ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT FORUM, Part 1: Panel shares perspectives on and experience with adaptive management

Panelists discuss what adaptive management is in a practical sense and how it can effectively be implemented in the Delta

Adaptive management is widely regarded as an effective approach to environmental management in the face of uncertainty because the approach provides a way to build science and learning into management practices under changing conditions.  However, while adaptive management has been successfully applied in other ecosystems, adaptive management has not yet been widely been implemented in the Delta.

In February of 2019, the Delta Science Program hosted the Adaptive Management Forum, bringing together scientists, practitioners, consultants, and other Delta stakeholders to discuss how to further and effectively support the application of adaptive management to restoration projects in the Delta.  The forum consisted of presentations, panels, and breakout sessions to provide an opportunity for participants to discuss ecosystem restoration and adaptive management in the Delta.

It’s easy to talk about adaptive management, it’s much more of a challenge to actually do it,” said Dr. John Callaway, Delta Lead Scientist.  “If we asked people to give a definition of adaptive management, we’d have 100 different definitions, which is fine.  I think of adaptive management as the application of the scientific method to management decisions, because we really want to be rigorous, we want to learn, and we want to address the uncertainties, so just like with the scientific method, we’re trying to form a clear hypothesis and then address that with adaptive management.  We want to have clear objectives, we want to set out to evaluate how we can reduce uncertainties and improve our management decisions within adaptive management.”

The forum kicked off with a panel discussion on adaptive management on a practical level:  What do we mean by adaptive management and how do we effectively implement it?  The panelists were Carl Wilcox, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Policy Advisor to the Director for the Delta; Campbell Ingram, Executive Officer of the Delta Conservancy; and Dr. Ramona Swenson, Restoration Ecology Program manager with Environmental Science Associates.  The panel was moderated by Dr. John Callaway, Delta Lead Scientist.

The discussion began with each panelist introducing themselves and giving a brief summation of their thoughts on adaptive management.

CARL WILCOX, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Policy Advisor to the Director for the Delta

Carl Wilcox has been working in the Delta since 2006 in various capacities, including water operations, water rights in the Delta, conservation planning in the Delta, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan and now Water Fix as well as the ongoing implementation from the state perspective of the biological opinions and the State Water Project’s CESA authorizations.  He said that a big component of that centers on adaptive management, the application of learning and learning by doing and the application of science.

One component I’ve been involved with over time was the ecosystem restoration program for Cal Fed which funded substantial amounts of science work in the Delta,” he said.  “Then subsequently the Department’s efforts through Prop 1 and the funding that’s available there to support science and trying to make the science that’s funded relevant to the issues and addressing uncertainties that we have about the nature of the Delta and how the ecosystem functions and what are the perturbations in the Delta.”

Mr. Wilcox has worked on developing adaptive management frameworks for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, Water Fix, and the biological opinions.  “All of that is focused on identifying specific issues, many of them related specifically to components of the biological opinions that affect the water operations, and how do we test and evaluate the consequences of implementing those actions in achieving the objectives of the biological opinions,” he said.

One of those components particularly relates to habitat restoration and the requirements for 8,000 acres of restoration in the Fish and Wildlife Service biological opinion,” he continued.  “The key component there is by restoring habitat, you would be offsetting the impacts from water operations, primarily the indirect ones, since many of the factors that we see in the Delta are related to improving productivity.  The question is, is it actually going to work?  Since we really haven’t gotten any of those projects underway, we do have a very good science program through the fish restoration program that is setting the stage for answering some of those questions once we get some projects in place.”

Mr. Wilcox concluded by noting that adaptive management is simply learning by doing, which he’s been doing for 40 years.  “The question is, how do you transmit that learning into a policy in a decision making context?

CAMPBELL INGRAM, Executive Officer of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy

Campbell Ingram began by noting that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy is a state conservancy whose role is to do ecosystem restoration as well as economic development in the Delta, and work with the community to try to put projects on the landscape that represent their issues and priorities.

Mr. Ingram experience goes back to 1999 when he came to California to work on the Cal Fed Bay Delta Program along with some of the other panel members.   In the early years, they spent a lot of time developing the Delta Regional Implementation Plan conceptual models for some of the species, habitats, and ecological processes.  “I think arguably that program didn’t develop an effective adaptive management approach,” he said.  “We never were able to really articulate how much restoration we needed to do in the long term, or what were our uncertainties about objectives.  In a lot of ways, what governed what we did was how much money we had.  We had quite a bit of money and we put a lot of money on the landscape for a lot of great projects, but ultimately we couldn’t say where we were in achieving objectives.  We couldn’t tell the public or the legislature how we were moving the dial, so I think in the big picture, I think that was one of the reasons that that program was not ultimately sustainable.”

