ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT FORUM, Part 2: How adaptive management is applied in other ecosystems

Presentations highlight structured decision making, collective action on invasive species, and a scoring system for restoration projects

Adaptive management is a strategy for making management decisions under uncertain conditions using the best available science rather than repeatedly delaying action until more information is available.  The adaptive management approach integrates learning into management decisions and providing an approach to revise projects to increase the likelihood of success, rather than implementing a project without regard for scientific feedback or monitoring. Adaptive management can be an economical and effective because it provides flexibility and feedback to manage natural resources in the face of often considerable uncertainty.

At the Adaptive Management Forum, hosted by the Delta Science Program in February of 2019, a series of presentations highlighted how the principles of adaptive management have been successfully applied in other ecosystems.  First, Sally Rudd discussed how Structured Decision Making and Adaptive Management can work together in addressing environmental and resource management problems, using two case studies to illustrate practical examples.  Next, Dr. Kurt Kowalski explained how adaptive management is being used to address invasive phragmites in the Great Lakes Basin.  Lastly, Dr. Ronald Thom spoke about a program in the Columbia River estuary that utilizes a scoring system to evaluate restoration projects.

SALLY RUDD: Structured Decision Making and Adaptive Management Case Studies

Sally Rudd is a decision analyst and facilitator at Compass Resource Management based in Vancouver, British Columbia.  Compass specializes in the use of structured decision making to support collaborative decision making processes and has applied structured decision making in combination with adaptive management across many of their projects both in Canada and the US.  Sally Rudd is currently working with the Collaborative Science and Adaptive Management Program or CSAMP here in the Delta to apply structured decision making to help inform decisions around Delta smelt.

In this presentation, Ms. Rudd briefly describes the basics of structured decision making and shares insights from Compass’s use of structured decision making in the Platte River and on the Missouri River.


Structured decision was developed in the 1990s to apply the tools and theory from the decision sciences to environmental and resource management problems.  As a methodology, it consists of processes, tools, and techniques to support making informed, defensible, and transparent decisions.  Ms. Rudd noted that Compass defines a good decision as one that is informed by the best available knowledge, is defensible so that it can stand up to public and technical scrutiny, and is transparent in the sense that you can see exactly what the information is and the value based trade-offs that were considered within the decision process.

Structured decision making blends both analysis and deliberation, bringing together both the technical side of management as well as the people side.  “It’s based on the idea that we can be rigorous about both facts and values and that we need to organize and structure how we think and talk about the choices that we’re making,” she said.  “It also recognizes that people are fallible.  All of us, even experts, are vulnerable to various decision traps and biases that cloud our judgement when we’re forming opinions, so following a rigorous structured and deliberative approach, we are less prone to these decision traps and biases.”

Structured decision making can be summarized as a six step process that represents the principles of good decision making:

Step 1:  Clarify the context and the decision frame.  Clarify what decisions need to be made and what the big decision is that you want to focus on and build a process around.  “Sometimes the decision is quite clear; other times it’s quite obscure and you have to spend a lot of time in this step scoping out what is going to be the most constructive decision for a group to focus on.”

Step 2.  Define decision objectives.  It’s key to state everything that is important to be considering in your given decision, as the decision objectives are used to develop alternatives.

Step 3.  Develop alternatives.  “In developing alternatives, structured decision making uses the philosophy that your solution or the decision that you make is only ever going to be as good as the alternatives you consider within your process, so it’s worth your time to explore that decision space and the alternatives that you can do and try to be creative, and as you are evaluating those alternatives, trying to minimize trade-offs in making better alternatives.”

Step 4.  Estimating consequences.  “In structured decision making, you take a rigorous approach to characterizing as best you can the consequences of every alternative against each objective, including the nature and range of the uncertainty of those consequences through various objectives.”

Step 5.  Deliberate on trade-offs and decide.  This step is the key step and after the previous steps, sets you up to have an informed deliberation on trade-offs.  “This is based on the principle that explicitly identifying and deliberating on values-based trade-offs is a motivating force for finding better solutions that will be more acceptable across all the interests you have involved in making that decision.  I would say this is the more revolutionary step to add into a public policy development process.  Many public policy planning processes are not really addressing trade-offs in a head-on explicit manner, and we find that that misses the opportunity to bring people together to recognize that the trade-offs exist and we need to find better alternatives that will reduce trade-offs.”

