DELTA STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: The Delta Conservation Framework: Looking ahead at restoration to 2050

Document attempts to chart a course for long-term restoration beyond EcoRestore

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), the predecessor to the California Water Fix, was conceived as a habitat conservation plan, and as such, was intended to provide benefits to threatened and endangered species that went beyond what would normally be required as mitigation for the construction and operation of the project.  These additional actions were identified in the BDCP’s 22 conservation measures.

In the spring of 2015, the Brown administration abandoned the habitat conservation planning approach and instead decided to pursue a traditional permitting approach, splitting the project into California Water Fix for infrastructure and California EcoRestore for the restoration.  The EcoRestore program is more narrowly focused than the BDCP’s conservation measures, and only has a five-year timeline.

In June of 2016, the Department of Fish and Wildlife announced its intent to develop the Delta Conservation Framework that would include new implementation and policy guidance in addressing elements of the BDCP that were not included in EcoRestore or WaterFix; guide grantmaking by DFW and others; and inform an ecosystem restoration amendment to the Delta Plan.  Council staff plans to use the framework to aid in the development of a proposed Delta Plan ecosystem restoration amendment.

On hand to update the Council members on the progress made are Carl Wilcox, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Policy Advisor to the Director for the Delta, and Environmental Scientists Brooke Jacobs and Christina Sloop.

Carl Wilcox began by noting that they had an ambitious objective to complete the framework last winter, but because of the level of input received, particularly from the Delta community, they decided to extend the process to make sure that as much of that input was incorporated into framework as was possible.

He noted that a public draft of the document will be released in early September; they plan to continue working with their agency partners as well as undertake more workshops in the Delta to take additional input from the Delta community.

Brooke Jacobs, Senior Environmental Scientist, noted that the framework was developed in close collaboration with their agency partners that includes the Resources Agency, EcoRestore, the Department of Water Resources, the Delta Stewardship Council staff, the Delta Science Program, and the Delta Conservancy.  A series of six public workshops were conducted from July through December of last year, and those workshops were used to develop the core components of the framework; the input from those workshops has been woven throughout the public draft that will be released soon, she said.

The bulk of the presentation was given by Dr. Christina Sloop, Senior Environmental Scientist.  She began by saying that the framework is not a plan.  “It is a long-term framework that takes a lot of the information that is already out there in the Delta science realm and the planning realm as well as the needs of the Delta community, and we’ve pulled it all together in this framework,” she said.  “It’s very high level.  The way we are proposing that the framework be implemented is through regional partnerships that in some cases already exist.  We’ll basically invite all interested stakeholders to the table.”

In some ways, this is a new approach,” she continued.  “Hopefully it will be realizable, and will end up being a means for building trust among stakeholders.  Then that will mean that we can look towards the overarching goals that the framework provides, and take those down to the regional level and look at a specific region of the Delta and implement them while not forgetting that at the landscape scale, this all needs to mesh together as well.”

Dr. Sloop said that for the last six months, they have been working on the document itself, but have also been participating in emerging partnership efforts, such as in Cache Clough where a number of stakeholders have come together to look at the possibilities for water management and conservation implementation, as well as agriculture and really out this approach.  “It was a really wonderful opportunity to see whether this might be possible,” she said.

They have had a couple of months of internal review; the public draft will be released in early September, followed by a minimum 45-day public review period.  During that time, there will be additional presentations and workshops, with the final draft document to be ready for release hopefully by the end of the year.

The framework is a forum hopefully for continued collaborative engagement and broad buy in into a process for realizing conservation in the Delta going forward, so some of the goals and strategies really focus towards that,” she said.  “It provides a shared vision that was developed through the workshop input by the stakeholders and a series of these overarching goals.  This is the outcome of us really thinking about the potential solutions to challenges that we all know about in the Delta, and so all this information is to inform these regional conservation strategies that are to be hopefully considered by these regional partnerships.”

The Delta Conservation Framework is intended to serve as the long-term extension of California Eco Restore program which has a five-year timeline; the Framework is looking up to 2050 and even beyond, she said.  “We also want to tie in directly with state funding priorities to make sure that the goals and strategies suggested are funded,” she said.  “We would like this document to really serve as one of the main basic documents to base the amendment of the ecosystem elements of the Delta Plan, and we have been working with Council staff and are continuing to in this regard.”

