Ms. Tatayon discusses the role of the Delta Stewardship Council, her goals as chair, and the Delta Plan 5 year review
This article was written by Lisa Beutler; it appeared first in The Water Report and is republished here with permission.
Susan Tatayon presides over the Delta Stewardship Council (Council), one of a trio of agencies responsible for stewardship of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta). The Delta and its stressed environs serve as the major hub for California’s water management system.
Chair Tatayon, appointed to the Council by Govenor Jerry Brown in 2014, and reappointed in 2018, generously spared time on May 30, 2019 to talk with The Water Report about the Council, its roles and her goals for her term as Chair. She assumed the role of Chair beginning January 1, 2019 after serving three years as Vice-Chair. Her current term will expire February 2, 2022.
Upon being thanked for her time, Tatayon immediately (and characteristically) expressed appreciation for the opportunity to share up-to-date information about the Council and its current direction. She noted that in their recent planning session, the Council had expressly decided it would be important to conduct more outreach and build both the general public’s and concerned decision-makers’ understanding of the Council, its role, and the evolving Delta Plan.
Tatayon’s background and experience make her particularly well-suited for tackling the responsibilities of Council Chair. She has served in a number of increasingly responsible roles in the state and federal government as well as working in the private sector and at an environmental non-profit. To this we could add too many volunteer roles to succinctly recount. A common thread in all of her history is that she was often asked to tackle projects that required new approaches or to accomplish what had never even been done before. In each case she encountered the challenges as opportunities rather than burdens. She noted that one of these challenges was formative in developing her early views as a pragmatic environmentalist.
Those that know Tatayon will readily reference her moderated, gracious style and thoughtful attentiveness. They will simultaneously describe a firm resolve and clarity in which she is able to recast dilemmas to possibilities. The latter is evidenced in the Chair’s own description of her work experiences.
The bifurcated governance arrangement for the Delta was created by the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Reform Act of 2009 (Act) — the Legislature’s response to what is considered one of California’s thorniest areas of water management concerns. The primary focus of the Act is the requirement for creation of comprehensive, long-term management plan for the Delta (the “Delta Plan”).
The Delta Plan advances the state’s coequal goals for the Delta: 1) to improve statewide water supply reliability; and 2) to protect and restore a vibrant and healthy Delta ecosystem. These goals are to be accomplished in a manner that preserves, protects, and enhances the unique agricultural, cultural, and recreational characteristics of the Delta.
More agencies are involved in management of the Delta than can be easily listed here. However, three Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta agencies: 1) the Council; 2) the Delta Protection Commission (DPC); and 3) the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy (Conservancy) — are assigned very specific and pivotal responsibilities under the Act (see sidebar below).
We began by asking about the differences between these three Agencies and their roles. Tatayon broke into a smile, replying this is probably the most common question she gets, even from water and natural resources executives. She explained that the Council and its sister agencies, the DPC and the Conservancy all share the common role of implementing the Delta Plan. Beyond that, the Council has several distinctive roles, the most prominent being its responsibility to develop, adopt, and commence implementation of the Delta Plan. Related to this, the Council is responsible for appointment of an Independent Science Board (ISB). The ISB and the Council’s science program work to support use of the best available science on Delta issues.
The Council also provides collaborative leadership in convening all the partners needed to implement the Delta Plan, and serves as a regulator. As a regulator they act as the final arbiter of whether-or-not any Delta-related projects advanced by state and local agencies are consistent with the Delta Plan.
Tatayon briefly detailed the legislatively-defined roles of the Delta Agencies. She noted the role of the Conservancy in ecosystem restoration and of the DPC as a land use planning body and service as a voice for the Delta’s residents, visitors, and businesses.
Less Understood and Misunderstood Roles
Tatayon felt that some of the less known or understood Council functions included its ability to provide early consultation to project proponents. This consultation supports agencies in aligning their endeavors to be consistent with the Delta Plan. The Council is also able to convene expert panels and facilitate peer review.
Tatayon was particularly proud of its Delta Science and California Sea Grant fellowship programs. She felt support of fellows is a wise, long-term, generational investment in ensuring that required skills and knowledge will be available in the coming decades.
Another little-publicized role is the Council’s leadership of the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee (DPIIC). The DPIIC strives to facilitate Delta Plan implementation with state and federal agencies that have a role in the Delta. The DPIIC focuses on progress in achieving the coequal goals. This progress is defined as “water supply reliability, Delta ecosystem health and restoration, Delta as a Place, and best available science in support of ‘One Delta, One Science.’”