The Delta Conservancy has $50 million for ecosystem restoration in the Delta from Prop 1 funds that is to support projects that enhance habitat and improve water quality, which can include agricultural sustainability improvements if there is a link to water quality and the ecosystem.  “We require that all of our applicants tell us how they are going to incorporate adaptive management into their projects,” he said.  “We refer them to the wheel and we have workshops in advance of our solicitations.  We ask people to tell us how they are going to incorporate adaptive management and they don’t even really realize that they are at step four or five when they are coming to us for funding and so it’s a matter of coaching them to go back and articulate how you got to where you are today, and then continue to describe how you’re going to incorporate adaptive management throughout the life of the project.”

The Conservancy has 19 projects, relatively small, but it’s good to nudge all the project components at the project scale to think about adaptive management, how important it is, and how they can incorporate it into their projects.  “It’s a requirement,” Mr. Ingram said.  “If you don’t score well on that part, you may not get funding from our process.

He agreed with Carl Wilcox that adaptive management is relatively simple.  “We need to do a good job of having a scientific basis for a description of targets, what is it that we’re trying to achieve, how much restoration do we think we need in this system, and then it’s a matter of articulating what our expected outcomes are and what our uncertainties are,” he said.  “I’m hopeful that the revision of Chapter 4 of the Delta Plan will lay out some larger targets for restoration in the system.  Arguably once EcoRestore is complete, we are almost going to be back in the same situation as CalFed where we might have funding but we haven’t really defined what we need to do.”

Mr. Ingram concluded by noting that he thinks what’s always been lacking is a well-defined process for doing the monitoring and the evaluation.  “Ultimately, if we have targets, we know where we need to go, and we know what our uncertainties about getting there are, then we need a process and/or a body that’s going to come together at fairly regular intervals and distill all the information that we’re learning and then help us decide how we might change moving forward based on that information.”

LAUREN HASTINGS, Adaptive Management Science Advisor with the Delta Stewardship Council

Lauren Hastings has been working on the Delta system for about 20 years.  Currently, she is focused on two tasks:  One is leading the Interagency Adaptive Management Integration Team known as IAMIT, and the other is supporting early consultation on adaptive management for projects in the Delta that are considered ‘covered actions’ per the Delta Reform Act and must certify their consistency with the Delta Stewardship Council’s Delta Plan.

The IAMIT is a group of state, federal, and local agencies as well as stakeholders who are working on a white paper with recommendations for supporting habitat restoration adaptive management in the absence of a single habitat restoration program.  The paper has gone through several iterations over the last 3 years, but will hopefully be finalized soon in 2019.  Ms. Hastings noted that there are requirements in the biological opinions, the Fish Restoration Program and EcoRestore, as well as requirements for Prop 1-funded projects, and even potentially the voluntary settlement agreement projects.  “We also emphasize it in Chapter 4 of the Delta Plan that there is no single program supporting it, so how can we do adaptive management in that situation?” she said.  “That’s one of the struggles that we’ve had.  We’ve come up with an approach for supporting that.”

Ms. Hastings said that the other role she plays is supporting early consultation for covered actions for meeting the Delta Plan requirement for doing adaptive management and using best available science; she also works with a great team of folks at the Delta Science Program who are adaptive management liaisons.  “Our job is to help support the doing of adaptive management for restoration and that same team is serving as the main staff support for developing the white paper,” she said.

With respect to adaptive management in the Delta, for her it comes down to mainly one thing.  “It really is all about uncertainties,” she said.  “Uncertainties in terms of how well our management action will actually achieve the intended goals and objectives, and if we’re pretty certain that it will, then we don’t have to do adaptive management because there is nothing to adaptively manage, there’s nothing to learn.  That’s rarely the case, but our Independent Science Board is very good about pointing out that you don’t always have to do adaptive management.”

But if there are uncertainties, what are they,” Ms. Hastings continued.  “Ideally you explicitly design your project with that in mind so that you can learn about the cause-effect relationships between your management action and your expected outcomes, and what the uncertainties are along the way.  Then you also need to explicitly develop a monitoring and evaluation program.  These are the key parts of doing adaptive management.”

Another key part is completing the entire loop: maybe it’s a great project, it’s set up to be addressing uncertainties, there’s a great monitoring and evaluation program, but the data still has to be interpreted, communicated, and provided to the decision makers who are going to the step of adapting.

I am hoping that we can continue to support actually completing the loop all the way so that as we’re changing things, we’re updating our conceptual models, we’re updating the project we’re working on, or more likely the next similar project in the hopes that we achieve our expected outcomes,” she concluded.

DR. RAMONA SWENSON, Restoration Ecology Program manager with Environmental Science Associates

Dr. Ramona Swenson began by noting that she has worked in the Delta on resource management and restoration issues for about two decades; collectively, ESA has worked on dozens of restoration projects throughout the bay and Delta estuary with everything from design and permit to supporting implementation and monitoring.

