water quality monitoring going on these days and a lot of skilled people managing that data, and the wetland monitoring program that the EPA and the state have set up could be the foundation for managing an adaptive management program for restoration projects in the Delta, he said.

The monitoring part of it is in pretty good shape,” Mr. Okita said. “What I found was lacking was the process to take that data and to analyze it, to synthesize it, to integrate it, and result in a decision-making process, so that’s what I’m working on now is trying to figure out what the institutional structure and the financing structure is to do that integration and management of these decision making processes.”

Eco Restore_Page_06He presented a slide of the adaptive management cycle from the Delta Science Plan. “Everybody talks about adaptive management,” he said. “I went to visit a lot of people who are involved in data management and adaptive management, and I asked them, why don’t we have the type of adaptive management program that the Delta science program is recommending? I didn’t get a lot of good answers. But there are a lot of good people there, so part of my job is to get those people together and actually see if we can implement this program in a short time period.”

Mr. Okita acknowledged that funding is an important part of it. He pointed out that the state and federal water contractors are funding the projects required by the biological opinions, and there is a mandate to do adaptive management, so there is a funding source there. “We’re going to be talking to the water contractors, DWR and the Bureau of Reclamation to define their role in helping to fund an adaptive management program for these restoration projects. So that is at least one funding source that we have to start this program.”

Eco Restore_Page_07Mr. Okita then presented a slide showing progress on meeting the goal of 30,000 acres. “There are two ways to look at this: good news and bad news,” he said. “Some of the numbers are close to the goals that the Governor put out for Eco Restore, but the bad news is that the green is only planned projects; these are projects that are conceptual projects or projects that are in the middle of permitting but have not started construction yet. The blue are the finished projects, and as you can see, the bad news that there are hardly any finished projects done. We have another color red which is under construction, and because this is not the construction season, you don’t see any of those right now. But we hope to have a lot more blue and red in 2016 and 2017 that will show you progress in meeting those goals.”

He noted that the largest acreage is in the Yolo Bypass and the Cache Slough area. “If all the planned projects go through, we can pretty much meet the Governor’s goals for the next few years,” he said.

The Yolo Bypass

David Okita then turned the presentation over to Kris Tjernell, Special Assistant for Water Policy, to give an update on the work being done in the Yolo Bypass.

Kris Tjernell began by noting that more than half of Eco-Restore’s 30,000 acre goal is envisioned to happen within the Yolo Bypass. Of the 17,000 acres of restored flood plain habitat required by the biological opinions, the Yolo Bypass has been identified as the most significant and most plausible area to get the majority of that done, if not all of it.

4 TjernellBeyond the habitat restoration acreage, there are other components to the work going on in the Yolo Basin. “One is the improving the fish passage opportunities within the Yolo Bypass, and also increasing fish passage between the Yolo Bypass floodplain habitat and the Sacramento River,” he said.

From some people’s perspective, the Yolo Bypass is a flood control facility that was authorized a hundred years ago by Congress as such, Mr. Tjernell said. “Giving existing conditions of levees and the expected increased flows on the Sacramento River from climate change, we’re going to have to do significant levee improvements – not just fixing them in place but setting them back in the Yolo Bypass. We’re talking about significant land use changes in the Yolo Bypass region to accommodate for flood need.”

The Yolo Bypass is also ground zero for the 2009 biological opinion, both in the northern half of the bypass, as well as the southern half. “It’s also two-thirds in private ownership with the vast majority of that is in agriculture, so its hugely important to the Solano County and Yolo County economy, the regional economy,” he said.

So what are some of the big picture opportunities here where if we were to really step outside of our comfort zones collectively, how could we really achieve progress in this really contentious and historically fractured landscape, Mr. Tjernell said. Some of the ideas include the creation of the Yolo Bypass partnership and using the CEQA/NEPA process as a forcing function to improve the integration of flood project planning and biological opinion restoration planning.

Eco Restore_Page_08Mr. Tjernell then recapped the collective wins and the progress made in the Yolo Bypass. “One thing I’m learning very clearly about progress in the Yolo Bypass and I think by proxy everywhere in the Delta, is that not only are these questions not either-or, is this person going to win versus this person, but it’s recognition that there is actually no way for anybody to win unless everybody does to a certain extent. That has been a realization that has been in some ways a pleasure to come to, because it really helps set a pretty clear course for how to go about doing this work.”

There is a lot going on in the bypass, but the two major efforts that Mr. Tjernell’s work is focused on are the restoration requirements of the 2009 biological opinions and the major flood system improvement projects that need to be done. The flood work involves increasing the area of the bypass on the order of 10-15% through levee setbacks and strengthening to be able to deal with increased conveyance need, he said.

