PANEL DISCUSSION: Making the Delta a Better Place for Native Fishes
Dr. Peter Moyle, Lead Scientist Dr. John Callaway, and OC Coastkeeper’s Garry Brown discuss recent white paper
In March of 2018, the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences on behalf of Orange County Coastkeeper released an innovative report titled, Making the Delta a Better Place for Native Fish, which focused on ecosystem-wide restoration and reconciliation ecology. The paper recommends 17 actions which can be taken to improve conditions for fish, including some that can be implemented immediately and others that will take longer. The science-driven fish-oriented report provides a fresh and realistic perspective to promote and expedite the restoration of native fish species in the Delta.
The report was a topic of a panel discussion at the spring conference of the Association of California Water Agencies. Seated on the panel:
- Peter Moyle, Professor emeritus, Department of Wildlife, Fish Conservation, and Biology, and associate director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Scientists. He has authored or co-authored more than 250 publications. His research interests include conservation of aquatic species, habitats, ecosystems, ecology of fishes in the San Francisco Estuary.
- Garry Brown, Executive Director and CEO of Orange County Coastkeeper. A native of Orange County, he is committed to expanding the Coastkeeper’s presence as a proactive results-oriented organization that uses coalition building and partnerships to find effective solutions to environmental problems that impact our communities and watersheds.
- John Callaway, Lead Scientist of the Delta Science Program at the Delta Stewardship Council. The science program has a mission to provide the best scientific information for water and environmental decision making in the Bay Delta system. His research focuses on wetland plant soil ecology with a particular emphasis on wetland restoration, climate change effects on tidal wetlands, and wetland carbon dynamics.
The panel was moderated by Dr. Jeff Mount, senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, an emeritus professor at the UC Davis Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and founding director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
Dr. Jeff Mount began by reminding that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is the most intractable water problem in California and has been for decades; oftentimes, it is described as a wicked problem – a problem that cannot be solved. But the fact is that 25 million people depend on a portion of their water supply from the Delta, as does 3 million acres of irrigated agriculture in one of North America’s richest agricultural region, so the stakes associated with the Delta are exceptionally high, he pointed out.
“We’re dealing with a novel ecosystem in the Delta,” he said. “We have no comparison anywhere in the world or in history to this ecosystem, and this is because it is so highly altered in so many ways: the changes in both the quality and timing of the inflow, the loss of 95% of the wetlands that were within it, the exports from the Delta, and then the introduction of an extraordinary array of non-native species which now dominate the biomass of the Delta. So this is a novel ecosystem; the traditional thinking about ecosystems doesn’t apply here.”
The report provides an alternative way to think about the Delta’s ecosystem. Dr. Mount noted that the PPIC has been calling for this since the late 2000s. “I think this year is probably going to be the most critical for those of us who focus on the Delta in the sense that we’re probably going to have a ‘fish or cut bait moment’ with the California Water Fix as it moves from the planning stage into the litigation phase as we all expect, because that always happens before we get to the actual construction phase. Sometime later this year, that’s probably where we’ll move to.”
“It is time to make a strategic decision about alternative conveyance in the Delta,” Dr. Mount continued. “This is the year I am hopeful that we’ll actually get to that. If you’re going to maintain the same level of reliability or improve the level of reliability, both in quality and quantity of supply from the Delta, you’re going to need something like Water Fix; you’re going to need an isolated facility. If you don’t do it, then you need a Plan B. I don’t know what Plan B looks like if you’re not going to do this. There is a laundry list of ideas of things you would do, but there isn’t a plan that I know of. But it’s important that we get to that strategic decision.”
And we have to figure out how to effectively deal with the ecosystem problem within the Delta. “The current approach we’ve taken which has been to nibble around the edges,” he said. “We need a new approach on the ecosystem side. We have been advocating for some years to take an ecosystem-based approach rather than a single species based approach.”
Dr. Mount acknowledged that the ecosystem isn’t the only issue in the Delta; there are others, but the focus of the discussion today will be on the Delta’s ecosystem.
OVERVIEW OF THE REPORT
Dr. Peter Moyle then gave an overview of the report, Making the Delta a Better Place for Native Fish, which was coauthored by John Durand and Carson Jeffres.
Dr. Moyle began by presenting a slide from the book Forgotten Landscapes of California by Laura Cunningham. The Delta today is a very different place; there were massive wetlands, full not only of wildlife and fish, but also very large numbers of Native Americans were living on this landscape; it was a very dynamic system and still is, he said.
