Panel of experts share their visions and options for the future of the Delta and longfin smelt
Coverage of the Delta and longfin smelt symposium, Is Extinction Inevitable?, continues
It’s been a full day of presentations; conference attendees have been given the background on the decline of the Delta and longfin smelt, a long list of potential causes, and a look at a future that will be challenging, to say the least. In the last session of the day, agency officials and scientists discuss the challenges the lie ahead. The panel discussion was moderated by Dr. Peter Moyle.
CARL WILCOX: As Policy Advisor to the Director for the Delta, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Carl Wilcox is responsible for water planning and policy formulation related to the Delta. He was previously Bay-Delta Region Regional Manager (2011-2012) and Chief of the Water Branch (2005-2011). He lead the Departments participation in the review and permitting of the California Water Fix/BDCP; drought planning and fisheries management related to State and federal water project operations; Collaborative Science and Adaptive Management Process; and Interagency Ecological Program. He is also a participant in policy development related to other water management and fishery conservation efforts in the Central Valley as they affect the Delta.
DR. ERWIN VAN NIEUWENHUYSE: Dr. Erwin Van Nieuwenhuyse (van-new-wen-hice) is an aquatic scientist with the Bureau of Reclamation’s Bay-Delta Office in Sacramento. He’s worked in the Delta since 1998. He is a member of the Smelt Working Group and Delta Smelt Scoping Team (part of the Collaborative Adaptive Management initiative) and helps manage the Interagency Ecological Program. His research focuses primarily on nutrients and phytoplankton dynamics, particularly in the Sacramento Deepwater Ship Channel and the Cache Slough Complex, but he’s also actively promoting research on salmonid and smelt spot pattern recognition, SmeltCam and other innovative fish monitoring technologies. His alter ego, Declan McAlyster, is a songwriter who performs locally, most recently at the Sacramento Poetry Center Art Gallery earlier this month.
DR. SCOTT HAMILTON: Dr. Scott Hamilton has been involved with delta smelt and resource allocation issues in the Delta since 2008. He is currently a co-chair of the Delta smelt scoping team within CSAMP (the Collaborative Science and Adaptive Management Program). He is the lead scientist for the Center for California Water Resources Policy and Management – an organization interested in promoting more effective water management in California. Recent research efforts have focused on the use of publicly available data to better understand how native fish use the estuary. Scott has his PhD in resource economics from Oregon State University.
DR. TED SOMMER: Dr. Ted Sommer received his PhD from University of California at Davis, where he studied under noted fisheries biologist Dr. Peter Moyle. Dr. Sommer is currently Lead Scientist for the California Department of Water Resources. For the past 25 years his work has focused on native fishes, with studies on Delta Smelt, salmon biology, floodplain ecology, food webs, and hydrology. Dr. Sommer has published more than 50 research articles in peer-reviewed scientific publications.
DAN CASTLEBERRY: Dan Castleberry is the Assistant Regional Director for Fish and Aquatic Conservation in the Pacific Southwest Region of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. His responsibilities include overseeing the Service’s fish and water related efforts in California’s Central Valley and Bay-Delta system as well as the Service’s fisheries operations throughout California and Nevada. Dan has extensive experience working on fish and water issues, including over thirty years of experience working on fish, water and ecosystem restoration in the San Francisco-San Joaquin Bay-Delta system.
DR. CHRISTINA SWANSON:Dr. Christina (Tina) Swanson, Ph.D., is Director of the Science Center, where she works to expand the NRDC’s scientific capabilities and support its legal and policy work across a range of environmental, public health and sustainable management issues. She is an expert in fish biology, aquatic ecosystem protection and restoration, ecological indicators and water resource management. Much of her work has been in the San Francisco Bay-Delta, but she has also worked and conducted research in Hawaii and, as a Fulbright Scholar, in the Philippines. Prior to joining NRDC in 2011, Tina worked with The Bay Institute, serving as the organization’s fisheries/senior scientist and, from 2008-2011, as Executive Director and Chief Scientist. She has authored or co-authored more than 20 peer-reviewed articles and numerous technical and policy memoranda and reports. Tina received her B.A. from Cornell University, her doctorate from University of California, Los Angeles, and conducted post-doctoral research at University of California, Davis. She was President of the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society in 2012-2013 and of the California-Nevada Chapter in 2004-2005.