It also misses the opportunity in building an understanding of why trade-offs are there,” Ms. Rudd continued.  “It builds understanding that sometimes you do need to accept some trade-offs to achieve something of value to society.  Sometimes when there’s really big trade-offs, it can create a decision gridlock and nobody’s going anywhere, and that’s because you really have to come to accept that sometimes you have to lose on one objective to gain something of importance on another objective.”

Step 6: Monitoring and learning.  “At the end of every decision process, you want to set yourself up for the next time you’re going to be making that decision process.  Adaptive management fits very nicely in with this because you want to be improving the quality of information for your future decisions, so combining a decision making framework with your adaptive management framework, you’re really fleshing out that step there.”

The steps are a framework for groups to work together, creating the common vocabulary and road map, so people know when they are identifying their objectives, when they are developing alternatives, when it’s a technical task to use science for the best characterization of consequences, and when it’s time to talk about values and what’s important.  Is a tradeoff on one objective worth it?

In other words, how I’ve seen it when it’s implemented is that it helps to avoid that chaotic ad hoc conversational swirl that occurs when people from different interests, different backgrounds, and different agencies are trying to work together in a management context,” said Ms. Rudd.  “It basically creates a common framework for people to follow and since it’s based on good decision making principles, it’s going to help you reach a better solution.”

How is structured decision making complementary to adaptive management?  In structured decision making, the focus is on decisions and in particular management decisions that need to consider both facts and values, so a decision needs to be value based in terms of considering what you care about and what’s important as well as science based, considering what you know and what you don’t know.  However, adaptive management is focused on resolving uncertainties so that we can better understand how to effectively advance our management objectives, so adaptive management is more about getting more facts, she said.

Much has been written about the pitfalls and shortcomings of adaptive management,” said Ms. Rudd.  “From our experience at Compass, many of the problems arise because we are trying to do more with adaptive management then it is really designed to do.  Adaptive management does not have a process or tools for helping to deal with those value-based questions within management context, such as what’s important, what do we prioritize, is a gain on an objective worth a loss on another, is the upside potential here worth the downside risk – these are all values based questions that really adaptive management doesn’t have tools to help people to understand and talk through.  By combining structured decision making and adaptive management, you’re really getting a quite robust methodology for working through a management context when there are deep uncertainties and there are significant trade-offs.”


Ms. Rudd then discussed a case study from Nebraska’s Platte River Recovery Implementation Program.  Initiated in 2007, the program is a cooperative effort between the Department of the Interior, the states of Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, water users, land users, and environmental NGOs.

The purpose of the program is to use its program resources to benefit four listed species: whooping crane, pallid sturgeon, interior least tern, and piping plover.  Since there is a finite amount of money, water, and land, they are trying to optimize how they use those resources to best benefit those species while also considering the interests of the water users and land users involved in the program.

The program has a governance committee with the members from the Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, state governments, water users, and NGOs who work by consensus on all of their decisions.  They are informed by several technical committees that are also staffed by the member organizations represented on the governance committee who come to consensus on the technical information before it goes to the governance committee.  There is a program executive and staff which are extremely helpful to support that whole committee structure.  Headwaters is a consulting group providing adaptive management and technical expertise.

When the program began in 2007, it was really not clear how to best use the program’s resources to best benefit those target species.  There were hundreds of hypotheses around how to benefit those species, so they decided to organize them into ten big questions to focus research and experiments.

The slide shows an image from their 2016 report card which is a snapshot summary of their progress on answering the ten big questions with two thumbs up if they’ve answered the question in the affirmative and two thumbs down if its otherwise.

Ms. Rudd then presented a slide showing the standard adaptive management cycle to work through those big questions, notated by the steps of how they worked through one pass of this cycle over a roughly 7-year period.  In this example, the objective was how to best improve reproductive success for plovers and terns.

They started with a general statement of what they were trying to do which was figure out how effective are different habitat enhancement strategies for improving reproductive success of plovers and terns.  She noted that there are several hypotheses and big questions associated with that.  For experiments, they designed some short duration high-flow pulses and they built in-channel islands of different heights and with different methods as well as habitat off channel, which was basically fenced sand areas that could protect the birds from predators.  They implemented and monitored those experiments over about six years.

The two indicators they were looking at were acres of habitat produced by type, which was incredibly important for things like flow pulses where they didn’t know how much habitat that they would be able to actually produce with those flow pulses; they also looked at the observed fledge ratio by habitat types and the number of successful fledglings from a breeding pair,” she said.  “They then compiled that data and in conjunction with other studies, they were able to parameterize reproductive models for plovers and terns.”

