DELTA STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: Defining “Delta as a Place”

The Delta Independent Science Board tackles the elusive ‘Delta as an Evolving Place’, plus updates on the activities of the Delta Protection Commission and the Delta Conservancy

At the July meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, Council members received an update from the Delta Independent Science Board on their recent paper on the Delta as an Evolving Place; they also heard an update on the activities of the Delta Protection Commission and the Delta Conservancy.

AGENDA ITEM 9: Review of Research on the Sacrament-San Joaquin Delta as an Evolving Place

The Delta Reform Act of 2009 mandates that the coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resources, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place.  You’re all familiar with that wording, and yet probably a million times, the words ‘coequal goals’ has been bantered without saying, ‘and they shall be achieved’ or otherwise noting that there is this constraint,” began Dr. Richard Norgaard, member of the Delta Independent Science Board.  “Coequal goals is really easy to say; ‘shall be achieved .. “ is harder to also include.  It is frequently just called “DAP”.  It is the fifth chapter of the Delta Plan, so we are looking for what is the science behind the fifth chapter.”

There is a lot of confusion over why the Independent Science Board is looking into something that starts off with the phrase ‘unique values.’  “The quickest answer is that water reliability is valuable, ecological restoration is valuable, and if it weren’t valuable, we wouldn’t be doing it,’ he said.  “The Delta as Place has values.”

The ISB did a literature search, looking for material that focused on the natural system and the socio-economic system and interaction; they found only seven.  “The list is unusually short; many of the projects we completed while this review was underway, and I was interactive with some of the projects, and yes, one of the projects of the seven is a senior thesis done at Berkeley,” he said.  “It is a very good senior thesis, but when a senior thesis counts among the seven, we know we’re in trouble.”

Almost all of the research has been done on the environmental system and the coequal goals, the part circled, with little or no reference to those other arrows connecting back to the social system, and to the larger issue of the values of the Delta as an evolving place, Dr. Norgaard said.

The ISB recommends that an ongoing research program on the Delta as an evolving place be established,” he said.  “We recommend that this area of research become substantial, and integrated with Delta research in other areas such as flows, water quality, or at risk populations.”

Dr. Norgaard defined what the board means by a research program.  “We mean the organized accumulation of work by academics, non-governmental research organizations, and agency researchers that contributes to a recognizable literature that informs subsequent research, responds to new developments, contributes to coherent, usable knowledge, and informs policy and management decision making,” he said.  “Such a research area needs to evolve through the efforts of multiple funders and individual researchers and build to a coherent whole through further reviews over time.  We don’t just mean the ISB reviews, but within a literature, researchers are constantly reviewing what’s going on and trying to update, in fact, most journal articles start with a literature review.”

As the research progresses, it will help to answer the tough questions, like what did the legislature hope would evolve from that phrase.  “It’s an iterative process, and this is true of any research project,” he said.  “As you get involved and dig deeper into it, you learn more, and what it is you’re studying changes, and the questions you start asking change, so no, we cannot say that the legislature might have meant, but that’s something that we can see as evolving over time.”

Such research would benefit other processes, such as the Economic Sustainability Plan, the Levee Investment Strategy, and the Delta Plan itself, he noted.

The ISB has some specific recommendations.  They suggest the number of social scientists doing research on the Delta be increased, and should include philosophers, historians, and cultural anthropologists.  “We argue that the current work being done on natural science can be linked better to the Delta as a place, and subsequent research that’s more ecological in nature could also contemplate what does this mean and try to make connections to Delta as place,” he said.  “We argue that we really need coupled human natural systems research, where people are looking at human system and the natural system and there are interactions both ways, not just how people damage the environment or how the environment serves the interest of people, but taking a longer run view of that interactive process and where it’s going.”

Dr. Norgaard said that more citizen and participatory science is needed, and this is something that Delta residents can help pick up and contribute to directly; they also argue that there’s value in looking further into indigenous knowledge and its role.

It’s a way of beginning to envision how we ought to be looking at Delta as Place, but there are other representations also,” he said.  “Values are what we’re looking for, but we’re looking for undesirable features as well as desirable features.  We do not want the value of the Delta to decline and so we need to look for things that not only enhance the values, but are threatening those values.”

