DELTA PLAN INTERAGENCY IMPLEMENTATION COMMITTEE: Ecosystem Restoration Progress Update

Panel discusses the progress made on ecosystem restoration projects in the Delta

At the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee meeting held in November, the last agenda item was an update on the restoration projects underway in the Delta.  The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Carl Wilcox briefed Committee members on the Delta Conservation Framework; and David Okita and Kris Tjernell with the Natural Resources Agency highlighted the pace and progress of restoration projects in the Yolo Bypass and in Suisun Marsh.

THE DELTA CONSERVATION FRAMEWORK

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is working with federal, state, and local agencies, and the Delta stakeholder community to develop a high-level conservation framework for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Yolo Bypass and Suisun Marsh.  Building on prior Delta planning efforts, the Delta Conservation Framework will serve as the long-term continuation of California EcoRestore, a recent California Natural Resources Agency led Delta restoration implementation initiative. The Delta Conservation Framework is anticipated to be completed in 2017 and will guide Delta conservation efforts to 2050.  At the November meeting of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee, Carl Wilcox updated the committee on the progress made on the framework.

The Delta Conservation Framework builds appropriately off of A Delta Renewed and the historical ecology work.  It is an effort to lay out a future as it relates to many of the conservation measures that were identified in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan that are not being addressed with the California Water Fix or within EcoRestore.

Carl Wilcox noted that two of the Department of Fish and Wildlife staff, Rick Jacobs and Christina Sloop, are doing the heavy lifting to move the framework along, which is on a tight timeline.  “We’ve been partnering with many of our other state agencies in developing the framework and trying to engage as many people as possible, recognizing that we don’t always get to everybody but we’re trying, and anybody that is interested is certainly welcome to come and talk to us and we’re there to talk with them.”

The framework is intended to be a vision for what could be done in the Delta, not any specific mandate.  It’s a very high level look at restoration in the Delta, and will depend more on sub-regional planning.  “It’s setting an overall tone and using documents like A Delta Renewed as a guidebook on how you would do what you might be interested in doing in any particular geographic portion of the Delta, recognizing that the Delta is a very diverse place physically, and socioeconomically,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “So different things are going to happen in different settings, depending on what the local community is interested in doing in cooperation with others and in addressing their broader issues, whether its flood control, or flood management, recreational development, or habitat restoration.”

A vision statement for the future of the Delta, developed through input at workshops with interested stakeholders is, ‘A mosaic of towns, agricultural landscapes, managed wetlands and resilient ecosystems where people prosper, and healthy fish, wildlife, and plant communities thrive.’

The purpose for the Delta Conservation Framework effort is intended to set the tone for a forum of local engagement of resource managers, scientists, local residents in the Delta, other interested organizations and agencies that are focused on the interests of the Delta and the values of the Delta, whether they are from a biological perspective or from an agricultural perspective or whatever.

Part of this is developing a shared vision, overarching goals, and strategies for the Delta, and out of that, developing potential solutions that can be moved forward, particularly in a more regional context,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “We look for most of this to be implemented going forward in a regional construct using regional planning efforts that the Delta Conservancy has taken the first steps to move forward.  The primary example of that kind of effort is what’s going on with the Yolo Bypass Partnership, initially in the Yolo Bypass and now expanded to include Cache Slough.”

Ecosystem restoration is a goal of the Delta Reform Act, but restoration is complicated by what exists in the Delta today and what can be restored or enhanced in the system, as opposed to putting it back to something that it might have been before, said Mr. Wilcox.

The principles of the planning effort are to focus on the conservation of Delta ecosystems that will benefit both people and the environment and build community from ecological function, and provide multiple benefits,” Mr. Wilcox said.  “We’ve heard for a long time about wildlife-friendly agriculture.  I’m still to this day unclear exactly what that is, and to some degree, I hope through the framework we’ll be able to better define that so that people can understand moving forward what that looks like.  Another principle is focusing on people and place.  That’s a key component of the Delta Reform Act and the prime modifier of the coequal goals is the Delta as place.