DR. SHAWN ACUÑA: Dr. Shawn Acuña is a Senior Resource Specialist for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He received his Ph. D at UC Davis in Ecotoxicology. After working at the Aquatic Health Program at UC Davis on cyanobacteria and other stressor impacts on species in the Delta such as splittail and delta smelt he joined MWD to work on their mission to promote a sustainable ecosystem and a reliable water supply.
Dr. Peter Moyle posited the first question to the panelists. “Give your elevator speech in response to the question, do you think Delta smelt will make it through the next ten years?”
Unfortunately I missed the first part of the morning program, but I found the afternoon session helpful and somewhat hopeful. As gloomy as everybody is, I think from my perspective, it’s kind of the Monty Python situation where they are in the plague and the guy is coming around collecting all the bodies, and they throw a guy on there, ‘I’m not dead yet’ – The Delta smelt is not dead yet; it may be close to it, but I think there are things we can do based on what we heard today that can provide some hope for Delta smelt being around for the foreseeable future, certainly longer than my career will be. I think some of those relate to what goes on in the Cache Slough area with productivity issues, and I think really the fish has experienced basically a situation over the last two years in particular and the last four, where it has gotten no breaks at all. We have managed to its detriment to care of winter-run salmon, and I think in the future, we need to think more about how we treat the Delta and Delta outflow as it relates to how we manage reservoirs and for other species upstream.
DR. ERWIN VAN NIEUWENHUYSE
There’s a lot of uncertainty, but I’m very certain, as highly certain as you can be, that there will be a wild population in the Delta ten years from now, especially if we don’t fill in the Deep Water Ship Channel. I know because we’ve been funding the UC Davis Fish Culture Facility, so I’m very confident that there will be brood stock waiting in the wings in case they do go functionally extinct in the wild someday.
DR. SCOTT HAMILTON
To channel Bill Bennett, yes I would say they are still going to be here in ten years time but I think we need to do a better job of restoring the natural processes of the historic Delta.
DR. TED SOMMER
I’m the pessimist of the bunch. I think if we get a repeat of the last ten years, the next ten years, I don’t see them in the wild, but I do see the benefit of having that refuge population, that’s our very small insurance policy.
My answer to the question is yes. I think we’ve heard several times today that Delta smelt are resilient, and we also have the refugial population of Delta smelt in captivity, which gives us a back up if that resiliency in and of itself doesn’t continue to support Delta smelt.
DR. TINA SWANSON
I’m going to say yes, I think they will likely still be with us in ten years – unless we fail to take action on the science and scientific understanding of the system that we have now. I really do think we need to take action, because we haven’t been taking action for the species for the last twenty and thirty years. During that period, the recent droughts notwithstanding, conditions have been getting worse, they have not been getting better, and the response of the species is an indication of that. The most encouraging thing I heard today here was the fact that based on the effective population size analysis, the species still has some resilience left, and I think we need to act on that. That means we need to manage the system, and we do manage the system. We manage everything in this system, and every year, except for a wet year, we manage this system to create drought conditions in the estuary. Until we manage this system instead to provide opportunities for species like Delta smelt that still have some remaining resilience within their populations, then we will drive them to extinction. We need to give them and manage the system and provide them an opportunity to express that resilience.
DR. SHAWN ACUÑA
I like to consider myself a recovering pessimist. I used to be very pessimistic about things, but some of the studies I’ve seen looking just outside of our estuary, such as the example that was talked about earlier about Oregon. There are opportunities to do things differently. I think that in ten years, I’m cautiously optimistic that Delta smelt will persist, especially since we have our culture facility still keeping them going. Propagation could be potential idea, but there are multiple ideas that could be done, and I think we really need to think about implementing those ideas that have been used effectively in other areas.
Dr. Peter Moyle: Give me your elevator speech in response to, do you think longfin smelt will make it through the next ten years in the San Francisco estuary. Anything north of the estuary doesn’t count.
DR. SHAWN ACUÑA
Unlike Delta smelt which tends to be an annual species, for the most part, longfin being a multi-year species, I think they have a lot better chance. I’m a lot less cautiously optimistic about them existing for ten years, and a lot more optimistic about that. I think a lot of people would agree it’s way too early to tell now. We know they can spawn into a third, potentially fourth year, we don’t know what that contribution is to their population, and I do think they will persist in ten years …
DR. TINA SWANSON
I would agree with that. … partly based on their life history, partly based on their broader distribution, they have even more built in resilience in this system. But I want to turn back the first two questions with a challenge and say that we already figured out a couple of decades ago that it was not the best way to manage the system on a species by species basis. I think one of the things we need to recognize when we’re asking these questions about these particular species, is that it isn’t just these species that are demonstrating these trends in population for which we have science that clearly demonstrates that the way we are managing the system and have altered and continue insulting it; they are all being affected and so I would also encourage us to be thinking on a little broader scale and in a multi-species ecosystem approach.
