DELTA STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: Overview of the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the San Francisco Estuary

Otherwise known as the Estuary Blueprint, the plan has 32 actions designed to improve water quality and promote estuarine health

The National Estuary Program (NEP) was established to identify, restore, and protect estuaries along the nation's coasts in through amendments to the Clean Water Act in 1987.  The NEP targets a broad range of issues, focusing on improving water quality in an estuary as well as maintaining the integrity of the whole system — its chemical, physical, and biological properties, as well as economic, recreational, and aesthetic values.

The San Francisco Estuary, which includes the Bay, Suisun Marsh, and the upstream Delta, was designated to be included in the program in 1988.  The San Francisco Estuary Partnership (SFEP) is the designated lead agency responsible for implementing the program. Each designated estuary must develop a Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan (CCMP) for protecting the estuary and its resources that identifies actions to improve water quality, sediment quality, living resources, land use, and water resources.  The CCMP was last updated in 2016.

Jessica Law, Chief Deputy Director of the Delta Stewardship Council, noted that at the April meeting of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee meeting, the Council was encouraged to participate in the CCMP.  Other Delta partners, such as the Delta Conservancy, are participating as well.  “We’ve been doing a lot of coordination with other agencies that work in the Delta in order to further the cooperation between the lower and upper estuary, so we’ve been working with SWRCB in reviewing the actions in CCMP that relate to the Delta,” she said.

Caitlynn Sweeney, Director of the San Francisco Estuary Partnership, gave an overview of the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan and how it fits with the Delta Plan.  She began with some background on the San Francisco Estuary Partnership, which was established in 1988 under the Clean Water Act as a US Environmental Protection Agency program to protect estuaries of national significance, of which San Francisco Estuary is one.  “We are one of 28 national estuary programs across the country,” she said.  “Essentially, we leverage federal, state, and local resources to support projects and programs to restore the estuary system, and we work with a wide diversity of partners in doing so.”

The planning area encompasses the entire San Francisco Bay, the legal Delta, and all of the watersheds that drain to the estuary.  The National Estuary Program is a program under the Clean Water Act, so the Environmental Protection Agency is their legislative home, she said.  Program approval is required from the EPA, and they receive a small amount of base funding from EPA every year, if available.

Ms. Sweeney said that all of the National Estuary Programs are structured a little differently, but each must have a local or a state partner to support the program.  Their local partner is the Association of Bay Area Governments, which has recently consolidated with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, so Estuary Partnership staff are MTC employees.  “It’s been an interesting process for us, but it’s opened up a lot of opportunities to work with the planning staff of both ABAG and MTC to really integrate estuary considerations into land use and transportation planning,” she said.  “It’s a fascinating and opportunistic home for us to be in.”

The San Francisco Estuary Partnership is a collaborative, non-regulatory organization.  As a requirement of the National Estuary Program, they are required to produce the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan, or the CCMP, which is essentially a master plan for the estuary.  The first plan was developed in 1993; it was updated in 2007, and again in 2016.  The 2016 update was a major overhaul; they rebranded the plan the ‘Estuary Blueprint’ to make it easier to say.

She presented a slide with some of the key objectives for the 2016 revision.  Ms. Sweeney said that similar to the Delta Plan, the Estuary Blueprint is focused on not necessarily restoring to a past, but learning how to adapt to a state of change and looking towards a changing future.  “Our first CCMP was very comprehensive; it had a large suite of actions which was appropriate for the time,” she said.  “As a first master planning document, we really threw everything in because it was an opportunity to engage all of these partners, but with this revision, we really wanted to be much more strategic, focused, and prioritized.”

Ms. Sweeney said that one of the reasons they were able to be strategic, focused, and prioritized is because so much work has been done since the first CCMP in 1993.  “A lot of great documents have been produced, so we really focused our efforts in supporting those other efforts and integrating some key priorities from those other plans and policy documents into this version of the CCMP.”