The Delta Conservation Framework recognizes that the need to engage stakeholders and the integration of a number of actions that might be undertaken and the types of activities that can be pursued.  “I think coming out of this effort, we’ll have a good example that we’ll be able to present that’s focused primarily on public lands, that can serve as a guide as to how you might move forward conducting restoration,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “The framework currently looks out 25 years; it’d probably might be better to look at 50, because really planning for something today that’s not going to be there tomorrow in a changing world with climate change and the effects that might engender in the Delta is not productive.  So I think this is really laying the trajectory for how we might proceed with things, and accounting for those changes into the future.”

Mr. Wilcox said they are trying to build on previous planning efforts to the maximum extent possible and not to create anything new.  He presented a diagram showing how they’ve tried to bring things together so that the framework can serve a multiple of needs, both from the perspective of guiding potential future funding efforts through Prop 1 by the Department and the Conservancy and through greenhouse gas fund expenditures for carbon sequestration in the Delta, and also to help support the regional conservation strategies that the Department hopes will emerge from the efforts of local groups within the Delta on a geographic basis.

So far, Mr.Wilcox said they have had broad stakeholder participation.  They’ve done active outreach, and touched base with many agencies, particularly their federal counterparts to check in with them.  “We haven’t involved them to a great degree because they are very stretched as far as their capacity to participate, but we have based much of the planning we have done and much of the work on previous efforts that have engaged them to a high degree as well as looking at recovery plans that are currently in place or being developed, so that we’re trying to account for all of those efforts,” said Mr. Wilcox.  “We’ve stayed away from flows, and are focused primarily on habitat constituents and the functions.  And not just the fish, but all of the species that were potentially addressed in BDCP.  There were 54 and of that, 40+ were terrestrial species and plants.  We’re focusing on the natural communities that were addressed.”

They have ongoing further outreach, working with North Delta Cares, the Delta Counties Coalition, so they are looking for as much input as they can.  They have had three monthly workshops, with a fourth and final workshop to be held at the end of November.  Then they will be developing a draft report that’s expected to be completed early in the new year that will then go out for public review and engagement, after which the report will be finalized.

The primary focus of this is to support the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan update as it relates to the ecosystem and restoration components of the plan,” concluded Mr. Wilcox.

ECO-RESTORE UPDATE

David Okita, Delta Restoration Coordinator with the Natural Resources Agency, began by saying there are three components to Eco Restore: the projects which are a comprehensive suite of actions and accelerating on the ground restoration; planning such as longer-term restoration planning and regional strategies, and adaptive management at a landscape-scale that builds on the Delta Plan concepts.

You’ve heard a lot today about science and adaptive management on a broad, Delta-wide scale,” he said.  “What we’re trying to do in Eco Restore is implement a subset of that adaptive management just for Eco Restore projects in the Delta and Suisun Marsh.   What we are planning to do is actually design and implement an adaptive management program in the next couple of years.   We have plenty of the science tools that are out there to put together, but in the context of state government and the stakeholders, how do we actually implement adaptive management.

The EcoRestore has a steering committee is providing some policy guidance and a technical committee has prepared a very thorough paper about how this program should look if money wasn’t a constraint, as well as the gaps and what they are not doing now.  “What we want to do in the next year or so is actually start this program.  It will probably be incremental and build up to ultimately what we want to do, but at least it’s a start.  That’s what we’re doing with adaptive management.

With respect to EcoRestore’s projects, the goal is 30,000 acres that is comprised of different types of habitats, such as tidal marsh, managed wetlands and floodplain; there are also fish passage improvements which are not acreage based, as well as setback levees which are measured in mileage of levee setbacks.

Mr. Okita presented a map showing the different projects, noting that two projects are under construction right now, a couple more that will do pre-construction activities this year in preparation of starting construction next year, and a whole slew of projects in 2018 and 2019.

The goal for tidal wetland projects is 9000 acres, 8,000 of which are for the Delta smelt biological opinion.  He presented a list of tidal wetland projects that are either under construction or planned to be under construction in the next few years, noting that it does not include projects that that are anticipated getting through the Request for Proposal process.  “You can see the numbers add up and are getting pretty close to 8000-9000 acres and with the RFP, we could have the luxury to pick and choose which projects make the most sense to meet those requirements,” said Mr. Okita.