Once they got to the adjust step, they realized they didn’t really know what to do.  The consulting group that supports the committee knew that some members of the governance committee had fairly strong perspectives on what their preferred methods were in terms of whether the habitat would be on-channel or off-channel.  At this point, Ms. Rudd said that it looked like flow pulses were a very poor performer, so that was fairly obvious that they were going to be taking that off the table.

The big debate was whether to be enhancing habitat in the channel or off-channel for plovers and terns,” she said.  “The environmental interests tended to prefer the on-channel habitat because this had the potential to provide benefits for whooping crane and ecosystem restoration, although those benefits were uncertain.  The water users tended to prefer the off-channel habitat construction because the data that had been collected to date was really proving that the off-channel habitat produced a lot of fledglings, and that was most in their interest because that related to their endangered species act compliance.”

It wasn’t apparent how the governance committee would come to an agreement on what strategy to use moving into the future, so Compass was brought in to design a structured decision making process for them.  The process was framed around the management question of what’s the best combination of management actions to take over the next three years for the purpose of maintaining or enhancing habitat for terns and plovers.

Within that decision frame and the various strategies that they were looking at included the possible objectives that could be influenced by the alternatives, which were numbers of plovers and terns, how much each alternative was going to cost, the potential to produce benefits for whooping cranes, the potential to have increased sediment supply, how much effort it would be to implement them, and what would be learned.

Using those objectives, we went through four rounds of alternatives,” Ms. Rudd said.  “This is an iterative process where you use each round of alternative evaluation to learn as a group.  The first round is really exploratory and just getting a feel for what might be possible.  Round 2 is the value-focused round, where we tried to maximize one objective so that we could see what that would do other objectives, and this way you really get to understand what the full range of possibilities in your decision space are.  Through that, we developed more refined alternatives in round 3, which is where the governance committee could say that a particular alternative is obviously inferior and so we could start taking some alternatives off the table, and then we could refine alternatives that were more promising.”

This type of process produces a very transparent record of everything considered within the decision process, and why some alternatives were advanced over others, she noted.

Ms. Rudd then presented the consequence table used in round 4, explaining that a consequence table is a key structuring and communication tool used in structured decision making that shows how each alternative performs compared to other alternatives with respect to the objectives.  She noted that the objectives are listed in rows; each of those objectives is made more concrete and specific by assigning it a performance measure.  They use their best knowledge of what they think the consequences are of each alternative are going to be for the objective.  Management costs could also be quantified.  For other objectives, there weren’t any models so they took a lines-of-evidence approach with the technical committees.

In the round four deliberations, the governance committee decided that four alternatives were inferior.  The green and red are used to show where the performance is either better or worse than the selected alternative in blue, which then highlights the key trade-offs.

Alternative C-6 included building 163 acres of off-channel habitat; alternative C-6M is in addition to the off-channel habitat, testing a new method to make habitat with water that they called moving complexes approach.  “The moving complex’s approach is not really predicted to provide much benefits for plovers and terns and the evidence wasn’t suggesting that this would be very helpful,” she said.  “But what adding this moving complexes approach would do would potentially produce benefits for whooping crane, sediment supply, and it would also enhance learning of whether that new approach could benefit plovers and terns.”

The trade-offs were that it was a bit more expensive and quite difficult to implement, so the choice between these alternatives was a matter of deciding whether the potential benefits for whooping cranes, sediment supply, and learning were worth the additional cost and implementation effort.  “At this point, we had narrowed it down to these alternatives over the course of four months and this became a fairly easy decision for the governance committee,” said Ms. Rudd.  “It made sense to build the off-channel habitat to ensure good production of fledglings for plovers and terns, but it also made sense to continue testing that in-channel habitat enhancement.  The preferred alternative was this C-6M and they’re implementing that now.”


The second case study is from the Missouri River.  Ms. Rudd acknowledged she was not the lead for this particular project, so this will be a broad narrative example of their work.

The Missouri River drains one-sixth of the mainland of the United States.  The US Army Corps of Engineers operates three of the largest dam structures in the world in this basin, alongside three others.  The dams and reservoirs are managed for a range of human water uses such as navigation, flood protection, recreation, hydropower, and agriculture.  The Missouri River is similar to that Platte River in that it is also habitat to three endangered species: pallid sturgeon, piping plover, and interior least tern.  Ms. Rudd noted that the Platte River drains into the Missouri River.

