ADAPTIVE MANAGEMENT FORUM, Part 3: Challenges and lessons learned with adaptive management in the Bay-Delta

Panel of Delta project managers discuss how they apply adaptive management in their projects

Adaptive management is defined in the Delta Reform Act as “a framework and flexible decision making process for ongoing knowledge acquisition, monitoring, and evaluation leading to continuous improvements in management planning and implementation of a project to achieve specified objectives”.  Although the Delta Reform Act calls for adaptive management to be included in Delta restoration, implementation of adaptive management in the Delta is hampered by a variety of challenges.

At the Adaptive Management Forum, hosted by the Delta Science Program in February of 2019, a panel brought together managers of restoration projects underway in the Delta to discuss the challenges they are experiencing in implementing adaptive management in their projects.

South Bay Salt Ponds, photo by Doc Searls

The moderator for the panel was John Bourgeois who is with now Environmental Science Associates; previously, he served as Executive Project Manager for the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project for 9 years.  The South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project is a 50-year program to restore over 15,000 acres of former industrial salt ponds to tidal marshes.  The project is based on adaptive management with no set end point for what it will look like upon completion.

I’ve been thinking about adaptive management for a long time, and I’ve actually been living for the past decade dealing with the very pragmatic challenges that face trying to implement a program on that scale, and so we have a great panel today where we’re going to talk about some of those challenges.”

He acknowledged that there is one big challenge to doing adaptive management and that is money, but that is not going to be the topic of the panel; instead, they will be talking about the pragmatic on-the-ground challenges for people actually implementing projects.

He presented an example of an adaptive management wheel, noting that there are multiple variations of this.  “One of the things I really like about it is that final step of adaptation,” he said.  “A lot of people immediately jump to construction activities and what can I do on the ground to adapt my project?  But in true adaptive management program, you really need to evaluate everything.  That means looking at your project goals, looking at your objectives, and looking at your underlying conceptual models.  New information should feed into all of that.”

But doing adaptive management at that level presents a real challenge, he noted.  “We understand about bringing heavy equipment out there to lower a levee or add a breach or bring in more material, but really fundamentally addressing that maybe we need to shift the goals of a project – that has a lot of challenges, and so doing adaptive management that way is very difficult.”

Mr. Bourgeois pointed out there are other on-the-ground challenges.  One is that adaptive management can depend on the site; even within a single system, the constraints and challenges of an individual site might be very specific.  There also needs to be some inherent flexibility; people can become attached to a specific outcome because of funding or regulatory constraints or overarching goals, and that can be a challenge to adapting the project.  Trying to link science with the managers who must make decisions is another challenge.  There are many people doing great work and research, but how that translates into actual on-the-ground decision making remains a challenge.

Adaptive management is sometimes treated as another step in the process, but he pointed out that it’s also important to note that not all projects need to undergo adaptive management; if it’s a small project and you are confident in the outcome, maybe adaptive management isn’t appropriate.  All too often, adaptive management plans are seen as just another hoop that needs to be jumped through and that can also be a real challenge to overcome, he said.  It’s also important to build on existing monitoring efforts – how can we best utilize what’s already being done, does it meet the needs, and do we have clearly articulated goals?

He then introduced the panel:

  • Randy Mager works at the Department of Water Resources Delta Levees Program and the Delta Ecosystem Enhancement Section where he is tasked with meeting the state mandate for the net long-term habitat improvements while enhancing Delta levees for flood control. In the last 5 years, numerous levee projects have included or plan to include waterside habitat, and he’s working on an aquatic monitoring program to measure the efficacy of designs and locations for at-risk native fish so projects can be improved or different designs could be adopted in the future.
  • Dr. Lisa Thompson is the chief scientist for Sacramento County Regional Sanitation District (Regional San) with 20 years of experience in aquatic ecology and in large multi-disciplinary research projects. She conducts Delta water quality and ecosystem research on behalf of Region San, and represents them in numerous water quality programs such as the Delta Nutrient Research Plan, Delta Regional Monitoring Program, and the San Francisco Bay Nutrient Management Study.  She’s been the PI or co-PI on almost $2 million of research grants, and has authored over 60 papers and technical reports on topics including climate change, water management adaptations, and threatened chinook salmon.
  • Patty Finfrock is a wildlife biologist with Department of Water Resources where she has worked in environmental compliance for 25 years; she has managed the Dutch Slough project since 2008.
  • Steve Chappell is the Executive Director of the Suisun Resource Conservation District (SRCD); he has worked in the Suisun Marsh for over 20 years assisting private landowners in wetland habitat management, enhancement, and protection. As Executive Director of SRCD, he oversees the daily duties of the district, including grant administration, coordination with local landowners, agencies and stakeholder groups, and the implementation of monitoring and scientific studies.
  • Dan Riordan has been working in the Delta for 16 years, beginning his career at UC Davis in 2003. He began working for DWR in 2006, continuing his research in toxicity and endocrine disruption in fish, as well as water quality and benthic monitoring.  In 2012, he became the chief of DWR’s Fish Restoration Program and leads the implementation of the 2008 US FWS Delta smelt biological opinion.