“Before we developed the Delta, the two major rivers flowed into it with all the fluctuations those rivers have, the saltwater pouring in through the tides from the Golden Gate and then mixing in the middle,” he said. “It was a very dynamic system and the critters we have today were adapted to that dynamic system. But what we’ve been doing is trying to stabilize it, trying to make it more predictable so we can manage it, and that is a fundamental reason why so many of the native species are in trouble. We’ve turned what were once wetlands into farms – for better or for worse, but it’s certainly not great for many of the fishes. We’ve leveed all the rivers, so they’ve lost all the edge habitat that they once had in these places.”
“In exchange is great agriculture. Cherries and pears from the Delta are world-renowned,” Dr. Moyle continued. “But nature is always out there, telling us that maybe this isn’t as sustainable as we think it is. Liberty Island is one of the many islands that was flooded and not reclaimed. Levees fail. And the landscape changes, and obviously if you’re creating huge areas of open water, that’s a different habitat for the fish.”
A high percentage of the Delta is below sea level; the area shown in white on the map are areas of the Delta that are 9 feet or more below sea level, so this is a system which is very different from what it was historically, he said.
“It’s the heart of our hydraulic society,” he said. “The water moves through the Delta to the rest of California with huge economic values.”
Dr. Moyle said he’s been sampling and studying fish in the Delta since 1972. In any given sample, there are about 50 species, a mixture of native and non-native species with the non-natives tending to dominate.
“The most controversial species in the Delta today is the Delta smelt,” he said. “Historically the Delta is the only place it lived. The species is on the verge of extinction. I’m rather pessimistic about its future. I can always hope for the best; we have some in captivity, but there are very few fish out there.”
There are success stories; the Sacramento splittail is having a resurgence right now which Dr. Moyle attributed to the restoration projects. The later runs of salmon are not doing well, but there are a lot of opportunities to fix conditions for salmon, which are the fish that people especially care about. “If we make a Delta that functions well for salmon, we’ll have done a lot towards making it functional for other fishes as well,” he said.
“But we can’t just dismiss these non-natives as being evil somehow,” Dr. Moyle said. “We have to think about many of them as honorary natives and be managing for them. The striped bass to me is a species which is probably the best indicator of Delta conditions. If we can create a Delta and estuary that favors striped bass, we’ll also have a system that favors native fishes, because they have the same basic kinds of requirements and they need an entire estuary to have healthy populations.”
Currently, there are six listed species in the Delta which complicates management of water and fish; there are six special concern species which are species that arguably could be listable, and two species that have already gone extinct, the Sacramento perch and thicktail chub. “So the history is there saying we can lose these fish, and essentially we’re in the situation of making choices and whether we want to keep them around or not.”
Dr. Moyle cautioned that the historic Delta cannot be restored. “We’re not going back there,” he said. “It’s a novel ecosystem and it’s irreversibly altered. It’s a mixture of native and non-native species, and not just fish, but plants, animals, invertebrates – everything out there is a mixture of native and non-native species. People are part of that ecosystem and we’re in charge of it, so we get to determine what it’s going to be like in the future.”
The Delta’s ecosystem is not dying nor on the verge of collapse, Dr. Moyle pointed out. “There will always be a Delta ecosystem,” he said. “It’s changing and it may change in ways we don’t like but still when all things are being said, there’s an ecosystem out there that works. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be so many fish, birds, and other critters out there.”
But times are changing, Dr. Moyle said. He cited a recent study by the UCLA Center for Climate Sciences that suggests that massive storms such as the one in 1862 that flooded Sacramento will increase in frequency, once every 40 years rather than once every 200 years. “These big storms come together and create giant flooding of potentially the entire Central Valley, and will overwhelm our current flood control systems. That will have a huge impact on the Delta and on the native fishes, so we need to be thinking in terms of these catastrophic events and try to find ways to reduce their impacts.”
Inevitably, the Delta will change. “The levees are relatively weak, floods occur, breaches occur, sea level is rising, earthquakes are predicted, and we have all these subsided islands, so we’re looking at a changing system,” Dr. Moyle said. “We know the status quo is not working for our native fish. Water is going to continue to be exported; sometimes that’s disputed but I just don’t see that changing. Unfortunately, there are really no magic bullet solutions out there. This is a very complex system, it’s probably one of the most complex estuaries in the world and that just makes finding solutions difficult.”
The big question is what do we do? Dr. Moyle said the answer is reconciliation ecology, which is the idea of integrating desirable biota into the human dominated landscape. “It means working with what we have and managing these novel ecosystems in ways that create homes for species we want to have around,” he said. “This means we have to focus on natural processes, but also it means we have to be willing to use infrastructure and technology on a fairly large scale to create these habitats and manage the water in ways that desirable species can handle.”