There is a conundrum,” he said.  “The legislature gave us language that’s evolutionary, and evolutionary language is not like cause and effect mechanical language, so we’re stuck with this question, what is to be protected and enhanced. Characteristics?  That’s what the Delta Plan CSO suggests, is that we need to protect the unique characteristics.  Or do you need to protect the unique processes?  But in an evolving system, it’s all evolving, and so evolutionary biologists are interested in diversity, and say it’s diversity that ought to be protected in the system, and to keep a system evolving, you need diversity and maybe it’s diversity we ought to be looking at.”

Those are the things that we need to start thinking more seriously through,” said Dr. Norgaard, thus completing his presentation.

Councilmember Skip Thomson thanked Dr. Norgaard  for the report.  “I say that because I don’t think that we as elected officials or council members, recognize the Delta as an evolving place and the importance it plays, so you’ve brought a bit of attention, and I look forward to helping formulate policies that will enhance the Delta, not only as a member of this Council but also as the Chair of the Delta Protection Commission, so I wanted to acknowledge your report and thank you for it.”

Chair Fiorini noted that levees and agriculture were considered defining issues in the Delta, and asked Dr. Norgaard to explain why they were not covered in this paper.

The work that we did uncover on levees and on agriculture tended to be levee specific, such as the riskiness of the levees, or agricultural crop specific, such as how is this crop doing, and how can it do better, but not really connecting to that greater vision that I think it is that we’re trying to protect,” said Dr. Norgaard.  “What that is is still a little bit elusive, but we did have a report there by Jay and Robin Suddeth that covers levees and agriculture and agricultural values.”

I think this report tried to plow a little bit of new ground in the sense of showing a little more than the traditional areas that we think of for the Delta as Place,” added Dr. Jay Lund.  “I think it was useful that way.”

AGENDA ITEM 12: Update on Implementation of Delta as Place and Delta Marketing Efforts

A later agenda item in the meeting featured updates on the actions that the Delta Protection Commission and the Delta Conservancy are undertaking on implementing Delta as a Place policy.

Ron Melcer, Senior Environmental Scientist Supervisor with Ecosystem Restoration Unit introduced the agenda item by giving a few points of context.  He noted that the Delta Independent Science Board report on Delta as an Evolving Place had found a limited amount of science that had been advanced which has focused on social processes underpinning the unique cultural qualities of the Delta; however much remains to be done.

The Delta Plan identifies five core strategies intended to enable its vision on the Delta as a Place:  to designate the Delta as a special place, to plan to protect the Delta’s lands and communities, to maintain agriculture as a primary land use, a food source, a key economic sector and a way of life; to encourage recreation and tourism that allows visitors to enjoy and appreciate the Delta; and sustain a vital Delta economy that includes a mix of agriculture, tourism, recreation, commercial, and other industries, and vital components of the state and regional infrastructure.

Some work on implementing these core strategies has been accomplished, but here again, more remains to be done,” Mr. Melcer said.  “Two of the 2017 priorities the Council considered in February are for the participation in the Delta Protection Commission’s Delta as a Place workgroup, focusing on Delta Plan implementation, and also co-hosting a fall workshop with Delta Protection Commission addressing needs related to land use planning.  Note that the Council staff are engaged with both the Commission and the Conservancy on these items and others.  We also provide support through Interagency agreements on two implementation efforts.”

He then turned it over to Erik Vink, Executive Officer of the Delta Protection Commission, and Campbell Ingram, Executive Officer of the Delta Conservancy.


Erik Vink began by highlighting a part of their governing statute which talks about the Delta Protection Commission providing a forum for Delta residents to engage in decisions regarding the unique Delta values: ‘The Commission is the appropriate agency to identify and provide recommendations to the Delta Stewardship Council on methods of preserving the Delta as an evolving place as the Council develops and implements the Delta Plan.’

That’s something that the Commission did in a very substantial way following the completion of our economic sustainability plan in 2012 when the Commission presented to the Council a series of recommendations regarding Delta as place,” Mr. Vink said.  “Those recommendations were also informed by work that was completed by the State Department of Parks and Recreation and the California Department of Food and Agriculture.  Everyone had a role to play in the 2009 Delta Reform legislation in helping to identify Delta as place values.  And it’s something that we intend to remain active on and even step up our activities on in the future as the Council continues to implement the Delta Plan, and as and the Council considers amendments to the Delta Plan, that the commission continue to provide information, well reasoned, well analyzed, using best available science as appropriate information to the Council to help inform ongoing efforts on Delta as Place.