The panelist began with each panelist introducing themselves and discussing the project they are currently working on.

PATTY FINFROCK, Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration

Patty Finfrock is Program Manager for the Department of Water Resources’ Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project.  The Dutch Slough project is a restoration project almost 1200 acres in extent and has been in the planning stages since 2003.  The project started construction this year, fifteen years after acquiring the property.

The goal for the Dutch Slough Project is to restore the area to tule marsh habitat, which is that it was before the area was leveed around 1900.  Peat tule soils make really good agricultural land, so after it was leveed, the land has been in agriculture, mostly used for grazing and dairy lands.

The channels that separate the two parcels on the map were constructed when they built the levees, using them to bring in irrigation water and the material from that dredging likely used to construct the levees.  The plan is to breach the levees to introduce the tidal action back into the parcel.  The parcel is subsided on the northern end, so they are moving 2 million yards of dirt in order to create the right tidal marsh elevations.

On the map, the darker green is mid-elevation marsh and the lighter green is low-elevation marsh; there’s about a one and a half foot difference between those two.  “We’re hoping that the lower elevation marsh will actually be successful in maintaining tules and have good ecosystem benefits, because if so, that would benefit future projects because they wouldn’t have to bring in as much soil because so much of the Delta is subsided,” said Ms. Finfrock.

The adaptive management plan was written by Bruce Herbold.  “Basically what we are going to look at is the ecological differences between those two elevations of marsh,” she said.  “There are also some size differences in the marsh areas that we’re creating, so we want to look at the difference between elevation and size, because unlike this project, most projects are pretty small and we want to see if small areas have ecological benefits to native fishes as well as larger areas.”

Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project

The biggest challenge in implementation was the permitting process; the agencies all have their administrative processes that must be followed, but it takes a lot of time; Ms. Finfrock noted that it took five years to get all of the permits for the Dutch Slough project.

The biggest stumbling block to implementing the adaptive management portion of the project is finding the right people to do it.  “We don’t really have the scientific expertise, staff, or the equipment to do it ourselves with DWR, so we are reaching out to other researchers.  We have a really nice plan that we would like to follow, but it’s also open to other people’s ideas of what kind of research they would like to do in this environment.”

Ms. Finfrock said that it would have been helpful if there had been a Delta estuary group to let them know what kind of adaptive management experiments would help the ecosystem as a whole.  “We had to come up with it on our own,” she said.  “We did have a science panel that came up with ours, but it would be nice if there were actually an agency or a group that coordinated between all the different projects to make sure we’re all answering the same questions where it’s appropriate, so that we’re all helping one another.”

RANDY MAGER, Delta Ecosystem Enhancement

Randy Mager works with the Department of Water Resources in the Delta Ecosystem Enhancement Group.  He described his job as ‘trying to make levees workable for living things.’  Rip rap is preferred for flood control because it works, but he said they are under a state mandate to not only have no net habitat decrease but also to show net habitat benefits, so they are doing various habitat enhancements on levees.

It’s an interesting mandate,” he said.  “Unlike mitigation, we don’t have a specific target that we have to make or certain acreages we have to do; it’s basically to go forth and do good, so that’s what we’re trying to do.  This is what most of the 1100 miles of levees in the Delta look like.  Great for flood control but lousy for living things.”

The Department is investing in waterside habitat on the levees by building setback levees.  “Unfortunately in the Delta, the further you set a levee back, the more expensive it is,” Mr. Mager said.  “On the floodplain, if you move the levee back, it gets smaller because you’re going away from the water and going to a higher elevation.  In the Delta on subsided islands, you’re going down, and so you have to bring in more material and it gets really expensive really fast.”

They are limited as to what they can do; they are constructing small benches from 15 feet to 40 feet wide, and even that’s expensive, he said.  The slide on the bottom left shows two sites that have been constructed over the years: the top picture is Twitchell Island along the San Joaquin River and the other is Sherman Island along Montezuma Slough.

There are many more projects in the works.  The map on the above right shows the 25 miles of levee improvement projects that are currently funded through the Delta Levees Program, Prop 1, Prop 84, and others; six of those miles will be habitat shelves.

To build the setback levee, the land side of the is filled in, moving the actual level prism inland, creating the opportunity to create a bench, put back channels in, or other things, he said, noting that there are a number of different designs.For the next ten years, we’re going to be building a lot of setback levees,” said Mr. Mager.  “Do they work?  As a fish scientist, I hope, but we don’t know.  Monitoring of these types of habitats is difficult.  How do you get into the riprap, how do you get into the vegetation, and these are on fairly big flowing rivers.  How do you actually get in there with a net and see what fish are there?  And then, what you can’t do is get a take permit to do that.”

Mr. Mager said that there are three things that prevent them from seeing the effectiveness of these projects:  Money, technology, and permits.  He acknowledged that the money challenge has been solved as they now have a constant funding source for management of their habitats that includes monitoring.  As for the technology, there’s a lot of work that has been done regarding wetlands and tidal marsh monitoring, so he is hoping they can adopt that.  Take permits remain a problem, but there is now an opportunity to utilize an interesting pontoon boat that has the net in the front so you can get into the nearshore habitats and the vegetation; the fish move through the net and they take a picture of them rather than a process that ends in the fish’s mortality.