Eco Restore_Page_09He then presented a slide of early implementation fish passage projects, noting that he would be talking today mostly about fish passage and floodplain restoration, and some near-term flood system improvements, but won’t be addressing the long-term flood control system improvements as they are worthy of a presentation all on their own.

The Yolo Bypass Partnership met for the first time on September 2nd with a second meeting scheduled for early February, 2016. The partnership is made up of local, state, and federal agencies, including Yolo County, Solano County, Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency, Solano County Water Agency, the California Natural Resources Agency, Department of Wildlife, the state and federal fish agencies, Army Corps and the Bureau of Reclamation. The parties agreed to meet somewhat regularly to help with higher level policy decisions as staff identifies challenges and hurdles and to make some common decisions. Mr. Tjernell noted that it is not a voting body and cannot itself make any decisions, but it is more of a forum to help work through these issues.

The Wallace Weir project, the Tule agricultural road crossing project, and the Fremont Weir fish ladder fish modification project are all components of the 2009 biological opinion. These projects are being implemented while the more complicated slightly longer-term CEQA/NEPA process for the floodplain restoration side of the biological opinion continues, he said.  He then briefly discussed each project:

The Knights Landing Outfall Gates (project A on the map): This project was started and finished within a year. “It’s because a lot of these agencies up here went above and beyond, whether it was from a regulatory perspective or from a lead agency perspective, to push staff and make things happen, and to really get permits and financing and that particular project in the ground in essentially lightning speed,” he said. “So we’re looking to the Knights Landing outfall gates project as a model for the Wallace Weir project, and these others as well.”

Wallace Weir (project B on the map): DWR is about two or three weeks or so away from entering into contract with the same Reclamation District that led the effort on Knights Landing outfall gates to do Wallace Weir. “As it turns out, local reclamation districts know how to get stuff done really well, so they are going to be taking the lead on the Wallace Weir project with an anticipated groundbreaking and hopefully a completion in 2016,” he said.

Tule ag crossings: These are road crossings that are impeding adult fish passage north and juvenile salmonid passage south along the Tule Canal on the eastern side of the Yolo Bypass, said Mr. Tjernell. “We’ve already formed informal alliances with local agencies, landowners, where some of them are actually starting to take the lead on some of the initial design for this project to about 10 or 20% design, they will then pass that work off to us at the state and federal level to then carry that torch forward but at least from the beginnings, the basis of this design work will be something that we know works for the local agricultural community and the landowners in that region. It’s another example of working with local, federal, and state partners. Planned groundbreaking and hopefully completion, I think we could do that in 2017. Again, pretty ambitious but with the work of this committee and others, I think it’s certainly possible.

Fremont Weir fish ladder:The existing Fremont Weir fish ladder is about 4 feet wide, 6-8 feet deep, and it’s essentially ecologically defunct from everything I’ve been told about it,” he said. “So consistent with the biological opinion, the idea here is to modify that existing fish ladder so that it’s wider, deeper, so that it touches more of the flood curve to allow for mostly adult salmonids and sturgeon to make their way from the bypass into the Sacramento River.”

This one’s going to take some careful needle threading,” Mr. Tjernell said. “The Fremont Weir is an Army Corps of Engineers facility, and it’s often referred to as the lynchpin of the entire Sacramento Basin flood control system. So threading the needle with the Army Corps who own the facility also needing to make sure that it’s done in a way that works for downstream landowners, whether they be in the agricultural community or the wildlife refuges south, and as quickly as possible, given the dire condition of our fisheries that would mostly certainly benefit from it.”

Eco Restore_Page_10With respect to the 17,000 acres of floodplain restoration, they are aiming again for local, state, and federal alignment. “Not because it feels good to do so, not because it makes a good bullet point, because again what we all recognize is that we don’t get this project done unless we can do so with a sufficient degree of local agency buy-in, landowner buy-in, and NGO buy-in,” Mr. Tjernell said. “So in tandem without bias along with the ongoing analysis of our other alternatives as part of the CEQA/NEPA process for this particular effort, we have started what we’re calling a ‘jointly developed alternative process.’ We’re essentially dedicating one slot in the mix of alternatives to create a forum where we will work hand in hand with local agencies, non profits and the landowner community with the state and federal agencies to see if we can’t actually achieve an alternative that works for all.”

Mr. Tjernell said that although they were starting the jointly developed alternative process, they will not be changing the timeline for the completion of the EIR/EIS, a public draft of which is anticipated to be completed in early 2017.

