BROWN BAG SEMINAR: Managing water quality across boundaries

Bay Bridge at night; photo by David Yu

There are numerous agencies involved in water quality issues that are focused on the San Francisco Bay and the Delta.  In this brown bag seminar, Stephanie Fong, Interagency Ecological Program Coordinator Chair, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, discussed the technical, geographical, and political boundaries that separate water quality monitoring in the Bay and the Delta.


Why do we separate the San Francisco Bay and the Delta into two different regions?  It might have to do with the geographic boundaries or how the salinities change from freshwater or what the direction the water main source is that’s coming through the system, Stephanie Fong began.  However, she noted that it’s human nature to set bounds around things to make us feel a little more in control, and so maybe that’s why we separated the Bay and Delta.

Ms. Fong recalled how when she was in the basin planning unit at the State Water Board, it felt foreign just to walk to the enforcement side or permitting side of the office.  Even talking with the San Joaquin unit as opposed to the Sacramento River unit was challenging because the two basins had different priorities and different land uses.

In addition to geographic boundaries, she noted there are a number of boundaries for responsibility.  There are the regulators, the regulated community, and the implementers and the researchers.  There’s often overlap because some of the regulators are doing research and sometimes the regulated community is doing research as well.

You can see from this very simplistic depiction that there are opportunities for us to find overlap, and it’s in these areas of overlap that we can start looking at how we can lower those hurdles and get across those boundaries,” she said.  “Very specifically, we could reach across to you in another department within the university or a different program unit within our agency.”

There are at least 22 state agencies that are working on water quality issues in California, and the list doesn’t include federal agencies or other interested parties or groups that are participating in these discussions.  Cal EPA is just one of the 22 agencies, and just within CalEPA, there are six divisions:  the Air Resources Board; the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment; the Department of Pesticide Regulation; Resources, Recycling, and Recovery or Cal Recycle; the State Water Resources Control Board; and the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

In the water quality venues, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, the Department of Pesticide Regulation, the State Water Board, and the Department of Toxic Substances Control are at the table, and in some cases, even the Air Board is included if aerial deposition is an issue.  Ms. Fong noted that this doesn’t include the Division of Boating and Waterways which is part of the State Parks Department, or the Department of Public Health that mostly focuses on human health and vector control; both of those agencies have very strong interests in various water quality issues, too.

The State Water Board has four divisions: the Division of Drinking Water, the Division of Financial Assistance, the Division of Water Quality, and the Division of Water Rights.  The main footprint on the map is Region 5, and that is divided into three separate offices:  the Redding Office, the Rancho Cordova Office, and the Fresno Office.

So even within one regional board, you can’t even talk to everyone that you need to in the same office building, or even the same city,” said Ms. Fong.

Within the State Water Board’s Division of Water Quality, there are 21 programs, including the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program, the Water Quality Assessments, the Water Quality Monitoring Council, and Water Quality Standards.  These folks are focused on beneficial use attainment, so they are answering questions like, is it safe to swim?  Are the fish safe to eat?  Is it safe for aquatic life?

The nine regional water boards each have very region-specific water quality issues and programs.  The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has 40 programs for issues such as underground tanks, groundwater, surface water, point and non-point discharges, timber harvest, and wildfire response.

Out of those programs, there are nine water quality programs or efforts underway or in development, such as the Stockton Deep Water Ship Channel DO TMDL, the methyl mercury control program for the Delta, the Delta Regional Monitoring Program, the Nutrient Research Plan, the Pyrethroid Basin Amendment, and the Diuron Basin Plan Amendment.  Most of the early monitoring that has been done for the Delta Regional Monitoring Plan has focused around mercury, current use pesticides, and nutrients, because those are focusing on the things that have been of concern to the Central Valley Regional Water Board.

We have just gone down six layers of focus within just one grouping, with many, many separations in each of those layers,” Ms. Fong said.  “What about the rest of those 22 agencies?  Plus I didn’t cover any of the local agencies or the other federal agencies that will likely have some divisions and some layers down as well.  So really, it’s no wonder that we have trouble communicating across these boundaries and in these little stovepipes that have been created over time.”


In addition to all the different agencies and different programs for all the water quality issues, there are also different approaches that these agencies and programs take, even just across the Bay and the Delta.

For example, nutrient efforts in the San Francisco Bay are typically focused on eutrophication as they have had a problem with that, whereas in the Delta, the issue is more lack of primary productivity, so those agencies are going to approach those issues differently.

There are also site selection differences between the various monitoring programs.  The map on the left shows the Bay’s spine sampling sites, which are the bigger water and more integrative sites, whereas the Delta RMP has picked upstream sites that are more focused on source control or source identification.

So how we approach water quality and what we’re looking at are very different,” Ms. Fong said.


There are also technical boundaries. “When we say water quality to people, some people think temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, EC, and maybe they will think about nutrients, and of the folks that think about nutrients, there will be subset of those who will also think about chemical constituents, too,” she said.