Mr. Vink noted that they will be adding an additional staff member whose focus will be specifically on Delta Plan implementation.  He then discussed the status of four activities at the Delta Protection Commission:

Delta Heritage Area initiative feasibility studies

The Delta Heritage Area initiative feasibility studies are now underway; this is a project that the Delta Council has provided funding for.  “The intention of these feasibility studies is to help turn heritage concept projects into more detailed project plans,” he said.  “That can be anything from turning the old late 19th century historic schoolhouse in Clarksburg into a revitalized facility that can serve the community.  There are other historic structures throughout the region that this could incorporate as well.”

He noted that the formal designation as a National Heritage Area has been in front of Congress the last several Congressional sessions and it’s before Congress this time as well.  “We were advised by other National Heritage Areas that sometimes you just need to act like you’re a National Heritage Area without the formal designation and do what you can, so we’ll await the formal designation from Congress and from the National Parks Service, but we certainly have plenty of authorization within California statute to proceed to support the cultural values of the Delta as a region.”

Community Action Plans

Next, Mr. Vink discussed their community action planning efforts, something that has a direct link to the Delta Plan.  “The Delta Plan references actions to help improve the legacy communities in the Delta region, and so our community action planning effort is an attempt to improve quality of life, economic development, historic preservation, and public safety in these legacy communities through the Delta region,” he said.

Three plans have been completed to date for Walnut Grove, Courtland, and Clarksburg; the plan for Isleton is currently in process.  The plans are a result of conversations with those who live and work in these communities, asking them what would make a tangible difference to improve conditions in their community.  Some actions are relatively modest compared to others, such as installing a stop sign on Highway 160 in Walnut Grove.  Other issues are cell phone service deficiencies, broadband opportunities, and rural community health care.

Delta as Place Interagency Workgroup

The Delta Protection Commission has coordinated an interagency workgroup that is intended to ensure that progress continues on implementing actions and policies identified in Chapter 5 of the Delta Plan.  There is healthy participation from Delta agencies, Cal Trans, State Parks, as well as local agencies.  The workgroup has been meeting for about a year and a half; the next meeting is August 22.

Update to the Economic Sustainability Plan

The Delta Protection Commission completed the Economic Sustainability Plan in January of 2012.  It is supposed to be updated every 5 years, but the Commission did not receive specific funding to complete that.  They did, however, receive funding to take a focused look at agriculture, which is the predominant economic driver in the Delta region.

The agricultural update of the Economic Sustainability Plan will have four components:

Update information in the 2012 report: This includes things such as the crop map of the Delta, the mix of crops, and the economic activity associated with Delta agriculture.

Agricultural impacts from proposed restoration projects:  The last time the Commission studied this, they were considering the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the potential of 100,000 acres of restoration; they are now considering the more modest goals through EcoRestore and through the biological opinions, as well as the Delta Conservation Framework.

Salinity impacts on Delta agriculture from Cal Water Fix:  This involves looking at current modeling from Cal Water Fix and the State Water Resources Control Board on the salinity impacts on Delta agriculture.  “That’s an evolving matter and we want to have the most current information we can on that,” he said.

Impacts specific to climate change:  This part won’t focus specifically on sea level rise, although that will be a component, but will look at other impacts, such as the warmer winters and what that means for the suite of crops grown in the Delta.  “This is something impacting all of California agriculture,” Mr. Vink said.  “This is not specific only to the Delta region, but we certainly want to know what the localized impacts of that are in the Delta region.”


Campbell Ingram began by noting that they had a meeting of the board of directors, and had three significant actions:  Kathy Miller from San Joaquin County as elected chair; the guidelines for the next solicitation for Prop 1 funding were approved, so on August 1st, $10 million will be available; and the update to the Conservancy’s Strategic Plan was approved.

He then discussed the specific activities of the Conservancy:

Delta Marketing Strategy

The Delta Conservancy partnered with the Delta Protection Commission and a task force of local people in the Delta that are actively marketing and trying to increase awareness about the Delta.  They developed a 5 year marketing strategy for the Delta that lists objectives to actively promote the Delta in a more effective way.