Dr. Moyle said that he thinks about the Delta as two major systems that are linked together, but also quite different. For the north Delta, they are proposing ‘the North Delta Habitat Arc’ which starts at the Yolo Bypass, goes down through the Cache-Lindsay Slough complex to the Sacramento River, past Rio Vista and extending into Suisun Marsh; it also includes the Cosumnes-Mokelumne River corridor.
“These are already interconnected by the Sacramento River so its easy to think of this as a good place for native fish and it’s not surprising that’s where most of the native fish are,” he said. “In fact, the south and central Delta are increasingly hostile to native fish. It’s too warm, there’s just too much going on there; it’s too leveed. And so we need to treat the north Delta and the south Delta separately and not try to find one universal solution for the entire Delta.”
The issue with the south Delta is getting salmon through from the San Joaquin River and the three major tributaries. “My vision for the South Central Delta is a place that is really good for fishing for warm water non-natives such as largemouth bass. What you want to do is keep the natives out as much as you can. This is where your technology comes in, managing the hydraulics, and then fix the problems with salmon passage to increase salmon survival through that system because the rivers on the San Joaquin side can produce a lot of fish. In many areas, it can be a very pleasant place, but it’s very hard to make this into a habitat that native fishes will appreciate.”
“It’s just an area that has a lot of potential,” he said. “If you’re familiar with Eco Restore, the major effort to restore habitats in the Delta, most of those projects are in the North Delta Habitat Arc. They are being done one at a time and aren’t as coordinated as they could be; this needs to be done systematically. But nevertheless, it’s widely recognized that this is where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck in terms of doing good things for native fish.”
The report recommends 17 different actions to make the Delta a better place for native fishes; Dr. Moyle acknowledged that most of the actions are not new. “We know really a lot about this system; we know more about this estuary than most estuaries in the world,” he said. “There are lots of people that have been working on it, there are lots of ideas floating out there, so we just need to coordinate them and develop some sort of an overall way of thinking about the Delta.”
“The seventeen actions include 5 are Delta-wide, 5 are regional, 4 are about reducing stressors like contaminants, and 3 are research projects. … There are a lot of things we can do quite readily that will make the system more functional for native fish.”
Rather than discuss each individual action, Dr. Moyle instead gave a flavor of the current thinking about the Delta. “The Yolo Bypass is really the headwaters of the North Delta Arc which is a remarkable system developed originally for flood management,” he said. “The idea is to find ways to make the Yolo Bypass more compatible with fish as well as for birds. The biggest single project that everyone is working on, though it is still controversial for some reason, is improving Fremont Weir. No one knows quite how to do this yet. The idea here is to allow for water to get into the bypass and to create miniature floodplains so there would be flooding every year without interrupting farming. That is one of the dreams for the bypass, and that requires a functional Fremont Weir.”
The Yolo Bypass feeds directly into the North Delta and the Cache Slough region. After being ignored for many years, now it’s where many of the Eco Restore projects are happening. “This area has the most potential for creating tidal habitat which everyone knows is one of the keys for restoring native fish,” he said. “This is the native fishes’ habitat, salmon especially, so if you can get them into this area and then get them out again before it gets to warm, they can really benefit from having the Cache Slough region be more accessible.”
“This is what it looks like from the air. It doesn’t look that great in many respects, but you see there’s a lot of habitat there,” he said. “This is where reconciliation ecology comes in. Even the Sacramento Ship Channel has a lot of habitat in it that seems to benefit Delta smelt; it’s one of the few places they like to hang out. So keep in mind that there are lots of different kinds of things we can turn into habitat for fish that may not look the way that you think they should, but provide a lot of benefits.”
Dr. Moyle noted that the PPIC has published extensively on the Delta; he recommended the 2007 report, Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the followup, Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. He said many of the ideas that are expressed in the paper were developed during the discussions that produced these books with multiple authors with very different backgrounds.
He also recommended his publication, Suisun Marsh: Ecological History and Potential Futures, noting that his research is focused more on Suisun Marsh than in the Delta. “This book expresses many of the ideas about how to manage Suisun Marsh to make it a better place for fish and people while recognizing that it also has altered its future,” he said. “Suisun Marsh is not only a great spot for fish because you have all these natural looking channels and it’s managed primarily for duck clubs and duck hunting, but it’s also a horizontal levee that helps to protect the towns of Fairfield and most of Suisun City.”
The Suisun Marsh is the largest marsh on the West Coast; it has tremendous potential for restoration to provide habitat for fish and birds, he said. “It’s a great place for native fish and it’s the reason we have so many splittail is partly because of Suisun Marsh and the way it is managed,” he said. “The Suisun Marsh has a lot of the attributes that you can use to develop ideas for other areas. It’s also about the technology; we have the tidal gates in there, they’ve been there for decades, and they regulate the salinity in the marsh, that’s the kind of thing we need in probably more places.”