I don’t have a whole lot to add to what’s been said. I would agree yes, longfin smelt are resilient and a multi-year species not as dependent on the Delta as Delta smelt, so I’m more optimistic about longfin smelt than I am Delta smelt.
DR. TED SOMMER
I totally agree with all the other folks. I also want to point to Lenny’s talk – we have some clues that habitat restoration, particularly in downstream areas will provide some benefits and maybe a lifeboat for the species.
DR. SCOTT HAMILTON
I think it depends. Our science on longfin smelt has a long way to go. There’s a lot more we need to understand about the mechanisms, I’m particularly encouraged with the work that Fred and Lenny are doing, so good stuff. Keep it up.
DR. ERWIN VAN NIEUWENHUYSE
I’m very optimistic for longfin smelt. A lot of their dynamics is going to depend in the long term on what’s going on in the ocean as much as what happens inland, but as far as the inland stuff, I think a lot of the flow relationship has to do with food export from the Delta, and so I would focus on that.
I view longfin smelt as having a much better chance than Delta smelt right now based on what we know and where they are and how they operate, but I think the key point is that even with Lenny’s data, in drier hydrologies, they depend on Suisun and the Delta. If we forget that, then we’re causing problems for them, but all of those are going to be issues for the water quality control plan update and I’ll be talking about them there and that I think is where these fish are going to make it or break it.
Dr. Peter Moyle, moderator: I’m impressed that the responses are so positive. So the next question is, the talks did indicate that the decline of both of these species is quite real, and it’s from multiple causes, so what I’m hoping to get the discussion going around what do we do, what are the next steps that we should take?
DR. TINA SWANSON
I actually think it’s a mistake to ask what is the one thing that we can do – and I know you’re not asking that, Peter. This is a system that we are exploiting from multiple directions right to the edges and beyond its capacity to absorb, so a lot of people including many of my colleagues in the environmental community focus on flows, and argue, based on a lot of scientific evidence, that we should be improving flow conditions in the system to provide more favorable or less unfavorable habitat conditions. However, you can’t take that action in this state without taking other actions to compensate for the redirection of that flow, so no single action is going to do it. The plan has to be sort of multifaceted and comprehensive, and that in some ways is good, because you get to address multiple problems at the same time. I think flow demonstrably and incontrovertibly scientifically based is a critical driver in the system, and it is the variable that we manage most. It’s also the one that we can change the fastest. It doesn’t take decades to change flow, so it represents an opportunity for us. It’s going to require that we make adjustments in all other sectors of the state’s use of that water, but those are also all doable and manageable as well. I was also very struck by the contaminants talk, and I think that’s another area where we always talk about well this is a big problem, but we have yet to take any meaningful action in that direction, and that represents another opportunity for us.
DR. SCOTT HAMILTON
Like Jon Rosenfield, I was kind of intrigued with the topic today of whether it’s inevitable that Delta smelt are going to go extinct. I was wondering if we should have asked that question 25 years ago. So since Delta smelt have been listed, we spent $4 billion on CalFed, we’ve restricted water exports, we’ve actually intensely managed flows, and particularly since D-1641, the smelt have had the full protection of the US FWS now for 23 years. The smelt are at less than one percent of the level that they were when they were listed, so either everybody in this room including myself is doing really bad job for the last 25 years, or it actually was inevitable. I don’t think either of those things is true. We have some very capable people here and I think we’re working under very difficult circumstances, so like Tina, I think this is a very difficult thing to oversimplify. There’s too much going on, it’s too complicated, and we need to figure out really what we actually can do about it, and that’s a very challenging problem. …
There’s been an overemphasis on the exports. If it were just flows, if we could just manage flows and get results, we would have done that, but that’s essentially like trying to grow wheat on the parking lot outside. The wheat needs water to grow but unless you have the right environment for it, it doesn’t how much water you put on it, it’s never going to grow, and the same thing I think is true here. We know, and due to the great work that the SFEI has done, we have a much better sense of what the Delta was like. This was the system that these fish evolved in.
Why is it so hard for us to recreate that sort of habitat now? Obviously we can’t do it in the same place as the environment’s changed too much, so now we’re sort of in this situation where we’ve got to create habitat that used to exist, but now we have to create it in different places, and it’s the loss of the habitat that is the most crucial thing to the extinction, and so unless we’re going to get really serious about restoring some of that habitat, then a lot of other things just doesn’t matter.
