Delta Stewardship Council discusses flows and fishes in the Delta, adopts Delta conveyance principles, and addresses single year transfers

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At the November meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, a panel of scientists discussed the Delta Independent Science Board’s recent report on flows and fishes in the Delta; the council also adopted principles for conveyance, storage, and water operations, and they moved a step closer to a decision point on amending the Delta Plan as it relates to single-year transfers

Flows and fishes in the Delta

The Delta Independent Science Board (DISB) is charged by the Delta Reform Act of 2009 to provide oversight through periodic review of the scientific research, monitoring, and assessment programs that support adaptive management of the Delta, and to submit results to the Delta Stewardship Council. The DISB is structuring its reviews by themes, with the theme of this review being how freshwater flows affect Delta fish populations. The report, Flows and Fishes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Research Needs in Support of Adaptive Management, broadly reviews the science of the effects of flow on fishes and recommends strategic science activities to improve understanding of the underlying processes and to benefit decision-making.

At the November meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Carl Wilcox from the Department of Fish and Wildlife, Maria Rea with NOAA Fisheries, Ted Sommer with the Department of Water Resources, Ara Azdherian with the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authroity, and Dr. Tina Swanson from the Natural Resources Defense Council discussed the report’s findings.  To get things started, Dr. Jay Lund, Chair of the DISB, began by recapping the main points of the report.

Dr. Jay LundDr. Lund began by noting that this report on flows and fish is the second in the series of reports the Council is charged with producing every four years. The reviews of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and California Water Fix have slowed the progress somewhat.  Habitat restoration was reviewed in 2013; there is a public review of the adaptive management report currently underway, and the DISB is formulating how they are going to approach the next two topics, water quality and Delta as a place. Eventually they will report on Delta levees and water supply reliability.  The reports are brief, looking at how effective the science is for managing in the particular area and what suggestions does the ISB have for science to take in the future.

The purpose of the review is to identify strategic science needs to improve understanding, scientific collaboration, and communication about the relationships among fishes, flows, and stressors.  “The context of this report is particularly challenging,” he said. “It’s relatively all encompassing. If you didn’t have any water in the Delta at all, if it were a dry place then we wouldn’t be here, so the water and the flows in the Delta link everything together. It was a challenge to try and pull this together as it really links the coequal goals and certainly the Delta as a place.”

Dr. Lund pointed out that there are multiple stressors affecting the Delta’s altered ecosystem. “Flows is one of them, but flows also mediates the effectiveness of all the other stressors,” he said. “There has been a lot of work on this topic of fish and flows particularly using correlation and statistical analysis, and those have been valuable, but we’re going to suggest a shift in emphasis to more causal approaches.”

The Delta Independent Science Board reviewed earlier reports sponsored by the Delta Science Program, such as the panel summary reports from the workshop on Delta outflows and the workshop on interior Delta flows, as well as other research such as the MAST report and reports from the National Research Council on sustainable water and environmental water management of the Bay Delta system.

Our process in this review has been to examine the published work, not only these major reports but quite a few of the other papers and some of the great literature in this area,” he said. “We interviewed quite a few state and federal scientists, consulting scientists, scientists working for interest groups and academic scientists; we attended quite a number of science workshops and received some presentations to the science board; and we had a draft report, we solicited public comments and those were very helpful in finalizing the report.”

Dr. Lund then discussed the major findings of the report, the first being that connecting flows and fishes is central to achieving the state’s coequal goals. “The modern Delta is not a native ecosystem but is dominated by non-native species with some natives, and that’s a particular challenge for some of the ecosystem goals for the Delta,” he said. “Statistical analyses show that flows do affect fish, but decisions need a little bit more causal understanding of how flows involve fishes, especially as we try to manage the Delta and make some larger changes over time. Where larger changes occur in the Delta that we have to respond to, we need a more causal understanding of how these relationships work.”

Flow is not just one variable, Dr. Lund pointed out. “There are a lot of different flows in a lot of different places in the Delta at a lot of different times,” he said. “Where the flow is and how much and in which direction is obviously an important aspect. Then what I think is probably the greatest understatement in all of my presentation, there are many agencies are involved.”

Fish and Flows_Page_09Dr. Lund presented a conceptual diagram to show how flows are affected by both natural and human managed processes, noting that flows affect fish populations in a lot of different ways, both directly and indirectly. “Flows affect fish by the movement of the fish, they affect some of the abiotic factors, they affect biotic factors, and they all affect a fish population’s vital rates, which are mortality, births, deaths, and growth rates of the fish; they also affect other drivers. This is the context we tried to look at this in; it includes a lot of other stressors and not just flows, but again flows mediate and affect how all the other stressors work together.”

The report has nine conclusions.

1-Focus on cause and effect.Correlation studies are very useful and very helpful, but one of the things we want to do is improve how the Delta works and make some big changes in the Delta,” he said. “The bigger the changes that you make in the Delta or the bigger the changes in the climate, flows and the population constituents as well as the different kinds of species in the Delta, the less you should be able to rely on statistical, empirical studies, so the causal mechanisms are likely to become more important as things go on.”

This is a mechanistic discussion of how things work and why they work, not just the patterns we see in population dynamics,” he said. “Understand how these things vary in time and in location and how the water flows fish movements in time and place. Understand how flow velocities, depths, and their dynamics affect the physical, chemical, and biological factors, and then to quantify in the end how fish vital rates are affected by the interaction of environmental conditions, including flows. So let’s try and figure out the cause and effect on the fish related to the flows.”

2-Expand integrative science approach.We want to have a much more comprehensive, strategic, integrated and planned scientific approach that focuses on the processes and drivers and on predictions so that we can move towards predictions,” he said. “This is going to be a long road, but it’s a longer road if we don’t start for a few more years.”

There needs to be more focus on the ecosystem, not just single listed species because more species are likely to be listed in the system over time, so hopefully we can manage the Delta so as to avoid having additional species being listed, he said. The work needs to be interagency and cross-disciplinary as historically there has been a lot of fragmentation on how research has been planned, organized, done, publicized, and integrated, he said.