All of a sudden, our three problems have been solved, all within the span of six months, so it’s really exciting,” Mr. Mager said.  “We’re going into contract now to look at whether outmigrating salmon differentially use restored areas versus the rip-rapped areas. That’s the basic question that we’re trying to solve.  So we’re doing a pilot project to see if the tech works, and then we’re going to have six miles of pre-project and post-project information.

DAN RIORDAN, Fish Restoration Program

Dan Riordan is Chief of the Fish Restoration Program, which is responsible for implementing the 8,000-acre requirement under the 2008 US FWS Delta smelt biological opinion.  “Essentially, we have to find 8,000 acres in the Delta and Suisun Marsh, restore it, and make it available to Delta smelt,” he said.  “Really our main goal is to make food on those sites and export it off site.”

Currently, the program has eleven projects in the works to meet the 8,000-acre requirement; they range from the north Delta and the Cache Slough complex, down through the confluence, and also in Suisun Marsh.  Two of those projects went to construction last year: Decker Island and Yolo Flyway Farms.  Those two projects account for about 400 of the 8000 acres that were supposed to be completed by December of last year.

One of the main challenges facing the Fish Restoration Program is property acquisition.  “As a state agency, if we’re doing a direct acquisition, we are limited to paying fair market value,” said Mr. Riordan.  “Four or five years ago, those prices were around $2000 an acre for duck club and marsh habitat.  That’s nothing that anyone wants to sell their property for when you have ag land going to $10-15,000 an acre.  So for many years, that was our biggest challenge.”

With respect to adaptive management, Mr. Riordan said that since they don’t have any projects constructed in the Delta, they don’t have any data to show how projects are doing post-construction.  “We can speculate a lot, but really we’re not going to know anything until these projects have been in the ground and have been functioning for two or five years or more,” he said.  “Our hope in our program is that we buy land, we punch a few holes and flood it, and don’t have to do anything.  Obviously that’s probably not going to work out in all of our projects or maybe any of our projects.”

We do have performance metrics,” he said. “The main one for our program is making Delta smelt food, so if we show that we’re not doing that to the capacity that we thought we would through all of our extensive modeling, we’re going to have to go back and use some common-sense and good science to really try to decide what we’re going to do to adaptively manage those sites and make them functional for Delta smelt or whatever other species we’re trying to benefit.”

There is a wide variety of projects in the program; the smallest one is 140 acres and the largest one is a little over 3000 acres.  There are numerous challenges with different regions, different sized projects, and permitting is a challenge.  Different regulatory agencies have different requirements and trying to make those different requirements match can be a little frustrating, although he acknowledged that recently, agencies have been willing to discuss workable solutions to managing the different regulatory requirements.

DR. LISA THOMPSON: Sacramento River Nutrient Change Study

Dr. Lisa Thompson is the Chief Scientist for Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District (or, Regional San) who discussed the Sacramento River Nutrient Change Study.  As the result of a regulatory decision, the Sacramento water treatment plant is undergoing a major upgrade with the objective to reduce the amount of ammonia that is discharged into the effluent that is discharged to the Sacramento River.  This will result in changes in nutrient loading in the Sacramento River and river channels in the eastern Delta, so the study will look at the response of phytoplankton to a range of nutrient loads and forms, as well as other environmental factors.  The upgrade to the treatment plant will be coming online in stages, and by 2021, the ammonia removal system has to be in place, so this is an opportunity to study the ecosystem as the changes take place.

As a result of construction, there will be periods where the treatment plant will be completely shutdown in order to do some of the construction; this will be a period of up to 48 hours with no effluent going into the river, which presents the opportunity to study an even more extreme situation, as though the treatment weren’t there or if they were doing complete nutrient removal, she said.

The slide shows the study area which includes the Sacramento River, the Cross Channel, Georgiana Slough, and the north and south fork of the Mokelumne River.  The purple line is the area where high-frequency sampling can be done by boat.  Dr. Thompson explained that the reason they want to sample the Mokelumne River is that it is shallower and there is more light in the water than in the mainstem Sacramento River; previous research by the USGS in 2013-2014 has suggested that it’s so dark in the mainstem Sacramento River that there’s really no opportunity for phytoplankton to grow, regardless of whether or not there is enough nutrients.

Dr. Thompson next presented two food web diagrams; the food web diagram on the left is the Sacramento River and the food web diagram on the right is the Mokelumne River.  On the left of each of those pairs, it is showing the current situation where a lot of nutrients are coming into the system; on the right hand side, is the situation with lower nutrients.

The point is on the Sacramento River on the left side, you shouldn’t see any change in the phytoplankton and the rest of the food web when you change the nutrients because nothing was happening anyway; there wasn’t enough light,” she said.  “On the Mokelumne River on the left hand of that pair, you can see quite a bit of phytoplankton and at least in terms of production, it’s moving its way up into zooplankton and/or clams.  In a short term week-long experiment like we’re thinking of doing, we’re probably not going to see biomass changes but we might see growth changes in the zooplankton. On the furthest right of those diagrams is what we think would be happening during the times the treatment plant was completely off in the summer of 2019; maybe a little more growth in that but a lot less growth when the treatment plant is fully through its upgrade in 2021.”

