Improving adaptive management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
Report looks at how adaptive management is perceived and used in the Delta, and how it might be applied more efficiently and effectively
The Delta Independent Science Board was created by the 2009 Delta Reform Act and charged with providing oversight of the scientific programs that support adaptive management of the Delta through period reviews, and providing a report to the Delta Stewardship Council on the results, including any recommendations for changes. At the February meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, members of the DISB, led by Dr. John Weins, presented the finalized report on adaptive management to council members.
“Adaptive management clearly is central to what is going on in the Delta,” began Dr. Weins. “It figures prominently in the Delta Reform Act and it is central to the Delta Plan.”
He then gave his three take home points. “One is that there is no question that adaptive management is the right approach to be using to deal with the problems in the Delta. They are complex, they are so-called wicked problems, they are burdened with uncertainty everywhere you look, and those are the ideal situations for which the adaptive management process is intended to address,” he said. “That said, it’s clear that adaptive management is not appropriate for all situations. It’s not a catch-all. In a sense, it’s wrong to be requiring that every project, every covered action, must use a formalized process, the nine-step process in the Delta Plan, of adaptive management.”
“The third point is that we feel very strongly that moving adaptive management forward as a process in the Delta is going to require leadership from the Council, and we have some specifics about what that leadership might involve. The Council is in a position to do this partly because of the requirement that covered actions by and large include an adaptive management plan or something resembling that, and also because through the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, the Council has a way to work with multiple agencies to achieve coordination that is really required to make adaptive management something that works rather than something that’s being talked about.”
Dr. Weins then turned to the specifics of the report.
“It’s obvious that many managers, agencies, scientists in the Delta, really believe they are doing adaptive management, but what they are really doing is managing adaptively, and there is a difference between the two,” he said. “Managing adaptively means you have something you are going to do, you do it, and if for some reason it doesn’t work, you try something else. Adaptive management is a much more formalized and structured process that involves the kind of planning at the outset to look at contingencies, to look at options, to consider various possibilities, to target the sources of uncertainty, and to try to develop a structured approach to dealing with those that will then be realized in terms of the kind of data gathering and data analysis that produces the knowledge that one needs in order to make a well-informed adjustment.”
Dr. Weins noted that the term adaptive management has been around for a long time, but finding examples of where it’s successfully been carried to completion are hard to find, and the Delta is no example. “There are almost no examples of actual accomplished structured adaptive management that’s occurred in the Delta and in the report, we identify a number of impediments that explain why that might be the case.”
Dr. Weins then highlighted four of those impediments:
Funding: “Without the kind of continuous reliable funding that adaptive management requires, you can’t carry on the process,” he said. “It’s a continuous process, and that continuous process and the monitoring that underlies it requires a continuous baseline of funding. We heard from virtually all of the people that we talked with and interviewed complaints that funding was generally inadequate and when it came, it came in pulses: they had plenty then they had none, they had plenty then they had none. Therefore staffing adaptive management, gathering the data, conducting the analyses, doing the modeling and all of those things that are part of adaptive management grind to a halt and then start up again, and it’s a very inefficient process.”
Risk aversion: “Adaptive management implies taking risks. You’re dealing with an uncertain world, and given the uncertainty, there’s not an assurance that what you are going to do is going to work. Managers by and large, not just in the Delta but everywhere, tend to be risk averse. They are risk averse because rightly or wrongly, their performance is gauged on their success: have they accomplished what they said they were going to do? So they don’t want to take risks that they might not accomplish what they wanted to do,” he said.
“But adaptive management is by its nature a risky business, it needs to be flexible, it needs to take well informed chances, and the thrust of adaptive management, the foundation is in the planning that identifies those risks,” he continued. “It doesn’t say you’re not going to take the risks, but they are known risks and well designed adaptive management includes a recognition of those contingencies and the options. What are you going to do if things don’t work out as you planned? How do you tell far enough ahead of time that you’re headed in the wrong direction so it’s time to make an adjustment now? Even though someone looking at it from outside would say, ‘That was a failure. You structured this process, you did a plan, and it didn’t work, you failed.’ Well, it’s not a failure in adaptive management if you were following the structured process.”
Regulatory and permitting hurdles: “A third impediment is the fact that doing any of this is burdened by regulatory and permitting requirements,” he said. “Adaptive management requires flexibility, it requires the capacity to change in a judicious fashion, and if the change is very much, that means maybe the project needs to be repermitted. Things have changed, there are regulations that inhibit the amount of flexibility you can have. Endangered species act puts limits on what you can do and puts limits on adaptive management with respect to listed species.”