There are numerous disciplines that are used for addressing and assessing water quality, such as biogeochemistry, toxicology, hydrology, statistics, economics, sociology, and information science, and we need to look at them together in a way that helps us assess multiple stressors and understand the different pressures involved with making certain decisions.  The more we can understand and agree on things such as data and terminology, the better off we will be once we get to the pressure-making decisions.

Ms. Fong presented a graph depicting the linkage through the fog that divides the Bay and the Delta.

It shows the types of studies and information that can help bridge the gap between molecular effects to ecosystem effects,” she said.  “This goes to my point earlier that when we  get down to the basics of science, there’s less to argue about and so if we can specifically address a lot of these things in a very specific way, I think that helps us move forward.  Let’s do what we learned in junior high biology: minimize the variables, control for the variables that you can’t, and make very specific singular steps.  Let’s not make too many leaps, because when we make leaps, people start getting less comfortable.”


Knowing what many of the boundaries of the pieces look like, we can see how they come together and create linkages, Ms. Fong said.  “We need to stop looking at boundaries as things that inhibit us or hurdles that we have to get over.  These boundaries are the edges of the puzzle pieces that show us how we mash together.”

Ms. Fong recalled how in her earlier years, she could only get fish biologists to care about water quality by framing it as part of fish’s habitat, even though all they were concerned about was physical habitat.  After a while, people started to agree, and then they could start talking about things like water quality and the food web.

So thinking about water quality and how it can affect primary productivity and secondary productivity and on up through the perimeters, and how can we get those folks who only care about that top level predator to also care about water quality,” she said.  “I made that chain for them so they could see the value in each of those little levels in between, and if they could see those linkages, then they could see the value in the specific piece itself for what it was and not just as the food for a fish.”

There are a lot of reasons why we need to work together on water quality, such as the human health issues from mercury and PCB exposure from eating contaminated fish or pets and livestock being sickened or even dying from cyanobacteria exposure.

Much like for our own healthcare where we have a team of doctors for various aspects of our health, we need to have multidisciplinary teams for ecosystem health.

What we really want is not just for the folks that look at things at the molecular level, the health behavior genetics, reproduction, and the population dynamics of our ecosystem to have those specialists, but we need them to be synthesizing that information and bringing it all together so that they are truly working as a team,” Ms. Fong said.  “We need to come to a deep and broader understanding of what water quality means and how those water quality effects and the mechanisms and the modes of action that potential reactions are happening are all sort of brought together and understood rather than just mandating a problem.”

Multi-disciplinary teams can implement more integrated analyses, and can apply the techniques from one discipline to another.  This requires data that’s accessible and comparable, so we need to keep moving towards open data, models, and file sharing programs, because it can be very difficult for synthesis teams to share draft analyses with one another when they come from different agencies, Ms. Fong said.

Contaminant monitoring in the Bay Delta has fallen short of answering a lot of modern priority questions.  Through integrative analyses and more robust reporting, we can broaden our view the effects of water quality by using more advanced monitoring techniques and multi-disciplinary teams to develop studies to answer more diverse questions, because we have more diverse questions than we used to have, she said.

Today’s management questions are much deeper and much farther reaching,” she said.  “We’re asking questions like, does water quality delay salmon from moving upstream when they need to?  Is water quality limiting productivity and nutritious fish food in zooplankton food, and if so, is this constraining them to areas of greater risk of entrainment, predation, or some other hazard?  Are our control measures and methods for aquatic vegetation and other invasive species affecting primary productivity?  These are much different and much deeper questions than, what is the general trend that we’re seeing over time for species x.”

We need to modernize and diversify our monitoring.  It is now possible to focus on other effects, such as water quality effects on behavior or other sub-lethal effects, rather than just chemical concentrations.  We need to be looking at all aspects of the estuary’s health, she said.


Ms. Fong then turned to where there are existing linkages, noting that a lot of the linkages logically start with the State Water Board efforts since they oversee both the Bay and Delta regions.  Other examples are Operation Baseline, the Stewardship Council, the Nutrient Research Plan over at the Central Valley Water Board, and the Nutrient Management Strategy over at the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board are places where folks have come together, with some folks participating in all three of those efforts.  The San Francisco Estuary Institute manages both regional monitoring plans, and the Interagency Ecological Program Contaminants Workteam has participants from both the Delta and the Bay. In 2018, the Delta Stewardship Council and the Bureau of Reclamation put together a joint solicitation proposal that included Delta water quality.

The integrated regional water management programs are managing resources across jurisdictional, watershed, and political boundaries.  There are also Resource Conservation Districts that are linking different groups for different multiple benefits.

There was a study a while back where the Yolo County RCD, UC Davis, USEPA and USDA did a study on vegetated ditches and they looked at everything from the research level of what shape the ditches should be, should they be a “u” or a “v” or flat-bottomed to how much vegetation they should have in them,” Ms. Fong said.  “They went from that research all the way up to figuring out the best situation for the different types of areas they had, and they implemented it.  It became a BMP that was regularly used so it’s a great example of going from a science need to a management need in one group.”