Dr. Swenson recalled how when she was a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy, sometimes it was the unplanned experiments that would provide the information to improve the next iteration of the restoration project.  There would also be planned actions, such as doing a levee breach and bringing in a lot more scientists to look at the functions and how things evolve and using that knowledge to improve future restorations at other locations.  They are currently working with DWR on the Grizzly Slough Restoration Project.

When I think about the adaptive management process, it’s something that we can use at multiple scales, both the Delta watershed scale, regional, and then at the project scale to try to improve our ability to deliver restoration that’s effective,” she said.  “These projects are kind of a portfolio of restoration, whether they are designed explicitly as experiments to address uncertainties or that we look collectively at how things are shaping up.  We have been working with folks at the Interagency Ecological Program’s Tidal Wetlands Restoration Workgroup and using those conceptual models to support individual projects like Tule Red Restoration in Suisun Marsh and other restoration projects.  So individual projects can tie into the science framework established by our wheel of fortune, and also be able to benefit from the regional monitoring that’s being done by IEP and the learning from each of our projects.”


Question:  How do you convince people that adaptive management is really a valuable tool that we should be using and that there is the benefit of addressing uncertainties and reducing uncertainty through adaptive management?  Are there any other reasons or cases that you can make for how adaptive management improves resource management and why it is something that is really essential that we should incorporate into our decisions and into our process?

Campbell Ingram:  “The first two steps are to define the problem and then define your objective.  I think that’s absolutely critical in our system to maintain support for a restoration program.  Can we tell the public and the legislator (the people that are funding these efforts) what we’re trying to achieve and where we are in the continuum of achieving that?  I think at least the first two steps are a great tool for getting more buy in for what we’re trying to achieve and that helps us continue to get funding to support the effort.”

Lauren Hastings:If you follow the steps in the adaptive management wheel, then you are identifying those goals and objectives you’re intending to achieve, and you’re also ideally monitoring and evaluating how well you’re achieving those.  That’s a really important byproduct of doing adaptive management; in addition to reducing uncertainties, you’re also identifying how well you’re achieving those goals and objectives, and if you are, great.  One of the decision making steps is that sometimes you don’t have to do anything.  Everything you’re doing is great, continue what you’re doing.  That can be a deliberate decision that you’re making.  But if you’re not achieving those goals and objectives, why not, and trying to figure out why so that you can improve achieving that the next time.”

Carl Wilcox:  “From my perspective, the issue is really what are the uncertainties from the perspective of doing tidal restoration … Probably the biggest uncertainty is the role of habitat restoration in improving conditions for native fishes in the light of future climate change and/or invasions by introduced species.  So I think it’s important as we move forward in applying adaptive management that we be really clear about what the uncertainties are in making the bigger decisions about whether to proceed or not.  Individual projects are going to go forward, and from my perspective for the most part, if they are well designed and have good input they are going to function.  The question is whether they produce, and that’s what we’re really interested in.”

Dr. Ramona Swenson said that the ability to look at what’s worked in other places or judicious failures that didn’t come out as expected is important.  “The more you build that knowledge base, the more you can start dialing in what’s important – elevation, or sediment supply … We have to think about the factors we can control, and those we can’t, so as we build this knowledge from each of these experiments of restoration, we can get more efficient and focus on the resource management and the issues that may come up that require other types of tools or maintenance of these sites so that there aren’t other problems that come in, such as invasive species.”

Lauren Hastings noted that providing such a forum is one of the main goals for the IAMIT or Interagency Adaptive Management Integration Team.  “We encourage more participants by the way – this is an open group … One of the main goals of that group is that’s a place where we can share these lessons learned  so we can share across projects and across regions.  We can also work with each other and give advice on identifying what the uncertainties are and where can we best address an uncertainty.  A certain project might be better suited for it than another one, and so it’s really another forum for sharing information across the system.”

Question: What is essential to having a successful adaptive management program for a project and what are the attributes of a project that might make it succeed or fail?  Not all projects may be most appropriate for adaptive management.  Are there attributes for projects that make them more or less likely to be a success for adaptive management?

Carl Wilcox:The issue is an adaptive management program as opposed to projects, and having a science program that supports evaluating how individual actions fit into the larger ecosystem function.  That’s the question that we’re really confronted with, do these things really make a difference, not in and of themselves, but as a whole?  CalFed failed; we could never identify what the performance measures were, and what we were going to monitor.  We haven’t done much better since then; we still haven’t been able to settle on a consistently applied program that will collect the information that’s going to ultimately support decision making.  We have never consistently applied a monitoring program to inform the adaptive management that was set up as an experiment or intended, but we don’t have a program that consistently monitors.”