Dr. Moyle then gave his conclusions. “The alternative to taking these and other actions is to continue on our present path which is leading to the extinction of native fishes and the losses of fisheries for chinook salmon, for steelhead, for striped bass and other fishes, so we aren’t doing very well right now when it comes to a fish perspective,” he said. “It’s important to remember that the Delta will always support a complex ecosystem, but whether that ecosystem is one that is desirable and consistent with our needs is up to us. Where the desirable part is most likely to be achieved is in the North Delta Habitat Arc.”
“The vision we express in our report accepts that changes to the Delta are inevitable, but that optimistically we can collectively direct some of the change towards a more desirable and sustainable state. I’m an eternal optimist and I love the Delta and all that area out there, so I hope this is true.”
PANEL DISCUSSION AND QUESTIONS
Why is Orange County interested in the Delta?
Moderator Dr. Jeff Mount kicked off the discussion by asking Garry Brown why the Orange County Coastkeeper would be interested in what’s going on in the Delta.
Garry Brown said it was an outgrowth of numerous lunch conversations with a friend who eventually was elected to a water board; he said what really resonated with him was the need to address the Delta’s problems and the fact that Southern California environmental leaders were pretty quiet on the issue. He sees it as a statewide issue. “This is heart of the hydrologic system for the state of California; it’s not just a Northern California issue,” he said. “Everybody derives something from the Delta.”
So Mr. Brown took environmental leaders from Southern California on a tour of the Delta, even spending a day out on boats. California Water Fix wasn’t even on the agenda, he said. “At one point, we pulled up to a dyke, we all scattered out of the boat, and climbed over a dyke. We stood in a pasture staring at three cows, and one of our teachers said that this property has been owned by the state of California since 1992. We all looked at each other and said, why is this still a cow pasture? Why hasn’t it been restored? We got the whole group talking about it.”
The conversations continued, eventually turning to what could be done to expedite restoration and break down some barriers. So they asked Dr. Moyle if he would write a paper. “It was an interesting process,” Mr. Brown said. “What I was doing was passing this around to the environmental community, the NRDC, the San Francisco Baykeeper, plus others in Southern California; he probably didn’t anticipate the number of versions of this paper. The paper came out and I’ve had support and absolutely no criticism of the body of the paper and what the paper recommends.”
“There were two sentences in Appendix C that implied support for the California Water Fix because the alternative of doing nothing would be the worse scenario for native fish, and that seemed to grab all the headlines, and yet that wasn’t what the paper was about,” Mr. Brown said. “The paper presented 17 different action items that could be done to expedite restoration projects, and some of them, surprisingly enough, don’t cost a lot of money and don’t require legislation.”
“The second great thing that I think the paper provided was an analytic tool,” Mr. Brown said. “If you’re an administrator who has to make financial decisions on what projects to fund, this tool sets projects up against each other, analyzes them numerically as to the benefit, and when you’re done, hopefully you’ll find out what project will give you the biggest bang for your buck, and what will do the most. That’s something that we really haven’t seen.”
“The third great thing was the discussion about giving the environment water rights, which makes some people nervous, and I think that is coming closer in time,” he said.
“We saw a lot of wonderful benefits to the paper, and we are looking at it as a guide on how to get some stuff done,” said Mr. Brown. “Now the challenge is to bring people together, work with agencies, Eco Restore, and helping to implement some of these recommendations and try to make progress.”
How does the Delta Stewardship Council view the approach suggested in the paper?
Moderator Dr. Jeff Mount asked Dr. John Callaway, the Lead Scientist for the Delta Science Program and science advisor to the Delta Stewardship Council, how the Council views the reconciliation ecology approach which is moving away from single species based management which is driven principally by ESA issues and to a lesser extent, water quality issues. And secondly, what are his own personal views?
“I would say the Delta Science Program and the Delta Stewardship Council definitely endorse the idea of an ecosystem-based approach,” said Dr. Callaway. “As part of the Delta Plan amendment, the ecosystem chapter is just going through an update right now, and a big part of that is thinking about the broad range of opportunities and tools that we have to improve the Delta. One thing that really struck a chord with me are the portfolio approaches. It’s not just doing restoration or just addressing flows or just addressing contaminants, it’s a mix of things. What I appreciated from Peter’s report was the 17 approaches really cover a broad range of different issues. There are so many different things that have happened to the Delta, one single thing isn’t going to solve the problem.”
