BAY DELTA SCIENCE CONFERENCE: Working With Nature Across the Land Use Spectrum: A Holistic Approach to Ecological Resilience

Many approaches to ecological restoration and enhancement of ecosystem services focus on particular parts of the landscape, such as open spaces high in watersheds, urban areas, agricultural areas, waterways, or shorelines. This approach to dividing up large physical and ecological systems might be easier to manage, but may fail to maximize benefits across the full system.

At the 2018 Bay Delta Science Conference, Dr. Letitia Grenier, Program Director for the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Resilient Landscapes Program, gave a presentation drawing on the work of the Resilient Landscapes Program team that highlighted several nature-based interventions providing multiple benefits to people and wildlife in the San Francisco Bay Delta region. These initiatives begin to point toward a path for a new approach to resilience focused on working with nature to benefit from natural processes.

Dr. Grenier began by explaining that the term ‘ecological resilience’ is the idea of getting landscapes to do what we want them to do in a resilient way over time.  “We want our creeks to not flood around where the people are, we want them to deliver sediment, we want our landscapes to support native wildlife, we need to capture water, and we want that water to have good water quality – those are the kinds of ecological functions and services that we’re wanting to get off the landscape,” said Dr. Grenier.  “We know that we’re faced with some challenges now and in the future with that, and so this is a talk about an idea of how we can all approach thinking about this issue in our work and the way that we construct our projects.”

The pattern of development in the Bay Area and across most of California has highly altered the natural landscapes.  Ms. Grenier showed a series of before and after slides to demonstrate the difference:

On the left, Berkeley looking toward Albany Hill in 1907 and on the right, the exact same place today …

On the left, a painting of a part of Oakland in 1850, and on the right, a picture of the same place as it looks today …

On the left, Cache Slough in the Delta as it was pre-development, and on the right, how it looks today …

California’s landscapes have been highly altered and in a haphazard way, with each individual landowner making the decisions that made sense for their particular goals in each particular moment.  This has created a haphazard hodgepodge of different things happening across the landscape that interrupt and stop natural processes, which in turn has created challenges both now and in the future in terms of getting the ecological processes that we’re interested in to keep functioning in a resilient way.

So here we are, faced with all of these challenges,” said Dr. Grenier.  “We know that climate change is happening and it’s going to become more severe.  We have a housing crisis in California, and we have a lot of aging infrastructure.  This is actually a moment in which we’re going to be doing a lot of rebuilding, redeveloping, and reenvisioning so it’s a moment to pause and think about how we do that.”

What if we didn’t do it in a haphazard way with each entity making a choice for their particular singular goal in that moment?,” she continued.  “What if we actually went for that ‘Holy Grail’ of trying to design our landscapes in a way that they function for all the different services and benefits that we want from them at the same time?  It’s a really big idea, it’s kind of crazy, but this talk is to show you that I think it’s getting to the doable.  We’re making progress toward it, and we should all continue to push in that direction.”

With the way we’re going about it now, we often talk about co-benefits and we know they are happening; they are presumed but not scientifically guided and that means co-benefits are probably not as optimized as they could be.  It’s even realizing how much there are or what could be there.  There’s also little guidance for the people on the ground making the decisions and implementing these kinds of restoration activities, so that the agencies, landowners, designers, and planners actually know how to do these things in a way that they create the most benefits.

There’s no systemic approach to assure the benefits are happening to maximize their value and to minimize the negative effects,” Dr. Grenier said.  “There are always tradeoffs, and using science and what we know could help us optimize among those tradeoffs.”

What is needed is an overarching multi-benefit plan at scale of the whole system, something Dr. Grenier acknowledged was difficult to do.   If there is a creek that starts high in the watershed, comes down and goes underground in the middle of the city, comes out near the Baylands between levees, you can’t expect that creek to not flood, to deliver sediment, and to support salmon.

We can’t expect that without actually thinking about the scale of that creek system and thinking about how to make it work holistically,” she said.  “One of the benefits of thinking this way is we can consolidate funding and energy and expertise from multiple sources, so you can start to draw in people from a lot of different sectors if you’re creating a project that doesn’t just do things for nature but also does a lot of things for people.”

