CA WATER LAW SYMPOSIUM: Chuck Bonham on going big in the Delta

“Water is an issue where we need to reach farther, dig deeper, and dream dreams, particularly when it comes to the uncertainty ahead and the challenges in the Bay Delta,” he says

For the past 150 years, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay have undergone a series of man-made alterations, turning what was once a vast mosaic of wetlands, floodplains, and riparian forests into a productive agricultural area and water conveyance system, the consequences of which have been a steep decline in the ecosystem’s health and the population of native species.  For decades, local, state, and federal policymakers have been struggling to address the Delta’s problems.  The focus of this year’s California Water Law Symposium, held in January, was on the current state of the region, the litigation and initiatives presently underway, and proposals for the Delta’s future.

The keynote speaker was Charlton (Chuck) Bonham, Director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Director Chuck Bonham began with a story about President Grant.  “After the Civil War, President Grant takes office and he decides to send an emissary across the country to check out the West.  The emissary goes across the country, checks it out, sends a cable back to the President that says, ‘It’s not so bad out here.  Just needs good people and water.’  Grant reflects upon this and sends a cable back to the emissary.  Grant’s remark back was five words:  ‘That’s all hell needs, too.’

The fact of the matter is there have always been good people in the west, since time immemorial.  Yet we’ve struggled forever around water.  Let’s step back before we talk about water and go big.”

California is big.  Biodiversity.  It’s a metric used to judge the richness of life.  Turns out, California has the highest number of species of any state in the union.  Turns out, California has the highest number of endemic speeches of any state in the union, meaning found nowhere else, a measure of rareness.  Turns out, California is one of 25 biological hot spots on the entire planet.”

It makes sense.  Think about the mash up of geography, climates, and other conditions; mountain ranges running all over the place and isolated pockets of valleys.  Our highest spot and our lowest spot within 80 miles of each other; each of them within 200 miles of the ocean.  Overlaying on that, at least 5 major climactic types, including the Mediterranean climate.  100 million acres.  That brings you perhaps to the most ultimate paradox: we are first out of 50 states in biodiversity.  Sadly, we also rank #1 is loss of biodiversity.”

This brings me to the moment when I want to introduce the Department of Fish and Wildlife.  We’ve been around in some form for almost 100 years.  There’s 160,000 square miles of land in this state.  There’s 30,000 river miles, 5,000 lakes, 1100 miles of coastline.  Over 6,000 species.  About 350 of them are legally protected in some form.”

Second story.  I had this great pleasure of judging photos.  Each year, we pick a photo of wildlife action on public property.  The first time I did this was about 5 years ago.  The winner was a gentleman who took photos of Clear Lake, just north of here.  He had a series of photos; the first part of the series was a bird flying in and taking a fish out of the lake.  The next part of the series was another bird flying into the frame.  The winning photo: one bird with its talons in the tail flying this direction; one bird with talons in the head flying in the opposite direction.  I thought that’s too priceless.  Life at our Department is like being that fish.  And if you work on water, it’s somewhat similar.

Let’s turn to water.  Our state’s history is literally written on the pages of water, and in the bright lights of Hollywood.  Our population is going to grow.  Maybe we’re 38, 40 million, we’re going to be 50 million some say by 2049.  Think about this for a minute.  That growth differential is like adding the population of Pennsylvania to this state, and our water balance was already delicately precarious.

We have an immense delivery system.  The state and federal projects, those are 20 very large dams and 700 miles of canals.  There is another system of about 250 federally licensed privately owned hydropower projects, which has to be another 300+ dams scattered across our water landscape.”

Some of this stuff can start to get you down.  I don’t know about you, but when that happens I try to read more.  So I ran across a snippet about an ecologist named David Orr who wrote a book called, Hope is an Imperative.  It’s a long passage, but bear with me.  ‘Optimism in these circumstances is like whistling as one walks past the graveyard at midnight. There’s no good cause to be made for it, but the sound of whistling sure beats the sound of rustling in the bushes.  Hope requires us to check our optimism at the door and enter the future without illusions.  It requires a level of honesty, self awareness, and sobriety that is difficult to summon and sustain.  Hope requires the courage to reach farther, dig deeper, confront our limits and those of nature, work harder and dream dreams.’