Even with all of that, it’s so difficult, because we’ve got so many more introduced species right now. It used to be 25 years ago, we didn’t have some of the clam problems, we didn’t have and I don’t why silverside population has expanded, we didn’t have the silverside predation, so we’ve got some really, really difficult problems still to solve but I think the very basic one … we need some bold and fairly successful initiatives on the habitat restoration.
DR. TED SOMMER
I want to agree with Tina on the need for a multi-faceted approach, but also I want to emphasize what Dr. Bill Bennett said about habitat – that’s probably the thing I would invest the most time in; and I want to divide it into near term and longer term. In the near term, I agree with Tina we actually have some knobs available to us right now, so starting first with flow, there are actually differences between responses where the flow comes from, so one of the first things we’re interested in trying in the very near future is putting more flow through the Yolo Bypass using existing infrastructure because that’s a food-rich high residence area and we know smelt are up there. They are further downstream; perhaps we can get a response that way.
The other thing we talked about is turbidity; turbidity is a big issue because of the dams and so forth, but aquatic weeds are part of the problem. I think an aggressive aquatic weed removal program would be prudent in the near-term. Longer term, we really need to accelerate the habitat restoration. I think Bill’s right that we’re on a bad trajectory unless we can really fundamentally change the structure of the Delta right now.
DR. SHAWN ACUÑA
I like to repeat that multi-faceted plan. With a background in toxicology, we’re always thinking of the triad: the organism, the environment, and the stressor. Those three things need to be looked at it; you need to have that kind of comprehensive look. Habitat restoration as well as looking at how to make the water quality itself better, looking at a more comprehensive way. Right now we have hyacinth control going on currently spraying every week, we have pesticide sprays going on all the time, we have salinity intrusion, we have temperature increases – all these things need to be all taken care of and focused on how they come together and add benefits to Delta smelt.
DR. ERWIN VAN NIEUWENHUYSE
The one thing I would do is focus on increasing the food supply in the system for many reasons. One is that it’s one of the few things that almost everyone agrees is a problem, whereas not everyone agrees that the solution to the Delta smelt decline is reducing exports, because there’s only a certain limited range that you can do that in responsibly. That water supply is the basis for our three trillion dollar economy, so you can only tweak that so much.
Whereas we’ve demonstrated that as a species, we know how to make estuaries more productive, so what I would offer as a path forward – it actually looks like a river network. We have lots and lots of tributaries going on, individual actions each with sort of its own associated science program, and some of those have been coalesced into major tributaries, but we don’t have a mainstem that collects them all and guides all the work towards a goal, some overarching goal.
What I would propose in the spirit of food production is something like the Chesapeake Bay Adaptive Management Program, or the Everglades Program, both of which are highlighted in the recent ISB report on adaptive management. But it would be in reverse, because in the case of the Chesapeake, the goal was to reduce phosphorous loading to the system to decrease chlorophyll concentration, in other words phytoplankton production, and increase the aquatic vegetation, whereas we’d be doing the reverse, we’d be leaving the phosphorous alone because we have a nice moderate level of phosphorous here … what we’re lacking is nitrogen, so we’d be managing our nitrogen particularly from abundant sources like the treated wastewater from the regional wastewater treatment plant to boost our phytoplankton production at the expense of the SAV, so the more phytoplankton in the water, the more turbid, it shades out the submerged aquatic vegetation, so this is a much more sophisticated way to deal with submerged aquatic vegetation then spraying 24D all over the place.
Of course, it’s a slightly long vision, but it’s something that integrates everything, and I think that’s what we’re lacking. We don’t have any central unifying conceptual model; we’ve got literally hundreds of conceptual models for each process, each life stage, each season of the year, and then you’ve got $100 million, you’ve got a thousand hypotheses, so are you going to spend your $100 million testing hypotheses or are you going to try to fold them into some sort of unifying vision? The ship channel, functionally, is the heart of Delta smelt habitat right now and I think it could be the catalyst for restoring the population to at least pre POD levels if not pre-potamocorbula levels. And we’ve got a lot of great ideas for that; we’ve done a lot of the groundwork for that initiative, and I think it’s time has come. That’s where we’re headed.