Carl Wilcox (continued):One of the things that I’ve focused on, particularly working in the collaborative science and adaptive management process, is developing a science program that’s focused on addressing the uncertainties that we have about what the role of flow is in supporting Delta smelt and the ambient conditions that support Delta smelt, not Delta smelt specifically but what influences the ecosystem to create conditions that are beneficial.  I think that’s the key moving forward is having a more programmatic approach to dealing with these things as opposed to being focused on individual actions.”

Lauren Hastings:One of our biggest challenges has been looking at adaptive management programmatically.  We don’t have an adaptive management program that is tasked with doing that.   We do have the bits and pieces of that and in our white paper, we’ve tried to identify what are the gaps, how would we knit it together, but it’s going to be a challenge to do that, and it’s a challenge for doing that for projects that are just habitat restoration projects across the Delta and Suisun Marsh.  In addition, we have the interface with flow actions that also affect the ecosystem as do the habitat restoration actions, and we don’t have a single adaptive management program for evaluating those flow actions, let alone knitting the whole picture together, so we do have a big challenge ahead of us.”

Dr. Ramona Swenson:I think it is important for there to be a Delta-wide framework so that projects can kind of look to, set in the context of, how is this functioning and how is it contributing to the overall Delta.  One thing that has been valuable is seeing is that over time, there have been efforts to develop Delta-wide conceptual models and consistent monitoring protocols that we can use at each of these projects to see are they effective at what they say they are doing on the project and how are they contributing to outcomes in the rest of the Delta.”

Monitoring is also an essential component of adaptive management, Dr. Swenson continued.  “We won’t know what’s happening if we’re not monitoring and looking at and evaluating and so choosing monitoring metrics that can be informative for how the project is doing, basing it on your project objectives, and looking at metrics that are both outputs of what you may have done in the short-term, and then longer outcomes you might care about … It’s making sure we have in place the understanding of which metrics to use and then putting in funding to support that.  Connecting the project level findings to a larger Delta region requires investment in that monitoring and science.

Campbell Ingram:  “It is a heavy lift to put together a comprehensive adaptive management program like we’ve all talked a little bit about here.  Some of us have tried to put some of those building blocks together.  One of the things I really like about the IAMIT white paper is that it fundamentally recognizes the challenge and the unlikelihood that we’re going to be able to just craft a program and put it on the system; it thinks a little bit more about what are some of the key priorities and what are some of the next best steps that we can really start to move this system to a place where we do a better job with adaptive management.  I think that’s critical.”

Carl Wilcox noted that some projects have the funding to do the long-term investigations while other projects like those funded by propositions don’t have the resources.  “This is a long-term type of thing.  Once these restoration projects are in place, they aren’t instant; they have to develop.  It takes many years and they change during that period of time.  I think a good example of how to address this is the South Bay Salt Ponds Restoration Program.  It’s an adaptive implementation of 15,000 acres of restoration in the South Bay.  It identified the issues that were of concern as part of the restoration, such as shorebirds and the loss of salt pond habitat or effects on the sediment and mudflats with the ultimate objective that if everything went right and we weren’t destroying the mudflats and killing off the shorebirds, we were going to restore 90%.  If not, along the way you were going to create habitat more intensively managed for shorebirds and their needs as alternative habitat as well and monitor those actions.  That’s been being implemented for ten years now.  And it will go on for another 10 or 15, and there’s a science program to support that.  Not a hugely funded one, but it’s funded and it’s looking at the questions that are relevant to making decisions there.”

The Salt Pond project has a clear decision making process,” Mr. Wilcox continued.  “But part of the issue that we have with adaptive management is that decision making is dispersed in this system.  Outside of regulatory requirements, other kinds of actions don’t have a focal decision making venue, so that becomes another key factor in how you utilize the information to actually make effective decisions.”

Question: You have all talked about the importance of scale issues and the challenge of going from project-based adaptive management to more programmatic adaptive management and clearly that is the biggest challenge that we face.  Do you have any specific recommendations about how we link those project based adaptive management approaches to a bigger scale?  What I hear from people in the Delta that even as complex as the salt ponds are, it’s much more challenging in the Delta where there’s many, many more uncertainties, whether it’s flow related or habitat related or contaminant related or social issues, so how do we try to build that programmatic adaptive management approach, given that broad mix of uncertainties and the dispersed decision making?

Carl Wilcox:  “The tough nut to crack in the Delta is that there are so many different things.  This goes to how you structure the Delta Science Program or the plan or identify your key uncertainties and how you start to address those.  If you pretty clear on the uncertainties about flow and how you might get at that, but we’re not clear on uncertainties around contaminants and their role as stressors in relationship to flow or just relationship to how they are affecting the system and/or species that we’re concerned about.  The same thing goes for toxic algae in the system and how that is affected and/or what climate change is going to do to the system.  More attention needs to be focused on how you create a venue to discuss those issues and generate the science to evaluate them.”