Dr. Thompson presented her diagram of adaptive management, noting that it has less stops on the route around the circle but it’s still a circle.  “We’re part way through,” she said.  “The decision to upgrade the plant happened before this experiment got designed so we’re really in the monitoring phase.  I think it’s interesting to have the opportunity to study the river with no effluents coming in this summer.  And a lot of treatment plants on the East Coast are getting regulated for lower nutrients, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay area, so this is something that could come up in the future so we might as well get information now.”

In terms of challenges, she said it’s been interesting trying to get management on board with the project that doesn’t necessarily have a clear benefit; it’s been easier with the stakeholder groups who they already have preexisting relationships with.  The project will also be at the whim of the construction schedule as it happens.  One of the limitations is that the nutrient holds will only be for 48 hours.

STEVE CHAPPELL, Suisun Marsh Habitat Management Preservation Restoration Plan

Steve Chappell is the Executive Director of the Suisun Resource Conservation District (SRCD); he will be discussing the implementation of the Suisun Marsh Habitat Management Preservation Restoration Plan that was completed in 2014.  The Plan started in the early 2000s under the CalFed with the objective of developing a 30 year plan for the ongoing operations and maintenance of the existing managed wetlands, as well as ecosystem restoration.

The final EIR/EIS identified 5-7000 acres to be converted from the existing dike managed wetlands to tidal habitats.  As part of the plan, they developed habitat-based conceptual models and identified a long list of scientific uncertainties associated with implementation of those actions.  The final plan has an adaptive management plan and a program.

In 2013 after they completed the plan, they ran the adaptive management program for about a year.  “My observation was that for the project proponents coming in, it was much like getting called to the principal’s office or given a deposition before a jury,” he said.  “It wasn’t interactive; the project proponents answered the questions that we asked and they got up and left as soon as possible.  So after a year of implementing the adaptive management advisory team, we took a step back and asked how can we make this more interactive?

So now at the monthly plan implementation meetings, the agencies are engaged and are at the table.  The agencies are asked to take their hats off as a regulatory agency and be advisors.  The agencies also participate on the quarterly adaptive management teams so the right people are at the table who can provide advice and guidance.

They also restructured the program into four steps:

Step 1.  Property acquisition and initial conceptual design.  “Somebody acquires a piece of property, they come in and tell us what they think they’re going to do.  Then we give feedback: ‘you should look at this, you want to consider this.  This other project ran into this problem, you want to avoid that, you might be able to address it in this way.’”

Step 2: 40% design. Now that you’ve done the modeling, you have some initial ideas, come back to us and tell us where you’re at, and we and the agencies can give feedback.”

Step 3: Permit submittal.  Before the project proponents submit the permit applications to the agencies, they bring the project to the team so they can look over the permits to make sure they are complete and address all the requirements.  Afterwards, the permits are submitted and the project goes to construction.

Step 4: Lessons learned or post construction.  Once the project has been implemented, what have we learned?

Having the agencies at the table at these iterative processes as projects are in different phases and implementation is valuable,” he said.  “We’re learning from that, we’re giving project proponents feedback, and we’re actually troubleshooting and finding resolutions to problems.”

Interim management of the land is also important.  Once the property is acquired and is awaiting restoration, there are actions that can be taken in the interim, such as invasive species control, that can make restoration outcomes more productive, Mr. Chappell said.

So if you’re doing a project in Suisun, we have a formal process that allows the project proponents to come in early and often, even if they have additional activities that come up and they want input, we’ll put them on the agenda or call a special meeting, so really it’s this process of having a very interactive program where individual site specific issues on a project can come back to the agencies, we can give them some guidance,” he said.  “The incentive under the marsh plan is programmatic, the EIR/EIS was a programmatic tidal restoration program, and the project proponents are tiering off of that so we’re already bringing some streamlining of permitting and biological guidance on terms and conditions of their permit.”

Mr. Chappell closed by saying that one thing he hopes the adaptive management team can help move forward is to go beyond the standard permit monitoring and tailor that to answering scientific uncertainty.  “Having the weight of the agencies direct the monitoring and the permit applications to a scientific study or outcomes that are forming, our uncertainties, and measuring the success of the projects would be helpful,” he said.  “It’s not just collecting data to comply with the permit conditions, but collecting science and answering scientific uncertainties and support restoration knowledge.”


Moderator John Bourgeois notes that a wide range of projects are represented on the panel, both individual projects and adaptive management programs.  He asks Dan Riordan and Randy Mager, since you guys are involved in larger programs, if you’ve started to think about that sort of structure of how adaptive management inputs can get fed back into the larger program? 