The framework document has six sections plus an Executive Summary with an overview of the main points.  Section 1 has the common vision, the purpose, the guiding principles, and the background of why the framework was developed.  Section 2 focuses on building community around conservation and integrating the Delta community into the process more effectively.  Section 3 is focused on improving Delta ecosystem function and services; it is based on the SFEI publication, A Delta Renewed.  “We are really basing the main tools and concepts that are outlined in this publication as underlying elements for the goals that were developed around that,” she said.

Section 4 highlights the important role that the Delta Science plays in this and the increasing capacity of the Delta Science Program to really help coordinate all the elements.  Section 6 is an overview of how implementation is envisioned in the context of regional conservation partnerships.  Each section is around 20 pages, with pictures and information boxes.  There are also 15 appendices that provide more detail.

The vision statement that was developed with the Delta stakeholders is, ‘In 2050, the Delta is composed of resilient natural and managed ecosystems that are situated within a mosaic of towns and agricultural landscapes, where people prosper and healthy wildlife communities thrive.’

By conservation, we mean not just restoration but also enhancement of ecosystems and the protection, and of course adaptive management as we go forward because again this is a long-term framework,” Dr. Sloop said.  “This is a means to achieving systemwide multi-benefits, so again integrating all the various facets of the Delta and reconciling conservation with, for example, the processes of the entire watershed, agriculture, community, flood protection, recreation, and climate adaptation.”

The guiding principles of the framework include considering people and place; building community and engaging in public education and outreach; promoting in the ecosystem conservation context, mainly ecosystem function that will then also provide benefits for listed species, and ecosystem services, because humans also benefit from a healthier Delta ecosystem.  “We also focus on multiple benefits, which doesn’t necessarily mean is has to happen with every single project, but from a landscape perspective, it would fall into this mosaic approach where, for example, we can integrate wildlife friendly agriculture into this larger picture,” she said.

Making decisions grounded in science is very important; realizing mechanisms for increased efficiency in the context of permitting and really acknowledging the funding needs long-term, because most of these conservation lands are not necessarily easy to maintain over the long-term, she said.

Section 2 focuses on integrating the Delta community with conservation.  Dr. Sloop said there are three goals: Goal A is focused on integrating the Delta community stakeholders and their needs into the planning of conservation so that their needs are at the table.  Goal B is to engage the public in education about the Delta, not just locally but across the state and even at the national level, she said.   Goal C is focused on implementing multi-benefit focused conservation and management, and that ties in with flood management and wildlife friendly agriculture, and subsidence reversal and other things.

All of these goals have various strategies attached to them with more specific objectives,” she said.  “These will be outlined in each of these sections in detail, and there will also be a summary of all of them available in the executive summary.”

Section 3 focuses on ecosystem function and services improvement, and is based on the report, A Delta Renewed.  Dr. Sloop said that this goal has the most strategies.  “It’s focused on really moving forward this idea of promoting ecosystem processes so that we can recreate a healthier ecosystem in the larger landscape-scale perspective,” she said.  “Project to project is not really cutting it anymore, so we’re thinking about this landscape-scale mosaic where we’re thinking about how things work together in terms of connectivity, and how species move and how we can benefit the whole system.”

Section 4 is focused on the Delta science and the importance of basing conservation efforts in science; it also outlines the current capacity of Delta science.  “Goal E focuses on evaluating progress of any type of conservation that we do, as well as address climate change stressors and other drivers by the Delta Science Program and Interagency Ecological Program (IEP), the science strategies and their emerging coordinated adaptive management programs, “Dr. Sloop said.  “This is a key point, that all these efforts are better coordinated, and that is what the framework lays out.”

Section 5 deals with facilitating the Delta conservation processes.  “It has two goals which are mainly focused on the capacity for improving our permitting processes, and making that more accessible to the conservation practitioners that need to get those permits to put those projects on the ground, and then also really to put ahead and forward this real need about long-term funding for the continued conservation and management,” she said.

With respect to implementation, the regional partnerships will really be the entities that move this framework forward and implement the goals and strategies, Dr. Sloop said, noting that it is already going on.  “The Suisun Marsh Plan is one of the examples that’s already implementing their outlined goals in the Suisun Marsh Plan,” she said.  “In the Yolo Bypass, there are several types of partnerships and the diagram on the left outlines how they fit together from a grass roots level up to the state, federal, local policy level and in the middle is the local agency level, and so as long as we make sure that all these partnerships are talking to each other, I think then their work could be much improved and I think they already do.”