Carl Wilcox, continued:  “Most of the science that’s done is basically funded by the water projects and it relates to their actions and effects on the system.  To go beyond that, the argument is that there are all these other stressors out there that are the problem and it’s not flow.  Well, they all fit together and they all work together, and there’s probably the basic argument that dilution’s the solution when it comes to water quality issues and that you take the flow out of the system, other things become worse, because you’ve changed the nature of the system from a more dynamic estuarine system to more of lake-like system, which is the south Delta and the central Delta. … There’s more work that needs to be done on contaminant issues and those kinds of things that should be part of the plan, but who’s responsibility is it to fund that and how do we target funding for those kinds of activities?

Lauren Hastings:  “How do we knit together doing adaptive management programmatically across the system – I think this is a major challenge for us.  There are different models of how to address it, but what we’re thinking about is how to address issues of governance, how to address issues of funding, and different models of how to do that.  We have regulatory requirements and one of the requirements of a regulatory requirement is it generally requires the funding, and those tend to be the projects right now that are the best funded, those that are required by the biological opinions.”

But those are not the only restoration projects,” Ms. Hastings said.  “It gets back to that we don’t have this single program for habitat restoration that supports it, that requires it, and that provides it for decision making, but do we need that, are we going to get that?  Maybe that’s not our reality that we’re dealing with.  We’re dealing with this with the Chapter 4 of the Delta Plan, the ecosystem restoration chapter.  Is there some one umbrella that’s going to help with this or not?  There are many of us dealing with this and talking about it.”

Campbell Ingram:  “I think for a long time we’ve let perfect be the enemy of the start.  It is very big, it’s very complex, but we have the IAMIT steering committee that come together and steer the white paper a little bit.  I think the white paper articulates some building blocks.  I think we can have that steering committee be tasked at almost low to no cost at continuing to engage on a regular basis and really trying to prioritize the building blocks of an adaptive management program and what we would try to start with in the early stages, and what we could do in our current reality of not having a lot of resources and in this very diffuse system with so many different participants.  I think it’s just a matter of tasking that group with developing it and ultimately playing that role in as near-term as possible in being the group that might do some synthesis and evaluation in the system.”

Dr. Ramona Swenson:  “We find that sometimes our ability to do restoration in the places are by the fortune of land ownership and stakeholder.  Sometimes you have a property that’s at just the right elevation and suitable for this type of habitat but not another, so trying to have organizing structure from a program standpoint and maybe some standards of how you do restoration but then being open to the opportunity that if a property sometimes becomes available …  so marrying both the overarching guidance for a program standpoint but being able to look at things from the project level, the place on the landscape, and being aware of some of these obstacles that may prevent you from being able to implement every experimental based program or to all kinds of restoration at a place where you may have limitations because of funding or through stewardship.”

Carl Wilcox noted that Campbell Ingram and the Conservancy have longed championed the ‘Restoration Hub.’  “There have been efforts to create places to engage practitioners in sharing learning and I think that’s an important component.  I think goes back to the role of the IAMIT and that there needs to be a forum like that that happens on a regular basis where people come and share their experiences.  Because in my experience, that is a way of sharing that learning and transferring that new information onto the next project because everybody’s looking to improve and do the best that they can.”

Getting peer input into project design in the early phases of planning is a key component, continued Mr. Wilcox.  “It’s been applied to some degree in San Francisco Bay and to some degree with some of the early projects – Yolo Ranch and Tule Red, they brought in outside folks to provide input in the early stages, and I think that generates a much better project as opposed to just proceeding on your own.”

Mr. Wilcox pointed out that structured decision making is just one of many possible decision making processes.  “I think that a key component is how do you structure that going forward in decision making and prioritization of addressing the uncertainties and evaluating what their potential significance is, as well as things like forecasting and the ISB wants us to be thinking about the future.  I have trouble thinking about the future beyond tomorrow most of the time, but we need to be thinking about the future … we need to be looking at anticipating what’s coming in the future; that’s done to some degree but we need to do more of that as well, and that’s part of how we do decision making in anticipating the future.”

Lauren Hastings:  “The Suisun Marsh Adaptive Management Advisory Team is an interagency stakeholder and project proponent group that is helping with a lot of the things that Carl was talking about in Suisun Marsh.  It is our intent with the IAMIT that it also serves as that forum for Delta projects to get help with project design and feedback.  It’s also a forum where the regulators can all be in the same room and comment on projects early on and talk with each other, which we hope is going to be helpful for project proponents.  We hope that that it will result in a more streamlined approach to designing and implementing restoration projects and communicating the lessons learned.”