“From my perspective as a wetland ecologist, I’m very happy and excited to see that restoration and wetland issues are being embraced,” said Dr. Callaway. “The focus has been primarily on fish and flows, but I think in part that’s because 95% of the wetlands in the Delta have been lost. Our system is completely different than other estuarine systems around the country. Most estuarine systems around the country have had some wetland loss, but it’s more like 50%, so I think identifying that wetlands can provide some significant benefits and that there’s important connections between wetlands and food webs is really critical.”
“The report highlights the important role of science,” continued Dr. Callaway. “We’ve all talked about adaptive management … We want to design and implement individual projects so that we learn from them and improve the projects, but even more importantly we want to design them so we can learn for future projects. We’re at the first stage of large-scale restoration of the Delta and we really have to think of restoration projects as experiments and identify what the uncertainties are. How are we going to design sites so that it promotes food webs and so that the productivity of those wetlands gets out into the system and supports the fish that we want? So with these early restoration projects, we really need to incorporate science and design monitoring approaches so that we can make some significant steps. Given that we’ve lost so many wetlands, we don’t have restore that much and we can dramatically increase the acreage of wetlands given how little is there, and so there’s really that opportunity to push things quickly.”
This restoration is going to be expensive. How can Southern California help pay for it?
For ages, Southern California has viewed the Delta as Northern California’s problem, except that Southern California gets a significant amount of water from the Delta, said Dr. Mount. So how does Southern California help pay for this? Have you had any discussions on how you might do that?
Garry Brown acknowledged that bringing Southern California to the table is a lot of work. To really get funding, it takes the support of the science community who is there, but more importantly, a strong commitment is needed from legislators. “There are legislators who represent the Delta who are in this 150%, but you rarely ever hear a legislator from Southern California talk about it,” he said. “I think we have to identify some leaders that think restoration is a high priority for the state and are willing to stick their neck out and go out on a limb and try to help with support on that basis.”
There’s also private money, such as the Packard Foundation and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, but legislators also need to get on board. “There’s foundation money, then get some of those leaders to come to the table and go after the legislature as well,” said Mr. Brown. “I think there’s a process; it’s simply that we need to do it. I think the discussion on the Delta has got to be more than the specific Delta region and we’ve got to bring Southern California into it. We do derive benefit from it and we need to have a commitment to help restore it.”
How does this approach interface with the Water Quality Control Plan update, currently underway at the State Water Board?
Moderator Dr. Jeff Mount said that some may see the 800-pound gorilla in the room as the California Water Fix, but in his view, it is the Water Quality Control Plan update being developed by the State Board. “There is a push for voluntary settlement agreements … we don’t know where that’s going yet. Later this year, the State Board is going to have to set this water quality control plan. How do you see the intersection of Peter’s report with that? Are they just going to do Delta outflows? Is it informing that?”
“I see a strong connection given the watershed is such a significant impact and linked to the Delta,” said Dr. John Callaway. “The factors are up in the watershed so we have to make that linkage and move up to those areas and think about how we can manage and monitor those systems and set goals for those systems that are going to link up and support the things we’re trying to achieve in the Delta.”
“Are we well organized for that?,” asked Dr. Jeff Mount.
“I think people are aware and we are beginning to organize,” said Dr. Callaway. “But given how challenging and complex the Delta is and then moving up to the watershed, it gets even more complicated and even more complex.”
Moderator Dr. Jeff Mount summarizes …
“We have this wonderful report from Dr. Peter Moyle which gives us the 17 things to do,” Dr. Mount said. “Southern California is very interested in this, indeed you’ve started this; I appreciate the fact that there isn’t the level of engagement with Southern California that I think is necessary to solve it as a statewide problem, and so I really like hearing that this is not just a local problem. Dr. Callaway, you have some optimistic views of this and our ability to organize around it, and set these priorities and we have the science to do it, so we could have had this conversation 20 years ago, and so that’s part of the problem is what is taking so long.”
“For those of us in the science side, one of the things that has been so troubling is that the Delta is changing at a very fast rate, and the science is struggling to keep up to it, so we have to be much more nimble in this system,” continued Dr. Mount. “An example of that is you old time Delta folks, you don’t remember microcystis being a problem, and now these harmful algal blooms are starting to show up in the Delta. The science is falling way behind on that and trying to catch up to it, so we need to get on with the business of restoring the Delta.”
What about predation on endangered salmon by non-natives?
Question from John Mentsinger, Modesto Irrigation District. “We’re on the sharp end of that water quality control plan. I’d like to ask about the bass. You’ve made the bass honorary citizens … you also talked about the evil alien predators. From our point of view, as juvenile salmon are descending the Tuolumne River, the bass are very effective alien predators eating massive numbers of salmon. So the question is, the bass fishing industry is important and gives people a lot of pleasure, and they have a lot of passion and political clout. Is there any other reason to make the bass honorary citizens of California?”