Only if there are coherent proposals. I think we’re at the point of needing some straightforward proposals on where to prioritize activities. Dr. Ted Sommer has laid out the issue of improving flow through the bypass to stimulate productivity and export from the Tule Canal; Dr. Erwin van Nieuwenhuyse has highlighted the issue of increasing productivity and certainly the underlying factor is that the Delta is really unproductive, and if we can improve that, then have some potential benefits.
This goes back to focusing on taking an action. Right now we have actions all over the place, and it’s coming up with a coherent strategy to pursue that can be tested as we go to follow the rules of adaptive management to see if it works and if we can generate the expected benefits from it.
I would like to agree with pretty much everything, but what I would point out is what we’ve done so far is insufficient, and despite the optimism I voiced earlier, I voiced that based on the expectation that we would take action. Without action, that optimism is unwarranted.
I think there was a question asked earlier, where is the FWS with the recovery planning process? I feel a need to address that question. We are working on a recovery plan. I also agree it’s long past due for an update, but I will offer as a bit of an explanation that we’ve been very focused on other activities over the last few years. We looked toward the Bay Delta Conservation Plan as essentially a foundation for a recovery plan for Delta smelt, and we’re working hard to ensure it contained things that would move us ahead. We didn’t have the same situation we have today but we were headed this way. We lost that foundation; we’re continuing to work on Cal Water Fix and Cal EcoRestore, but very certain that we need to make progress on the Cal Eco Restore end of things. We’ve been working with the Cal Water Fix and making progress, and there is progress being made on habitat restoration and those other activities, but they definitely need to accelerate. … We’re not in a situation where we can overlook potential actions. We need to prioritize those actions and move ahead.
The other part I want to add before we leave this is that I don’t think we are doing as much with flow as we could or should be doing. I think we need to be smarter about that. It may require more aggressive efforts to find other sources of water to meet ecosystem needs, but there are a couple of areas where we still have concerns. Outflow is a defining feature of estuaries; that’s one where we’re still looking at that, and we heard some things today about concerns regarding outflow. Someone said too much focus on salvage, and I completely agree with that, but I think entrainment is a different issue. We tend to talk a lot about salvage and we really need to be focused on avoiding losses associated with operations wherever those may occur, as well as other activities. I don’t want to leave those off the table as we move ahead, because I think everything needs to be on the table.
DR. TINA SWANSON
I won’t go so far as to say I agree with everything that has been said here, but there has been some good stuff. Dan Castleberry mentioned that part of the reason the recovery planning had not been accomplished yet was that there was a reliance on these earlier processes. BDCP, CalFed before that, and now we have another one, and some of those processes had very laudable approaches including taking ecosystem approaches as opposed to single species, but quite frankly most of them failed because they failed to use science as the basis for the planning and the policies that were being proposed to be adopted.
As a conference about the science, we’ve heard today some really wonderful stuff. Some of it we’ve known for awhile and some of it’s really new. It is critical that we as scientists and then others as policy makers recognize that effective policies, particularly for a complex system such as this, granted they need to take into account other societal needs for the resources and things like this, but if they are not based on science, they won’t work. And our objective is to make them work and to make them work for all of the parties involved.
I want to close on one last thing, because I think it’s an important point that Dan made. He said, one of the things we are going to have to focus on is flow and I don’t think anyone disagrees with that; we’re just going to have to find some more creative ways to find flow for the environment. I would suggest that it’s a heck of a lot easier to find water for other sources of water for other water users than environmental uses, than it is to find other water for environmental use. It’s easier to find more water to use for agricultural or urban uses, than it is to find more water to put into the environment, and the reason is that the water that we all use comes from the environment, and we’re taking it out of the environment, so that’s part of opening the box of solutions and recognizing that if you’re going to turn one knob, you’re probably going to have to compensate for another knob being turned, and we need to take a broader and more holistic approach to the way that we’re developing solutions and taking actions.
DR. SCOTT HAMILTON
Really to follow on from what Dan said that outflow is a defining element of the estuary, and I would certainly agree with that, but I think one of the things we’ve done is that we have thought that it is the one that we can solve all our problems with, but like the LA River, flows down the cemented LA River isn’t going to help. We have essentially a rip-rapped Sacramento River that’s very much different from what it was 150 years ago. Just having flows without restoring the habitat isn’t really going to help. I totally endorse what Ted is saying; you can’t define an estuary just with the flows, you have to define it with the diversity of the bathymetry, with abiotic qualities, with the floodplains that lead into it. This is truly a full ecosystem, and to think that we can just control one element and expect that’s going to be the magic knob, I think is being naive.