Randy Mager:  “The short answer is not yet.  It’s really great to hear about established means of doing this with a number of different stakeholders, projects.  The Suisun Marsh is full of different entities and people and the setback levees are also numerous, different Reclamation Districts, and agencies, so having a governance or a formal means to look at lessons learned, effectiveness of different designs, what people want to do … for lessons learned, look to Suisun Marsh.”

Dan Riordan

Dan Riordan:  “It is really challenging without any projects in the ground.  We’ve got a lot of great information for many years in the estuary, new information now, but until we have something in the ground, it’s really hard to fully address how we’re going to adaptively manage anything.”

Question: With respect to permitting, flexibility is a big part of adaptive management.  Has anyone else had an experience addressing that flexibility in the permit requirements and/or trying to get some of the monitoring requirements for compliance using an adaptive management approach?

Steve Chappell said that long-term operation and maintenance needs to be built into the project permitting, so one doesn’t build something that can’t be maintained or adaptively managed.  “I think you need to anticipate that with restoration, there’s uncertainty, and you build in the need to go back to the sites to make modifications but also maintain the levee improvements and those types of things.  Otherwise you just get into this circular permitting loop where you’re never caught up in implementing science, you’re always responding to tragedies and disasters at your site.”

Dr. Lisa Thompson said they aren’t really dealing with permits as a part of their project.  “With our project, we’re going to get what ranges of nutrient loading are coming out of the plant, but in a perfect world, you’d get to tweak it and change it, and really work across a range of nutrient loading and different seasons and things. I think with some of these land-based projects, you want to go for what you think is going to work; you might learn more by picking the Goldilocks spot where you think it’s going to work, and then picking one that you think is too cold and is too hot, so to speak.  Two out of three are not going to work, but you’re going to know which one worked, but it means you’re failing 66% of your sites that first go around, but you’re going to succeed by failing.  There’s learning by doing and succeeding by failing, and I don’t know if that’s built into what people are doing.”

Question: When you’re designing a project, do you test the bookends or do you try and hit the sweet spot to meet the project goals, like this is the safe bet, or do you try to push the science by testing at the fringes so we can learn something.  Has anyone tried?

Randy Mager

Randy Mager said at $10 million a mile, they want to do as good a job as they can.  “Over a span of a decade or hopefully even more, as we put these things in, we’ll see the effectiveness of them …  Realistically, going back in and changing the basic design of a setback levee is going to be really difficult and really expensive, but it would inform the future designs, and that’s where I’d be aiming at.  In terms of permitting for the levee projects, it’s just time consuming.  We’ve pushed a couple of new designs on rip rap alternatives using bags and plantings within them and getting the Corps comfortable with that, and we’ll measure the effectiveness.”

Steve Chappell:  “What was unique in the Suisun Marsh Plan is that we did a 30-year plan with a programmatic biological opinion for restoration, the EIR/EIS.  We worked with the regulatory agencies – the Corps of Engineers, the Regional Board, and the BCDC were at the table, and we laid out a path forward where if you stay under these thresholds, the project can move forward, and if you exceed the threshold, then you would do a supplemental effects analysis for that element.  We tried to lay out all those activities so that you’re streamlining the environmental permitting and the project proponents know that if they tier off our document, they have a baseline of what’s going to be expected.”

One of the early restoration projects called for habitat levees with a 20:1 slope, but it ran into a wetland fill issue and the cost, so the project proponents flattened out the slopes to 10:1 to make the math work for jurisdictional fill of wetlands and still meet the regulatory needs,” Mr. Chappell continued.  “It was a process forward where the project proponents had some guidelines and where to work with the agencies to get their permits, and I think they found the sweet spot on that.”

Moderator John Bourgeois added, “Similarly in the South Bay, we’ve done a similar thing where we had a programmatic vision and then you start to tier projects off of that and the regulators can see the larger road map.  Once they see the bigger picture, then I found that there is a little more flexibility granted because they understand what you’re trying to accomplish in the bigger picture, and so when individual projects come in and you’re pushing the boundary a little bit here and there, they are a little more accepting and flexible because they understand the bigger part of the program.”

Moderator John Bourgeois asked Patty Finfrock what her thoughts were on the regulatory processes.  

Patty Finfrock: “I think what Steve is doing in Suisun Marsh would benefit the entire estuary to have a centralized place where project proponents could go, find out what the regulatory climate is, what the regulatory requirements are likely to be, what kind of monitoring could be done to assist your own project as well as other projects, not just to get your permit, but to have information that will guide future projects.”

Ms. Finfrock divulged that getting regulators to put in monitoring requirements can help in getting funding.  “We didn’t actually have a lot of biological monitoring requirements in our permits, and I even told one of the regulatory agencies that if you put some monitoring requirements in the permit, then I can find the money to do that monitoring … I actually heard this from some of my management, ‘if it’s not a requirement, why do we have to do it?’ so one, it would really be nice to have a centralized place to come to talk these things out, get ideas, collect all of the lessons learned, collect all of the information from the regulatory, and really give some assistance to project proponents.”

Dan Riordan:  “If it’s part of a permit requirement – and not that I want the regulators in the room to give us more permit requirements, but especially when it comes to funding, it gives you something to work with, ‘well, we have to do it.’  Now if we can have a conversation about those permit requirements before they are actually required in black and white … I think the regulators, especially lately, have been really helpful on that.”

