California EcoRestore: Making restoration happen

Eco Restore_Page_12Administration officials chart the progress of restoration and highlight the successes in the first year of implementation of the Eco Restore Program

California EcoRestore is the Brown Administration’s initiative to help coordinate and advance at least 30,000 acres of critical habitat restoration in the Delta by 2020.  Announced in April of 2015, the program has been in operation just slightly over one year.

At the spring meeting of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, a committee comprised of eighteen heads of the state, federal, and local agencies that are responsible for implementation of the Delta Plan, David Okita and Kristopher Tjernell from the California Natural Resources Agency provided an overview of the progress made so far, and highlighting the success of the collaborative Yolo Bypass and Cache Slough Partnership.

DAVID OKITA, Director of Delta restoration

David Okita began the presentation with an overview of the progress made on the California Eco Restore Program, which has been underway for about a year now.

Eco Restore_Page_03Mr. Okita said there are three components to the Eco Restore program: the restoration projects, planning, and adaptive management.  The main goal of the program is to have 30,000 acres of habitat restoration in the next three to four years.  In addition to the acreage targets, there are fish passage projects in the Yolo Bypass which are particularly important for winter-run salmon, as well as shaded riparian habitat in the Delta which is measured in lineal feet rather than acreages, he said.

He next presented a map showing projects that will be constructed in 2016, 2017, and 2018, noting that they left off projects constructed 2015 and prior, and those that are in the planning phases:

Eco Restore_Page_05You can see in the next three years, there’s going to be quite a few projects starting construction,” he said.  “We are particularly proud of those that we hope to start construction this summer and fall of 2016.  A couple of those still have a couple of hurdles to go through but we’re working through those and if everything goes well, all six of these will start construction in 2016.”

Mr. Okita then presented a chart showing planned progress towards habitat restoration goals through 2016, noting that the first bar represents floodplain restoration, the second tidal, the third emergent wetlands, and the fourth aquatic riparian habitat and other miscellaneous habitats; the two bars on the far right are shaded aquatic habitat which is measured in feet and fish passage projects which are measured in number of projects.

Eco Restore_Page_06

What we want is more yellow and blue with blue being constructed already and yellow being in construction.  This slide shows where we expect to be at the end of 2017, so that includes projects that are being constructed this year.  Some will be constructed by the end of 2017 and others will take a few more years to develop.  Purple shows the projects that are in permitting, and the green are projects in planning which means they haven’t started the permitting process and maybe funding hasn’t been identified, but they are on the books as potential projects.”

DPIIC David OkitaMr. Okita noted that it looks like they will be able to meet the Governor’s goals within a reasonable time frame.  “We have not included in here the Prop 1 projects that the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Conservancy will be finalizing over the next few months, and we’ll be adding those in as those get finalized; we have not added projects that we’re anticipating to get in our Request for Proposal tidal wetland projects to involve the private sector in developing turnkey projects for us; and also a process to involve other public agencies who have tidal wetland projects to propose, so I anticipate by next year, we will have bars on the tidal wetland graph to exceed the goal in the Governor’s program.”

Mr. Okita then turned to the subject of adaptive management.  “What we’re trying to do in Eco Restore is develop adaptive management just for restoration projects in the Delta and Suisun Marsh,” he said.  “If you think of the DISB’s recommendation for adaptive management in the Delta, you have flows, fishes, operations – all those things.  What we’re going to be doing is taking a piece of that big pie, which is just the restoration projects, and develop an adaptive management program for those projects as soon as we can.  We will take the recommendations from the ISB and implement that at a restoration project level.  We have two committees set up that we just started: one is a technical committee which is called the Interagency Adaptive Management Team, and we also have a steering committee made up of higher level folks to help us guide this program in place.  I’ve told the group that we would really like to have a draft plan in 9 months as to how we do this, how it’s going to be funded, and how it’s going to be implemented.  And I have been really pressing them to meet this goal.  I will be reporting back to you on the status of that.

And with that, Mr. Okita turned it over to Mr. Tjernell.

KRIS TJERNELL, Special Assistant for Water Policy

DPIIC Kris TjernellMr. Tjernell began by noting this is his fourth time in front of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, and that his focus during those presentations was why they were pursuing integrated ecosystem restoration projects with flood projects in ways that work for local agricultural communities, and why the state should take an active leadership role in working with local partners and federal partners to improve coordination.

What I am more interested in now is how,” he said.  “How do we actually achieve these massive landscape-scale ecosystem restoration projects that we’re talking about – the 17,000 acres of floodplain restoration that makes up more than half of the Governor’s Eco Restore acreage objective that is the Yolo Bypass.  How are we going to make that happen?  How are we going to make significant system-wide improvements to the flood system happen?  What does that look like? What are those relationships going to need to look like to make those come to fruition and how ultimately we do this in a way that works for local economies?  Others have spoke directly to this question of how, and a couple of things have come up: clear direction from executives, ambitious yet achievable goals, and of course, coordination between public agencies.”