“Something that was actually recognized back in the 60s and 70s was that the striped bass, because of its complex life history which uses the entire estuary, are really a good indicator of the health of the ecosystem,” said Dr. Moyle. “You have to also recognize that it’s replaced native predators that were out there. The real problem is that we aren’t doing a good enough job of getting enough salmon out there and improving the conditions. For one, it’d also discourage predation. For example, one of our 17 actions that has been on everyone’s agenda for years is try to fix Clifton Court Forebay which is a predator heaven, and no matter how much you remove bass, they keep coming back.”
“So from my way of thinking, we need to live with the striped bass and try to control its population,” continued Dr. Moyle. “There are some local areas where it is a problem, but if we focus on trying to control it as a species in the system, you’re going to waste a lot of time and energy that’s much better spent figuring out how you’d create the habitats for salmon. If more of these restoration projects in the North Delta Arc are successful and are interconnected, you’ll have a place for the baby salmon to go that the striped bass can’t get to, so it’s a matter of trying to get, from my perspective, trying to develop a functioning system that has predators in it because they are natural, and at the same time, supports some of our native fishes. This is not easy, but I think there are ways to do things.”
“John Burau from the USGS put it very succinctly,” said Dr. Jeff Mount. “He said, ‘we don’t have a predator problem, we have a predator habitat problem’. Meaning what we have done is designed a system which is ideal for those predators. The long range thinking is how to reduce the quality of predator habitat while at the same time improving the quality for native fishes, but I totally get your point in that system as well.”
The levees have been here since early 1900s; why the recent declines?
Audience question: For Dr. Moyle, you certainly pointed out very clearly how the levees and channels have removed most of the native aquatic habitat, and yet most of that happened well over a century ago. The populations are declining more recently, so what’s the issue with the time lag? Is there something else going on that’s causing the more recent population declines?
“That’s a hard one because the system is changing in lots of ways,” said Dr. Moyle. “The levees have been there in their present form and of course they are always being maintained … but a lot of this is dealing with new invasive species. If you want to worry about invasive species, it’s the clam that’s taking up the food supply and a lot of the plankton. We’ve also come to the realization that with the levees, a lot of these can be set back or even taken down in some cases.”
“We need to find places where fish have alternatives to living in highly leveed channels,” Dr. Moyle continued. “One reason the South Delta in general is such a lousy place for native fish is it’s the most leveed place in the Delta. There’s a very few places for a smelt to hang out, very few places for a tule perch or a hitch to hang out, but great places for some fish and largemouth bass. So part of it is recognizing that and then focusing and try to increase the habitat of the right type and the right places, whether that interacts with flows or not. I don’t know if that answers your question. There’s a lot of complexity there.”
How does agriculture fit into the North Delta Arc?
Audience question: You talk about the North Delta Arc. How much of this is a surrogate for the lost opportunities in the rest of the Delta, central south, as opposed to a restoration or even something that might have been a natural condition?
“I think that’s where the opportunities are,” said Dr. John Callaway. “The elevations are much more appropriate there for getting the kinds of small channels and marsh habitat.”
Follow-up question: How do you reconcile that with the agriculture in these two counties, Yolo and Solano, which is centuries old at this point? … I’m asking you how you’re reconciling – when you look at three cows on the other side of a levee, you’re looking at somebody’s lifestyle, somebody’s farm. And you’re not looking at historic wetland; you’re looking at something that may be something that wasn’t there historically … but you haven’t addressed the issue of what the system owes the landowner in this case.
“This does get back to this original idea of focusing restoration in the North Delta Arc because the south Delta, and probably because of climate change and the invasions of Brazilian water weed, it has become a much less suitable habitat for many of the native fishes,” said Dr. Peter Moyle. “I was head of the Delta Native Fishes Recovery Team, which was really the Delta smelt recovery plan back in the 1990s. At that time, the part of the recovery plan on the Delta smelt had us using the original data and showing Delta smelt all over the Delta, and having the plan focus on simultaneously restoring habitat throughout the Delta for Delta smelt and recognizing they go mainly in the channels. I’ve given up on that.”
“I still think the south Delta, because of temperatures and other factors, doesn’t have appropriate habitat for Delta smelt, especially in the summer, so yes, I think you’re right,” continued Dr. Moyle. “The North Delta Arc does become a surrogate for all the failures, for all the things we did not do in the past in the south Delta, so I’d rather focus our efforts on a place where there are habitat restoration opportunities and where that habitat can interact with whatever flows the State Water Board comes up.”