An interesting thing I heard earlier is someone referred to the Delta smelt having the full power of the FWS behind it. I’ve been working for the FWS for a long time. There isn’t that much there. And that’s part of the problem. That’s one of the reasons we saw a lot of promise in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, because it went beyond the FWS can do through the consultation process. Everything needs to be on the table. We need to make progress in those other areas and we need to do it quickly. There are areas where the FWS can’t force action. And where we can, it’s very limited, and the ability to do something where we can is further limited, so to make progress is going to take collaboration and creativity. Everyone in this room needs to be involved and beyond in making that progress.
DR. SHAWN ACUÑA
I haven’t been working in this system very long, but when I first started working in this system, everybody said, ‘you’ll be working on the same thing for the next 20 years,’ because that’s what they’ve been doing. When people talk about progress, I fully support progress, and I’d like that to actually happen, so collaborative efforts, all of us working together to go towards a goal where actual progress occurs is what we really need. If everybody agrees on that – and everybody seems to, but then they also tell me the same thing which is, ‘you’ll be working on the same thing for the next 20 years.’ That does not sound like progress to me. I would think that with all of us agreeing, we should be moving towards something new.
Dr. Peter Moyle (moderator): The question is really how do we do that. There are a lot of legal obstacles – the permits and these kinds of things which really seem to inhibit moving fast on some of these restoration actions which we clearly need to do. Everybody seems to agree, we’ve learned a lot from all this research, let’s go on and do something. How do we overcome those obstacles that seem to be in the way of rapid adaptive management?
DR. ERWIN VAN NIEUWENHUYSE
That’s a real tough one, just in the context of the food supply issue. Nutrients in this system when I got here were irrelevant. The voice of authority was saying that there was so much phosphorous and nitrogen in the system that they were basically irrelevant, and then somehow it went from that to now they’re some awful pollutants that we have to control, and the nutrients never had a chance to be something in between, like a precious resource we can utilize.
Like it or not, this is a heavily regulated heavily managed system; it’s not natural, so we’re going to have to start thinking in those terms and changing how we think about pollutants and phytoplankton. If we were able to boost the food supply, that’s literally increasing the biological energy of the system – not just for smelt, but for every living organism in the system. We would be bumping into things like biological oxygen demand, and dissolved oxygen standards, suddenly we might push dissolved oxygen below the 5 milligram per liter objective, which violates that law; then we bump into ESA provisions. But there are adaptive management provisions in both of the biological opinions, and that might be an opportunity to start incrementally expanding those adaptive management provisions to include more than what they do now, which is for example, in the smelt biological opinion, there’s the fall X2 provision, which is an adaptive management component, so we can start building off that sort of thinking in the biological opinions.
It’s important to focus on what we can do, relatively straightforwardly, and God knows what that is. I’ve been working in the Delta for ten years now. I came from San Francisco Bay where we restore wetlands, and thought restoring wetlands in the Delta would be a great idea as a way to offset the effects of the projects. Here we are, eight years after the biops were written and after our ITP was done, and there isn’t anything that’s been restored, other than a CalFed project or ERP project on Lindsay Slough for 170 acres. Fortunately, it’s in a place where John Durand and the UCD folks are sampling and we’ll be able to actually get some idea, because we had pre-project information, and we’ll have post-project sampling.
But the nut of it is that we can’t get out of our own way to implement these things. We have Liberty Island; it restored itself. It is basically our paradigm, and if we can’t do more of those, the prospects are pretty grim. The idea that we’re going to see some acceleration in the near term. We’ll be lucky if we get halfway to the 8000 acres in ten years from now just because it is so difficult unless we can find a way as agencies to help facilitate that process.
We need to also look at some out of the box types of things relative to putting sediment back in to the system using dredge materials and if the tunnels get built, tunnel material, to remedy the problems of Frank’s Tract. My idea would be fill it up and get it up into intertidal elevations and remove it as a bridge of salinity into Old River, and get rid of the Egeria, and maybe make it a more productive place for the kinds of species we’re interested in. Those kinds of things have huge hurdles to overcome from an institutional perspective, and Dr. Erwin van Nieuwenhuyse makes the point that the water quality standards make it very difficult to do some of these manipulations that we would like to do.
DR. SCOTT HAMILTON
In response to what we can do, I guess my catch-phrase here is constructive disagreement. I’m not a biologist by background and I’ve always been very impressed with how polite everybody is in the biological community, they are always respectful and they never say anything that’s going to offend anyone. Obviously I’ve overstepped that mark today. Dr. Tina Swanson and I will not agree on a lot of stuff, but I really respect a lot of the stuff she does, and I think that’s true for a lot of the environmental organizations that I’ve come into contact with. There is some really good thinking out there. The trouble is that no one really has a monopoly on the good ideas.