Research and monitoring needs to have more focus on vital rates and ecosystem functions. “This is not just trawls; we’re all waiting with bated breath for what does the last trawl of the streams come up with in terms of the fish,” he said. “The DISB feels we should focus a little bit more on trying to explain why are the fish growing or not growing, how are they growing, what are their reproduction rates, mortality rates in different places as a way of coming up with more causal explanations for how the ecosystem functions overall.”

3-Link numerical fish models with 3-D water flow models. “A central part of this more causal explanation of fish and flows is to link the hydrodynamic models – of which there are quite a few in the Delta – with fish models, of which there are some developing,” he said. “This is going to require some sustained collaboration to develop public 3D hydrodynamic water quality models that couple with models of fish growth, survival, reproduction, migration. We’re not going to get immediate complete understanding of the system this way, but over time it will be a framework that allows us to integrate knowledge much better than we are currently able.”

Dr. Lund said it will require cross-disciplinary teams of hydrodynamic modelers as well as fish experts that will likely to have to come from several different agencies who can integrate all the knowledge together and figure out what do we really know from all of this. Some simple steps in this direction would be to hold a modeling summit, establish a standing joint working group and program of hydrodynamic and fish modelers probably working between agencies.

4-Link time and space scales to mechanisms. The different flows need to be linked to how they work with other things, such as temperature, since flow is a mediator of other stressors on fish, he said. Quite often the modeling is done on a monthly basis or an hourly basis; for many of the fish purposes, we would want to have shorter time steps and smaller space scales, he said.

5-Monitor vital rates. Growth rates, mortality rates, predation, and factors that affect the individual and their individual success and not just the trawl counts need to be monitored. “How do you get a population? Things get born into it, they mature into it, and then they die off of it, and so instead of just taking trawls … estimate what’s affecting the growth and the decline of the population in terms of the mortality rates and recruitment rates,” he said. “Link this to the modeling efforts and monitor factors likely to respond to flow, such as growth rates, movement, predation, and mortality.”

6-Broaden the species focus.We’re currently well focused on the endangered species, but we need to look at some of the other species, even the non-native species (which are most of the fish in the Delta) as a way of understanding the ecosystems and the food webs, looking at predator and competitor distributions and abundance, flow influence on predators and predation rates, and predator impacts on salmon smolt, Delta smelt, and other native species.”

7-Timely synthesis of research. “It’s nice to have lots of science projects, but we want to have opportunities to try and digest and synthesize them, to learn from them for both for policy purposes and management purposes, and to help guide what’s the most important thing to look at next,” he said.

8-Enhance national and international connections. One issues that came up consistently was the importance of connecting the science in the Delta with all the other science on fish ecosystems all over the world. “There are a lot of other systems in the world which have similarities to the Delta and where people are struggling with other problems, so having greater access to that literature in terms of the journals, and for some modest amount of being able to go to conferences in other parts of the country and other parts of the world to bring in those ideas would be very useful for our ability to mature the science in the Delta and apply it.”

9-Improve coordination among the disciplines and the institutions that all share responsibility for this domain.

With respect to promising directions, Dr. Lund said to have a more mechanistic approach that links water dynamics to ecosystem dynamics, identify essential habitat requirements for fish and species and how flow changes these habitat features using models help us to understand, and then to recognize both the direct and indirect effects on fish production processes and on vital rates, not only from the flows directly, but also incorporating the other stressors involved.

Council Chair Randy Fiorini noted that when the report was in the conceptual mode, it was treated as ‘fishes, flows, and other stressors’. “Somewhere along the line, the title changed and the emphasis changed. It might be well to understand what happened,” he said.

Dr. Lund acknowledged that there was quite a bit of discussion amongst the science board on this. “This is always a problem for our reports in that even if you look at the other report we completed on habitat, you could write a hundred dissertations on this subject for the Delta, at least,” he said. “Same thing with fish and flows. If you add fish, flows, and other stressors, you might be waiting a long time for a complete report, so what we’ve tried to do here is to focus on the fish and the flows because that’s really where most of the argument seems to occur, and some of us have been authors on other reports involving all the multiple stressors in the Delta. So we wanted to look for a way of looking at fish and flows which is one of the hot buttons in a way that gives us a framework for integrating the other stressors, and I think the mechanistic approach that we are outlining is the best scientific way to do that and the most effective in the long run.”

The panel members were then each given an opportunity to respond.

CARL WILCOX, Policy Advisor on the Delta for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

While we live in a world of correlation, if you look at when conditions are good, fish generally do well, and when conditions aren’t so good, relative to flow, they don’t do so well, so I think the idea that because we have statistical correlations, we have real observational data that indicates what the conditions look like,” began Carl Wilcox. “I think the issue really lies around these causal relationships.”

Carl WilcoxThe level to which we understand the role of predation is for particular species or run is an important thing for managing a particular system, and we have evidence certainly from the San Joaquin system that predation is probably an important factor because there’s low survival, but how that relates to flow conditions is another question,” he continued. “We don’t totally understand why particularly based on some more recent information, even when the flows are higher, we’re not seeing what we saw in the past, so I think it’s important to understand those … we argue to a great degree about what goes on in relationship to those, and trying to understand where the uncertainty lies relative to why flows provide the benefits they do.”

I think trying to inform how we manage the system for the species that we’re particularly interested in could be aided by having a better understanding of what the particularly abiotic factors are that influence movement, distribution of fish, and those kinds of things,” he said. “Also when it comes to predation, what situations is it most affecting the population. There’s quite a bit of work underway right now, looking at those issues, particularly in the lower San Joaquin River. I think we’re going through a major effort within the CSAMP process and the IEP to start to look at these kinds of issues to better understand how these things work together.”

It isn’t going to happen overnight, Mr. Wilcox cautioned. “This is going to take time, particularly if you’re looking at developing an integrated model that’s both physical and biological, and I don’t think that would be a bad thing,” he said. “It would be great to have predictive tool that would tell us that if we do this, we’re going to get that, and if we manage for these things, we’re going to have a certain kind of outcome, but there’s a lot of information that needs to be developed to tie those two things together.

MARIA REA, Assistant Regional Administrator, NOAA Fisheries

Maria Rea began by saying that the report is a helpful synthesis with clear recommendations and is consistent with previous recommendations on this topic. With the NOAA’s role as a federal agency managing for endangered runs of anadromous salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon, there is work already underway to respond to these kinds of recommendations, she said.