Certainly water is an issue where we need to reach farther, dig deeper, and dream dreams, particularly when it comes to the uncertainty ahead and the challenges in the Bay Delta.  Add on top of that, climate change.  Now I’m not going to tell you today what’s readily established and universally known and acknowledged in the scientific record that shows the effects from a warming climate, including in our state, except to mention one thing that’s related to water:  Stanford’s been doing some studies over the course of 2014-15, and there’s a particular climate scientist there called Noah Diffenbaugh, and back in 2014, he and his team were using a really novel combination of computer simulations and statistical techniques.  At the time, they were showing the Ridiculously Resilient Ridge parked offshore, which was a persistent ridge of high atmospheric pressure hovering off the ocean that was shunting all our moisture north and south.  It perhaps might have been one of the big engines setting us off to what’s still a six year period of drought.  And they were looking at whether California was more likely to have the presence of those ridges because of a concentration of greenhouse gas emissions.

Then in March of 2015, they published in the proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, and they examined the role that temperature has to play in our droughts over the past 120 years.  And they also looked at the effect human emissions of carbon dioxides and other greenhouse gases are having on temperature; they were trying to figure out the relationship between emissions, temperature, drought, and warming.  They found that the worst droughts in California have historically occurred when conditions were both dry and warm, and that global warming is increasing the probability that dry and warm both will coincide.  So their findings suggest that this state could be entering into an era, like an era, bigger than a decade, when nearly every year that has low precipitation is also one that has low temperatures similar to or higher temperatures than in 13-14 which at the time was the highest average annual temperature year we’ve ever had.  That’s what we’re looking at.  That’s potentially our future.

Which brings me to drought.  W. H. Alden wrote once that thousands have lived without love, not one without water.  It’s true for people; it’s true for animals.  In the six years we’ve been engaged in drought, the five years I’ve been director.  We’ve closed massive parts of California to recreational and commercial fishing because the system couldn’t take it.  There was one period where we moved over 30 million baby salmon from the combined federal and state hatchery systems out to the Bay and the ocean because the river conditions were too lethal.  We’ve done well over 300 fish rescues around the state, serving as a Noah’s Ark steward.  We’ve got terrestrial species like Amarosa volt, we think there are about 100 of them.  Guess where they live – Death Valley.  Guess what live in – vernal pools.  Guess what there are not a lot of in a drought.  So we went out and collected 20 and we’re rolling the dice with the rest of the population surviving.  We’ve had bears show up in this drought period in downtown Bakersfield at unheard of levels.  For two years in a row, we had 95% or greater mortality of our winter-run chinook salmon in the Sacramento River up around Redding.  That gets you close to collapse.”

There are tributaries out on the Shasta Plateau and in these tributaries are one of the most iconic western trout, Mc Cloud Red Band River Trout.  Our biologist went out there about 2-3 years ago when those creeks were drying up and they picked up a couple hundred of them and brought them back to our hatchery outside of Mount Shasta.   They didn’t put them with our regular hatchery fish; they didn’t feed them the regular hatchery food; they actually put them in a quarantined part of the property and they set up exhaustive bug zappers and they were feeding them on natural diet as long as they could.”  Just this year, they took them back and put them back in the tributaries.”

It is possible to make it through these tough times, but we have to acknowledge a scary word: extinction.  Al Gore did a book review back in September of 2015 of then a book written by Elizabeth Kolbert called The Sixth Extinction.  He said in the book review, ‘Extinction is a relatively new idea in the scientific community.  Well into the 18th century, people found it impossible to accept the idea; scientists simply could not envision a planetary force powerful enough to wipe out forms of life. …

Now if you fiddle around searching for the New Yorkers around that time, you actually get back to May of 2009 when Elizabeth was publishing what must have been the precursor to her book in a series of essays in the New Yorker. … What she wrote in some of the essays back in May of 2009 caught my eye this morning.  Thomas Jefferson said, ‘such is the economy of nature that no instance can be produced of her having permitted any one race of her animals to become extinct.’  And at the moment when President Jefferson authorized Merriweather Lewis and William Clark to go west and look for the passage, he had an additional hope that they would actually find live mastodons in the region.”

Drought.  Extinction.  Our Department’s running surveys in the Delta; they’ve been doing them longer than I’ve been alive – that’s at least 50+ years.  Now these are not population surveys; we are not looking under every couch cushion and in every cranny, but we are going to the same place, same time of year, year after year, and dropping a net and seeing what we get.  In spring of 2015 in March, we found six Delta smelt; the prior year we had found 88.  In April of 2015, we found one Delta smelt, the prior year we found 36.  And in May of that year, we found 0.  Forget the idea that 1 is the loneliest number.  It’s hard, it may not get easier, but it’s going to be on your shoulders, which is where I am going to go next.”