I think conferences like this are great, but it seems like we never can get then to the next step, and that really we need people to disagree on some key issues – it doesn’t matter what it is, it doesn’t matter whether it’s the best way to restore Yolo Bypass or what to do about Frank’s Tract or just how to improve the permitting process so we can restore more wetlands, but we get people that don’t have the same opinion in the room; get the stakeholders in the room with the agencies and staff and just talk through some of these things, not based on opinion but based on the best available science, so that people can present the facts as they see them, and then the other people can present the facts as they see them and we can have that discussion.
As scientists I think we always want to do more science. There’s always so much more that we don’t know and we want to solve all these problems. But we’re now in a situation where we don’t really have any more time for the smelt; we have to do stuff now, we have to do it pretty quickly, and we have to do stuff that’s bold, so we need to somehow create that forum where we can generate those bold ideas and give it some sort of filtering so it’s not some sort of crazy idea but that it has a reasonable chance of success.
In that same vein, I think there’s a lot of great stuff in D 1641 that was protective, but I think it made the Delta hydrograph way too flat. I think we need to go back to a more natural and variable Delta, and so that would be challenging in how we get there.
The idea of propagation came up for Delta smelt. Normally, I’m not in favor of putting more fish into a system where they’re already dying, but in this particular case, I’m wondering whether or not there’s enough of an adult population out there to effectively spawn and whether they are having trouble finding each other in this murky water. I pass that one on to biologists because I don’t know the answer to that, but it seems like some of these things are worth exploring, that we don’t have a lot of time before we really have to turn the trend line around.
We need science to help guide things, but I actually want to make sure that that doesn’t just mean more biologists. I’m not afraid for ask for help. One of the things we are sorely lacking is input from social scientists – economists like Scott that have a different perspective, other types of resource folks such as political scientists . We have a lot of good ideas and we have a lot of insight into the sorts of things we need. We’re not necessarily the best people to communicate those things or figure out what’s the best way to implement them, so that’s kind of a big call for help out there, and we probably don’t have very many people in the room with those particular skills.
DR. SHAWN ACUNA
I’d like to add another thing about adaptive management. Adaptive management means that we’re really to take risks, and we’re not always willing to do that. We’re more willing to just let it go, and we need to be able to take those risks. When it comes to adaptive management, you come in with an action and you do it, as opposed to thinking about what would happen; you actually need to do it. And then when it comes to adaptive management and other things like that, we all need to be willing to take risks. Do we need to double down on regulations on flows? Do we need to relax them? Do we need to do habitat restoration more dramatically and more expansively? Do we need to flush out the Deep Water Ship Channel more often? We need to actually do those things.
Dr. Peter Moyle, moderator, commented, how do you do that with a risk averse system? That’s the problem. He then opened up the floor for audience questions.
Question: Jeff Mount said that we had a 64% chance in the next 50 years of losing a lot of levees in the Delta, so I see a choice: what we can do in the short-term, which is what we’ve been talking about, and where are we going to end up, because climate change is something we have no control over. I think we may still have Delta smelt, but we’re not going to have the Delta as we know it … the increased flow down there on weak levees and levees at sea level – it’s not a pretty picture. That’s the future that I’m expecting to see, and the one bright light in that is that will take the Delta out of our control freshwater lake and make it more like Suisun Bay … where are we going? Everything that was said in the panel presumes that the future is under our control and is going to be very much like the past, and that makes no sense to me …
DR. SCOTT HAMILTON
I think this is the interesting problem where we’ve got the Endangered Species Act meeting reality. The Endangered Species Act wants to keep everything exactly the same and the world’s going to change, and frankly we have very little control over what’s going to happen, although we’d like to think we have a whole lot more control than what we do. My sense here is that the best that we can do is give some of these native fish a home in a variety of different elevations, so they have a place to go as things change. Whether they survive or not … there’s a lot of fish that are facing the possibility of extinction here. We can’t control all of it, but at least we can give them a place to live.
There was the DRMS study. It looked at a lot of those things. I don’t know how hard it would be to go back and dredge that stuff up and think about it. The thinking of it is what we are going to do in more of the BDCP timeline of 50 years out and what are we going to do now. I think we need to do some things now without forgetting what the future brings us, because climate change is going to change. If the levees don’t break, we’re still going to see different flow patterns and potentially the outflow patterns are going to change. We may even see higher outflow total in certain years, but it’s going to come at different times and it’s going to come earlier, and there’s going to be less of it in the spring.