On the question of finding bookends and building flexibility into the projects, Mr. Riordan said he thinks as scientists and engineers, we do that as much as we can.  “It does get to be a huge modeling exercise and huge expenditure, and really, at the end of the day, at least in my program, we have 8000 acres that we have to check a box on.  As much as I would love to say that for all of our projects, we can do this Goldilocks experiment and try to figure out which works best, but we had ten years to do this and we didn’t get it done.  You have to infuse the reality that we don’t have time to do all of that.  But if we all communicate and work well together and just be open to other ideas … “

Question: What about baseline data and reference sites?    Those are two things that are often hard to come by.  What are you using for baseline data and/or reference sites and what are the challenges there?

Dr. Lisa Thompson said that there is a lot of data applicable to their project from multiple sources: the nutrient monitoring in the Delta Regional Monitoring Program, data from an Interagency Ecological Program study, and the USGS.  “In terms of baseline for a big change like what we’re having with the treatment plant, I’d love to have at least 3 years of really intensive monitoring, but it’s really expensive.  It’s interesting, like you say, if it’s not in a permit …  and with us, a piece of the management is thinking, hey we’re already spending $1.7 billion of our ratepayers money to do this project that people said we had to do, we’re not going to not do it, regardless of what the experiment turns out like.”

Dr. Lisa Thompson

How we got to this current project idea is that it grew out of four years and going to tons of meetings and working with the white paper writers to figure out what the questions were and realizing that an experiment of this sort could really address a lot of questions that were in the Nutrient Research Plan,” Dr. Thompson continued.  “Then we worked with the Delta RMP and said, how can we connect what we’re doing with the monitoring that’s already going on? Really, it’s almost more the stakeholder connections.”

The scientists have their own research ideas that they want to go look at and it’s not necessarily something that’s tied to a management decision that is happening,” said Dr. Thompson.  “They just want to understand the whole system, so for me it’s an interesting thing, having come out of academia and designing an experiment that will actually address this management question is really interesting intellectually and challenging because you have these constraints.  It’s like a puzzle, but not everyone wants to deal with the puzzle that way, so I’m cajoling and dragging them along.  But I think it can be really good for the future.  How we deal with this issue can be a guide for how we deal with other issues in the future in terms of water quality.”

Moderator John Bourgeois added, “I know in the South Bay, it’s often a struggle to get researchers to focus on very concrete, on the ground management decision-oriented work as opposed to what their academic research interests are, so trying to direct them to these very applied questions can be a challenge sometimes.  That is why I brought up the concept of baseline data.  I know there’s a lot of work being done in the Delta … Is it adequate to answer your questions that are going to be coming up?” 

Stacy Sherman (audience member) comes to the microphone; she manages the Fish Restoration Program monitoring team at the Department of Fish and Wildlife. “I think Dan was being modest about thinking about different ways that projects could be designed and getting input.  All of our projects have tech team meetings where we invite external experts to come and give us ideas.  There is the Fish Agency Strategy Team that gives feedback along the way.  The Suisun Marsh model is great, but it took ten years to get the programmatic.  Fifteen years, where all the projects were supposed to be in the ground in ten years, so that’s a little bit of an impediment there.”

But as far as the baseline, we had the opportunity because it was required in the 2008 biop to develop a monitoring program to answer our questions,” Ms. Sherman continued. It was a little bit of a gamble to say, we’re going to do this restoration and that’s going to solve the problems for Delta smelt food, and so I think there was a lot of foresight in requiring that we do this kind of monitoring.  We’ve tried to assess what is out there and IEP has a lot of long-term surveys.  We’re looking at how that applies to similar sites and are trying to test the sufficiency of that in determining how effective these sites would be.”

Steve Chappell:  “The reality is that managers are going to make decisions absent of science, unless you as a scientist provide the science in a way that it informs management.  So a good study design that has good outcomes is really important, but at the end of the day, if I am a land manager or a project proponent, there are timelines and budgets and things that have to be achieved.  So the science has to be nimble enough to inform management, and scientists have to be willing to provide advice and guidance, even with the uncertainty about whether or not the science fully supports that, because the manager is going to decide something because he has to.  The resource won’t wait for science.”

Moderator John Bourgeois said that he found in the South Bay that in public forums, a lot of the researchers were hesitant to go out on a limb because the data wasn’t statistically significant or wasn’t quite there.  “There were all these caveats and so they were very quiet.  But we have to make a decision by the end of the year and we’re going to make it, so we actually started having closed door meetings just between the managers and the researchers and that allowed them to speak a little more freely.  We had to balance that with the whole transparency and trust issue, right, but we had to create a safe space to actually go out on a limb, it was like, ‘I’ve got to make a decision, something’s going to happen at the end of the month, should it be a or b, give me your best guess.  Tell me what you think.’ So I totally agree with that, and that’s something that everyone should keep in mind, that these decisions occur on a timeframe that’s different that the research so that’s another big challenge.