Since 2000, the US Army Corps has been challenged to come up with a way to avoid a determination of jeopardy by the US FWS for pallid sturgeon, which had become a listed species. The challenge was that there are deep uncertainties of how to change dam operations to enhance habitat for pallid sturgeon, and any change in the dam operations is likely to result in significant impacts across all of the human water users.

The Army Corps and all of the stakeholders involved wanted to find solutions that would work for the species and the water users, so this led to the Army Corps to form the Missouri River Recovery Program in 2005, which is a program to coordinate their efforts to comply with the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws like the National Environmental Protection Act.  They also formed the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee, which is a large committee comprised of 28 stakeholders, 8 states, 18 tribes, and 15 federal agencies that provide input into the Army Corps’ planning processes.

Compass has been working with them since about 2014 as a structured decision making advisor.  Ms. Rudd shared one aspect of the work that was used to inform the development of a proposed action in the Army Corps 2017 biological assessment.  The Fish and Wildlife Service accepted that proposed action and in 2018, the Army Corps received a no jeopardy determination from the FWS which was their objective since 2000.

Ms. Rudd said it took about two years to get to the step with the final consequence table.  In the rows are the objectives and at the top are the species objectives.  For the pallid sturgeon, the performance measure is addressing the critical effect hypotheses for the pallid; she noted that they had done a lot of science to be able to narrow in on what they thought were the most critical effect hypotheses for pallid sturgeon reproduction and that was the key point in the life cycle that they thought they had to focus on.  They were able to identify these hypotheses, but they did not have the information to estimate the consequences of various management strategies on pallid sturgeon reproduction.  So all they could do was ask the question whether they thought if the hypothesis was true and that it is limiting reproduction, would this alternative help?

Below that, they are looking at impacts for all of the other water users; the red and green shading show the performance of each alternative against the objectives, compared to a reference alternative which was the business as usual approach going forward.  Alternative 2 was the full implementation of the Reasonable and Prudent Alternatives in the 2003 biop from the US FWS, and while that alternative did address all those critical effect hypotheses, it would result in significant impacts to land and water users and it would be very expensive to implement; and in fact, the RPA was actually never fully implemented from 2003 onwards.  Alternative 3 is mechanical building of habitat that would not use any flow; Alternative 4 is large scale spring pulses, Alternative 5 a fall pulse, and Alternative 6 a spawning cue pulse.

Basically, the takeaway here is that using this analysis, the Army Corps proposed to the Fish and Wildlife Service that they would implement Alternative 3 right away, so mechanical building of habitat to try to get some benefits for pallid sturgeon in the short term; this alternative had the least tradeoffs to the other water uses,” Ms. Rudd said. “And they would then do active adaptive management experiments to get better information on what alternatives 4, 5, and 6 could do for sturgeon.  For each of the alternatives 4, 5, and 6, there as an underlying effect hypothesis behind each of those alternatives that they were trying to target.”

What they wanted to do was a long-term active adaptive management program for about 15 years to sequentially test those alternatives to see if they could get better information on those effect hypotheses,” she continued.  “The whole stakeholder committee was involved in deliberating and talking through this consequence table and learning about what the trade-offs were.  This process did help to create buy-in for what became a 15-year plan for adaptive management to test the hypotheses of alternatives 4, 5, and 6.  So in this way, this process created the space for quite a robust active adaptive management plan that is long-term and has stakeholder buy-in.”


Ms. Rudd then gave her summarizing comments.  “In these case studies where structured decision making has fit into to the adaptive management cycle, it’s at the beginning in the step that is helping to identify decision critical uncertainties and prioritize research efforts.  It’s also about helping to create space within an otherwise rigid regulatory processes for active adaptive management.  Then at the end of the cycle, it’s providing process and tools for informing management decisions with the new data and knowledge produced by adaptive management.”

As a whole, using structured decision making and adaptive management together to make quite a robust management cycle and a vocabulary for multi-disciplinary teams and decision makers and technical people all working together in a constructive forward moving process,” she concluded.