Eco Restore_Page_11Mr. Tjernell then turned to near-term flood system improvements. An outcome of the first Yolo Bypass Partnership meeting was a charge to identify early flood projects that fall within the amount of available funding, provides real system-wide flood benefits, and has local, state, and federal alignment, and if possible, projects that can be enhanced for floodplain benefits consistent with the biological opinion itself, that have riparian ecosystem benefits, and can be done in a way that can accommodate any future flood work that needs to be done in the bypass, he said.

It’s a pretty tall order and I want to be clear, while the answer is still needing to be ironed out, it seems to be trending yes,” said Mr. Tjernell. “It’s my intention to focus a significant piece of the Yolo Bypass Partnership agenda in early February on really running this question to ground, is the setback of the Lower Elkhorn Levee and the adjacent expansion of the Sacramento Bypass a project that makes sense? Does it fall within budget, is there local, state and federal alignment, does it have adequate actual flood improvements in the mainstem of the Sacramento River, can it be enhanced for other ecosystem benefits, etc?

And with that, Mr. Tjernell concluded his presentation and the floor was opened up for discussion.

4 ReaOne thing I have observed over time is that while monitoring is often required on projects, we tend to be good at requiring physical monitoring and metrics and follow-up; we’ve been less good at requiring biological monitoring, and so without that, we’re not able to conclude at the end of the day if the fish actually utilized the habitat we’re creating,” said Maria Rea, Assistant Regional Administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “That’s an area where I would just like to see continued focus. The Corps has done some really good work on this with respect to some of the vegetated levee redesigns that have been done and I’ve seen some really encouraging tagged fish studies that actually show the fish are using the habitat, so the more that that can be built into what’s being required, I think that will ultimately be very helpful in terms of closing the loop and making sure what we’re investing in is doing what we think it will.”

4 PiephoDelta Protection Commission Chair Mary Piepho said she had been asked by her Yolo and Solano county colleagues to share their perspective on the partnership. “Historically, state and federal flood risk reduction and habitat restoration initiatives in the Yolo Bypass and Cache Slough complex have been developed without strong collaboration and working relationships with the local agencies and landowners who will be most directly affected by these implemented projects,” she said. “This approach has created a sense of mistrust at the local level that has made implementing projects both politically and practically difficult and probably more expensive in the long run, so this recently formed regional flood management planning effort resulted in a very strong partnership of local agencies within the Yolo Bypass and the Cache Slough complex committed to proactively developing an integrated flood, water supply, quality, habitat, and agricultural sustainability solution in the region and for the state.”

The local agencies completed the Lower Sacramento Delta North Regional Flood Management Plan in July of 2014,” Ms. Piepho continued. “The local agencies are committed to this project and we’re hearing from the state and federal agencies that they are too. It’s really important that we talk about science in a collaborative fashion but we also talk about these projects in a collaborative fashion and having the local governments at the table really do help make sure that success happens early on, efficiently, and most appropriately for the environment.

4 RossSecretary of Agriculture Karen Ross said she appreciated that landowners were called out specifically. “It is a much messier process because of the multiple parties that you’re working with, but the results can be richer and longer lasting,” she said. “Farm bill dollars have started to go with programs like the regional conservation partnership program, bringing those landowners together and having them at the table from the very beginning and understanding what is it that we need to get accomplished and what is our role in being able to do this is an important part of that partnership. … There are farm bill dollars and the Natural Resource Conservation Service that wants to do this, and I think wherever we can identify these kinds of programs that will be a part of the sustainable ag land conservation program, or that might be able to utilize perhaps cap and trade option dollars that are reducing greenhouse gases and improving habitat and helping out some of these things, we start to get so many more multiple benefits out of one big program. … Tremendous opportunities and really calling on the landowners themselves to stand up and highlight those success stories around the state will bring even more people into these kinds of programs.”

4 BurnsGordon Burns, Undersecretary for Cal EPA, asked David Okita to elaborate on the wetlands monitoring program that he had mentioned might serve as a model.

EPA worked with California on the Wetland Riparian Area Monitoring Plan or WRAMP,” replied Mr. Okita. “When I talk to the people at the state who do the monitoring, that may very well be the framework that you start adaptive management monitoring on, so what I’m saying is we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are a lot of processes that a lot of smart people put into developing the monitoring and assemblage of data, but what is missing is what do you do with that data, how do you integrate it and study it and turn it into the decision making process, so that’s what I’m trying to focus on.

This group acknowledges that we will be here six months from now to receive an update,” said Randy Fiorini. “You have put everyone on notice here that you may need some help occasionally to move some things along, so we stand at the ready to help in any way that we can.”

For more information …

Coming up tomorrow …

Coverage of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee concludes with an update on progress made on collaborative science efforts in the Delta, and a presentation on the Delta Independent Science Board’s latest resport, Flows and Fishes in the Delta.

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