Question:  “What does adaptation look like for you?  When we think about the circle and we look at ‘adapt’, what does that mean?  For those of you working on a specific project, does it mean tweaking something in the design or reevaluating the project goals?  For those of you in a program, does one project inform the next project and the failed project, you leave alone and the adaptation occurs on the next project?  When we think about the wheel and that last step, adaptation, what does adaptation look like in the context of your project?

Dr. Thompson:For me, if you have your experiment set up in a good way so that you’re learning about the mechanisms in the system …  now your model is better; you’ve gone back, you’re redone your model, you’ve improved it, so your future predictions should be better; you should lower your uncertainty for that part of the system.  Then the next piece of uncertainty will come but at least now you have a process where you can figure out what kind of adaptive experiment can I do that will help me address the next uncertainty?  To me, adapt means I understand the system better and I can make a better decision next time around.”

Patty Finfrock

Patty Finfrock noted that her project isn’t actually completed, so they haven’t had to adapt yet.  “What it’s meant to me is to always know what you’re critical path is so that when there is something that you need to adapt to, you can figure out how important it is. … You just have to be flexible and keep your mind open to all the things you’re trying to achieve and all of those branches of your critical path so you can keep the whole thing moving forward and keeping the communication lines open with all the stakeholders.  It’s mostly just paying attention, keeping your critical path as your main place that you’re trying to move toward and not going down a rabbit hole because there’s lots of them.”

Moderator John Bourgeois asks if that takes the shape of a conceptual model, or is it more fluid than that?  “Personally, I don’t like conceptual models,” continued Ms. Finfrock.  “I have the model in my head, so I’ve been really lucky.  I’ve been able to keep most of this stuff in my head, of course I have lost of lists and lots of files and I have good people on my team.  So that probably that last thing that’s most important is to keep the lines of communication open so you’re getting inputs from your whole team all the time so that you know what’s coming up that may delay your critical path.  I’m kind of iconoclastic that way; conceptual model to me is just that, a concept, so once you actually start moving, you don’t really have time to keep tweaking your conceptual model.”

Randy Mager:For us, the adaptation would be changing the designs, future designs.  We’re not going to be able to go back in and change the height of the waterside bench.”

Steve Chappell:  “One thing that’s unique in Suisun is because most all the areas that we’re implementing actions in the management plan are existing managed wetlands or tidal wetlands, so really you’re converting one habitat to another. When you’re just replacing existing functions and values for an expected outcome, it’s a little more risky, so how do you make sure you are supporting the remaining functions and values in the interim and that you’re getting the best outcomes? Balancing tradeoffs is really difficult when you’re looking at resident migratory species and trying to contribute to recovery.

Dan Riordan:  “From my program’s perspective, post-construction, if we’re not seeing that we’re making the right type of phytoplankton, for example, perhaps a year or two years later, we have more information and more accurate data to inform the model and maybe we widen the breach or add a breach or just have more accurate data to be able to predict what we think will get us to the what our original goal was …


Question: I feel like I’m straddling the worlds of idealism – adaptive management, let’s go! – and then having witnessed the design process and implementation challenges, that’s a lot harder to put into practice.  Communication seems to be a common thread and everyone wants to learn from past projects, so what is the best way to do that?  Should we continue to have forums like this?  How do we get more participation from people who aren’t part of large DWR projects to come and participate and learn, or is it a restoration hub?  It is papers?  What are your opinions on that?

Steve Chappell:  “I think if you want participation, you have to have leverage.  I think in the marsh plan, there are four tidal restoration projects that are tiering off the programmatic biological opinion … it’s a path of streamlined restoration for the project proponents that we require them to come in and engage with the agencies.  I have to say that the agencies active participation and continued participation in the process is important. … But you have to have leverage and the project proponents have to see value in engaging or else they are just going to do what they have to do to get their permits and their projects constructed.  The challenge is how do you provide value added through meetings or adaptive management teams to the project proponents and the outcomes.

Question to Steve Chappell: When a project proponent comes back to the team, you have the agency people, but do you also have other landowners and proponents there to? 

Steve Chappell said not really the landowners.  “One of the challenges we had early was other project proponents wanting to come to the adaptive management team when other competitors were there … this is an opportunity for a project proponent to have an open, comfortable dialog, as opposed to, they don’t want to expose their project secrets, so you just have to figure out what is best for each project.  Each one is unique.  DWR is a project proponent for many of them, and they’re a principal agency.  We ask them to come in at the same level of information and participation as an outside entity would for a project proponent.”

Moderator John Bourgeois said another way to improve communication regionally is to step out of our zones a little bit.  “I work in the San Francisco Bay, and we’ll include Suisun in our discussions, but we’ll stop there; in the Delta, you guys will include Suisun but you’ll stop there.  The Bay Delta – it’s one system and I think we need to broaden out our ability to work together and coordinate, so I think a little bit more coordination between Bay and Delta systems and learning from each other would be useful.”

Randy Mager said that both the State of the Estuary and the Bay Delta conference are great venues for that.  “The Bay Delta Conference tends to go a lot more scientific.  It might be nice to have some sessions, a little bit more informal, projects and lessons learned.”