As relates to misunderstood roles, an obvious one is a general perception that the Council approves projects. Tatayon affirmed that this is not the case. Instead, the Council oversees a certification process for demonstrating consistency with the Delta Plan. As outlined in the Delta Reform Act, this means that a state or local agency proposing to undertake a qualifying action, called a “covered action” (see sidebar below), must submit to the Council a written certification of consistency. This certification includes detailed findings as to whether the covered action is consistent with the Delta Plan. Any person may appeal a certification of consistency to the Council. At this point the Council would determine if the action is consistent, and if not, return it to the proponent.
Council Chairs Past & Present
Tatayon is the third Council Chair to serve in the relatively new agency. Council members select a chairperson from among their members who may serve for up to four years. Given the distinctive styles and approaches of the Chairs, we asked what she saw as the similarities and differences.
She began by complimenting the previous two leaders and noted how each was exactly the right person for the time in which they served. Chair Phil Issenberg brought the firm hand required for launching of an enterprise. She described how he was able to deftly navigate the intricacies of Delta issues, skillfully address tough issues, and ask the pointed and provocative questions needed to advance the thinking of everyone involved.
Her personal appreciation for the leadership of Chair Randy Fiorini was apparent as she described his gentlemanly and masterful diplomacy. She explained his careful, considerate and thoughtful approach as an interest based negotiator who brought people to the table and allowed the Council to confront well publicized and controversial issues.
Tatayon described her own style as one of facilitating collaboration. She enjoys bringing a full range of interests into the room, leveraging the strengths of each, and exploring multiple points of view. She described this approach as sometimes messy but finds that the confluence of ideas is generative and produces possibilities that would not otherwise have been considered. She also noted that when everyone is part of the decision crafting process they accept more ownership for implementation.
Goals as Chair
In terms of her own goals as Chair, Tatayon plans to focus on actual implementation of the Delta Plan, which includes reducing reliance on the Delta and building regional self-reliance. Under California Water Code, reduction of reliance on the Delta means reducing “reliance on the Delta in meeting California’s future water supply needs through a statewide strategy of investing in improved regional supplies, conservation and water use efficiency.” Regions dependent on water from the Delta watershed are required to “improve its regional self-reliance for water through investment in water use efficiency, water recycling, advanced water technologies, local and regional water supply projects and improved regional coordination of local and regional water supply efforts.”
In Tatayon’s view, this will require increasing awareness of the Plan and its statewide relevance. She is also providing support for implementation of the Governor’s recent executive order to build a water resilience portfolio.
Another goal is to be engaged with advancing ecosystem restoration in the Delta. Tatayon believes she will be able to provide leadership to encourage approaches that ensure natural capital and assets are an integrated element of Delta initiatives rather than a “nice to have” or obligatory mitigation approach. She feels that this reframing of thinking will be critical in addressing the impacts of climate change. She is optimistic about recent efforts to integrate flood and floodplain management with groundwater recharge efforts and stressed how this helps recast opportunities for water storage and operations.
Tatayon also looks forward to supporting related integrated planning processes, like development of the California Water Plan Updates.
In surveys and other assessments, the Council’s work in promoting the use of best available science is universally well regarded. We asked the Chair about how she planned to focus on and/or leverage this expertise and reputation. She was very enthusiastic about this aspect of the Council’s work and particularly the 2017-2021 Science Action Agenda and the Council-led collaborative, multi-agency science funding initiative.
Tatayon again referenced the need for climate change adaptation strategies and how important Delta monitoring programs — along with the joint efforts with Interagency Ecological Program (IEP) — will be in that endeavor. The IEP, a consortium of State and federal agencies, has been conducting cooperative ecological investigations since the 1970s and provides ecological information for management of the Bay-Delta ecosystem and the water that flows through it.
A recent addition to the science agenda is more work on exploring Social Science. Tatayon finds that just focusing on the resource is not enough — better understanding the human element of the equation will be key to the Council’s success.
Amendments to the Delta Plan
When adopted by the Council in May 2013, it was always anticipated the Plan would need periodic reviews and updates in response to changing circumstances and conditions in the Delta. The Plan was first amended in February 2016 to include an initial set of refined performance measures. In September 2016 the Plan was amended to exempt single-year water transfers from consideration as covered actions. A third series of amendments were adopted in April 2018 that: addressed conveyance, storage, and operations; updated a section regarding the Delta Levees Investment Strategy; and added a Mitigation Monitoring and Reporting Program as a Plan appendix — among other topics.