Ramona Swenson gave an example from the Tule Red project, which had an adaptive design but it also had regulatory issues to be addressed.  “In addition to the channel and the breach that would restore tidal flows to the property, one of the components of the design was that it needed to maintain levee protection for the neighboring properties.  The project proponents developed the design of the levee to have a more gradual slope, so the idea was here that the area can accommodate sea level rise and provide habitat for rails and salt marsh harvest mouse, but when they ran this by the Army Corps of Engineers, they said, ‘that’s a lot of fill to put in your wetland there, you’re going to have to mitigate for that’.  And if we made it really narrow, that’s not going to meet the needs of levee protection, so hearing some of these things early in the design before we got to the permitting was very valuable.  Having a forum where we could have these conversations, before you went down a lot of design work was really valuable, and having also the Fish and Wildlife Service and NMFS in the room, able to hear that our driving goal is trying to restore habitat to have fish benefits, but we have to also not trip these other permitting things.  It was helpful to have that communication early.”

Question:  Adaptive management is great but we need flexibility if we’re going to have successful adaptive management.  If we want to experiment and try new things, how do we do that in a regulatory context where there are very specific requirements, especially for endangered species? … any thoughts on how we can address regulatory restraints?

Lauren Hastings:  “This has been one of the big issues we’ve been grappling with in our white paper.  What we’ve done is we’ve had focused conversations with a lot of our regulatory representatives on the IAMIT.  What we’ve learned from them is that they believe that the best approach is to get representatives of the various regulatory agencies in the same room with the project proponents and the technical folks and talk about your project design and your desires for doing adaptive management early on with them, and they will then let you know.  They will work with you to help you design your project in such a way and develop the permits in such a way as to best allow that, so that’s the approach we’re touting right now and we’re optimistic about that approach.”

Campbell Ingram added that the framework really lends itself to that.  “If you’re actually following that and you’re describing what your objectives are, what your uncertainties are, what you think your potential outcomes are, and then how you’re going to manage that that fits in that context, and so having that conversation with the regulators in the room can be extremely powerful and it doesn’t have to be terribly costly or a big process.”

Dr. Ramona Swenson:  “Sometimes adaptive management can be your friend when you have that uncertainty.  Perhaps put in the term as part of your permit conditions that the design is based on this particular understanding and provide the science support and modeling, but we’re not sure.  This is our best guess here, and we will monitor and if we find that we’re hitting some particular trigger level that it’s not on course, then we are going to articulate up front some actions that we would take to try and bring it back on course.  So when you’re designing your monitoring, you want to include in your metrics for effectiveness and compliance then also triggers for taking adaptive management actions … By bringing that into the conversation, sometimes that can get you past some of these obstacles, but it is challenging because each regulatory agency has a mission that they need to meet and it’s often hard to get some flexibility there so sometimes we just don’t have the ability to innovate or the operating room to do that.  I’d like to see a little more flexibility in being able to do that.”

Carl Wilcox:  “My experience has been that the sooner you get the people who are going to issue you permits in the room to provide advice, the better off you are.  The other thing is recognizing that there are agency policies and now you need to fill a wetland to save it in the long-term and policies haven’t caught up with that.  The regional board in San Francisco is still trying to catch up with that one.  The was the major impediment what Ramona talked about at Tule Red; what was proposed there initially was totally representing the Baylands ecosystem goals update, was anticipatory of what’s going to come in the future, and was something that should have been moved forward with, but it had to be pared down pretty substantially.  Particularly in the Delta, those are the kinds of things that need to be accommodated for.  Part of it is changing policies and that’s a slow and difficult process, but I think the more that we can make the arguments for those kinds of things moving forward, the more room there is for agencies, particularly the Corps or the Water Boards that have no net loss policies and have concerns about fill, to understand that in many cases, we’re in a zero sum game and we’re trying to accommodate the future by incurring some loss for the better overall long-term benefits.”

Lauren Hastings:  “One of the things is, we’re not just adaptively managing projects, we’re also adaptively managing policies, regulations hopefully, plans, and programs so we’re seeing that a lot of the regulatory instruments are being adaptively managed and really they are trying to do the same thing.  Ideally those regulations have goals and objectives they are trying to achieve.  Is their regulation really designed in such a way to achieve that in today’s system and today’s environment or not?  We should be pulling together the information and the lessons learned for them as well to help, and communicating that such as what are the impediments we think they can help with.  So let’s adaptively manage the regulations as well.”

Ramona Swenson noted that with the Tule Red project, the regional board was very concerned about no net loss of acres.  “We really couldn’t get out of that one, but when we were talking with the Army Corps on the 404 permits, we were kind of successful in presenting the case that while there maybe a small loss in terms of actual acreage, the function would be improved.  What we used is a method that’s elsewhere used in the country, hydrogeomorphic method or HGM, and we used that to argue that functionality improved by taking a diked off wetland and restoring it to tidal function, we were going to be having a net increase in function.  So I think if we can help agencies see a path past what may have been an understanding of protection from earlier years to a more synthesized and holistic one, that may be a way where some of the adaptive management functions can help with the permitting.”