One of those specific elements was to focus on increasing the integration between the Bay and the Delta.  The entire San Francisco  Bay and the Delta is their planning area, but Ms. Sweeney acknowledged that in the early years, they did focus more on the San Francisco Bay, but they have been making steady process, which culminated somewhat in the 2015 State of the Estuary Report.  “The report is really the most comprehensive state of the health of the entire estuary that we have,” she said.  “The 2015 report was the first time that we were able to call it the State of the Estuary report rather than just the State of the Bay report.  We worked very hard with our Delta partners to incorporate Delta indicators of health into that report, so the Estuary Blueprint gives us an opportunity to further that integration with our partners and with the Delta region.”

The Estuary Blueprint took about three years in planning, engaging about 100 partners in the effort.  The blueprint seeks to answer two critical questions:  One is the long-term vision of where do we want to be in 2050?  And secondly, what is the 5-year action plan?  Ms. Sweeney quoted from the State of Bay Delta Science, saying ‘We have to envision desirable possible futures and work to steer change in that direction,’ noting that the Delta Plan and the Estuary Blueprint are aligned in that desire.

The four overarching long-term goals of the Estuary Blueprint are to sustain and improve our habitats and living resources, to bolster the resilience of the estuary to climate change, to improve water quality and increase the quantity of freshwater available to the estuary, and to champion the estuary.

Each goal has a suite of objectives, which then has a list of actions which form the document’s workplan.  “This is our set of strategies that are achievable within the next five years,” said Ms. Sweeney.  “Not that they are all easy, but they are feasible given the right amount of resources, the right amount of partnering and the right amount of focus and dedication.”

The document has 32 actions, each with a subset of tasks which help to advance one or more objectives and goals.  “We tried to get away from really siloing actions to objectives to goals in recognition that we all are taking a much more integrated approach to our management responses to the ecosystem needs,” she said.  “There is a nice chart in there that makes those connections between actions and various objectives and goals.”

Each action in the document is structured in a format they call the ‘anatomy of an action’.  Every action has a description, background information, and specific tasks; each task has an associated milestone, such as by x date, y will happen.  Each task has listed owners, which are entities that have stepped up and agreed to take responsibility for advancing that action.  In addition to owners, there is a list of collaborating partners at the action level, as well as key entities involved with that action, such as contributing critical scientific expertise to advancing the action, or implementing the action.

Ms. Sweeney summarized the 32 actions of the Estuary Blueprint:

  • There are actions focused on taking a watershed approach to planning and protection of resources and really understanding the connections between upstream and downstream, and between streams and rivers in the estuary.
  • There are actions that are focused on protecting and restoring specific habitat types, and building on significant past investments in habitat restoration and advancing that further.
  • There are actions focused on protecting native species and native habitats and advancing the ability to manage the system at a system level.  “It’s really thinking about those connections between habitats, the movement of critters, and the movement of sediments, and also to support natural solutions to protecting our shores, so advancing natural infrastructure and resilience adaptation strategies on our shorelines.”
  • There are actions specifically focused on planning for long-term droughts or responding to floods or droughts, so push for water conservation, recycling, and regional planning, such as expanding use of recycled water.
  • There are actions that focus on key water quality issues, such as continuing efforts to reduce mercury, PCBs, and other water quality concerns, as well as spearheading new initiatives as new challenges emerge, such as emerging contaminants or ocean acidification.
  • There are actions to tackle some of the challenging issues that might not necessarily reach a conclusion, and to take interim steps that advance knowledge and understanding.  “For example, on carbon sequestration and the whole issue of sediments, how do we beneficially reuse sediment that we are dredging or even from construction projects to help build up habitats to keep pace with sea level rise? And how do we make these resilient land use planning practices that we’re working on more pervasive, such as how do we better integrate green stormwater management with our transportation projects.”
  • There are actions on outreach to keep the public in the loop about how their tax dollars are being spent, why they should care, and how they can get engaged in their efforts.  “For us, this is really focused on SFEP’s efforts, such as our Estuary News, our own social media strategy, our website, continuing to revise the State of the Estuary report in the CCMP, and also our biannual State of the Estuary conference,” she said.