Eco Restore_Page_11Mr. Tjernell said the coordination piece will be the focus of his presentation today.  “I’m pleased to say that over a year after the effort began, we now have 15 local, state, and federal agencies signed on to an memorandum of understanding that really does set the stage for a new era of progress in the Yolo Bypass and Cache Slough region,” he said.  “We collectively refer to ourselves as the Yolo Bypass and Cache Slough partnership.  Yes it is a high level MOU; yes there are not things in there that say things shall be done by date certain, but that being said, it does memorialize a degree of trust between these public agencies that is not there on a day to day basis.  While there are still gaps, post signing of this document, it most certainly does create a framework and the foundation from which to build and to fill those gaps in the future.”

While trust is important and words are important and MOUs can oftentimes really support that type of work, we do need to go that next step and show we can actually get projects in the ground,” he said.  “One thing that I keep hearing a lot is that success breeds success, so let’s show some success.  I’m pleased to focus on a couple projects today where there actually has been some good success and we will be seeing that solidified in the near future.”

Eco Restore_Page_12He then presented a map showing 19 projects planned for the Yolo Bypass, pointing out the Wallace Weir Fish Passage Project (#16) and the Lower Elkhorn Levee Setback Project (#1, #2, and #3, the green shaded area).

All the projects will benefit from the increased coordination that we’re talking about, but these two I want to focus on because of the near term progress that’s been made,” he said.

Eco Restore_Page_14 The purpose of the Wallace Weir Fish Rescue Facility is to block adult winter-run salmon from going the wrong direction as they make their journey back to their spawning grounds.

Right now agricultural return water flows at certain levels can create an attraction flow that attracts fish into an unfortunate pathway,” Mr. Tjernell explained.  “So what we’re doing on an extraordinarily fast timeline is essentially building a facility that they cannot get around or go over.  It is a facility that will allow them to be captured there and safely returned to the Sacramento River mainstem where they can hopefully safely continue on their journey.”

The Wallace Weir project is a one-year start to finish job with construction beginning on August 1st and hopefully completed by Halloween.  “There will of course be hurdles that come up and there already have been almost on a daily basis with this project, and that will probably continue, but I’m confident we can work through those.  This is an example of a project that has already benefitted from DPIIC being here and from the Yolo Bypass and Cache Slough Partnership being solidified with the MOU.”

Eco Restore_Page_15The Lower Elkhorn Multi-benefit Flood Project on the eastern side of the Yolo Bypass is a significant system-scale project that is a focal point for local flood planning efforts, state-led planning efforts and federal-led planning efforts, he said.  “The state will be taking a leadership role on this; it’s largely going to be financed with Prop 1E bond financing, but by no means are we the only the folks at the table.  We’ll be fully using our partnerships with local agencies within the state and our federal partners to move this project along.  This one most certainly won’t happen in the next year; this is a multi-year project, but it does represent the largest next big investment in system-scale flood improvements in the Central Valley where we invest in one area and see benefits in the entire region.  This is a project that will fully take advantage of this forum as well as the Yolo Bypass Cache Slough Partnership relationships that are being formed.”

Mr. Tjernell noted there were other projects underway, such as additional fish passage improvements; floodplain restoration, tidal wetland restoration, Proposition 1 restoration projects, and the Delta Conservancy’s restoration planning efforts.  “All of these are happening at the same time and are overlapping and it’s really our job through coordinated efforts like the Yolo Bypass Cache Slough Partnership to make sure that we are not at odds with each other, and in fact, when possible, we can be synergistic and work together and really help craft together a vision for the bypass region and ultimately beyond.”

Discussion period highlights

Mary Piepho, Chair of the Delta Protection Commission, pointed out the value of the value of local government being at the table.  “Trust is always an issue, especially from a local government perspective working with state and federal agencies.  All of you at the table have heard from us at the Delta counties and the Delta County Coalition on the issues we have, but when we’re at the table, it does create a smoother process, and it does help to develop trust when the leaders of the Delta are there as part of the process, so I would just like to highlight for those here, the local government’s appreciation for that collaboration and emphasize that each county within the Delta region wishes to have that level opportunity and potential for success as these projects move forward.”

DPIIC Erin ForesmanErin Foresman, US Environmental Protection Agency said, “I was wondering in the conversations that are coming forward in Eco Restore, the permitting of those projects being an opportunity to integrate monitoring and assessment for Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act?  This is an opportunity to develop a framework for monitoring and assessment as far as these habitat restoration projects go, to develop ecological performance standards, and use an adaptive management framework in trying to move Eco Restore forward.  Are any of you familiar with the RAMP effort?  It’s the wetland and riparian monitoring plan, it’s being utilized in other places in California; it integrates Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act monitoring for this purpose.