Interagency collaboration and communication: “Adaptive management is not something that can be done by one isolated entity for one isolated thing. It generally involves multiple groups. This is what DPIIC is all about – it provides the platform for getting real about adaptive management and moving it forward.”
“These are some of the realities that adaptive management faces in the Delta,” Dr. Weins said. “They are not unique to the Delta. They plague adaptive management everywhere and they are in large part reasons why it’s a lot of talk and little to show for the talk. Regardless of where you look – nationally, internationally – there are examples of it, but they are examples in which these and other impediments have been overcome in some way. The San Francisco Bay salt ponds that we use as an example in the report is still in an early stage so it’s hard to tell how well it’s going to work, but they had in place many of the elements that address these impediments and so far it seems to be working in a way that represents bona fide adaptive management.”
Given the complexities, one could ask if adaptive management is really the way to go, he said. “We do believe that it is appropriate and the main reason for that is that everything about the Delta is complex and plagued by uncertainties: ecological uncertainties, socio-economic uncertainties, and political uncertainties; adaptive management provides a way to dig into that, to identify the uncertainties and to incorporate the flexibility to deal with them, so we are strong supporters. It should be the default as it is in the Delta Plan, the Reform Act, and in practice and in how people think about what they are doing.”
“But it’s not always appropriate,” Dr. Weins pointed out. “If you are taking an action that is irrevocable, you do something and you can’t go back and try something else, it’s done, then adaptive management isn’t feasible. You can look at some of the outcomes and tweak things, but the action itself, it’s done. You can monitor its effects, and then you can perhaps say well next time, we build a dam, we’re going to do it a little it differently, we’re going to put in a fish ladder or whatever it might be.”
“If the funding and the stakeholder support are not reliable and not certain, then it’s questionable whether a project ought to head down that pathway,” he said. “Does it make sense to put the upfront investment in structuring an adaptive management approach and plan for something in which there’s too much uncertainty that the funding will not be there? … If you do something and there’s no question about what’s going to result from doing that, then you’re not dealing with uncertainty in which adaptive management thrives, so there are some filters that one can use to begin to determine under what conditions should a project, covered action or program should be using real adaptive management – the structured process, a streamlined version which we address in the report which makes it a little less onerous and a little simplified, or not use it at all.”
Dr. Weins then highlighted the recommendations in the report.
Support adaptive management with funding that is dependable and flexible. “Adaptive management requires funding that is sufficient, dependable, and flexible to deal with those contingencies that develop, the unanticipated changes in the system that require that the management approach be changed. There may be ways to do that. We suggest that perhaps having a fixed percentage of project budgets that is allocated to adaptive management or perhaps creating some sort of endowment which would support adaptive management where it is most needed, and not necessarily going along with a particular project. Funding to provide contingency funds for unanticipated changes.”
Design and support monitoring. “Monitoring is the foundation of adaptive management, so giving particular attention to how monitoring is designed and supported is important.”
Integrate science and regulations to enhance flexibility. “Looking at the feasibility of greater flexibility in permitting and regulations and perhaps trying to find ways in which the scientific community can work with the policy and regulatory community to discover ways in which flexibility and permit conditions or regulations can be enhanced without jeopardizing the power of the permits and the regulatory decisions.”
Develop a framework for setting decision points or thresholds that will trigger a management response. “Having a way to define at the outset what the trigger points are and what the decision points are for making an adaptive change in the system, rather than proceeding down the road on a project and at some point saying this doesn’t really feel right. Put the thought up front into it, make it part of plan, say if we go this far and these performance measures aren’t telling us that we’re getting adequate performance, then there are trigger points that say at this point, there needs to be a reevaluation, a readjustment – there may need to be a change in the way things are done.”
Use restoration sites to test adaptive management and monitoring. “You’ve already heard about the potential of habitat restorations, particularly those that are part of EcoRestore, to serve as laboratories and experiments for adaptive management; this has clearly been part of the planning for EcoRestore,” he said. “I think it’s important as that moves forward to think much more specifically about how the habitat restoration projects that are envisioned in EcoRestore could be designed in a complementary fashion so that they reveal both the power and the problems of adaptive management. Rather than say we want to do these as habitat restoration projects and yes we’re going to implement adaptive management, say instead we’re going to do these as adaptive management projects in which we are manipulating habitat as part of what goes on, and learning about the process of adaptive management – how to make it work better, how to make it less onerous, most cost effective, so it will be adopted more widely with other projects in the Delta.”