The Central Delta Corridor partnership is a new partnership that emerged when landowners came to the table and started talking to each other around to coordinate conservation projects in the central Delta area, she said.

The conservation framework is very high level, and that the idea is that these regional conservation strategies come together in their regional context and look towards the overarching goals and strategies and then see how they fit in within their regional contexts, she said.  The Delta Conservation Opportunity Regions are the North Delta, Yolo Bypass, Cache Slough, Central Delta Corridor, South Delta, and Suisun Marsh.

There are short descriptions in the appendices of each of these regions where we outline the planning history and the context, the lay of the land, and what the opportunities may be, who the players are, and so forth,” she said.  “We hope that these will serve these regional partnerships to start a conversation if they are not already talking.”

In terms of next steps, we are definitely going to work with Council staff on the Delta Plan Chapter 4 amendment,” Dr. Sloop said.  “We will continue our involvement with the currently emerging regional conservation strategies led by the Delta Conservancy, and then we’re continuing to work especially with the Prop 1 bond funds that are administered through the Delta Conservancy, the Delta Science Program, and the Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Potential next steps include that we could think more about how to implement the long-term continuation of EcoRestore, as well as how to talk with locals and NGOs on the implementation of some of the outlined goals and objectives, and also better coordinate among state and federal agencies to discuss the permitting of restoration projects in the Delta.”


Council member Patrick Johnston recalled how at the Walnut Grove public session, there was some pushback from some local Delta residents on the issue of ecosystem projects on private land, with the argument made that those should only occur on public lands. A lot of what you’ve described seems aspirational.  We’re going to have a forum, everyone’s going to get together, people are going to come first but we’re going to protect the environment, and we’re going to assure water deliveries which is understated but not really emphasized, but nevertheless is part of the state’s obligation and coequal goals.  What do you say about that specific issue?  Does anybody have a veto?  Have you put any cuffs on the state’s ability to do an ecosystem project that would link up disparate habitat areas for instance?

To that point, I don’t think in the construct of the framework that we have put handcuffs on the state,” answered Carl Wilcox.  “We have identified the focus on using existing public lands as they are appropriate for the purposes of ecosystem restoration.  There’s quite a bit of public land in the Delta, much of it is land that is owned in the Central Delta, West Delta, which is deeply subsided, and for restoring function and service, it doesn’t lend itself very well to that.  There are other lands in Suisun and in the Lower Yolo Bypass that are public land that would be targeted for this kind of activity, but there are the needs, particularly under the biological opinions and RC authorizations, to create new habitat that’s not focused on public lands, because there isn’t a public land that meets the specifications for that restoration.”

One of the things that we have learned is that some private landowners decide that it’s in their interests to sell their property to forward these kinds of projects, and then it’s like, how do you manage that,” Mr. Wilcox continued.  “Part of the focus goes to how it integrates the economics of the area and understanding that …  how you balance those needs and minimize the effects of your management actions on the local community and the local economy.  I think that’s where a lot of the resistance lies as well as the issues around assurances, and what kind of assurances are people looking for.”

Council member Johnston notes that with or without the California Water Fix, the ecosystem is still half of the coequal goals.  “You’ve laid out a horizon to 2050, which is more than 30 years, and you reference that you’re going to point out that it’s going to take money to do that.  If Water Fix goes ahead in whatever form it might go ahead, it’s going to be around for way past 2050.  The Brown Administration, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Natural Resources Agency, and everybody else has committed to ecosystem improvements in the next five years; that is good and it’s good to have an emphasis and to get projects moving.  But I hope that the document deals realistically and pointedly with how you get the next 30 years, because otherwise those who question on environmental grounds Water Fix, are right to be concerned that an aspirational document or framework is insufficient to be sure that water exports will not result in the degradation of the Delta environment.  You can’t speak for future anybodies, but certainly in your document, hopefully you can hold us all to what the questions are that have to be answered, and there are questions that we should face as the Council in looking at both elements of the state’s intended policy which is ecosystem which you talked about, and water reliability that DWR talks about.”

