FELICIA MARCUS: One Delta, one estuary–Connecting California through water

In her address to the State of the Estuary conference, Felicia Marcus spoke about the connections of the Delta to all Californians and the importance of working together and more broadly to solve the challenging problems before us.

Felicia Marcus has had a long history of involvement on water issues in the Delta as well as across the state.  Last year, she finished up her term as the Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board; prior to that, she served as the regional administrator for Region 9 for the US EPA and worked with other agencies and a number of NGOs, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Trust for Public Lands.  In her keynote address at the 2019 State of the Estuary conference, she spoke about the connections of the Delta to all Californians and the importance of working together and more broadly to solve the challenging problems before us.

In her own words, here’s what Felicia Marcus had to say.

“Turning to our topic, one of the most enduringly fascinating and beautiful things about estuaries is their role in connections.  Connecting across fresh water and salt water, connecting across species life cycles, connecting people across vast distances who share in the relationship to the waters and species that cross their varied landscapes.

In the case of the San Francisco Bay Delta Estuary, it connects a lot more.  From the rim of the northern Sierra to the Pacific Ocean, it’s sheer scale is massive.  If you factor in water diversions above and throughout the Delta, diversions that have a direct impact on the natural functioning of the estuary, the estuary connects nearly the entire population of the state of California, yet few Californians understand those connections, let alone their own connection to, dependence on, and impact on this mighty estuary.

Angelenos, oddly enough, may understand it better than San Franciscans, and as a result, focused attention on this remarkable ecosystem as a whole is hard to maintain outside this room and even at times inside this room over the years.  Even among those who engage in the public policy efforts and discourse around the Delta, conversations tend to be Balkanized, perhaps because of the enormity of the scale and complexity of the estuary, and perhaps because of convenience or design.

How do we break through to gain the broader engagement we need to implement the complex and effective adaptive management we really do need?  Not by doubling down and talking about the Delta louder and slower, but by talking about one water for all Californians to make the connections beyond the inner circle by celebrating what connects us rather than what divides us, including our natural heritage, our vibrant agriculture, our treasured rural centers, and our energetic urban centers, by using modern data, technology, and transparency to lay a foundation for a fact-based discussion and monitoring and a lot more.

This is how most people approach our conversation about the Bay Delta, in part because there are a lot of folks who work on it, talk about it, this way precisely so that fewer people will engage.  But in fact, it’s actually quite definable, knowable, and fixable, or at least improvable.  We just need to apply the right tools, and my message for today is that we need to spend a little time in addition to the great science and policy work represented here today on communicating the wonder of this estuary, all of our connections to it as Californians, and our opportunity to build a greater connection to each other through tending to it.

To do that, we need to broaden our vision, widen our tents, elevate our human voices, and celebrate each other’s knowledge, achievements, and connections.

Discussions around the Delta at least recently rarely invoke the Bay itself and its need for flows, let alone the needs of the ecosystem along the way because the Delta itself is ground zero for so many different Clashes of the Titans and for so many issues, whether tunnels, HABs, fisheries, legacy communities … And then some folks think of the Bay Delta estuary and they see intakes for massive pumps in three dimensions with everything else, a conceptual obstacle, and oft with good intentions.

Here’s a less pretty but useful frame (lower, left) that I use a lot, just to help show people how vast the watershed and how many contributors there are to its demise or its resurrection, depending on how we look at time.  It’s all in how you look at it, and it’s all in how we decide to do things about it.

I also think you have to zoom out to the entire infrastructure of the state of California.  (above, right) There are just a couple points to make about this.  You have the purple and the orange state and federal projects which bring water through the hub of the Delta and down to many players.  You also have some of these green lines, and there are two stories to tell about that.

One is a story of LA and their LA Aqueduct, which everyone thinks that if they have seen Chinatown, they know everything they need to know about LA.  But the thing to know about LA is that they gave up a whole bunch of the water they were getting to save Mono Lake, a lake that was hundreds of miles away from them and that most of them will never see and it led to a renaissance of conservation, recycling, stormwater capture that is even being accelerated today so the art of the possible is there.

Also, there are the two Bay Area diversions on the Mokelumne for East Bay MUD and the Hetch Hetchy for San Francisco, just to make the point that the Bay Area also diverts water from the Delta and has a role in saving the Delta; it’s just that it doesn’t go through those inconvenient pumps.