DR. KURT KOWALSKI: An International Collaborative and Adaptive Management Framework to Manage Invasive Phragmites in the Great Lakes Basin

Dr. Kurt Kowalski is a wetland ecologist from the USGS Great Lakes Science Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan who has studied the diked and coastal marshes of the Great Lakes for many years.  He also works with collaborators around the country to find new management approaches for invasive plants.  In this presentation, he discussed the international collaborative and adaptive management framework that has developed to manage invasive phragmites (a perennial wetland grass) in the Great Lakes Basin.

Dr. Kurt Kowalski began by noting that the USGS Great Lakes Science Center focuses on ecological issues for the entire Great Lakes Basin and the over 10,000 miles of shoreline around the lakes, which is equivalent to all the marine coasts put together in the contiguous 48 states.  There are riverine systems, delta, coastal wetlands, dunes, and beaches; it is also an area where a lot of people live.

In this presentation, he will be speaking about the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative and the Phragmites Adaptive Management Framework, which is a program to control non-native phragmites australis.  Phragmites are a perennial annual grass that can grow up to 15 meters tall; it flourishes in wet areas, such as wetlands, ditches, marinas, and shorelines.  It’s a robust plant, reproducing through a big seed head as well as a whole lot of below ground biomass.  It grows very tall and the leaves intercept the light through the canopy, so it crowds out the more desirable native species.

There are native phragmites in the Great Lakes, but it is the invasive phragmites from other areas that are the most problematic.

The invasive phragmites cause numerous problems to ecosystems: they crowd out native plants, reduce biodiversity, make it difficult for wildlife or birds to land, and also impact humans and human uses by impeding recreation and being a fire hazard in the winter when it becomes tinder-dry.  Due to all those factors, they have been gaining a lot of management attention in the Great Lakes as well as around the country.

The collaborative worked with the Michigan Tech Research Institute to map out the extent of the invasive phragmites in the coastal zone, estimating about 60,000 acres of phragmites have already established in large stands, mostly in the Central Great Lakes.  Dr. Kowalski noted that it’s a basin-wide issue, but they only looked at the coastal zone because that was all they had funding for.

The reality is that it’s a North America problem and a big issue for many other areas.  In the Great Lakes, they addressed the problem by creating the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative, which was initiated and stood up by the USGS and the Great Lakes Commission, and is being driven by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding.

The Phragmites Collaborative is based on the idea of ‘collective impact’, which is defined as the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.  It essentially takes collaboration to a new level by setting out tenets needed in order to achieve a collective impact of an action, including a common agenda and goals, shared measurements, and accountability for achieving the conservation objectives that are being addressed.  A backbone agency or entity is needed to keep driving the process forward.

Conceptually, I really like the mutually reinforcing way to achieve something that you wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise,” Dr. Kowalski said.  “So we took this idea and adapted it for the phragmites problem and outlined in a lot of detail in the paper that was published in Biological Invasions.”

In terms of the governance structure, the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative has a core team that provides administrative and strategic guidance to the collaborative.  There is an advisory committee comprised of volunteers from federal agencies, state agencies, provincial entities, non-profits, academia, and others representing the various interests in this issue.

As a group, they worked together to identify the mission of the collaborative, which is defined as ‘to facilitate communication among stakeholders across the region and serve as a resource center for information on Phragmites biology, management, and research.’  The group also identified the resources that were needed.

The phragmites collaborative began in 2011, and since then, they have collected a tremendous amount of resources on their webpage which includes mapping tools, research articles, and access to webinars that communicate science to managers and policy makers.

These have all been identified by the stakeholders and have helped moved the issue forward, so I encourage you to go and check out our webpage at as it really conveys what the collaborative is trying to do for phragmites,” he said.

Periodically, they survey folks engaged with the collaborative to ask they feel the collaborative is on track and to see what more folks are feeling that are needed.  “One of the outputs of the 2015 survey was that there’s a lot of folks that identified the need for mapping tools, scaled monitoring protocols, decision support tools, and then information about where other people are doing things,” he said. “This all fits very well within this adaptive management conceptual framework, so in 2016 is when we really initiated the set up phase which we called the Phragmites Adaptive Management Framework or PAMF.  PAMF is a participant-driven adaptive management program, providing management guidance to managers on the ground with the goal of establishing an effective and efficient management that’s based on data and on science.”

He then played this video to illustrate the basics of the program:

The PAMF has a core team, but only the program coordinator is full-time.  There is a technical working group that defined the core questions and the uncertainties that needed to be resolved.  They structured PAMF from the adaptive management documents put together by the Department of Interior which lay out what adaptive management is and the steps to follow.