Let’s turn to the Delta.  The past, present, and future.  In my judgement, a movement requires a sense of place.  How do you exactly define sense of place?  I’m sure there’s an anthropological element, a psychological one, a sociological one, a historical one, and a geographical one.   But I’m absolutely convinced that sense of place rests on passion.  Some arrangement that’s a commitment to you to someplace that matters to you for some reason.  We won’t do what needs to be done in the Delta in a void that lacks a sense of place.  You may have it; most of Californians don’t, and that’s a problem.”

Aldo Leopold wrote in Sand County Almanac, ‘There are two things that interest me.  The relationship of people to their landscape, and of people to each other.’  That is the Delta.  The relationship of people to their landscape and to each other.”

History.  What was the Delta?  Phenomenal.  It was a varied complex mosaic of habitats.  Imagine our largest waterways crashing into each other.  Imagine foothill, riparian, wet meadows, seasonal wetlands, vernal pools, dunes, grasslands, tidal marshes, willow thickets.  Maybe today on the planet there are only a couple of comparable landscapes that might have been what our Delta was, perhaps the Okavango Delta in Botswana.  These ecological borderlines tend to be exceptionally rich in species and productivity and the Delta was no exception.  Waterfowl, shorebirds darkened the sky.  Native minnow, perch, otters, grizzly bears, tule elk, salmon, steelhead, sturgeon – all of this was happening in this incredible geological and ecological mash up.  Meander, tidal influence, braided streams – it must have made you cry with the beauty if you had seen it.

On top of that, part of the productivity of that land was due to water – water of different salinities and depths, stagnant or flowing, rising and falling in big channels and small channels, and all the marsh and forest that came along with it.  Not today.  Most of that land is farmed, a whole heck of a lot of it is deeply subsided, we’ve disconnected our waterways from that ecological landscape, levees, hundreds of species from other places now call the Delta home.  The water systems that supply that Delta and actually supply a good portion of our farmland productivity are actually often starved before they even make it to the Delta because of diversions in the upper parts of the systems.

It was one of the continent’s largest wetlands.  How much is left?  Maybe 5%.  But we can do this.  We must do this.  Much is lost, but there’s a way to recreate, there’s a way to restore.  And I actually think in the last 18 months, we’ve done more restoration in the Delta than what’s been done in the prior 20 or 30 years.”

As an example, a couple years ago, we lost 600 winter run salmon perhaps.  They were swimming up the Sacramento River, they get to Knights Landing, and there are a series of diversion works.  At that time, they weren’t adequately set up to deal with that migration, and our fish strayed off the Sacramento and they ended up in the Colusa Basin, lost.  We’ve now worked with reclamation districts and irrigation districts and we fixed the Knight’s Landing problem.

In the last year and looking forward to the coming year, we’re going to go do projects like the Tule Red Restoration of more than 400 acres of tidal wetlands in the Grizzly Bay area.  We’re going to relocate a stretch of the San Joaquin River around Twitchell Island to allow for riparian and intertidal habitat to be recreated.  We’re going to go restore a mosaic of marsh around the Dutch Slough area and with McCormack and Williamson Tract, we’re going to recreate tidal marsh and subtidal lands.  We’re going to do deal with Wallace Weir, another large earthen weir that doesn’t allow adequate protection for migrating salmon, we’re going to get around to Hill Slough.  A lot of these things we’ve done, are doing, and will be doing.”

What’s lacked for a long time in this idea of taking a sense of place into restoration is action.  Most people and countless scientists agree with habitat restoration and the need for it in the Delta, but the pace of the effort has been embarrassingly too slow.  In a Washington Post article from September of 2013, Bill Donahue was writing about the restoration of the Elwha River, which is a dam removal project, and he has a quote in this article from a guy named Mike McHenry who is a tribal biologist for one of the tribes there on the peninsula.  And Mike says, ‘When I got into wildlife biology, I never thought I’d be working with excavators.  But I came to realize that if you want nature back, you have to go big.’  I think we’re at that moment in the Delta.  Of course, restoration will only work in the Delta, if we improve our relationship with those who live there, those whose livelihoods depend on it, and they themselves have this strong sense of place, particularly our agricultural and rural communities.”