Audience question:  “Let’s say you have a statutory objective above the regulators that says you’re going to do x by such and such date; now it’s been 30 years, and haven’t been able to achieve it.  Can adaptive management be used as a tool to feed the legislature or the Congress and say, if we no longer can achieve the programmatic improvement of the ecosystem, we need to do x.  How can you change something that far upstream for the better?”

Carl Wilcox:Legislation tends to be a very blunt tool, and it’s the product of ultimate sausage makings, so you may go in with a noble intent and come out with something entirely different.  I think there is enough flexibility within many of the regulatory programs and/or their policy setting to adaptively change, using tools that have been developed by those regulatory programs to argue for an increase level of understanding of what ecosystem functions need to be incorporated into a wetland.  Wetlands are great, but it also depends on the terrestrial habitat around it.”

In my career, I’ve seen no net loss used to its extreme,” Mr. Wilcox continued.  “At the same time, I’ve been in situations where achieving no net loss in restoring vernal pool habitat, where you’re putting more vernal pools on top of existing vernal pools and taking the uplands away that the tiger salamanders, the bees, and the native plants depend on is not a good strategy and we have to get away from that.  The ability to do that by combining preservation with restoration or compensatory mitigation on non-vernal pool sites was a progressive process of learning overtime, and as issues emerged, and the importance of uplands in relationship to wetlands.  I think there’s lots of flexibility that exists, but it has to be translated from what we’ve learned into setting policies and changing those policies, as opposed to trying to legislate those things, because once they’re in legislation, they are there and its really hard to change.  And you may not end up with what you wanted.”

Lauren Hastings:   “One of the things we’ve been thinking about with our white paper is who are the decision makers and what are the decisions to be made, and I would say that the legislature is among the group of decision makers and so they are among our audiences.  We’ve already talked about the regulators being one of our audiences, as are the funders or whoever has authority over funding, the planners – we have these different scales of decision makers as well, and we really need to think about who they are, what are the decisions to be made and what kind of information do they need to make those decisions.  We have to pull together that information and then communicate it to them too, so we’ve been actively working on a communication plan as part of our IAMIT white paper, and definitely legislative members and their staff are on that list.”

Audience Question: “We have all these separate restoration projects across the Bay Delta and we’re all doing similar things and getting these technical advisory committees together … Obviously you don’t want the same people working on everything because there are experts in different realms of the Delta for example, but how are you thinking about how to provide a service to these different projects as they are developing?  I think it may be able to streamline our approaches, because we are all in our individual silos doing similar things and having a body of people together to help with those regulatory decisions might be very helpful.”

Lauren Hastings:  “Our idea is that just by having this IAMIT together, where among the members of the IAMIT, we have representatives of the regulatory agencies – We don’t have anyone from the Corps at this time, and we don’t have all the regulatory folks at the State Board, but we do have the fish agencies who are very well represented … our idea is if we can at least start there and have this technical community together to discuss things.  We also have above the IAMIT a steering committee level of higher level managers and policy makers, so I think that’s a really good starting point.”

Another resource that we have among our IAMIT members also are our adaptive management liaisons with the Delta Science Program,” Ms. Hastings continued.  “And one of the roles they play is to help project proponents in designing adaptive management plans; we can help bring technical folks to bear on that as well.  I think what we’re hoping is that we’ll just get started and that this evolves and that we’ll come up with better ways.  In the past, we’ve had a group of technical experts come together to help with project design as well.  That doesn’t mean that they all have to be on the IAMIT, so that’s one of the things that a service that we can also offer is bringing together technical folks.  I know a lot of projects do that themselves.”

Campbell Ingram:  “There’s been some progress recently in the Bay Area, the BRIT process, where they’re going to have resources to have the regulatory agencies come together and work with applicants early on through the permitting process; then there are efforts to look at statewide permitting by Sustainable Conservation.  I think those two things can come together hopefully in the framework and be really helpful in moving us in the right direction.”

Dr. Ramona Swenson:  “The programmatic biological opinion with NMFS that Sustainable Conservation developed to streamline things for restoration projects and if we can more of those things in place, then that can kind of pave the way for some of these projects.  That would help advance restoration.”  Dr. John Callaway notes that this issue was discussed at the November 2018 meeting of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee.

Carl Wilcox: It’s important that we look at what comes out of the IAMIT and where that process can provide policy guidance and bring it into a forum like DPIIC, because that forum has everybody there and at least can raise issues that need to be focused on that may not be as complicated as programmatic permitting, but maybe policy changes that might be a little easier.