Before she highlighted the work NOAA is undertaking, she first clarified that there are two NOAA fisheries in California: She is with the West Coast region which has management responsibilities; there is also a separate science center, but they both report to the administration in Washington, DC.

Maria ReaShe noted that the NOAA regional office produced a set of priority science questions in 2012 intended to publicize and focus the kinds of science that would inform and change management decisions. “We do think it’s important as a management agency and consumer for all this science in terms of making regulatory decisions that we’re clear about the information that we need, and certainly we could benefit from improved information in several areas,” she said.

Ms. Rea then highlighted the current work NOAA is engaged in:

Salmon life cycle model: The science center is working hard on a salmon life cycle model that would show how salmon through their life cycle respond to flow, habitat, ocean conditions, and upstream conditions.  “That’s well underway and responds to some of the ideas in this report of linking hydrodynamic models and inputs to species outcomes and effects.”

Enhanced particle tracking model: This effort takes particle tracking, which just looks at passive movement of particles and how they respond to changes in Delta hydrodynamics, and then adds fish behavior to those particles. Ms. Rea said they started with a list of 12 possible fish behaviors that fish may do which can be different for different reaches of the Delta, and they are trying to put that all together and develop a tool that can be tested and validated through tagged fish studies.

Other modeling efforts: Going beyond the Delta, the fish center is working on temperature modeling upstream with a model called RAFT, as well as bioenergetic models.

Additionally, a salmon scoping team set up as part of the Collaborative Adaptive Management Team (CAMT) has issued a draft report with very similar recommendations, Ms. Rea said. “It’s a nice co-evolution to see that, including very clear recommendations that our hydrodynamic models that we have in place are not adequate for what we’re trying to do with them, to really invest in a significant upgrade in our hydrodynamic modeling in the Delta and to couple that to fish behavior and metrics.”

As a result of the drought, there is now some improved monitoring in the Delta with a lot more in real time. “The question then becomes how can we use that data to inform model development over time and have that not just be a sort of in response to drought monitoring, but really take that to the next level, and I think there are lots of good discussions going on there,” she said, noting there have also been improvements made in acoustic telemetry and the acoustic arrays throughout the Delta.

Ms. Rea said that there is a new salmon effort going on through the IEP similar to the MAST effort for Delta smelt that is working to clarify what metrics are meaningful for salmon viability that need to be monitored for over time; that information will then inform modeling efforts.

Adaptive management is written into the current NMFS biological opinions, so we are always open to new ideas about how to better adjust operations in consultation with Reclamation, Department of Water Resources, of the Central Valley Project and State Water Project,” Ms. Rea said. “I think often people perceive that the biops are not flexible and I think there is flexibility within bounds, so trying to incorporate some of these modeling tools such that are recommended in this report is very consistent with our view of how the regulatory responsibilities for the endangered species act ought to be implemented in the Delta.”

Ms. Rea noted that in terms of the level of investment in science and monitoring in the Delta, while substantial, is not really at the same level as other areas of the country. “We really do need to carefully build capacity and have a higher level of investment,” she said.

The Council can help by continuing to support the Delta Science Program. “Everything we do through adaptive management of the biops relies on the Delta Science Program,” she said. “The annual LOBO reviews are really helpful to us. Synthesis workshops are really helpful to us. … “

TED SOMMER, Program Manager for the Department of Water Resources

Ted Sommer began by noting that as a communications tool, the report provides a good summary to help explain the way that flow works and some of the limitations in the work done so far, and how complicated it really is to try and evaluate why flow is important. He said the report also might be helpful for generating more synthesis of research, perhaps make it easier to attend other scientific meetings, help develop more sustainable scientific funding, and will help prioritize some of the studies and management actions.

Mr. Sommer said that if they had the monitoring information recommended in the report, they would be more effective in their management. He gave two examples:

Sacramento splittail: The Sacramento splittail is a large native minnow that was listed about 20 years ago. It’s one of the species that has a strong relationship to flow, so a few scientists did some research. “What we found based on just a few years of study is that the reason splittail responded so well to flow is because of floodplain inundation,” he said. “It’s the most floodplain dependent species we have, and so we found a specific way in which floodplain and flow interacted, and this had helped generate a whole area of habitat restoration and has opened up management tools for other species like salmon that NMFS recognizes the values of floodplain, so it really helps us focus.”

Fall flow action for Delta smelt: “RPA 4 of the Delta smelt biological opinion asks for an adaptive management investigation of how fall flows might help Delta smelt, and so our program working with the USFWS developed a study program,” he said. “In 2011 we did an intensive study when there were high flows in fall of the potential benefits for Delta smelt, and one of the things we found is that food was greatly enhanced when there were higher flows in 2011, but it wasn’t at all the way we thought. A lot of the food web support we saw in 2011 was actually coming out of the Yolo Bypass in fall because of an unusual flow pattern there. We’ve used this information to help craft some focused adaptive management studies actually using agricultural flows to see if we can get some of the same food web support, so the lesson behind that is quantity and quality may also matter for these things.”

With respect to barriers, funding is a continued issue, Mr. Sommer said. “The degree to which you can advocate for funding for flow related mechanistic studies would be really helpful,” he said. “There also may be some adaptive management type actions that require some regulatory support; some of the things that we may need to answer flow questions may be a little on the courageous side, and so your support for those sort of actions could be helpful.

Ted SommerOne of things I really want to push is the need for more experimental or manipulative studies,” he said. “It’s one thing to just go out and monitor things and look for a signal in all that, and that includes just doing vital rates. When we do some specific manipulation based on our predictions, we may get a much clearer result. Some of the examples might be if we do managed inundations of floodplain, do we get more bang for our buck for a given amount of flow or similarly does habitat restoration change the flow relationships that we see for some of the target species. … These are things that, from a regulatory standpoint might be a little challenging, given our current standards as there may be endangered species concerns. To get some of these answers, we may need to try some things physically out there in the Delta.”