An idea of what we could do by recreating that landscape runs you into an acknowledgement.  In my experience, there’s not one variable or one tool or one lever you can spin that’s going to set the Delta on a better course.  As an example, at the state level, we’ve recently put together a Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy.  It has an incredibly important action in it, it may be the most important – a commitment to try and get an additional 250,000 acre-feet of water and move it through the Delta spring and summer for the benefit of native fish.  But it doesn’t have just that action.  It also has 12 other actions: pollution, invasive species, food productivity, moving water through different channels in order to spark productivity, and to encourage a response in our population of fishes.”

If you step back even farther, at the state level for me in the Delta and elsewhere on the topic of water, integration and comprehensiveness comes to mind as a need.  I would say if you haven’t read it, you should go find the California Water Action Plan and you should take a read.  Each year we’re putting out an implementation report that tracks the progress state agencies are doing on an annual basis.  It says there are ten actions, and we’ve been focused on those ten actions in the Brown Administration about water in California.  Those 10 actions we believe will produce resiliency, restoration, and reliability.  You have to make conservation a way of life when it comes to water.  We have to increase our regional self reliance and integrated management.  We need to achieve coequal goals in the Delta.  We have to protect and restore our most important ecosystems.  And if you crack that document, on Chapter 4, what does say.  We have to get real water for our wetlands in the Central Valley.  Not minimum- but optimal.  We have to go out and complete the restoration project on the San Joaquin River and bring back the planet’s southernmost chinook salmon run.  We’ve got to find a block of water for the environment that’s real and lasting through time.”

We have to go into the Sierras and restore at least 10,000 acres if not more of degraded meadows habitat for the benefit of native animals, but also water storage in the long run.  We’ve got to run up to the Klamath and we have to complete what will be the nation’s largest dam removal project and bring salmon home to 350 miles of habitat they’ve been locked out of for 100 years.  We’ve also have to manage and prepare for dry periods.  I think we have to expand storage, we have to define differently than we have historically.  We have to improve groundwater management.  It’s a human right, we’ve got to have safe, reliable drinking water for all.  We have to think smarter about our flood projects. I appreciate this idea that no longer will we be looking at flood only as a flood component, but we might be able to exploit a flood project that benefits the environment.

As an example, it turns out if you park salmon as they are swimming out to the ocean on a floodplain for longer, they will grow bigger.  Our friends at UC Davis called this the ‘salmon fatty’ project.  Statistically, we’re now seeing in their work, if you send them out bigger, they are way more likely to come back.  That’s a good thing.  Turns out, letting the river roam on a floodplain is a great flood control strategy.”

But in my view in the Delta, we also have physical fixes.  This might be the thought-provoking or criticism inducing part of my comments.  We have to deal with our levee system, but you know what? To be honest, if you read a report called The Delta: The Evolution and Implementation of Water Policy, written by UC Davis professor Turrentine Jackson, you’ll find out that in 1947, our Department, at the time it was the Bureau of Marine Fisheries within the California Division of Fish and Game, advocated for an isolated cross channel in the Delta.  You also see that in 1964, our Department stood up rather publicly in the legislature and in front of the American Fisheries Society and elsewhere and said, if you end the large project with only with pumps in the South Delta as a terminus, you’re going to push these fish towards extinction, because you will be trapping them in the South Delta.  We asked people to consider the idea of isolated conveyance around the Delta to avoid that entrainment risk.”

But on top of all that, the physical fix, the restoration, the sense of place, the integration – we just have to add water.  That’s a whole ‘nother symposium, but suffice it say in my judgement, in the years proceeding us, we probably haven’t had the right flow regime that achieves biotic and abiotic effects for the benefit of ecological functions in the Delta, and if we expect a different result, if we expect to manage this extinction risk, we need that flow regime going forward.”

Other documents that are really starting to capture my own thinking about the Delta are a couple of documents produced by the San Francisco Estuary Institute which the Department has helped fund.  One of them is called A Delta Transformed:  Ecological Functions, Spatial Metrics, and Landscape Change.  Another more recent is called Landscape Resilience Framework.  I personally struggle in learning and moving towards this concept.  So what does it mean?  Landscape resilience is defined in this report as the ability of a landscape to sustain desired ecological functions, robust native biodiversity, and critical landscape processes over time, under changing conditions and despite multiple stressors and uncertainties.”