Ms. Fong also noted that a few years ago, the State of the Estuary report included performance measures for the Delta for the first time.  “It wasn’t as seamless as all of us had hoped, but it was a great effort and so we should keep building on those sorts of efforts,” she said.


As for recommendations, Ms. Fong said we should reflect on past efforts and consider what adjustments could be made that could benefit the greater whole.  We shouldn’t keep on doing things just because that’s the way we’ve done them for years; we need to know why we’re doing them and not just repeat the same old behavior.  We also shouldn’t disregard something that we’ve tried just because it didn’t work once; it just means we should reevaluate and figure out a new way to approach it.  We should adapt and learn from our mistakes.

We also need to reevaluate our typical regulatory approaches.  “We could focus more on the mode of action across chemicals so we’re integrating multiple different kinds of chemicals and less on the single chemical or single chemical class regulation that we’ve had in the past,” she said.  “Some regulation is based on threshold levels like a certain level that you can’t be above or below, and some other things are a percent change like turbidity.  If we need more turbidity in the system for fish, we can’t change it by much or then it will be considered impaired, so how do you level those points of regulations?  Are we regulating for fish or just drinking water?  How do we bring them up together and combine all those efforts into something that makes sense for all the different points of interest.  So we need things like ranges, especially for multiple types of stressors, and we need to be more amendable to including more diverse needs like species other than our primary focus.”

Rather than just assessing chemical concentrations, we could start thinking about what it would take to diminish negative effects.  “What are all the things we can do that would actually minimize some negative effect, rather than focus on one thing.  I feel like we’re sort of caught between how a regulator has typically managed with the tools that they have versus what I think our ecosystem is asking from us.”

Ms. Fong recommended we continue to use the watershed approach.  We should have empathy for the different agencies that we work with, recognizing that we all have different charges.  Understanding where an agency and its people are coming from can help us align our end goals.  “We aren’t going to find those modes of collaboration if we don’t start talking to each other,” she said.

There needs to be consistent funding for regular monitoring, because of the value to scientific efforts have data that can be compared against the long-term, rather than a bunch of separate special studies.  Effective communication is important.

There is value in having separate manageable efforts, but there is a risk of siloing ourselves where folks will just work on their specific thing and not really look out to see how they are connected to anyone else.  “The key is to not let ourselves fall back into those silos and stovepipes,” she said.  “We need to reach across that cubicle wall, reach across to the end of the building, or downstairs, or to another office building, or out to another region or a different agency because sometimes doing things one step at a time is what you need to do and sometimes, trying the same thing over and over in different ways is what we need to do.”

We have to be diligent about synthesizing our information and sharing our work, but we’re not done when we synthesize our work and make it accessible.  “We still need to focus on making the messages, convey the meaning we that we mean them to convey to others.  If we are making a concerted effort for each of us to try to  communicate with the right meaning and the right topics that help connect us better, then we can also get farther down in getting past those barriers that I now think I see as puzzle piece edges.”


Question: I like the suggestion you had about modernizing and diversifying our monitoring approach.  Any specific suggestions on how we might do that?

I think one of the essential starting points is figuring out what our priority is,” said Ms. Fong.  “If we’re trying to link across the Bay and Delta, is it more important that we get the same constituents but maybe we get them in different representative places? or is it more important that we have the same treatment across the whole thing? so if we decide to do random stratified or something like that, that we look all the way across the Bay and Delta versus one chunk and then the other.  Because if we don’t figure out those very basic things, our data is not going to be as comparable as it could be, and I think that’s going to continue the divide between Bay and Delta science.“

Question: How much progress do you feel you have made in that multi-disciplinary team that you’re promoting?

One that comes to mind very quickly is the Cache Collaborative,” said Ms. Fong.  “In my previous position, we put forth a competitive solicitation for folks to help look at food web effects on Delta smelt, and we ended up with a team of teams that ranged from water quality to water quality effects on invertebrates to invertebrates, whether or not they were in the stomachs or guts of fish, where the fish were and sort of on up; it bridged all the way across.”

When the different groups were awarded their funding from us, the first thing we asked them to do was to come together for a lab meeting to see where there might be opportunities for them to use the same kinds of methods when they weren’t already proposing to.  And it did happen that one of the teams adjusted their methods to be able to be more comparable to the others.  The other thing we discussed was more when and where you might be sampling that you could work together with others and make things more efficient.”

At first, the group came together and it was a little hard nudging people to share their draft data but we made a part of their contract.  Their deliverable was to go these quarterly meetings and present their draft data in front of the rest of the team, and in front of the other people that are working in that system.  This was focused on Cache Slough.  There were a number of other folks that we weren’t funding that we knew were working in the Cache Slough area and we bribed them with donuts and coffee or bagels and coffee and got them to come chat with us about what they were working on so that we could help identify areas where there might be overlap with our team as well, so I think using that same premise over and over again and broader and broader is what I’d like to see.”

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