ARA AZHDERIAN, Water Policy Administrator for the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority

Ara Azhderian expressed appreciation for report, but noted that a lot of the recommendations have been around for more than 20 years. “It’s a helpful guide but it doesn’t help us with the management, and ultimately that is what we’re trying to do here, and so we would like to underscore the importance of focusing on cause and effect and getting better understanding on the mechanisms so we can improve the efficacy of our management actions, we can improve the efficient use of water, and of course, improve collaboration and buy in. Success breeds success.”

Ara AzdherianAt the end of the day, we don’t regulate mechanisms – we regulate flow, but understanding if we’re getting the desired effect,” he said. “The State Board has an obligation to balance beneficial uses. NMFS and USFWS don’t’ have that same obligation in terms of their ESA responsibilities, but the State Board does, and so understanding mechanism helps us get it to a lot of questions.”

We’ve been taking actions for quite some time, without seeing the desired effects on the statue of the fish, and the status for people have never quite been so worse, he said. “If we’re sitting down and we’re trying to understand mechanisms and the relationship between flow and fish and other stressors and the whole complex ecosystem we’re living in, maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is why are so many non-natives doing so remarkably well in the exact same system that a handful of native species are doing remarkably poor in. It really comes down to a question of emphasis. Where we have invested in an inordinate amount of effort, money, and human resource, we’ve caused extraordinary socio-economic disruption is on answering questions that relate to regulation. How do we regulate the projects – it’s usually (but not always) focused on that.”

It’s a very different question then the question of what do we do to improve the state of fish, or what do we do to improve the state of non-native species, in which case we are talking about other stressors, so I think being able to understand what conversation we’re having helps us to bring focus to where we should be dedicating our limited resources, and hopefully will bring about much more desired effects,” he said.

With respect to barriers to overcome, Mr. Azdherian said that we’ve all seen varying degrees of decision paralysis, and he thinks there are several reasons for this. “One, we are usually talking about ESA listed fish, so while there’s always the regulatory limitations about affecting jeopardy or critical habitat, there’s always the fear of extinction, which has only grown as we have struggled through the drought,” he said. “Then there’s always the scientific uncertainty that we have to manage, and at the end, it seems all too often what we end up doing is not making a decision, which is just perpetuating the status quo, which I think all of us as reasonable people having a conversation will agree, is untenable, and yet we haven’t found a way to get beyond it.

Mr. Azdherian pointed out that with the Sacramento splittail, we’ve known for 20 years that floodplain inundation is a good thing but how much of that have we done. “I agree with Ms. Rea’s assessment that a lot of things are improving here recently, but I think it’s a real good example,” he said. “There is the need to step out, take some risks, fail, learn from that, test some of the hypotheses, and experiment some. The Two Gates project in 2009-2010 never could get beyond the regulatory approvals to implement what many biologists and scientists said was a great experiment.”

’Connecting water flows and fishes is central to the state coequal goals,’ – that was a quote out of the slideshow presentation,” he said. “I guess the observation there is that they’ve always been connected. The question is have we managed that connection as well as we could, and I think the answer to that has been no, overall.”

Mr. Azhderian said he agreed timely synthesis of research. “We’re collecting more data not less, so I think the next bottleneck we’re suffering from is the lack of analytical capacity,” he said. “The data is there, but it can take 2, 3, 4 years sometimes to process that data where we can actually learn and do something from it, so being able to expand our analytical capacity or maybe farm some of that out, is I think a suggestion that bears some discussion amongst folks smarter than me.

All along we’ve viewed the Council’s greatest potential as its ability to bring the myriad of state and federal agencies together. “The Council can serve sort of the bully pulpit, encouraging action, whether it be using the existing funding more wisely that we do, whether it’s getting more funding, whether it’s stepping out and taking risks and doing experiments, there is certainly that ability from the Council.”

There’s an also a need to demonstrate accountability,” said Mr. Azhderian. “Every sector of California water use has to account for where every drop is going and what it’s doing. Municipal, agricultural, and in some cases, wildlife management as well, but in many respects, much of what we’re doing today because they are flow-based regulations, there isn’t that sense of requirement to account for what did we get for that water, so in some cases, we’ve been doing things for a long, long time. Some folks are scratching their heads about what we’re getting about that, so being able to reasonably address this issue about accountability and how we’re using environmental water I think is another area that deserves lots of attention.”

DR. TINA SWANSON, Director of the Science Center Program, Natural Resources Defense Council

Dr. Tina Swanson began by saying she greatly appreciated the work that went in to the report, but she was fairly underwhelmed by it. “I’m not entirely certain why you asked for this report, and whether with this report, you got what you asked for,” she said. “The premise of the report is that you, as well as all of the agencies involved here, have a challenge of managing flows for the ecosystem and flows for water supply for consumptive use, the coequal goals, which are the overarching objective of your work here.”

Dr. Tina Swanson“This report, while it’s very useful and of course current inventory of our existing knowledge and understanding and research results for fish for flows, it is essentially not a synthesis of that information – it is a proposal of research strategy to further enhance our understanding of the relationship between fish and flows,” she continued.  “There’s nothing wrong with that, but that in and of itself is not immediately useful for what I think I understand you need and what I think I understand what the agencies need, which is information that they can use immediately to move forward with management.”

With regard to fish and flows in the ecosystem, I think we have overwhelming evidence that the system as it is being currently managed is in very deep trouble, so we don’t have time to wait,” she said. “Instead, what we really need to do is we need to use our existing knowledge.”

I want to go back to the fact that this is premised on the coequal goals,” she said. “We’re talking about managing flows for fish because those flows are in competition for use of that water for consumptive use and while there may be indeed be more science that would be extremely useful to have, we need to do a better job managing flows for fish and for those other coequal goals.”

It’s always great to have more sophisticated predictive models to guide our management, but our problem now in this system is not related to a lack of scientific understanding of how it works based on our existing science,” Dr. Swanson continued. “Our problem is that we are challenged managing a system and water resources that in order to meet the two coequal goals as they are currently being articulated, there isn’t enough water. This isn’t a science problem; this is how are you going to balance the allocation of this resource between two coequal goals. That’s part of the reason we haven’t done anything right now, because it’s really hard to do that, but part of the reason we’re in the dire straits that we are now is that we haven’t been willing to do it, so I think that is something that is important for you as the Delta Stewardship Council to be taking into account.”