Recognize when and where adaptive management is not appropriate. “Don’t require that it be used for something that it is simply not suited for or in which it is simply not feasible for it to be done. That weakens the applications of adaptive management.”
Convene a workshop or review panel to determine how to coordinate and assist adaptive management in the Delta. “In our view, this calls for the formation of a body that would oversee and move forward adaptive management broadly in the Delta. … We’re proposing that the Council convene a workshop to explore the feasibility and the approach and to essentially deal with these issues of how adaptive management can be broadly coordinated, broadly supported, and controlled in a sense within the Delta. In a sense, this is kicking the ball down the road. We were unable to come up with the answer to that, so we’re tossing it to you to put together a workshop of a bunch of a diverse group who can wrestle with these issues and can decide whether in fact this makes sense, whether it would work in the socio political ecological economic reality of the Delta.”
“Finally, we recognize that a lot of what we’re proposing is going to be very hard to achieve in present culture of resource management in the Delta,” Dr. Weins said. “But doing real adaptive management requires doing management in a different way than it has been traditionally done. It requires greater collaboration, it requires a willingness to share staff and resources, it requires flexibility, it requires an acknowledgement that risks must be taken, and all of this is overlain by the fact that it’s only going to get worse with climate change, sea level rise, socio-economic changes, droughts, and extreme events – all of those things that we’re all aware of.”
“These problems are not unique to the Delta; it’s not as if the Delta is some strange place in which adaptive management won’t work,” he continued. “These are problems that plague adaptive management everywhere and it’s no accident that there are so few examples of really successful adaptive management having been done. We come back to the point that in principle, it’s the way to do things. In order to do it, requires some really aggressive action, some dedicated resources, some dedicated effort to make it done, and if that’s done, I think there’s the possibility and the real probability that management in the Delta could be kind of the model for enlightened management of complex systems everywhere. People talk about the Everglades, they talk about Chesapeake Bay, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be talking about the Delta as the place that got it all together, and figured out how to do it right, and that’s what we hope this report will help us do.”
Having thus finished the presentation, Dr. Weins then turned to his colleagues for their comments.
Dr. Jay Lund said that in preparing the report, they had extensive interviews with scientists from all over the Delta, which helped to make it more readable. “We have a lot of quotes in it, and you can get a lot more directly what people are thinking about adaptive management,” he said, noting that the quotes are all anonymous. “I like this one quote, ‘There is no agreement on what adaptive management is, but everybody thinks they are doing it.’ What we mean by adaptive management is different than most of what we heard which was managing adaptively, and I think that’s really the fundamental distinction.”
“Adaptive management, as it has come out of the literature and when it has been used successfully, has been a much more formal way of organizing how you are collecting data and learning for when things don’t work,” Dr. Lund continued. “It applies particularly well for complex technical problems where we don’t actually know what works, or when we know we’re going to encounter problems in the future.”
Dr. Lund said in his mind, the cleanest example is aircraft, and how we manage for accidents. “In the past, they used to crash a lot more frequently. What goes into the manufacturing of aircraft to reduce that rate of crash but still keep it affordable? We have black boxes on these aircraft, even though they hardly ever crash. We invest a lot of money into inspections and data collection when they hardly ever crash. Why? So that when they do fail, we have a much more immediate way of figuring out why they failed and improve the aircraft, the maintenance, the inspections into the future. And so I think that’s kind of the thing we need to think about for the Delta.”
“We’re really trying to look at how do you put a more formal way of figuring out how to improve your management into management, not really having it be separate, but having adaptive management being management,” he said. “In the aircraft industry, that’s what it is. It’s the way you normally routinely manage things. We’re going to always have problems with the Delta, just like the aircraft manufacturer is always going to have things going wrong. 100 years from now, 50 years from now, there’s going to be some equivalent body to you all still trying to figure out how to make things better. There will be scientists out here, scratching their heads, how do we make it better, but hopefully they’re working on better problems than what we’re doing on now, and they won’t be able to do that until we have some more formal mechanism of integrating the science into the management.”