The RFP projects are expected to come in 2017, and there is a multi-agency process to help evaluate those projects to determine which ones should be picked for implementation, he said.

Tule Red Tidal Restoration

One of the projects under construction right now is the Tule Restoration Project, which started construction this fall, as the first project to count towards the 8000 acres of tidal marsh restoration required as part of the Delta smelt biological opinion.  “We had to clear a lot of hurdles in getting this thing permitted in the Suisun Marsh, and the hurdles that we completed should be helpful in permitting future projects in the Suisun Marsh,” said Mr. Okita.

Mr. Okita then turned the presentation over to Kris Tjernell, Special Assistant for Water Policy, to discuss several of the projects that are moving forward in the Yolo Bypass.

Wallace Weir Fish Rescue Facility

The Wallace Weir Fish Rescue Facility is a project led by the Department of Water Resources and RD 108 that is currently under construction in the Yolo Bypass.  “At the last DPIIC meeting, this project was in permitting and through the absolutely incredible commitment by each of these agencies represented up here, we have moved from planning through permitting and are halfway through construction and are planning to complete construction by mid-December,” he said.  “That’s all within a one year timeline, which in this particular landscape is pretty remarkable.”

The Wallace Weir Fish Rescue Facility is a fish passage project where the intention is to block fish passage to hinder their ability to stray into the Colusa Basin drain, and by doing so, facilitate them staying in the places that are more amenable to their movement or rearing or other types of important habitat areas.

It’s a very tight construction window,” Mr. Tjernell said.  “We have to get done by mid-December, obviously the sooner the better.  Rains as far as this project goes are not a good thing.  There was a big risk a couple of weeks ago that this project was going to get flooded out when that first set of big storms came through, but the team led by Reclamation District 108 who has been taking the lead on this project and doing a fantastic job, actually built a berm around the entire footprint of the project.  We all did our part at the policy level and crossed our fingers, and fortunately the project did not get swept away.  It is there and we are on track to finishing it on time, so again, a big thanks to each of you for the work that each of your agencies did to make that happen.”

Fremont Weir Adult Fish Passage Project

The Fremont Weir Adult Fish Passage Project is a project called for in the NMFS salmon biological opinion.  The project includes improving the existing Fremont Weir fish ladder and improving or removing several ag road crossings.  The project will increase the window of time that it will allow adult fish, mostly salmonids and sturgeon, to move northward through the bypass back into the mainstem of the Sacramento River.  This project is led by the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau of Reclamation; they are hoping to start construction in summer of 2017.

There are challenges with the permitting and construction timelines.  “It’s going to take everything to really get this done, if not next year, then the year after, but at least to get it started next year,” said Mr. Tjernell.  “This project is really testing the frameworks that we’re setting up for interagency coordination and communication.”

Yolo Bypass Floodplain Restoration Project

The Yolo Bypass Floodplain Restoration Project involves cutting a notch into the Fremont Weir to increase the frequency and duration of ecologically functional floodplain inundation.  Mr. Tjernell acknowledged there are potential impacts to the existing agricultural uses and to the existing wildlife areas; it’s challenging from an engineering perspective as well as a societal perspective.  There are flood management considerations as well as the bypass is used first and foremost as a flood control facility.  It is also very important to Yolo and Solano counties economically, and an important recreational component as well.  This project is led by DWR and the Bureau of Reclamation for the compliance with the 2009 biological opinion.

A public draft of the environmental documents is expected in late summer of 2017.   “That will be a huge accomplishment and something that will require each of the agencies to do something extra special when it comes to coordination, communication and the commitment to moving this along,” said Mr. Tjernell.  “A planned ROD/NOD would come a year later in summer of 2018 and hopefully move through permitting and construction soon thereafter.

Mr. Tjernell said they have been engaging with key stakeholders; there are over 100 individual land owners in the Yolo Bypass that could be affected by this project.  They have set up a Yolo Bypass Working Group comprised of a subset of landowners, local agencies, state agencies, and federal agencies to really work through some of the key issues.  “The expected challenge is getting to yes,” he said.  “Can we really achieve on this particular landscape, functional ecosystems working literally on the same land as functional economies?  It’s a big question; I think the answer to the question is yes, we can, and we certainly should, and we’re working through the how.”