One of the major objectives is increased signage in the Delta.  Through an interagency agreement with the Stewardship Council, they have some funding to try to develop a signage plan.  “They will come up with general design, placement, content to those signs, and a look that is hopefully consistent with the Delta Heritage Area look, all in the interest of trying to help people better understand what’s available to them in the Delta.  We have an interagency agreement with the Delta Protection Commission that once we get that done, we’ll have some funding available to actually go out and place these signs once they’ve been constructed, so we’re pretty excited about the opportunity to work with the community to help them design their own look and then get it out there in the Delta.”  “The website is getting really rave reviews, people are really enjoying it and I think it’s a real boon to everything we’re trying to do in the Delta,” Mr. Ingram said.   “I think what’s really great about this is you go to restaurants, click on restaurants, and what you get first is an interactive map that you can drill into, gives you locations, it gives you all the restaurants in a list form, many of these links you can click on and go to their website and see what they have to offer.  There are also places to say: hotels, B&Bs, inns and resorts.”

Regional planning efforts

They are trying to develop more comprehensive planning efforts in subregions in the Delta to consider where there can be ecological value in the system with the smallest footprint largely to Delta agriculture.  They have just finished up with phase one of the Cache Slough planning effort which brought together all the representative interests to take a high level pass at the information available to really consider in developing a strategy.

We looked very extensively at everything we know about the ecosystem, fundamentally based on SFEI’s Delta Renewed Report,” he said.  “We looked at the agricultural system, what do we know about various values of agriculture in the system, we looked at the flood protection system, what’s it is providing now, what are the expectations in the future, and we looked at the water supply system.”

They are currently summarizing in the final report, and working to develop a scope of work for Phase 2, which will try to bring all that information to bear on the development of a more comprehensive regional plan which will consider how to restore a resilient ecosystem with the least amount of conflict with agriculture.

Central Delta Corridor Partnership

Starting in the western Delta and moving up the Mokelumne, Mr. Ingram said there is a tremendous amount of acreage that is either publicly owned or publicly financed which presents an opportunity to achieve ecosystem restoration objectives without taking additional land out of production.

We’ve been working with those landowners, DWR, the Nature Conservancy, and Metropolitan Water District; they have been talking to the surrounding owners about potential objectives and synergies and some of their shared constraints and concerns, and starting to trend towards the development of a strategy that will really help us coordinate the management and restoration of those islands,” he said.  “We’ve been supported in that by staff with the DSC and the Science Program, so I feel like we’re well coordinated and integrated on that effort.”

Carbon methodology

The Conservancy worked extensively with a group of academics, scientists, and agencies to develop a carbon methodology for the Delta.  They raised funding and were able to create a California wetland protocol which was adopted by the American Carbon Registry in April of this year, and that covers California coastal wetlands, managed wetlands in the Delta, and rice cultivation in the Delta.  They are actively working to get pilot projects up and running.

To the extent that we can demonstrate that the protocol is functioning, that we can verify emission reduction tons, and they can be receiving revenue from the voluntary carbon market, the Air Resources Board is willing to consider adoption of that protocol into the compliance program, which would double the value of carbon, thereby doubling the incentive for private and public landowners to consider this type of change,” said Mr. Ingram.  “Our hope is that we can get several pilot projects up and running in the near term to really demonstrate the effectiveness and further incentivize change in the Delta.”


Chair Randy Fiorini recalled how he was on Twitchell Island last week, looking at the land subsidence reversal project that is currently underway.  “The conversation lead to what are the economics that are adequate to cause a farmer to choose to not grow corn but to grow a more sustainable crop in an attempt to reverse land subsidence, and that economic study needs to be done,” he said.  “We were shotgunning it and we came up with all kinds of numbers, but ultimately the conversion of ag land to restoration projects like that, particularly on about 25% of the Delta that’s heavily subsided, don’t have to be a loss to the tax rolls and it doesn’t have to be a loss to agriculture. It can be a change in the way and the crops are grown.”

Mr. Fiorini also encouraged them to think about new bridges and better roads within the Delta.  “There’s perhaps a synergy with setback levees in sections of the Delta that would afford wider roads.  That’s big thinking and those are longer-term projects but I encourage you to include those in the work you’re doing.  From our perspective looking forward to the year 2100, those are the kinds of things we’d like to receive as challenges to figure out how to put those in the form of recommendations.”


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