Dr. Kowalski explained how the way PAMF works: People must first enroll.  They then monitor and enter the data into a model that learns from the data.  The model produces guidance output for the manager or landowner who performs the actions as per the guidance.  They monitor again to learn what outcome came from that management action; that information is put into the model which then teaches the model and the program moves forward.

People often ask why PAMF is needed since they have been managing phragmites for years.  “There is uncertainty in which management approaches are best,” said Dr. Kowalski.  “There are guides out there that say these are the best management practices for Michigan or wherever, but the reality is those are static.  They are also based on expert knowledge, so when you start to ask the experts what they think the outcomes are going to be and what the best actions are given the circumstances, there’s uncertainty.”

He presented a graph with the colors showing the different management actions.  What’s important here is the y axis, he said; the higher up you go, the more uncertainty there is.  “This is the uncertainty that we are hoping to be addressing in PAMF,” he said.

There are several tools that are conventionally used to manage phragmites currently:  chemical treatments, prescribed burns, flooding it, or some combination of those.  A core question is which of these are the most effective control measures for getting rid of phragmites?  “Step one is getting rid of phragmites so this is our core question and core overall uncertainty,” he said.  “In developing PAMF, we constructed an adaptive management approach to leverage all the work that is going on already on the landscape as data to come in to get those better data driven best management practices.”

Dr. Kowalski presented their version of the circle, noting that there are multiple rings.  The inside ring shows the months of the year.  The next ring out are the corresponding phases of the plan: phragmites actively grow from April through July-August; it then goes into the translocating phase, and then dormant phase.  The outer phase is the management enrolling stage; people can enroll anytime of the year with just some basic information on the area they are trying to manage.

Once enrolled, folks monitor, usually in July, using standardized monitoring protocols that were developed to be simple enough for folks to do, yet robust enough to inform the model and help reduce some of that uncertainty.  “It really revolves around looking at the site to get some measure of percent establishment of how much of the site is covered by phragmites, doing some diameter measurements, and getting a few other bits of information about the site,” he said.  “All it requires is a quarter meter quad rad GPS, veneer clips, and data sheet.  It’s pretty straightforward and people felt that was manageable.”

In August, guidance is issued to the enrollees; the guidance might be collect the seeding in the translocating season, proof flood clearing, and then flooding in the spring, he said.  At one time, there were hundreds of different management options or treatment combinations that PAMF is working to resolve, but the technical advisory committee whittled it down to sixteen that they are working with to figure out which is most effective, given the site conditions.  These treatments include different herbicides, spading or cutting just underneath the surface, as well as resting or doing nothing which is also a management action. The guidance gives the optimal treatment, and then other options if they can’t or choose not to do the optimal treatment.  The participants monitor again in July and get those data back into the system to see the ecological response of their management action and teach the model.

Entering the data through time is what will iterate and teach the model, reduce the uncertainties within the model and make better data-driven recommendations.  As the program gains more participants, there will be more data to teach the model and improve.

The program is off to a good start and has been well received by stakeholders and participants.  Currently, there are 48 managers with 87 different management units because one manager can have multiple management units.

The idea is to build this significantly with time,” he said.  “We’re working on communicating and getting people to be engaged and recognize the value of what they contribute to the system, but also the guidance that they get back and their benefit from this extra effort to participate.”

For future steps, they are looking towards refining PAMF to then contemplate what comes after phragmites – be it sedge meadow or marsh.  “How do we incorporate that desired end state into the management actions,” Dr. Kowalski said.  “There are so many different end states that you could get to, so that’s the direction that were heading for over a couple years to have an overhaul or an adjustment.”


DR. RON THOM: Implementing Practical Adaptive Management in Large Aquatic System Restoration Programs: Columbia Estuary Ecosystem Restoration Program (CEERP)

Dr. Ron Thom is a staff scientist emeritus from the Marine Science Laboratory of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington.  He has conducted research and monitoring in coastal and estuarine ecosystems since 1971, including research on ecosystem restoration, benthic primary production, climate change, and ecology of fisheries resources.  Currently he serves as senior science advisory to the Puget Sound partnership as the Governor’s appointee to the Northwest States Marine Conservation Initiative, and as president of the Washington State Academy of Sciences.

Since 2009, Dr. Thom has been a member of the technical group, the Columbia Estuary Ecosystem Restoration Program, and in this presentation, he discussed how the program utilizes a scoring system to evaluate restoration projects.