We have focused on staying away with the framework with issues around water, so it’s primarily ecosystem, conservation of the ecological aspects of the Delta in the context of the Delta as place, and we have an expectation that restoration of ecosystem function and service is going to benefit the Delta, irrespective of what necessarily the outflow condition is,” said Carl Wilcox.  “That’s totally up in the air at this point, relative to Water Fix or what the Water Board may do or what any number of processes may do, but we do have a pretty good idea or expectation that these habitat restoration actions are going to provide benefit, both to the aquatic ecosystem of the Delta, but also in addressing issues around subsidence reversal and providing habitat benefits associated with that.   We’re just getting to the implementation, actually getting projects in the ground as part of EcoRestore, and we’re going to start to learn how those operate and what the benefits are associated with them.  My sense is that as we learn, and depending on what we learn, we will want to do more or we might want to do less, based on how they function and what services they provide to the Delta ecosystem in addressing particularly the benefits for the species that were concerned with, and those that affect particularly water operations.

My sense is that dealing in both arenas is that if these are providing benefits to species, then there’s an incentive, particularly on the water user community side, to invest in doing more,” Mr. Wilcox continued.  “Much of what’s being implemented, a lot of it is happening in Suisun Marsh because there’s a plan in place and there’s a recognition that there’s a quid pro quo going on there where the managers in the marsh have received streamlined permitting and regional permitting so that they can do their maintenance operations and manage their wetlands in exchange for not resisting tidal habitat restoration in that marsh for the purposes of recovery, not just of fish species but a number of other species that are found in that area.”

The primary implementing mechanism for that restoration is EcoRestore or the mitigation obligations of the projects, but also it is situations that arise out of willing sellers, who see a benefit in using their land for restoration purposes from an economic standpoint,” Mr. Wilcox said.  “That’s the dialog or dance that needs to go on.  I’ve spent a good deal of time in Suisun in the early days formulating that plan and the process under which it was developed and is now being implemented, so I see that as kind of the model.  Economics drives much of what goes on, and as much as we want to control or land use, private landowners in a willing seller situation may make decisions about how they want to use their land, and then it’s a question of how you restrain that or don’t restrain it.  I know that’s a big issue for local government, and so it’s how you manage that and address those kinds of issues that come along with that.”

A couple of points about willing seller or willing buyer,” said Council member Skip Thomson. It does create problems for those that want to farm, in that their farming operations are round some sort of ecological restoration project, it’s just a problem obviously.  You know it, many of us do.  The other issue about the North Bay Aqueduct, we recognize that there’s going to be EcoRestore projects around it and we’re prepared to look at solutions to it.  It’s more than just water quality.  There are limitations on our pumping when certain conditions are in play, and so we’re hoping that we’ll see $500 million worth of assistance from the state one of these days.”

I want to talk about the report itself,” continued Council member Thomson.  “Christina, you mentioned trust.  Over the last several years that I’ve been involved in different sorts of operations with the state in conducting the Delta, the locals have been left out.  But throughout your report, let me just hit on a couple of the words that struck me.  Collaborative engagement.  Shared vision.  Consider people and place.  Integrated stakeholders.  These are sorts of things that I as an elected official are looking for when it comes to dealing with the state and federal government.  My staff has shared with me that this process has been a good one and it’s because the individuals involved, but there’s an attitude that we need to include the locals, we need to find out and oftentimes I’ve said it up here, is those of us at the dais thinks we know best, we’re the government, we’re here to help, but sometimes we’re not so helpful.  And so I’m glad to hear that you’re continuing to reach out to the community, holding public hearings, because that’s the way I think you’re going to make the project a good project, because you’re going to have local involvement and support.  So I wanted to thank you for that.”

Under purpose headings, you identify potential solutions to recognized challenges,” said Chair Fiorini.  “Identify some challenges that you’ve found unanimity around, that would help us develop problem statements as we begin to pursue chapter 4 ecosystem amendments in the Delta Plan.”

One was just mentioned, which was bringing people into the conversation and into the planning and by people, I mean the community,” said Dr. Sloop.  “Another one is that in terms of implementation of projects focused on permitting, and another one has to do with the focus on and regulations around listed species only without really considering the larger context, the landscape scale context, so these are just three examples.  Those are important ones.  The main focus of the framework is really integration; it’s bringing it all together and trying to see if we can make progress by having everyone, all the various players, all the various interests, come to the table and see how far we can get with that approach.  There are ways to do this in a way, facilitated in socio-economic context as well as the ecological context, and so really bringing all the things that people care about to the table.


Note: As of posting time, the Delta Conservation Framework document has not yet been released for public comment.  It is due to be released sometime this month.  Be sure to watch Maven’s Notebook for news of its release.

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