She noted that Ara Azdherian’s example of floodplains and splittails is a perfect example. “We have really good scientific understanding of knowing what splittail need and how it works and what the mechanisms are, and we have made virtually no functional progress on improving that particular ecosystem process in order to benefit this species.”

Dr. Swanson said we need to do two things. “We actually do have reasonable good understanding of many of the mechanisms underlying the relationships between flow and fish, whether it’s flow in the rivers, flow in the Delta, or flow in the estuary,” she said. “Is it perfect? Of course not, there’s no such thing. But we do have reasonably good understanding, and we need to act on that understanding to address the very serious ecosystem problems that we have now, and the fact that we are nowhere near even making any progress towards that one of the two coequal goals – restore, protect and enhance the Delta’s ecosystem, so we need to do that on the basis of the information that we have now. That’s partly the responsibility of the agencies, it’s partly the responsibility of the regulatory bodies, and I think it’s partly your responsibility as the Stewardship Council, which is sort of one of the ultimate leaders and drivers for all of these processes.”

The second thing we need to do is to put some scientific focus on the other coequal goal. “I’ve been working in this system for 20 years, almost exclusively all of our scientific focus is on the ecosystem … Virtually none of it, as far as I can understand and determine, has been focused on the other side of the equation, which is the other coequal goal. And that is water supply and water demand. There are numerous adaptive management actions that we could be taking to either augment supply or reduce demand, both of which collectively would do what is actually mandated by law, which is to reduce reliance on the Delta, and free up flow to try and make some of these kinds of changes based on our existing scientific understanding, and our future scientific understanding of what needs to be done to provide a more viable ecosystem for the fish and all the other wildlife that depend on flow.”

I have strong suspicion that quite frankly that’s a much easier analysis than what is being proposed for the ecosystem, so I think it’s the kind of thing you could accomplish a lot and learn a lot pretty quickly,” she said. “I also think there’s a lot of existing information out there that hasn’t been really integrated or synthesized.”

Dr. Swanson said she also thought it a huge mistake to narrow the focus on the Delta, particularly with a topic like flows and fish. “The reason is that flow in the Delta is a function of flow upstream coming into the Delta, and a function of what’s going on with that flow in the Delta is attributable to our management,” she said. “It has huge ecological consequences for flow going out of the Delta into the estuary itself. … I’m going to suggest to you that the focus is too narrow.”

The second is this issue about whether we need to fully understand the mechanisms of how flow affects ecosystems and fish before we know enough in order to manage it, and I would argue that is not the case,” she said. “I think we know more about the mechanisms then some people suggest, but we certainly don’t have perfect understanding and it is a very complicated system, there’s no doubt about that, but you don’t really need to understand why higher flows during the spring result in higher fish abundances and greater survival. To know that probably if your objective is to sustain fish populations, that’s probably an environmental variable that you’re going to want to manipulate. It is also not true that we don’t know anything about why. We know a lot about why, we just don’t know everything about why and in fact why may vary from year to year. That’s how biological systems work.”

I thought the report was somewhat dismissive of what we already know about those mechanisms,” she said, giving one final example, that of invasive species. “This is a highly invaded system, and many of the invasive species we now know to be really fairly damaging to the system, both in terms of ecosystem function, in terms of competition for food, and in terms of predation on fishes, particularly the fishes we are particularly interested in. Invasive species are not only a cause of problems; they are a symptom of the problems in the system. Almost without exception, the most problematic of the invasive species are species which prefer the kinds of highly altered and very adversely altered, meaning low, flow conditions that we are currently managing the system for. So to suggest that they represent different than the effect of flow on fish and if we just go after the invasive species, is to misunderstand the relationships and the interrelationships in this system and another example of I think being dismissive of our understanding of the mechanisms underlying some of these relationships.”

With that, Dr. Swanson’s remarks were concluded and the floor was opened up for discussion.

Discussion period

Carl Wilcox acknowledged Dr. Swanson’s points relative to the fact that we do know a lot and we can always know more. “This goes back to my original comment that we have a pretty good idea of what flow does, maybe not exactly how, but that it does result in the conditions that we seek for the species at hand. To the point of doing experimental manipulations as Ted raised, that, even more than requiring regulatory approvals, it requires probably the commitment of water resources. Fortunately for the first year of the fall outflow studies, we had a great year, it didn’t require reductions or if at all, minimal reductions in exports – not even exports but releases from reservoirs to achieve that. And we learned a lot from that. And at some point in the future, it’s also supposed to look at an above normal year hydrologies, and that will undoubtedly will require reservoir releases, and so I think the will to do that to be able to understand this is going to be an important factor. Also with the past VAMP studies on the San Joaquin, that never got to the point of looking at the higher flows that were intended to be part of that study, so I think that is an important part as we go forward. If we want to test some of the hypotheses or issues, we’re going to have to look at those kinds of things.”

Chair Randy Fiorini said that he thought of two things during Dr. Swanson’s comments. One is with the VAMP study, at the end of 11 years, the conclusion was that a high enough pulse flow wasn’t provided for a long enough period of time. “It went on for 11 years; you would have thought that somebody could have intervened at about year 5 and said let’s try something else.”

The second example was about 10 or 12 years ago, there was a dissolved oxygen issue in the Deep Water Ship Channel in Stockton, and the immediate reaction was more flow, continued Mr. Fiorini. After looking at alternatives, they experimented with aeration, and found it addressed the problem without adding a drop more water. A few years later, after Stockton, the City of Stockton improved the treatment of their wastewater plan to tertiary treatment. “At least two years ago when the ISB took a tour in the Delta, representatives from the Stockton port said we hardly run the aeration now since the tertiary treatment was introduced, so the automatic response to adding more flow is not necessarily always the right answer, so we do know a lot, but it suggests to me there is room for a little bit more study.”

Some experiments may require increased reservoir releases, I understand that, but it’s not as narrow as that,” added Ara Azdherian. “VAMP is a great example. 11 years and we held pumping throughout that entire experiment at minimum every time. We never experimented with maximum pumping to understand what the relation between export operations and migration might be, and so we got to the end of the 11 years and couldn’t find an effect between operations and migration, and people said, well, we didn’t do the other end of the experiment so we don’t know still. So my point being, in experimenting, it means trying things. … It gets down to the fundamental questions. The question is do we want to do better things for fish or is the question that we want to better regulate the projects? The system has been very much set up to address the question of the latter, and then we wonder why we’re not succeeding in the question of the former.”