“Every day we make decisions that are adaptive management,” added Dr. Vincent Resh. “The bus is late and we’re late for a meeting so we take a taxi. This is part of human nature, but you can look at these very complex situations and I think the best example that we’re seeing that’s now working for climate change is to compare it to the treaties that protected the ozone layer. Those treaties were put in place without knowing what the full effects were going to be, but by having regular checks and balances, we have this as one of the great examples of global examples of how regulations came in and worked, and I think this is really what this formalized process can do. Monitoring is of course a key element that that’s how you decide if you’re thresholds or your targets or your trigger points are becoming important.”
“I have read the report, and I want you to commend you,” said Chair Randy Fiorini. “You’ve taken a topic that has many meanings to many people and you’ve helped to serve to define it; you’ve couched it in the reality of the world we’re operating in, you’ve made it practical, and you’ve acknowledged the other activities that are ongoing that sometimes scientists forget about, so it’s not done in isolation. Taking Jay’s analogy of aircraft maintenance, there’s a responsibility the pilot has and so this Council, our staff, will assume our ongoing responsibility to pilot this project that you have handed to us. We hope to take it to the DPIIC, I think this has great utility and will serve to set a course for a much better future as it relates to ecosystem restoration in the Delta. I like the way you have narrowed the focus; I think it makes a lot of sense that it doesn’t apply to every project, but it is important for many, and we want to make sure that we figure out how to do this and do it well and this report I think is going to be very, very helpful.”
Councilmember Mary Piepho said she read the report as well. “Interesting outcome, I think there are going to be a lot of folks surprised at the outcome when they get to the ending,” she said. “What it says to me is we need to be managing ourselves as much as we’re managing a project and/or the environment, and we need to learn to accept unexpected outcomes and then move on. To the airplane analogy, a crash occurs, we need to move on from that and change what we can change, and sometimes that’s incrementally.”
“My fantasy is that in a perfect world, the three of you become the adaptive management committee,” said Vice Chair Phil Isenberg. “I’d like to see the three of you either establish the general outline of what an adaptive management plan looks like, or if it’s possible, approve or disapprove suggested adaptive management plans. The only way I can think to even get to that possible discussion is frankly your last suggestion, which is recognize where adaptive management doesn’t’ work and shouldn’t be tried, and I’d love to find a way to give you the legal authority to exempt projects from adaptive management requirements who would not be capable of being judged. Now there about a thousand legal questions before you ever get there, but that exemption authority is the only thing of benefit that is offered to project proponents from making sense of an adaptive management system in the hopes that they might be able to slide their way through.”
“We did include a section next steps, which I think the science board is going to be including in other reports, because we recognize that these things can’t simply become shelf art; they have to carry through,” said Dr. Weins. “The Independent Science Board has a responsibility to do what we can to move them forward, but that is not what our legislated responsibility is really to do. We do have some follow up activities we want to do. Speaking for myself, we have committed a lot to putting this together, so I think if the Council is willing to do its part to push this forward along the lines we’ve recommended at least generally, I think I would be willing, happy to chip in from the sidelines … “
Dr. Weins noted that the idea has been around for three or four decades and the fact that it hasn’t been done successfully leads one to ask why. “The best sources are the people who tried to do it, and learned adaptively from their trials and errors and what has worked and what hasn’t worked,” he said. “I also think that incorporating those kinds of people has the added benefit of publicizing the Delta. We hear a lot about all the attention that gets to the East Coast systems or the Great Lakes, and the Delta is every bit as complex and ecologically and economically and socially important as those areas, perhaps even more so, but it doesn’t get the play. This is one way we can push it forward and educate people.”
“We’ve got problems here, but we want to solve them,” he continued. “We want to figure out how to do this, and I am optimistic that there’s a real opportunity here, with all the pieces that are coming into play, to put them together and my hope would be that what comes out of this is something broader than a piecemeal approach to looking at the elements of adaptive management – to really look in the Delta as a whole involving not just the two coequal goals, but the Delta as a place component because there’s a sociological component also to implementing the adaptive management. It is done within the socio-economic context of the Delta culture, and I think adaptive management is a way to integrate that more fully into what goes on into the Delta, so I’m optimistic that it can be done. “
“Whether I am optimistic enough to volunteer is another matter,” concluded Dr. Weins.
For more information …
- Click here for the report: Improving Adaptive Management in the Delta
- Click here for meeting agenda and materials for the February 25th meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council. This is agenda item 12.
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