Audience Question:  “On the ground level, we are doing a lot of monitoring in the Delta.  There’s a huge network of monitoring of all sorts of different kinds, most of which has a variety of different mandates and different goals.  In 2011 where there was the scrambling to figure out what was going on with X2 flow action, from my standpoint was a great example of how existing monitoring with a little bit of enhanced monitoring addressed a particular question.  So my question is, if we can’t come up with an entire new program, how can we better use what we have in terms of the forums available through the IEP project work teams, management, analysis and synthesis teams, and the IAMIT?  We have a lot going on already, so do you see a place for us to leverage those existing efforts to reach a lot of the same goals that you’re hoping to achieve?”

Dr. Ramona Swenson:  “The Tule Red project benefitted a lot from the discussions that were ongoing through the project work team and the conceptual models that they developed and the protocols that we put into the adaptive management plan.  It was really good back and forth with them and in the carrying out of the baseline monitoring, we kind have this great partnership where they are doing the food web monitoring, there’s monitoring of the aquatic elements, and the project proponent will be doing some of the more physical based monitoring of what acres are created there.  This is a good partnership and they’ve established where they try to match up restored site with a comparable reference site in that same region there, so again it’s providing that backbone, it’s clearly that network of monitoring that allows us to interpret what’s happening on the project level.”

Carl Wilcox:  “There’s a ton of stuff that gets done, but it’s not recognized as a coherent program.  One of the challenges before us is to describe it in such a way that people understand what is done and why it’s done and how it’s going to help support decision making.  At least from my perspective, I’ve been involved with IEP for quite a while now and recognizing what it does with the FRP monitoring program does, what the FRP planners do, and how that advances the state of understanding.  Plus what the project workteams do on a myriad of topics are the venue for surfacing things that need to be investigated, but how we describe that and present it to people as a whole is a key thing that needs to be done as we move forward because it’s not recognized.”

Lauren Hastings:  “One of the big comments that we’ve gotten on earlier drafts of our white paper is better recognizing and documenting the existing efforts that support adaptive management, and of course the fish restoration program monitoring effort is one of the big ones, one of the best ones, and one of the ones we point to the most.  I think the IAMIT and our outreach can help with that, because there is a lot going on.  We also have participants from the FRP group and from IEP on our IAMIT, so I think there’s another opportunity by having those folks participate, we can work together to figure out how to best knit those together and how to best get the word out and do the outreach.  We’re another venue to help with that.”

Audience question:  There are always uncertainties which leads me to the question about evidence-based conclusions.  We have monitoring typically at the site scale, but for species that utilize the whole system or much of the system, it’s much more difficult to say what those small projects are cumulatively having on that particular fish that moves around.  The thought is about the lines of evidence and the type of evidence you need to collect that would convince you or any reasonable person that these multiple projects are having a cumulative effect on the fitness of that particular species?

Dr. Ramona Swenson:  “One challenge is that many of these projects are kind of early in their design implementation and are getting their feet wet, so to speak.  To try and bridge that gap, we’ve really been relying on having robust conceptual models that have been developed to try and lay that foundation of what do we think this species of interest of need.  A major stressor is foodweb depletion; what do we know about the sources of food and trying to lay that logic chain there.  Now the proof will be in the pudding in trying to measure things along that chain – we can measure the wetlands, we can measure the primary and secondary productivity.  It is a question of will that get to the right customers instead of clams, and will that make a population level benefit? Those are still major uncertainties, but at least we’ve tried to make sure the foundation for the initial decision to engage in restoration at particular places in the Delta makes sense for what we know about these species.”

Carl Wilcox:  “We have conceptual models that started with the DRERIP which has been expanded as part of the tidal wetlands monitoring group efforts.  I think those are a great start.  We have imprints, you can look at the north Delta arc and that’s where Delta smelt hang out – that’s where the best habitat is and that’s where arguably what little remains of the intertidal wetlands and habitats exist, where there is some level of productivity support, and where you have the least effective invasives, particularly plans and conversion of habitat, so those are lines of evidence.  The only question is what’s the role of flow in all of them; this is a productivity poor estuary and how do you boost that.”

Historically there were 300,000 acres of tidal marsh or more; now, there might by 20 at the most, and most of it’s in little pieces scattered all over the place, so it’s a very changed system and not one that’s particularly productive,” continued Mr. Wilcox.  “A lot of it’s deep open water habitat and river channels that were created as part of reclamation, and how do we reverse those effects.  So I think there are lines of evidence that lead us to these decisions.  The question is, is we haven’t restored anything yet of any size.  We have Liberty Island and Holland Tract which restored themselves and they seem to be a focal point of where Delta smelt like to be for a number of reasons, probably turbidity, productivity, and a relatively hospitable habitat.  We haven’t been able to tell that story very well, even though we’ve spent lots of money trying to do it, but again it’s how does learning get translated into understanding and guidance in the future.”


  • For the forum agenda and video, click here.
  • To view documents on adaptive management at the California Water Library, click here.
  • To read more articles on adaptive management on Maven’s Notebook, click here.

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