[pullquote]The question is do we want to do better things for fish or is the question that we want to better regulate the projects? The system has been very much set up to address the question of the latter, and then we wonder why we’re not succeeding in the question of the former. –Ara Azdherian[/pullquote]

Maria Rea adds that there are 72 different required actions in the biop, but only a limited number of those actually directly affect flows and exports; the biops were intended to look at the whole system and the whole suite of authorities that the Bureau of Reclamation has, and its ability to manage the system. “The biop therefore includes floodplain inundation, it includes other engineering solutions for the Delta that has resulted in a whole host of investigations in non-physical barriers, such as bubble curtains. … There is a lot of additional work going on that is not flow related. I think in this state, recognizing how essential water is, really it is not the first thing as a regulatory agency that we ever go to. We’re always trying to find other solutions that don’t affect water supply, in my experience.”

Dr. Swanson added that flow is an integrative and primary driver of ecosystem function and fish movements and population dynamics and all; there’s also a huge body of existing science already out there that has shown to what extent flows have been altered in this system. “The alteration we have imposed upon the system is reductions in flows to the point now where the freshwater flows entering the estuary are comparable to extreme drought levels in most years. There’s also really broad scientific consensus that the current flow levels in this system are not sufficient to sustain ecosystem function of the fisheries, so there is a reason for putting a lot of focus on flows, and there’s also a reason to the best of our abilities to integrate it with other types of actions, whether they are physical infrastructure activities, or looking for other things that would affect the flow related problem.”

As the group charged with meeting these coequal goals and trying to address the ecosystem goal in particular, I think as a group you need to recognize that the ecosystem is in serious trouble and that the alteration in flows is one of the primary drivers of the degradation that has been going on for decades and in fact is continuing to go on,” Dr. Swanson continued. “One of the things about this report that sort of niggled as I read was there seemed to be a suggestion that if we just did more research, we might find out that it’s something other than flow, and I don’t think any of us would disagree that there are many, many factors involved, but I don’t think it is likely that you will, as you continue to research, find out that it is not flow, so I hope that you’ll recognize that this really is one of the key elements that you’re going have to do, and the fact that it’s so closely related with the other coequal goal is another reason to keep an eye on it.

[pullquote]” … there seemed to be a suggestion that if we just did more research, we might find out that it’s something other than flow, and I don’t think any of us would disagree that there are many, many factors involved, but I don’t think it is likely that you will, as you continue to research, find out that it is not flow … ” — Dr. Tina Swanson [/pullquote]

I think for too long we’ve tolerated the losses versus crossed the threshold of success, and I think we all collectively need to build that threshold and get across it, and the sooner and the better,” said Councilmember Mary Piepho. “Can we continue to accept the status quo or do we want to improve the environment for fish and other Delta species, and we should want to improve the environment. I am interested in the suggestion that we need to do the water supply and demand study … We need to be acting more than we need to be studying. I don’t mean us the DSC, but the collective we need to be doing more acting than studying, and how do we get across that threshold because there is too much in crisis for us to be able to afford to wait or tolerate any more inaction. That’s not saying there’s not a lot of action going on, there is, but is it the right action.”

Dr. Jay Lund said that he is most anxious to do a report on water supply reliability. “Most other experts that are working on this are not independent experts; they are working for one side or the other in the many different arguments, which is not a very good perspective to have when you’re doing a scientific review, so we have some problems that way. I would dearly love to do it. … I’m the author of a chapter in the State of Delta Science that is currently being reviewed on this subject where I have a different opportunity to opine on some of these matters, so don’t be completely frustrated. There’s something coming.”

Dr. Lund pointed out he’s been working in this for 30 years. “I’ve noticed what I would call the tyranny of the short term,” he said. “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told, ‘we can’t do this research because we need an answer today.’ Well, we would have had all the funding that we would have needed to do that long-term research and we’d know a lot better what we need to know now. I think there’s a very big difference between acting and doing. We’ve been seeing a lot of acting – we’re acting like we’re going to fix the fish, we’re acting like we’re going to fix the water supply, but we’ve not been very well organized about doing it. I would really beg to differ with the idea that somehow research interferes with our ability to do something, to act. It doesn’t interfere with people’s ability to act, but actually do something that’s actually going to matter and be effective – clearly we haven’t been able to save as many of these fish as we’d like to or to make the water supplies as effective as we’d like to, and some of the other objectives as well. So I think we should always take pause not to be hindered by this tyranny of the short term.”

We are in the Delta for the long-term,” said Dr. Lund. “If we’re able to save these two or three species today, there’s another 60 lined up behind them. We want to do what we can today, but we’re in this for the long term and we need to do long term science with long term organization of our efforts and long term funding to make this efficacious. We’re not being very effective this way now. I get a little frustrated with this tyranny of the short term. It’s led us really nowhere very quickly.”

To put this in context, the Delta is changing anyway,” said Dr. Lund. “The causal means, the causal mechanisms, the causal understanding, help us with that. The causally based models, more than just producing numbers, there’s a wonderful saying in modeling, computer modeling isn’t about producing numbers, it’s about producing insights … The most important aspect of models is they force us to integrate all the pieces in ways are internally consistent which is something we don’t’ normally see in most of the studies that we have around today.”

Phil IsenbergPhil Isenberg asked the panelists that in budgets for projects, what percent should be for adaptive management of the project and for the design of it and so on?

Ted Sommer answers 20%, says this is his understanding from colleagues working on the Columbia River.

Carl Wilcox agrees with Ted. 10-20%.

Dr. Swanson wants to take a broader perspective, but Mr. Isenberg tries to pin her down. “I’ve been unable to get even ballpark figures out of most people on this adaptive management stuff that we are legally required to use in the Delta Plan and are trying to do it, and as an old former political pol, I understand the need for more money but I want to have a figure that at least I can tell somebody about with some understanding, and percent of project costs or operations costs seems to me to be a plausible approach,” he said.