Ms. Sweeney then discussed more specifically the Delta Stewardship Council, and the Delta Plan's nexus with the Estuary Blueprint.  She reminded about the owners and collaborating partners, and noted that the Delta Stewardship Council is an owner of one of the tasks.  “This task is under the action of integrating natural resource protection into hazard mitigation response and recovery planning, and the task itself is to implement or to develop the Delta Levees Investment Strategy, which of course you did, so we get to check that off as a success,” she said.  “Thank you, you’ve fed into our pie chart of successes.  But this is one example of how we really worked with our Delta partners to pull what was critical from the work that you’re doing and amplify it in the Estuary Blueprint to help support the work that you’re doing and to help celebrate your successes.”

She also noted that the Council is listed as a collaborating partner in six more actions, which are focus on  a watershed approach to aquatic resource protection, develop a wetland and stream monitoring program, manage invasive species, address carbon sequestration through wetland restoration, restoring watershed connections to improve habitat and flood protection, and advancing public access and recreation in a way that protects wildlife in the estuary.

Ms. Sweeney said that it’s important to track progress.  “We’ve been working with your staff quite a bit on aligning our measures of performance with the performance measures of the Delta Plan, and we really look forward to more opportunities to integrate those,” she said.  “Similarly for the Estuary Blueprint, we are tracking our programmatic outputs and whether or not we’ve met those milestones by the date we said we were going to meet them.”

We also want to track our environmental outcomes,” she said.  “In our case, this is really linked to the State of the Estuary report and those indicators of health that are in that report.  So we have linked the actions in the Estuary Blueprint where we can to the specific indicators in the State of the Estuary report, the idea being that we can assess the status and trends of those health indicators, and we can assess whether we were able to accomplish these management actions that we set forth.  By looking at those together – it’s not a scientific causal relationship but we can make some very informed educated decisions about where to take our management actions next, based on the status and trends of these indicators, so that we really develop this adaptive management framework where we’re constantly assessing the health and responding accordingly.”

The website (sfestuary.org/ccmp) has the Executive Summary and the document itself, as well as a lot of additional information not contained within the document, such as a funding analysis.  Costs were not included in the document as it quickly gets out of date.  They did spend time at the task level and with each milestone, working with their partners to develop as accurate an assessment as possible for the cost of each action.

It’s probably about $2-3 billion to implement this plan, but the good news is that we have probably over $1 billion at this point already committed with projects that are in the works,” said Ms. Sweeney.  “We have opportunities to seek new funding.  There’s new funding opportunities in the Bay for example from Measure AA, and there are propositions and bond funding that we can seek.  We as a partnership and all of our partners are very adept at leveraging our resources with other resources, particularly in the time when we’re all looking at likely federal cuts, this becomes even more important to leverage our local and state resources to complete the projects.”

The website also includes an interactive progress tracker which shows at the task level how complete each task is, and it’s updated on a quarterly basis by staff working with the partners.  There is also a quarterly newsletter to owners, partners, and other interested parties.

The website also has success stories, which Ms. Sweeney pointed out was important.  “This is a planning document,” said Ms. Sweeney.  “As beautiful as it is, and it is beautiful, it’s still a planning document.  It’s very hard to make planning documents exciting and interesting to a wide variety of people, so the website really gives us an opportunity to talk about our success stories in an interesting and narrative form and celebrate our successes that we and our partners have undertaken.  We have a whole series of success stories currently on the website.”

She then concluded with two quotes from their implementation committee members.  “Amy Hutzel, chair of the Executive Committee and the Deputy Executive Officer of the state Coastal Conservancy, says, ‘The CCMP catalyzes the work of others – Setting goals, defining actions, and aiding in efforts to collaborate among multiple agencies and organizations.’  I really like that quote, particularly the word catalyzes, I think that’s an accurate assessment of what we tried to do with the CCMP and in working with our partners and zeroing in on those priorities.”

Similarly, John Andrew, another implementation committee member says, ‘The CCMP connects and integrates other regional planning efforts, building upon and leveraging existing plans.  It also serves to prioritize a seemingly endless to do list for the estuary,’ which I also love that quote because it does.  One benefit of limiting ourselves to a five year action plan is we were all forced to really prioritize this endless to do list that we have for the estuary.”

And with that …

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