The Council is now working with partner agencies, stakeholders, and the public to build upon, further refine, and amend Chapter 4 of the Delta Plan. This chapter includes regulations covering: flow; introduction of nonnative invasive species; and criteria for priority restoration sites.
We asked how Plan amendments would help shape what happens moving forward. To this Tatayon robustly returned with the question, “Do you know how much work it is to complete an amendment?”
While presented with good humor, the retort emphasized the extraordinary amount of work it indeed involves. She outlined the need for environmental reviews and the associated requirements for approvals of regulatory actions by the State’s Office of Administrative Law. Her final point being that no Chair would choose to undertake an amendments process without a clear case to do so.
In the case of the Chapter 4 amendment, Tatayon felt that it is critical for the Delta Plan to reflect the evolving understanding of climate change and its impacts. As described in Council documents, “The amendment is intended to consider the past and future effects of climate change and sea level rise, incorporate lessons learned about adaptive management of the Delta ecosystem, identify best practices, address needed institutional changes to improve implementation of restoration actions, and be informed by the best available interdisciplinary science.”
The Delta serves as the hub of the State’s water transportation system and several proposals to find ways to move water around the hub through canals and twin-tunnels have been examined and dismissed. New proposals are being examined to consider an alternative to Delta conveyance that would only include one tunnel. An April 2019 Governor’s Executive Order on Water Resiliency specifically references this concept. Given this history, no Delta interview would be complete without inquiring about the proposals to build a tunnel.
We asked what the Chair saw as the Council’s role in determining a Delta conveyance project. Tatayon immediately referenced the 2018 Plan amendments and encouraged anyone wanting to know more about what the Council would examine should it respond to an appeal on a consistency determination, to read the Delta Plan Chapter 3 sections on conveyance, storage and operations.
Delta Plan Five Year Review
A formal Five-Year Review process, including stakeholder input, was recently drafted. We asked the Chair what she found particularly interesting or noteworthy about the review preliminary findings.
Several issues stood out for her. First was the clear consensus among all the reviewers about the critical need to address climate change. She felt the overwhelming emphasis of this topic by stakeholders provided momentum to the State’s goals and actions to respond and adapt.
A second highlight was the need for the Council to increase its communications across all sectors. She observed the heartfelt request of the Delta stakeholders to have a larger voice in the process. She equally noted that a lack of awareness and misunderstandings by those outside of the Delta undercut needed statewide support. She was also struck by the importance of increasing communications with those that have traditionally been less engaged in Delta discussions such as tribes and the underserved and disadvantaged communities. She believes that these groups, both inside and outside of the Delta, have relevant and important perspectives.
Tatayon also referenced some strategic planning the Council engaged in last March. The Council collectively, in addition to the topics she had already listed, wanted to increase the clarity of linkages between the Council’s science endeavors and policy, and amplify the role of DPIIC.
A Water Pioneer
In closing, we sought to learn more about Tatayon’s reflections on her own pioneering career trajectory and what lessons learned or advice she might offer to those starting out. Demonstrating her humility, she was genuinely perplexed by the question and replied that she never considered herself a pioneer. We spent a few minutes discussing what pioneers do, pointing out that her own series of accomplishments involved changing the way things were done or forging a path forward on things that had never been done before.
We suggested that this probably qualified as pioneering. With this clarification and definition, she offered several pieces of advice.
First she encouraged those embarking on new endeavors to become fully aware of what they are trying to accomplish. She explained there will almost always be a need to adjust and change course as an effort evolves but keeping an eye on the overarching goal will help achieve results.
Tatayon advised that those wishing to build a career should not wait for the assignment. She shared that she was always asking what she might be able to do to help and it was through this process that some of her most extraordinary opportunities emerged.
Finally, she offered that there could be unknown benefits in embracing the mundane. She offered as an example an assignment she had been given that, in the view of others in the group, was tedious and mind numbing. It was this very experience, and the deep exposure to new perspectives it provided, that was among the most transformative of her early career.
In closing she again expressed appreciation for the opportunity to share the Council’s story.
This article was written by Lisa Beutler; it appeared first in The Water Report and is republished here with permission. Contact: Lisa Beutler, Stantec, 916/ 418-8257 or Lisa.Beutler@stantec.com
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