The way most places in California have developed is that there isn’t a lot of development in the highlands, the flatter areas have agriculture and cities, and then towards the shoreline, it usually opens up into more natural areas; this is very typical of the bay.  Dr. Grenier pointed out that nature-based solutions need not be purely natural – there can be hybrid solutions; the central idea is that natural systems can provide more benefits and services and a more multi-benefit approach than engineered solutions.  “What we’ve seen over the past 100 – 150 years is that engineered solutions are great at maximizing for a single benefit, but then you tend to need to maintain them and they become rigid, brittle and expensive over time,” she said.

With each of those nature-based solutions, the ecosystem services can then be examined and quantified.  For example, in the wildlands, there is a lot of habitat conservation and restoration, and fire disturbance can be emulated in a way that replicates what that natural process would do in the environment.  That returns ecosystem services in terms of water captured, infiltration, carbon sequestration, and managing wildfire risk.

In agricultural areas, there are a lot of creek, wetland, and floodplain restoration projects happening, including in the Delta.  There’s also wildlife-friendly agriculture and preventing development; from that we get water quality benefits, water infiltration, and flood risk management, as well a lot of benefits for nature.  She noted that won’t be focusing on nature in this presentation, but more on the ecosystems which should be bundled in a lot of the ecosystem-focused projects.

EXAMPLE:  Agricultural areas – Laguna de Santa Rosa

Dr. Grenier presented a map (below, left) of the Laguna de Santa Rosa in Sonoma County; the red line denotes the 100-year floodplain.  In this area, several creeks come together, and there are flooding issues as well as several TMDLs for water quality.

A comparison of historical to modern wetlands and channel types (above, left) shows the typical loss and fragmentation of habitat types.  “We can see that we have some ecosystem service problems and ecological problems, and this project is designed to think of how to solve them at the same time,” she said.

Dr. Grenier presented a slide with a conceptual model of how nutrients have been processed through the system in the past, the present, and after restoration, noting that the nutrients are the red dots.  Historically, the nutrients would come into the system through the channels and that water was connected to the wetlands; the wetlands would process a lot of the nutrients, and there would be less nutrients leaving the system.  Nowadays, there are more nutrients coming in, but the channels are not connected to the wetlands and so they aren’t getting treated, and the nutrients leave the system the way they came in.

The idea for the future is that it’s not so much about restoring more wetlands; it’s about connecting the wetlands that are there to the channels to allow them to process the nutrients so that there is a reduction at the end of the system.  It’s a little bit of a different take on solving the problem; it’s about changing the function rather than restoring a particular habitat type, she said.

What’s great about that project is that that vision and these conceptual models I showed you actually turned into a master restoration plan and then implementation projects,” she said.  “So I think there’s a lot of value in having the momentum and the same people and that continuity of going all the way from this scientific thinking and planning all the way into implementation within the same funding cycle.”

EXAMPLE: Urban areas

An overlooked action that can be done in urban areas is to try to restore native plant ecosystems; there are lots of plants in the urban area that do support a lot of different kinds of wildlife.

It really helps to think scientifically about what is needed, how would you actually do this with what kinds of plants and what configuration, what patch size etc to create success for what you’re trying to do,” she said.  “We also need to mitigate barriers to wildlife movement and realign creeks – there are a lot of things to do in urban areas that replicate or return natural processes, and that provides to us flood peak reduction, water quality improvements, sediment transport, and other benefits.”

Another benefit of an urban ecology initiative is human health; Dr. Grenier noted that there is more and more research that it improves our physical and mental health to be around biodiverse nature, and there’s evidence that it actually improves our cognitive function and our creativity.

One of the interesting things about this is it’s not just nature but biodiverse nature, so you receive more benefits if you go to a place that’s more like a natural ecosystem then a place that’s like a lawn with trees over it,” she said.  “Maybe we all feel this intuitively, but now there’s research that backs this up.”