The Delta Conservancy and regional planning efforts

Campbell Ingram then briefed the committee members on the Delta Conservancy’s efforts on regional planning in the Delta.  They have started the Cache Slough regional restoration planning effort, which is taking information from the Delta Conservation Framework and the Delta Renewed project and applying that to planning efforts in the Cache Slough region to determine where restoration can be done to the greatest effect but with the least amount of impact on the local land use.

We’ve brought together the counties, the reclamation district, the water district, as well as many state and federal agencies and a bevy of consultants to help us take a look at the most readily available information to identify on a scientific basis, how and why we want to do restoration in this area and what is it that we want to accomplish,” Mr. Ingram said.  “We then work with the interests at the table to overlay that with the agricultural situation – where are the water intakes, where are the drainage issues, as well as the flood protection system.  The goal of the effort is to come out with a regional perspective of where we most likely can do good restoration with the least amount of impact and therefore then likely have the greatest local support for the restoration that we’re going to try to do.  That will increase our chances of effective implementation over time.”

It’s like a cascade; there is the regional conservation framework, all informed by A Delta Renewed, base information, and then starting to drill down and work with locals to really get at what it is we think we can achieve,” said Mr. Ingram.

Mr. Ingram noted that they have funded nine projects under Prop 1 for $6.3 million; there are 11 projects that are requesting $15 million this year.  “It’s a nice broad suite of projects with restoration, water quality, watershed, and even some ag sustainability projects as well.  Again, you start to see a cascade of how everything is working together on the restoration front.

Restoration Planning Matrix for Delta restoration projects

Mr. Okita then displayed a slide of a planning matrix, noting that this one has only four projects listed for purposes of this presentation, but there are ten more projects listed on the full matrix.  The different colored bars are for different phases of project implementation.  The matrix serves two purposes: first to determine staffing and funding needs, and second, to look at the permitting timeline.  The different permits that are needed are indicated by agency.  “It can be quite a big deal to get the resources from these different agencies to commit to processing these permits,” said Mr. Okita.

There is the need for champions and the need for interagency effort to move things forward to get things done in the Delta,” said Jessica Law, Committee Coordinator.   “Our request is to send this matrix to all the agencies and ask you to review the matrix from your own agencies perspective, and to work internally to understand what resources and/or policy changes that are needed to support the Eco Restore implementation over the next five years.  It’s a five year program that we’re about a year and a half through.  That gives us another 3 ½ years to move the projects forward.  Then to come back at the next DPIIC meeting, April 17, 2017 and report back on interagency internal review and then based on those results, at our next meeting, where DPIIC, this group, overall can be helpful in further removing some barriers and implementing best practices.”

Chuck Bonham, Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, supported the request.  “It’s possible to actually do stuff; it just takes our collective will,” he said.  “I think the last 18 months and these three gentlemen in the prior panels proved that.  So assuming we continue to have the structure that involves local input, assuming we find the right place to do projects big or small, it’s going to come to us on the question of policy changes and managing through that matrix, or we won’t get any of it done.  If you can do these projects, no one can ever take it away from us.”

I would just ask that we come back to the next DPIIC meeting, having each of us take a look at that matrix, and facilitate that breaking down the barriers and teeing up what we’ll need to engage in,” Mr. Bonham said.  “The administration has a defined timeframe left at the state level.  If we don’t get them done, they’re not done, and we should do these projects.”

Karla Nemeth, Deputy Secretary for Water Policy, agreed with Chuck Bonham.  “There are a lot of folks in our agencies and departments that have tremendous expertise and are just really energized and glad to make their expertise very relevant to these projects and advancing the goals we are all embracing,” she said. “At the ribbon cuttings, I personally have very much valued the opportunity that provides me in meeting with all the local folks who are really stepping up to partner.  They are also very motivated.  Nobody knows the landscape out there really like they do, and I think that’s absolutely why we’ve been as successful on these first few projects that we have, so thanks to everyone who’s really leaning in.”

Mr. Fiorini then closed the meeting, noting that every agency would be receiving the matrix with all the projects.  “Return to April meeting with how you’re going to help facilitate bringing these 14 projects to a swift and sure completion,” he said.

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