Follow-up question: “As a surrogate, how do you integrate that with whatever’s left over in the North Delta Arc, in forms of agriculture? There are numerous agricultural operations in the sweep of land through there, and how to you protect those folks from being basically pushed out of what is historically their agricultural region?”
“First of all, to be clear, Peter is talking about reconciliation ecology, I call it ecosystem-based management, but there is tremendous overlap,” said Dr. Jeff Mount. “Both assume that human activities are fully embedded in the ecosystems, and that you manage it for the benefit of humans as well as native species within it. There is this perception that you suddenly wipe the farmer off the planet in the North Delta, and that’s just wrong; it’s a gross overstatement. When you hear numbers like 30,000 acres, much of those 30,000 acres is seasonal inundation which can go back to pasture, it can also go back to rice farms and a variety of things. The biggest return or investment, and I hate the phrase bang for the buck, because it sounds like something that blows up, but the biggest return on the efficient use of money is where we get these multiple benefits associated with some of these restorations.”
“Now having said that, we still have to get into the places like Lindsay and Cache Slough and areas and try and create those physical connections between water and land if you’re going to create marshes,” continued Dr. Mount. “Peter is really emphasizing Suisun Marsh; there are some very valuable duck clubs in Suisun Marsh, and those people are legitimately concerned, so you’re going to have to balance those. But … this vision of an Arc in the north Delta is a mosaic of working lands and then lands which achieve restoration objectives. But I completely get where you’re coming from because the public discourse about this is unfortunately shaped around this notion of creating vast areas where you kick the farmers out, and I don’t think any of us who would think that would be smart.”
Follow-up question: “That wasn’t the supposition I was trying to put here. Success in habitat restoration, particularly ESA listed species, brings with it a host of issues that have to be dealt with by the residents who remain in place. I understand that there’s hundreds of thousands of acres available there and you’re not going to convert it all, I realize that. But there are a lot of folks who are going to remain there after the fact, and there are going to be some probably very good opportunities in this region, but with those projects, there’s going to be impacts that are brought to the local owners. And that’s the issue that has not been address effectively in any of this discussion.”
“One of the things that gives me hope is things like the Yolo County who just completed their habitat conservation plan this year, it was just published in the federal register,” said Dr. Moyle. “It took five years to get this in place and a real struggle to do it. That’s an example of a very positive thing where obviously the whole point of that habitat restoration plan which was terrestrial oriented, is to make farming compatible with the needs of endangered species, and I think that’s the attitude we need to have for all the Delta, really.”
Are the regulators receptive to these new ideas?
Question: “How are the regulators receiving these new ideas? You’re trying to get people to think differently about the Delta. 20 or 30 years ago, my name would have been at the top of the list, let’s do this, let’s think differently about the Delta. I don’t think it got off the ground because the regulators weren’t ready for it. They were focused on this flows versus fish mentality and to us, it seems like they kind of still are. So how do we get around that this time? Are you getting any kind of reception from regulators? Because if there’s one place we need change, I think we need changes in those regulatory institutions so they will think new thoughts.”
“We’ve written about this a lot lately,” said Dr. Mount. “My lawyers, led by Brian Gray, have said that we don’t have to do it this way. That in fact, the laws make it so strict that we have to focus on single species and worrying about each individual life history stage of a single species and then operating an entire system around the life history stage of a single species … So yes, we do need a change, but in fairness to the regulators, they are naturally risk-averse. If you take risks as a regulator, especially in today’s climate, you get in trouble, so I’m sympathetic the fact that they don’t want to change course, they want to continue with the biological opinion approach to run the Delta. … I think we need government to step up and give them the room to take risks, and whether that’s Congress or state legislature or whoever. I feel that the regulators need the capacity to take some risk in this system, and I think right now, they just don’t feel they can take those risks.”
Is there a sense of urgency?
Question: Ken Weinberg, Delta Stewardship Councilmember, asked if there was a sense of urgency? Are we losing these windows of opportunity, and if we take too long to take action, are we going to be restoring something less function, something different, something less desirable?
“There’s some urgency, I certainly feel it,” said Dr. Peter Moyle. “The Delta is a system that is changing constantly and very rapidly and it’s going to change even faster as time goes on. We’re going to have earthquakes, we’re going to have levee failures, from overtopping … especially in the south and central Delta as the farmland down there is the land that’s most susceptible to flooding and it’s getting deeper every day because of subsidence. We should have a sense of urgency about the Delta. Then figure out what’s the best option for these various Delta islands and for agriculture and other things in the Delta. What are the best options, how can we make this the most compatible with the fish and other things, because if a bunch of Delta islands go under and become lakes, that’s not going to be good for native fish, especially.”