The project, ‘Reoaking the Silicon Valley’, was done in partnership with Google; the idea was to think through scientifically how a native oak woodlands savannah ecosystem could be integrated into the heart of Silicon Valley, which is highly urban.

The slide shows the different kinds of interventions and opportunities there are in urban spaces to create small patches of a native ecosystem.

If they are bundled together and you use science to think about how big the patches need to be and how they would be connected to the next patch or other corridors, and the quality of the matrix, you could get to something that’s valuable for native wildlife,” Dr. Grenier said.

There are a lot of ecosystem services that come with that, such as reducing urban heat island effects, runoff reduction, flood peak reduction during storms, carbon storage, and we’re using less water, and we can actually start to quantify what those ecosystem services are,” she said.  “It’s not just putting more trees in the urban area – it’s putting these native trees in.”

The big purples circles on the slide to the right show that about 5% of the urban street trees in the four cities are native oaks, but they are returning about 10% of the ecosystem services.

We can show how native species can sort of punch above their weight and provide a lot of what people want, as well as supporting wildlife,” she said.

They then layered with a tool that was produced by their Clean Water Program which is used to optimize where to place engineered solutions for water quality –  installations that are designed to capture stormwater and hold the contaminants that come with it such as swales, street trees or rain gardens.

So if we use this tool that’s a hydrological model that optimizes the placement of those for water quality, we can then extend it to some restoration,” she said.  With the Laguna de Santa Rosa project, they used the technique to look at where to do wetland restoration to improve nutrient processing, and in the Silicon Valley, they are looking at where to plant native oak ecosystems to both reduce flood peaks and also improve water quality.

So we’re starting to be able to layer these tools on top of each other to create plans that have this optimization that I’m talking about.”

EXAMPLE: Shoreline

There are a lot of nature-based and hybrid solutions that can be done along the shoreline, such as marsh restoration, beach construction, mudflat augmentation, oyster reefs, and hybrid shorelines, and they can provide services like shoreline protection, carbon sequestration, and water quality benefits.

The Operational Landscape Units project, funded by the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board, is a project to take nature-based solutions to the decision makers who are going to be putting forth the projects that need to be permitted around the shoreline.

The idea here is that we know there are issues right now with the shoreline and they are only going to become more severe,” said Dr. Grenier.  “Rather than see business as usual happen and a lot of engineered solutions go in … if we can deliver some scientifically-based planning that helps with these nature-based and hybrid solutions, then we can start have those be part of the mix.”

The shoreline was first divided into Shoreline Planning Units that are based on physical processes; this is important because the shoreline is very diverse from steep headlands in small valleys all the way to wide alluvial valleys and different kinds of nature-based solutions are needed in the different areas.

The Shoreline Planning Units are useful for getting people together and focusing them on the kinds of things that are appropriate for that area.  This process is underway right now in Marin County and Contra Costa County with some partners.

Dr. Grenier presented a map of the bay showing where it was appropriate to place each of these different solutions.  “This is to try to give very specific advice to these decision makers,” she said.  “For example, the tidal marsh map, there’s a version that says, how wide does your tidal marsh need to be to attenuate waves to protect whatever is behind it, and so we’re trying to both marry that tidal marsh restoration which has intrinsic ecological benefits with the ecosystem services that the tidal marsh provides.  Then we put this all together with a vulnerability assessment that the city or the county may have done, and to understand what are the problems in each particular area and use that to create an opportunity map.”

She presented a slide listing the appropriate kinds of nature-based solutions that can be done (upper, left), and some draft maps of Richardson Bay in Marin (upper, right).

In conclusion …

I hope this has been a useful overview and a clear idea and I hope we can all jump onto this,” Dr. Grenier said.  “If we can figure out how to do this in one watershed, what an amazing example that would be for the world of how to solve a bunch of problems at once.  I think we’re really lucky in the Bay Area and the Delta.  We have a lot of science and it’s possible to begin trying to layer even more.  I know a lot of you are already doing that, and I would just encourage us to keep going.”

Thank you.”

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