He first acknowledged his colleagues who are integral to making the program work.  He then gave a list of the management questions about adaptive management, noting that these are the kinds of questions the program needs to address or answer:

  • What is the problem?
  • What are the goals? (for stakeholders, for agencies)
  • What do we need to do where, when and why to achieve the goals?
    • Is there an organizing model?
    • How certain are we about what needs to be done, where and why?
    • What are the critical scientific uncertainties?
  • How will we know if the actions are effective in meeting the goals?
    • What do we need to measure, when, where and why?
    • How long do we need to measure things?
    • How will we accumulate and report information to address action effectiveness?
  • How are decisions made to adjust actions to be more effective? Who makes these decisions?  How often are decisions made?
  • Who has overall responsibility?

The Columbia River estuary is 239 miles long, extending from Bonneville Dam to the mouth of the Pacific Ocean; it’s tidal for about 60 kilometers up the river.  The letters indicate biological and geomorphological sections of the system.

The goal of the Columbia River Estuary Ecosystem Restoration Program is to mitigate the effects of the dams on threatened and endangered salmonids by reconnecting and restoring the historic floodplain habitats to defragment the system.  The program’s operations involves a panel that scores projects that are brought to it, identifies uncertainties, and reviews results of monitoring and assessments.

The system has lost about 70% of the vegetated tidal wetlands.  The current estimate now is that about 52,000 acres of wetlands are potentially recoverable.  Those areas potentially recoverable are shown in red on the map; some would take more effort than others, said Dr. Thom.

The purpose of the program is to mitigate the effects of the dams on salmonids with the focus on increasing the fitness of juvenile salmon before they get out into the ocean.  Initial actions involved modifications of the Upper Columbia and at the dams to reduce juvenile mortality.

The prevailing paradigm when the estuary program started was that the estuary was a pipe and basically had no substantial benefit to juveniles outmigrating through it,” he said.  “Peter Kaireva posted a paper in Science back in 2000 said, ‘a modest reduction in first year or estuarine mortality would reverse current population declines and avoid extinction of some of the stocks. … The science question is, will restoration of the river and estuary below Bonneville Dam significantly help to build salmon survival and ultimately increase the returns?  And that’s a very tough question, because they go out in the north Pacific and who knows what happens to them out there, so you have to use other information to really address that question.”

What kind of actions and how much restoration is needed to produce a detectable response is a tough question.  Dr. Thom said he only knew of two other places where that question has been addressed, and both were more manageable systems.  One of those is the Salmon River in Oregon where they found that when they restored 70% of the wetlands, they finally saw a signal in the adult returns for coho salmon.  It takes a long time because they are out there in the ocean for 2 or 3 or 4 years, so there is a big uncertainty.

The specific problems the program is addressing are the loss of wetlands for rearing and feeding, and loss of marsh macro detritus input into the estuary.  Dr. Thom explained that the levees removed the marsh macrodetritus input to the estuary and that switched the food web from marsh macrodetritus-based food web to one based on plankton produced above the dams in the reservoirs.  The idea is to switch the food web back to what it was historically by restoring and defragmenting the floodplain to once again provide the macrodetritus input.

The framework is a systematic adaptive management program that uses multiple types of actions, monitoring and research, and evidence-based analysis.  These are many groups involved in the program.  The Army Corps and the EPA are the funders; there are sponsors who design projects and bring them to the managers, there are several organizations involved in the monitoring, as well as research done by multiple groups.  There is the Independent Science Advisory Board, which reviews the work and the scoring process.

In the biological opinion, the module said that certain types of actions such as restoring riparian habitat or breaching a levee would create ‘survival benefit units’.  “So we really needed to figure out how to score these projects and prioritize them, so we came up with what we called a calculator,” Dr. Thom said.  “The calculator uses some factors, such as the probability that what they are doing is going to work, is the access to the site going to be improved, is the capacity of the site going to be approved, both onsite and offsite.  We included an adjustment factor for juvenile salmon density and different types of habitats because what was in the module was just really not right.  We looked at the acreage goal for each type of action, the total SBU goal for the program, so there’s a way to calculate a number that could prioritize a project.”

Other criteria include opportunity access, capacity/quality, and certainty for success.  There are other attributes as well, such as natural process and landforms, proven methods, self-maintaining, risk of detrimental effects, project complexity, certainty for fish benefit, and risk of exotic invasives.  Dr. Thom said that a project that provides a lot of benefits would score a 5; a project with few benefits would score a 1.