“So we have to figure out how to make that work, but recognizing that change is inevitable and large scale change is going to happen,” continued Dr. Moyle. “I think it’s really important to get this on people’s minds. Either you pay now or you pay later is one way to look at it. Try to find some solutions now and try to avoid the things that result in an emergency solution to whatever water problems.”
“I would completely agree, there’s definitely a strong sense of urgency,” said Dr. John Callaway. “What I mentioned earlier in terms of scientific uncertainties, in order to be effective restoring systems 10 or 15 years down the road, we need to start experimenting now so that we can identify the best approaches and the tools if we’re going to look at subsidence reversal or other issues. If we wait 10 or 20 years to start doing that, the system will be subsided even more, it will be more of a challenge and it will take time to develop those tools. It also takes time to evaluate the response. The fish populations aren’t going to respond instantaneously to these sorts of restorations so if we want to see what some of the effects are, it will take some time to do that so the sooner we can start to evaluate, the better.”
“I do think that 2018 and into 2019, is the critical year,” said Dr. Mount. “I say this because so many things that we’ve been fooling around with for so many years are coming together at the same time, so we gave up on the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, gone on to Water Fix, but I’m hopeful we’ll begin to get to a strategic decision. Eco Restore, the planning processes at the Delta Stewardship Council have really matured at this point, quite rapidly and they deserve a lot of credit. And then of course the water quality control plan from the State Board. All of that is coming together in the course of somewhere in the next 12 months, so that alone adds a sense of urgency.”
“But let me add one final thing,” continued Dr. Mount. “If you heard one thing from everybody, it is to expect the unexpected. And yet everybody wants certainty out of this system. The water suppliers want a certain amount of water with a certain amount of predictability, the environmental groups want performance measures and x number of fish and outflow, everybody wants something so rigidly defined, we can’t get there is we don’t acknowledge the fact that it’s going to be very different than we think. We have to build flexibility into this system. That’s been part of our complaints over the years, we always go for these rigid tight rules so that everybody gets certainty, and they are not working, these rigid tight rules. We have to build some flexibility in this system. Urgency, yep, this is the year. Better be flexible, because expect the unexpected.”
What about the Delta smelt we have in captivity?
Question: “The science question is how can we use that incredible resource of the captive Delta smelt that are at Clifton Court today? We can’t even seem to use them in science experiments … how would that asset play into getting smelt healthy again?
“I have some ideas for that,” said Dr. Moyle. “The facility is not really very big. And if we’re going to use Delta smelt for restoration, we need a lot of fish, a lot more fish than we can produce right now, although that’s a remarkably successful facility. I never thought they could do that at all. But also the habitat has to be there for those fish; there’s no point in raising millions of smelt and releasing them if the habitat’s not there. … There are ways to put these smelt in the ground in terms of getting the smelt on mats and then the hatchery moving those mats into wild places, up in the Yolo Bypass especially where there’s lots of plankton. I think there are ways we could use those smelt to reintroduce them to the wild, but there’s got to be a wild that’s suitable for them before it’s worthwhile.”
“There is an urgency there, too, because right now captive populations depend on catching a wild smelt every year in order to maintain their genetic diversity,” continued Dr. Moyle. “If we lose the wild population or they get to be so rare that you can’t catch enough for that purpose, you’re going to end up with domesticated smelt, which is like the domesticated rainbow trout in our hatcheries. And those fish will not be well set up for survival, even if the habitat does return. So that’s another situation that is very tricky to figure out how to make it work.”
Where do we go to have this conversation about making the Delta a better place?
Question: Where do we water users, NGOs, agencies go to have this conversation about making the Delta a better place? We focus on Eco Restore, is that where the conversation is going to be? Is it going to be at the Delta Stewardship Council, or should we try open up a new conversation, a new chapter? How we can go about getting beyond (quoting Tim Quinn) Groundhog Day?”
“I think everything is a negotiated agreement in the Delta,” said Dr. Mount. “I can tell you that regulatory approaches haven’t worked. That will probably make some of my friends in regulatory agencies unhappy to hear that, but in fact, negotiated agreements tend to be more durable. I’m disappointed that the voluntary settlement agreements for the water quality control plan haven’t moved ahead, been more robust and gotten people to the table, because that’s where agreements could be reached between water user and the environmental community and the local farmers for example. We’ve been saying that now at the PPIC for the last couple of years that we think that the solution here doesn’t lie in a top-down legislative or regulatory approach but really a negotiated approach. And the problem is it takes people willing to negotiate and I think that’s where we’re kind of stuck. People aren’t willing to negotiate, and all the fingers point in various directions.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
- Read the white paper here: Making the Delta a Better Place for Native Fish
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