“Yes, we are having all those conversations,” replied David Okita.  “One of the interesting things when I first got here and started talking about monitoring and adaptive management with everybody is all these initials and programs that are underway, so the direction I gave to the technical team is since they know all these different things that are going on, to sit around the table and put it together, and the program that you recommend cannot have any duplication of effort, it has to identify gaps in what everybody is doing and what’s not being done, and to put it together into some sensible framework, so yes, all those things that you mentioned I’ve heard mentioned before and will be addressed in the package.  At least that’s what I’m expecting.”

DPIIC Campbell IngramCampbell Ingram, Executive Director of the Delta Conservancy, pointed out the challenge that they have.  “We received 24 proposals for our solicitation and we asked all the applicants to explain their adaptive management approach, and as you can imagine, we got about 24 different approaches to adaptive management, so there is the need for all of this to coalesce into clear guidance on how applicants do adaptive management and how that fits into a regional context or better defined strategies for targets is all very important.  Lastly the funding issue is critical as well.  Our projects will be three-year timeline contracts for funding.  That’s barely enough time for the project to get constructed and up and running, so it’s very challenging to incorporate money for monitoring that feeds into adaptive learning over time under that structure.  That is just a highlight of all the things we need to sort and be able to address as we develop adaptive management structures for the Delta.”

There is a lot of chatter among the project managers about adaptive management and monitoring and making sure we have these efficiencies,” said David Okita.  “Right now every project is going to be required to do adaptive management, either by the biological opinion or DFW or a Conservancy requirement, so how do they do that collectively to save money and create efficiencies?  What we’re looking at is an approach where there is a regional monitoring program that is shared by everybody who is doing restoration projects and then a specific requirement on individual projects to do things specifically for their projects.  We think that model will have some efficiencies.”

DPIIC John WeinsThe financing question is fundamental to this,” said Dr. Weins, member of the Delta Independent Science Board.  “We encountered frequently when we talked with people, the perception that they got the funding to do the project, but when the project was completed, they might have a minimal amount of time and money left to do some monitoring, but generally there was an attitude of, ‘we’re done with that, it’s time to move on to the next project.’  Monitoring an existing project to see 5 or 10 years down the line, which is when the effects of these things begins to play out and be seen, that just didn’t register, and it didn’t register with the way funds are allocated and the way the funders, the people who pull the purse strings, think about these things.  It’s a real hurdle to be overcome because if you cannot put in place long term monitoring to see what’s happening, because then you really can’t do adaptive management.”

DPIIC Mark CowinMark Cowin, Director of the Department of Water Resources said, “From the presentation from the ISB on adaptive management, I’d like to highlight recommendation four, ‘integrate science and regulations to enhance flexibility’.  I would all the more so when there are overlapping jurisdictions that regulate the same sorts of projects and attributes.  Are there successful examples of regulations that have provided this sort of flexibility to really let adaptive management do its thing?

It all depends,” said Dr. Weins.  “I’m told by some of my colleagues that there is considerable flexibility embodied in the Endangered Species Act regulations in various sections of it, and there is certainly more flexibility now then there was 5 or 10 years ago.  I’m told by other colleagues that it is tremendously restrictive on anything you do – you can’t lift a finger, you can’t do anything.  I think probably they are both right because it’s one of these perception things.  It depends upon what you are trying to do. I think this is one of the things that would be worth probing in this workshop Mike is putting together.  It provides an opportunity to target things that perhaps haven’t been part of the thinking on that …

DPIIC Lettie BelinLettie Belin, Department of the Interior added, “I was thinking about our funding situation because it is almost exactly what you said is what you don’t want, which is these are dollars that are not in our budget and we don’t know if they are going to come or not.  Those funds, the last couple of years, have been critical in our monitoring of smelt and it’s the perfect example of usable data we’ve been getting.  I don’t know what we’re going to do if Congress just decides not to give it to us next year, so just an example of how the way government works doesn’t work so well with adaptive management.”

Obviously one of the problems is the funding for the long term monitoring that will eventually tell you what you need to know,” said Dr. Weins.  “That is hard to explain to people, even if you put it in very common sense terms.  Having that kind of long term commitment is a very difficult thing, particularly in an uncertain funding environment as virtually any funding environment is now.  I think one way to deal with that is to take a real probing look at the monitoring enterprise – what is it about monitoring that you need to know in order to address your decision making.  When I talk with my scientific colleagues, they interpret monitoring as we’re going to go out and count things and we’re going to count them with as much precision and as much detail and as often as we can, and hope to get the money to do all of that.  It may be overkill in terms of the kind of information that actually need to make an informed decision.  So I think there needs to be some clear thinking about how much monitoring is really good enough for what you have in mind, and that can play into the funding.  The problem of course with that is as we move into greater uncertainty with climate change, sea level rise, economic globalization and the like, the terrain is constantly changing so that the monitoring plan that you have now based upon today’s uncertainties may not work when nature or human activities throw you a curve.”

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