Then if you want to dig deeper … I connect with their description of the principles behind that concept.  There are seven of them.  The first is setting, an understanding deep of the sense of place.  Process, a foundation commitment to all the biological, physiological and chemical drivers that influence the ecology.  Connectivity, to coopt a Patagonia phrase, freedom to roam.  Diversity and complexity, that within your mix of ecology, you have richness in variety and distribution across time and space.  Redundancy – redundancy may emerge as one of the most important adaptation strategy components in a warming climate for native animals.  Scale, Mike McHenry.  You gotta get out the excavator and go big.  People – you can’t run over communities if you expect to achieve something at a landscape scale.”

But there are more principles.  These are my own, and they only come to me after time in this field.  Here’s the first one: relationships really matter, and they might matter most with the people you like the least in water.  Dwight Eisenhower said you don’t promote the cause by talking only to those who agree with you.  Which is why I’m bemused sometimes by the conversations.  Civility matters, too.

My last story.  Two monks.  Old monk, young monk going to market.  They run across an old woman.  Old woman says, ‘Can you help me across this creek? I need to get to market.’  Old monk says ‘Of course, climb on my back, I’ll carry you across’ and over they go.  The woman gets down, heads her way.  Old monk, young monk starts walking.  Young monk turns to old monk and says, ‘I can’t believe you spoke to a stranger, that’s like a tenet of our religion that you don’t do that.’  Old monk doesn’t say anything.  Go another mile, young monk says ‘I can’t believe you touched the stranger, that’s the second most important tenet.’  Old monk doesn’t say anything.  They go another mile.  Young monk says ‘I can’t believe – ‘Old monk says ‘Stop.  I put that woman down three miles ago.  When are you going to put her down?’”

Some of that dynamic, some of that sentiment, some of that energy, and some of that emotion I find exists in water, particularly in water disputes, certainly natural resources disputes.  This false narrative, pick fish or farms, pick people or the environment – hogwash.  People are selling you a phony bill of goods.  We’re all Californians.  Water matters to all of us.  We ought to knock off the stuff of who it matters to the most, and get around to the business of solving problems.  We know what they are.”

Creativity is my third principle.  Without it, we don’t stand a change.  Another one is this idea that instream flow enhanced improvement with river systems and regulatory certainty are mutually exclusive.  Another not true.  And you know where I end up is that doing nothing is no longer an option.  I’m absolutely certain solving a lot of the water problems y’all are talking about would have been easier ten years ago then it will be now, twenty years ago, thirty years ago, and if we don’t do it now, it’s going to be a lot harder in ten years from now and even harder twenty years from now.”

But here’s my wrap up.  Here’s really why I said yes to coming.  Who in the room is a law student?  I don’t mean to freak you out, but it’s on your shoulders.  You can do this.  I remember coming to the first symposium when I was in an earlier part of my legal career here in the Bay Area.  I don’t know how you’re going to make it, but I encourage you to find something that matters to you and to hang on to it.  For me personally, it comes down to one word, the idea is stewardship.  I view it as an ethic, a duty, an obligation to take what we inherit and try to pass it on in no worse shape, hopefully better.  Whatever it is that works for you, find that guiding light, that thing that’s your Northstar, and hang on to it.  Believe that you can make a difference.  You can.”

I mentioned the Elwha River dam project.  Some of the hardest stuff you may work on is decadal.  It took 30 years.  I myself am in my 16th year of trying to remove the dams in the Klamath.  You can make a difference, so long as you encourage action, but you also keep one of your eyes on the prize, which is often the long game.”

Doctor Seuss wrote, ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.’  You’ve probably not had Doctor Seuss connected to Melville, but here I go.  I’ve been thinking about how to make it through difficult times a lot and I think my agency and California’s in an increasingly difficult time.  I don’t know what my happen next week on the federal front, but I’m prepared for things that may directly challenge the mission of my Department which is to steward our natural resources.  A word I’ve come across is fortitude.  So Moby Dick – now set aside that it’s about the harvest of whales, but if you go to Chapter 28 of Moby Dick, here’s what you’ll find.  ‘There was an infinity, a firmness fortitude, a determinable unsurrenderable willfulness in the fixed and fearless forward dedication of that glance.’”

Thank you.

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