Steve Chappell

Steve Chappell: Aside from tidal restoration projects, we’re also actively starting to look at managed wetlands operations and what type of export the seasonal wetlands to the sloughs for fish food web support is occurring.  There’s always been this perception that managed wetlands are isolated from the sloughs and they are not.  They are largest habitat type on the landscape.  Are there opportunities to work with the local stakeholders in their operations and maintenance and activities that could be beneficial for food web support for native fishes concurrently with meeting our management needs? … That’s sort of an adaptive management process that we’re starting to get some data on what’s being exported from the marsh so we can assess that for benefits to native fishes.”

Patty Finfrock:  “We need a centralized place where this information can be collected.  I’ve only published one study and there are just so many journals and nobody can read all of the journals, so I think if there was one place and it probably should be a state or federal agency that would collect this and then put it online so everybody would know they could go to one place to do this.  I don’t know how that would even start … it would be a huge undertaking but have great benefits.”

Lauren Hastings: A lot of us have been observing the revamping of the Adaptive Management Advisory Team in Suisun Marsh, and we’ve also been working in the Delta on a white paper through this group called the Interagency Adaptive Management Integration Team or IAMIT to have recommendations for how to better support habitat restoration and adaptive management in the Delta.  One of the big recommendations is to form such a group and in fact have the IAMIT be that group, modeled after the AMAT.  That’s in the planning stages right now.  We’re looking to finalize that white paper early this year and really start implementing and moving toward that.  It’s really a venue to have that communication, to have the lessons learned, to identify places where it’s better to address these uncertainties more than others, sharing that information …  we’re fortunate at the Delta Stewardship Council and the Delta Science Program we have staff dedicated to supporting adaptive management, the adaptive management liaisons, so we do have staff who can contribute to this and have venues for improving communication.”

Question:  I am fortunate to be involved with restoration projects early on in the design process through the CEQA/NEPA compliance permitting all the way to construction and the post-construction and long-term monitoring.  In considering funding constraints and trying to maximize the amount of work that comes out of grant funding for these projects, we try to cover as much of the adaptive management actions in the design process and the CEQA process and put those descriptions in the permitting to try and maximize the permit coverage and set them up ideally to be amended or something to cover those future management actions.  If your monitoring is indicating that the project needs to be adapted, how do you define those actual actions?  I’m speaking of physical on the ground actions that you would take so that we could cover those potential affects in the CEQA documents and identify them in the permits early on so that we can maximize the grant coverage.  Have any of you thought about identifying those actual physical actions earlier in the process?

John Bourgeois noted that this can be a timing issue when sometimes adaptive management plans are asked for at the end of the process, and sometimes at that point, it’s too late; the project has been designed, the permits have been gotten.  “For the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project, our final EIR did not select a final project; it selected a process and that process was adaptive management.  We bookended the extremes of what could happen, but we outlined the process and we analyzed a range of potential management actions, so we did try and think about that up front.  It was not easy and it took a little bit longer than normal programmatic CEQA document would take.  It took some convincing for CEQA/NEPA lead agencies to say, we’re not adopting a project, we’re adopting a process with an indeterminate outcome, so that was a little tricky.”

Steve Chappell:  “In the Suisun Marsh plan, we didn’t know where or when the restoration was going to occur, so it’s regionally distributed with subregional targets, but they are in a range.  Then we did a programmatic evaluation that we’re going to tier off on that to the site specific.  The one thing that I hoped would happen is that as a result of the Adaptive Management Team, we can say this site is good to answer this scientific uncertainty.  If you could get the weight of the Adaptive Management Team to say, in your monitoring we support you focusing on this science question as part of your plan, and make it part of your project description as opposed to waiting for the agencies to come in and say, these are our standard monitoring requirements.  If you know what the agency’s standard monitoring requirements are, can you build them in where you’re maybe meeting 60-80% of those obligations and they’ll say that’s good enough if we’re going to get something out of it that informs future restoration and adaptive management.  So it’s how you capture and describe that process of developing monitoring plan that is science based for answering scientific uncertainty as opposed to just a monitoring plan.”

Follow up question from audience member:  “The next step from that is once the science and your monitoring data show something’s not working to your liking or the objectives of the project, then there was some talk about redesigning or maybe you design the bank this way and it failed, so you have to go in and recreate that bank.  Those are the physical actions that we can try to cover early on …  you alluded to that a little earlier, Steve, about how do you get coverage for those actions later on down the road when you identify that you need to do them and your construction permits have expired by then, so that’s the struggle that I would like to try and incorporate earlier in the planning phase.

Steve Chappell:  “It’s a new approach to have to think about doing that.  With the maintenance of the site, how do you stockpile material that is part of the project that is identified for future levee maintenance needs, because you can’t obtain material once the project’s restored.  so it’s looking out 10-15 years, and at least describing that in your project.  It would be easier to go back if you have to do a supplemental permit if you say, we analyzed it and we anticipated this was an outcome, at least you’re giving your project proponent a headstart to timely permitting and a simpler path.”


  • 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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