He then stepped through the process for a project.  The project proposal first comes from a sponsor and it goes to the steering committee for assessment; if it’s good, the steering committee asks for a template to be filled out which is the format for providing information that every project needs to begin the process.  There is a site visit and a question and answer with the project proponent and then the project is given a preliminary score.  If it scores low, they may ask for revisions.  If it scores well, a preliminary SBU is calculated and the project then goes to the steering committee and the agencies to take a look at.  Depending on the comments received from the steering committee and the agencies, the project is revised if necessary, and if approved, the project is constructed.  After construction, there is a post-project review.

Nearly 60 projects have been built since 2004 throughout the system.  “The watershed for the river encompasses six or seven states and British Columbia; and the estuary that’s going to save the salmon,” he said.  “It’s the second largest flow of any river in the US.”

The Evidence-Based Cumulative Effects Process study tried to answer the question, will restoration of the river and estuary below Bonneville significantly help juvenile salmon survival, and ultimately increase returns?  Dr. Thom said this study was the hardest thing he’s ever been involved with in his entire career; it took six years, a lot of field work, analysis, and modeling, and working with a lot of smart people.

It’s based on some levels of evidence, conceptual models are where you put down your understanding of how the system works, and the connections between the boxes and the arrows are the hypotheses that you look at some you know well, some you don’t know,” he said.  “Then there are some lines of evidence that are used to evaluate the results of studies.  There’s causal criteria … it’s pretty rigorous.   These were the factors that were considered.  We put this analysis into the paper.

Dr. Thom then presented one of the tables from the paper showing three of the seven lines of evidence.  “One of the lines of evidence is called cumulative net ecosystem improvement,” he said.  “That means what area did you restore, what function over that area, and what was the probability of it working?  You can multiply that, you get a number of these, and you can start getting a cumulative effect of marsh macrodetritus biomass being exported to the estuary, for example.   And there’s ways you can evaluate in term of plausibility, coherence, exposure pathway, and landscape and compounding factors that indicate cumulative effects.”

Almost every project gets monitored at some level, he said.  The questions are, are the habitat-forming processes working, are the vegetation metrics coming up? There are some projects that juvenile salmon are sampled at.  The questions are more rigorous or difficult to answer at the system scale where they are considering migration rates of young salmon, the prey base, and growth hormones.  There is also uncertainty research such as studies looking at the export of organic matter and prey out into the system, migration, fish benefit, and connectivity.

The data is fed into a regional database, and a synthesis memo written every five years that looks at the management questions and what has been learned, which Dr. Thom said was extremely valuable.  There’s a master matrix of learning that summarizes the learning for managers, periodic science seminars, and annual meetings with the stakeholders, sponsors, and regulators.

One of the projects is a 150-acre site on the Grays River, a tributary to the mainstem Columbia River about 7 kilometers up.  “We studied it for six years, and one of the things we looked at was flux and material from the site using data from the site and a numerical model,” he said.  “What we found was that at the peak above ground biomass of the vegetation, about 19% of that was exported outside the site, 9% deposited in the floodplain so it subsidized the floodplain in the Grays River, and about 10% of that went into the mainstem.  So it’s doing what it is supposed to be doing.”

Dr. Thom then concluded summarizing the new findings in the latest synthesis memo.  The focus has been on large projects near the mainstem that will benefit all the salmon stocks coming down.  58 projects have restored about 5400 acres of tidal floodplain, which is in 11.6% increase in active wetland area over 12 years.  There is a 2.5% increase in the habitat connectivity index, and monitoring indicated that actions were reestablishing ecological processes.  Juvenile salmon were observed in all the thirteen sites where fish were monitored.

The findings did not support the general paradigm that yearling-sized fish migrate rapidly through the estuary, feed little, and make little use of wetlands; rather, they found that they fed in the mainstem, inhabited the wetlands, and they grew.

The limiting factors continue to be the spring freshet magnitude, insufficient habitat opportunity and capacity, non-native flora, and avian predation.  There’s new data analysis and work being done on things like reed canarygrass control, building mounds to create some topography, channel network design, and putting large wood into these systems.  Climate change impacts are being looked at.  The data substantiated evidence-based evaluation of cumulative restoration effects.



  • For the forum agenda and video, click here.
  • For part 1 of the Adaptive Management Forum, 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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