We’re wrestling with that right now as we consider what to do or were considering what to do with BDCP and what it should look like, as well as trying to account for that in how we look at the Water Fix coming before us, or even in the context of the water quality control plan update. But it’s very difficult because you have a wide array of scenarios and how do you make those decisions and allocate those resources? Are we going to manage the system as a managed system or are we going to accept what we get?
DR. TINA SWANSON
On my drive up here this morning, I was listening to NPR and they had a short blurb where they quoted an old interview with Kurt Vonnegut who was making a recommendation that he thought the government should have a secretary of the future, someone who looks ahead, and so that’s really what your question is. I think a lot of us would agree with it, but it’s actually something that we’re not very good at doing, in terms of actually implementing it in terms of policy.
I would argue that with regards to the issue of the Delta and climate change, I think there are some other factors that are going on. Yes, it’s true, we’re basically doing most of our thinking and most of our planning on the assumption that the physical structure of the Delta is going to stay sort of the same, with a couple of exceptions, and one is the twin tunnels. Essentially that is us looking at the future and saying, oh my God, the Delta might not be a way to convey water through this so what is our long-term future fix for this. Unfortunately what it doesn’t do is take into account all sorts of other people and organisms and ecosystems live in the Delta, so it’s a very narrowly focused fix.
I think what you’re arguing is that we should be taking a more holistic long term fix to this, and I would not disagree. I think one of the things we talked about here was how difficult it was to get anything done, even in the short-term. So that does tend to concentrate our focus there. But I would agree with you that we need to do a better job projecting longer term out, if nothing else, to determine whether or not the things that we’re thinking in the long-term will prove to be stranded assets in the future, and so maybe that’s one of the way to incorporate that kind of analysis in our thinking.
I know the other focus of your question was should we, given that we think the future is going to be very different in this system, and assuming that we do believe that we would like to have a native ecosystem, shouldn’t we be focusing on making sure we preserve what we’ve got now so when this big change happens, they can move into the new space. I think that may go beyond our ability to predict, but I don’t disagree with your sentiment on that.
A lot of the discussions that have occurred about habitat restoration have factored in sea level rise. Where do we want to restore habitat, given that we expect sea level to rise. This isn’t going to look like we designed it ten or fifteen years out, so there has been consideration of those kinds of things. I think it’s more in the context of what do we want to do now and will it be resilient and maybe not in the context of what in part underlies the Cal Water Fix, that this is being built because it is resilient, so I agree, but that is, even though we didn’t say it, I think it does underlie a lot of the work that’s going on now.
DR. SHAWN ACUÑA
I just like to think that when we look into the future, we don’t use it to tie our hands. There’s a lot of negative things that could happen. Climate change is going to be an issue. There could be a lot of failures that could happen, but a lot of times when we bring those up in the discussion, it tends to freeze people’s minds as if maybe we shouldn’t have done anything in the first place. Don’t let that tie your hands. Continue forward, try to figure out, make those solutions now, with an eye on those potential catastrophes that may occur. We don’t want to do this blindly.
When we were working on the stage 2 ecosystem restoration program strategy, one of the first things we did was generate a map that showed elevations in the Delta, and basically talked about how these are the best places for restoration; that map became the rallying cry for everybody that hates wetland restoration out there, and the idea that somebody was coming in and imposing something on them and that we were going to restore Clarksburg. That wasn’t the case, it was just there to show where it was possible to recreate some functional habitat within the Delta, which is around the edges, because everything else is a deep hole, and when the levees break, will become an inland sea or bay.
I think it’s hard to think about the future because people are immediately threatened by the future, and having spent a lot of time in the Delta with people who live there, they are very resistant to anything that threatens or appears to threaten their livelihood and the fact that they’ve been there for many generations, and the whole ethos of the Delta.
DR. TED SOMMER
In addition to not being very good at engaging folks like social scientists, I think what I would like to see for the future is us doing a better job engaging other stakeholders. There are some logical allies out there that we haven’t developed good partnerships with. The water supply community; it’s in their best interest to have a system that’s resilient. Flood managers are another example. Environmental planners. There are going to be a lot of changes in the landscape there. I would like to think there are plenty of places where our interests overlap, and if we did a better job working with these communities, maybe we could make faster progress.