I would say any money or any proportion of your budget that is allocated to doing either experimental manipulations in the field or habitat restoration in any form, whether it’s constructing a wetland or enhancing flows, any of those kinds of projects need to be considered adaptive management projects,” Dr. Swanson said.

So you don’t have a percent … “ says Phil Isenberg.

I’m going to suggest if you take an action in the system where you’re manipulating or you’re changing something, whether it’s a new regulation or whether it’s you’re restoring a stretch of habitat along a river … in concert with actually doing the action, you must continue to monitor system response after the action,” said Dr. Swanson. “The minute you do that, you are doing adaptive management, so long as you’re doing the project with the understanding that if you find that it doesn’t work, you should stop doing it.”

There are projects where probably 80% of the spending should be on adaptive management because the uncertainty is so huge and there are other projects where it’s probably a nominal amount and so I’m not really seeing the utility of the exercise,” said Ara Azdherian.

[pullquote]”I like adaptive management, I like the concept, I think we have no choice but to do adaptive management, but I tend to think the only thing we’ve done right about adaptive management is the spelling.”–Dr. Jay Lund[/pullquote]

Maria Rea said she pretty much agreed that 20% seems about right for a complicated large project. “I agree with Ara that plenty of stuff we permit is small and we know the effects, you do monitoring, you follow up, it doesn’t have a lot of uncertainty. Obviously where we are dealing with large scale projects that affect the Delta at large and there’s a lot of uncertainty, then we need a really significantly funded adaptive management program.”

The problem we face is when we go over to the administration or to agencies or to the legislature and we say, we need more money for science, and they say, how much?,” said Phil Isenberg. “I’m trying to support adaptive management in spite of all the arguments but I need a shorthand way to describe the financing that all of you would probably agree is essential.”

It’s a specious, totally unscientific, absolutely irrational, always to be changed, never to be defended common sense question that anybody who has the power to authorize money will ask and if you guys who are experts don’t come up with a rough answer, they will provide their own imperfect answers which I suspect all of you would criticize in one form or another,” said Mr. Isenberg.

Dr. Lund suggest dividing adaptive management into two groups, with 3 to 5% going for science and the remainder for actual adaptation, which is often more expensive. “I think for larger adaptive management, when you consider how difficult it is to get all the different tribes together on any particular adaptation, it would be a lot easier to convince them if there was a big pot of money already existing, so you might want to take the remainder and say this is going to be our adaptive management pot and we’re going to use that to help fund the science-based actions to actually do something that is likely to matter, likely to be effective for water supply or for fish or for whatever purposes you like, and have a fund that there’s to help projects adapt as the system continues to change.”

Mary PiephoI heard your passion, Dr. Lund. So is there a way how you suggest we get to the do versus the study. How do we get to the doing?” asks Councilmember Mary Piepho.

I like adaptive management, I like the concept, I think we have no choice but to do adaptive management, but I tend to think the only thing we’ve done right about adaptive management is the spelling. I think we spell it real good,” said Dr. Lund. “Clearly we have to do something better than what we are doing. I see a lot of reference to circular diagrams and we have a lot of circular discussions but we clearly haven’t figured out how to actually do it and we have a report that in draft form but it’s clearly very difficult. We have to do things in the short term, but we should have the malice of forethought to do stuff for the long term as well, and it’s a balance that we’re always going to have to deal with. I hate to see us continue to continually cutoff long term opportunities, long term insights, long term preparation.”

Council Chair Randy Fiorini wraps up the agenda item, saying “The Delta ISB exists to advise the Delta Stewardship Council, and this is one in a series of report topics that they have chosen to provide for us in support of how to better adaptively manage to achieve the coequal goals. The Delta Plan serves as our framework for moving forward, and this report suggests as the habitat restoration report did that there’s an opportunity for a deeper dive into these areas. We are just beginning to digest the contents of this most recent report.

One thing that’s interesting and it’s true of the habitat report as well, is we start out talking about science, but then we end up talking about management,” said Dan Ray. “When I came back here, I though wow, this is great, compared to the Great Lakes and the Upper Mississippi, these guys have got a lot of science, so it’s all relative and maybe depends on where that science is going. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at this data but I think it used to be that about 2% of the GNP was spent on the environment, and so the 2% of budgets for core science probably makes some kind of sense. Whether it’s really enough, I think we don’t’ know, and it would make some kind of sense for the Council to perhaps to take that on. I suspect if we ask the science board how much money would be enough, it would be like asking the water users how much water would be enough … So I think we need to find a way to approach it but I think it would be a useful exercise and it might bring some credibility to what otherwise looks like all of us with our hands up.”

Principles to promote new and improved conveyance, storage, and operations of both to achieve the coequal goals

The Delta Reform Act tasked the Delta Stewardship Council with the development of a Delta Plan that would promote options for new and improved infrastructure related to water conveyance in the Delta, storage systems, and the operation of both to achieve the coequal goals. At the time the Delta Plan was in development, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) was also in the development stages, and so the 2013 Delta Plan dealt with this by recommending the prompt and successful completion of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, but noted in Appendix A of the plan that the Council would revisit the issue should the BDCP not be completed by January 1, 2016.

Additionally, the Delta Reform Act required that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan be completed as an Natural Communities Conservation Plan (NCCP), and that upon its successful completion as an NCCP, the BDCP would become automatically incorporated into the Delta Plan and would not be subject to the Delta Plan’s covered action process.

However, in April of this year, the process took a different turn, with the Brown administration splitting the project into two parallel projects, the California Water Fix for the infrastructure, and the California Eco Restore program for habitat restoration. This change meant that the project would no longer be completed as an NCCP, and therefore the California Water Fix project will be subject to the Delta Plan’s covered action process.

Over the past five months, the Delta Stewardship Council has been working towards adopting principles regarding conveyance, storage, and water operations. The principles are the starting point for what could potentially be an amendment to the Delta Plan that includes recommendations and possibly even new regulations.

At the November Council meeting, Supervising Engineer Kevan Samsam was before the Council with the final draft of the 18 principles, where were revised based on the Council’s comments at the last meeting, as well as other written and oral comments. He noted that the introductory language was improved, the principles were clarified from supporting statements, and minor changes were made to the language of the principles.

Mr. Samsam explained why more of the public comments were not incorporated into the principles. “First, these are guiding principles and they are not recommendations or regulations that will eventually be included in the Delta Plan. There is a process to go from these guiding principles to policy and it cannot be done quickly or at this table,” he said. “Secondly, this effort to amend the Delta Plan is not an effort to support Water Fix and it’s not an effort to sink Water Fix. This is an effort that is independent of Water Fix. The Council right now has no position on Water Fix. It will come to us possibly as a covered action and at that point, we will have to make some findings.”

The Council then discussed the principles, with Councilmember Mary Piepho suggesting revisions to add language incorporating water quality into the principles in several areas; Phil Isenberg suggests another language modification.

Public comment included comments from Restore the Delta, Friends of the River, Tom Zuckerman, and Melinda Terry. (Click here for submitted comment letter from Restore the Delta, Friends of the River, and the Environmental Water Caucus.)

After public comment, the Council voted unanimously to adopt the principles.

Single Year Water Transfers and the Delta Plan

Another issue the Delta Stewardship Council has been working over the past few months is the issue of single year transfers. When the Delta Plan was adopted in 2013, the Council struggled at the time with how to handle single year water transfers. They ultimately decided more information was necessary, so they requested reports from the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Board, and excluded single year transfers from the Delta Plan’s covered action process until December 31, 2016.

With the expiration date on the horizon, staff have been working with the Council towards a decision point that would amend one of the Delta Plan’s implementing regulations and one of the recommendations, both of which relate to single year water transfers.  At the November Council meeting, staff laid out the results of their fact finding efforts on the effects of single year transfers on the coequal goals.

Our ask is of the Council is to discuss the proposed amendment language and direct staff to return with preliminary findings to support the draft amendment language for the Delta Plan and it’s draft language to that regulation to exempt single year transfers from regulation as covered actions, and to support an amendment to the Delta Plan recommendation, WR R15,” said Kevan Samsam, Supervising Engineer.

In summary, staff believes that based on our review over the last two years, that under the current operations of the CVP and the SWP and under the existing oversight, single year transfers that are conveyed through the Delta do not have a significant impact on the coequal goals of statewide water supply reliability and the protection, restoration, and enhancement of the Delta ecosystem, and therefore are not regulated as covered actions under the Reform Act,” said Mr. Samsam. “Should these existing conditions change over time, the Council retains the authority to examine the regulation of single year water transfers. Should the operations of the CVP or the SWP change in any way, single year transfers are managed or if the volume of single year transfers increases substantially, the Council may want to analyze any impacts that these changes may cause. … If we find any new information on impacts to native Delta species, that could also lead the Council to reexamine the issue of significance of impacts on the coequal goals.”

The 19-page staff report has considerable detail and summarizes the work that’s been done over the last two years. “In our analysis we looked at the existing regulatory controls and how most of these transfers, the vast majority of through-Delta transfers are regulated by Reclamation, DWR, the State Board,” he said. “The biops govern how transfers are governed by the projects right now, so those have maximum amount of 600,000 acre-feet of water can be transferred in dry and critically dry years; there’s a lesser amount for normal years. There’s also a window that the biops provide for, and it’s a 3 month window, July through September.

He said they looked the EIR/EIS developed by Reclamation and the San Luis Mendota Water Authority in 2014 that examined a 10-year window for single-year transfers; they reviewed scientific information provided by panelists as well as other information; they reviewed a report by The Nature Conservancy.

It’s clear that operations of those projects and the drought do have impacts on the coequal goals, but single year transfers are really just a minor fraction of that overall picture,” he said. “We found that there might be some impacts from groundwater use, that they may impact streamflow in the upper regions where water transfers originate, and therefore Delta inflow, but this is the entire universe of groundwater use in the upper Valley. We’re talking over 2 million acre-feet, the amount that could be attributed to groundwater substitution transfers is very small.”

Staff looked at the beneficial impacts of single year transfers because that is also part of our definition of significance – it could be adverse or beneficial,” he said. “We heard from panel members at our last council meeting where they talked about how much they rely on single year transfers to complement their supply, especially from the federal agencies and state agencies in times of shortage, so staff found it was significant for those agencies but our goal and our view is a statewide perspective, and so from a statewide perspective, the amount of water we’re talking about for single year transfers is pretty small.”

Even without trying to be too speculative, we looked at information that might be available on how water transfers might change over time,” Mr. Samsam said. “There was some information in the Water Fix about how they viewed water transfers moving forward over the next 50 years, and so even looking at that, we think that under today’s current environment, they just don’t have a significant impact on either of the two coequal goals.”

Mr. Samsam said they have developed two options for the Council to consider. Option 1 is to exempt single-year transfers permanently from regulation by the covered actions process; the second is to do nothing a let the exemption expire. Staff is recommending option 1.

The Council’s discussion centered around its ability to revisit single-year transfers in the future. Councilmember Isenberg felt the options staff were presenting did not represent a reasonable range of choices, and that due to the uncertainties involved, a third option, to extend the exemption for an additional 3 to 5 years ought to be included. He notes that Cal Water Fix estimates a much increased use of water transfers in the future, and the groundwater substitution transfer issue is a emerging serious issue nationally; there are other issues to be considered as well. “If we abolish the potential, we’ll never get it back, and short-term transfers, whether they are good or bad, you will not go back, future Council’s will not go back and go through formal amendments of the Delta Plan,” he said.

Council Chair Fiorini says the evidence presented does not support the allegation that there are serial transfers, and points out that there are already a lot of controls in place. “I think adding a covered action requirement of four annual transfers has proved to be necessary, so that’s why I would support and I will offer as the motion, option 1, provided by the staff.”

Public comment was then provided by with Delta stakeholders and agency officials; they are split on the issue.

Ms. Mary Piepho asks for a commitment to revisit the issue in the future – 3 years. Mr. Isenberg believes staff should develop a third option, to extend the current exemption for another 2 to 5 years. The Council then agrees (through a series of motions) for staff to develop a third option and return in December when the Council will again take up the issue.

This issue to be continued at the December meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council.

For more information …


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