So we are all in this together, you’ll hear that again and again.

There are a variety of places in this state that are dependent on waters from the Delta, whether through the pumps or diverted from up above and the same is true of even more, if you count the entire tributaries.

In the upper headwaters, the forest and land management up above, there is a lot of encouraging work and conversation going on there because of wildfire work primarily, but there has been good work on figuring out how to do forest management in a way that will allow more snow to fall through the tree canopy and to stay shaded long enough to provide more water for the ecosystem and for water users.


And finally and not necessarily least, there is the connection to the ocean and ocean processes.

The hub is something really critical here, not just as a hub for fish migration or a hub for water supply, but it’s also a hub for something great, if we can get there and rise to that occasion, but to do that, we have to deal with reality.

Here’s our reality – loss of snowpack.  It’s going to hit us like a ton of bricks.  This is an opportunity to rise to an occasion with a bigger vision as opposed to doubling down and looking down at what we’re doing.  Similarly, sea level rise can be a call for every man or woman for themselves or let’s come together and figure out a smarter way to deal with this.

Similarly, the ecosystem is in trouble, and I pick salmon because it’s a recognizable and heroic symbol of tenacity and heart, not just a tasty treat, but the basis for a great story that’s told but not told enough.

Then of course, the wisdom of Yogi Berra, which is ‘In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice.  In practice, there is.’

I know you’re all here at the State of the Estuary conference because you care in practice about what happens, you care about the Bay Delta estuary, and you are more aware of it and its connections and 99.9% of Californians.  You may care about it because you find it intellectually fascinating and that’s why you do the work you do.  You may care about it because you love to raft, fish, and experience rivers, rapids, the Delta, the Bay or the ocean.  Some of you may feel grateful for the life giving force that the river is, whether to fish and wildlife, to the communities along the river, to you who drink, bathe, and frolic in the river’s waters after they are transported and treated through pipelines and treatment plants around the way, and yes, even those of you who use it to water your lawn – sparingly I hope.

Some of you are in this because of the importance of saving ecosystems generally and want to be on the side of humanity that understands we have a relationship between the earth, its life giving waters, and ourselves that we can’t totally pinpoint but that we know is real.  It’s something of a test of who we are.  I think history and future generations will judge us for whether we could turn the tide and figure out how to restore at least some of what we lost and how we can live in greater harmony with nature.

As a boomer, I know we failed in many ways on climate change, on river restoration and on the massive amount of garbage we produce including plastics that are befouling the planet, but I’ve seen signs of progress and hope, whether the Upper San Joaquin River restoration, Klamath dam removal, or myriad of efforts of urban and rural water management.

Are we going to be the generation that loses salmon?  Let alone Delta smelt?  Are we going to be the generation that sucks our rivers dry, even as the signs were telling us we were doing that?  Will we look at the tributaries of the Delta with regret and longing as so many in Central Asia mourn the passing of the Aral Sea?  Will we look at fishermen and women whose livelihood is being snuffed out more and more each year and sigh with sorrow?

Or will we be the generation that figures out how to deal with facts rather than fancy and do something about it.  And do it not by turning our backs on the good men and women who farm or grow communities with the precious waters of the rivers in our system, but by figuring out a way to break through and grapple with the reality that we’ve simply taken too much out of this estuary for it to survive.  It’s not about good and evil; it’s about competing goods that we have to figure out collectively how to balance and honor.

Can we rise above the talking point wars and build a vision of restoring this great ecosystem with a combination of more flows left in it to do what flows can do and have done for generations, and great projects to enhance habitat for fish and wildlife.  Can we give native fish a fighting chance?  Can we be the generation that learns to restore nature and live in harmony with it – A complex task requiring engagement over years of effort.  I don’t know.  But we’re at a precipice where it’s going to be one or the other, and because of people like you, I remain hopeful and energized.  It’s also a better way to live.

This is how we talk about it most of the time when we’re talking Bay Delta.  Our problem is how we talk about it or how we don’t talk about it; we talk past each other rather than trying to find connections.  I’m not saying we’ve got to be the Dalai Lama here, nobody can be the Dalai Lama, nobody can do it all the time, but I think it requires working to remind yourself every day in every meeting in every interaction, as often as you can, to be thinking about connection and to be thinking about broadening the conversation.

For me, it’s about compassion for others and it’s about trying to find the way forward.  As many of you know, I’ve added more and more tinkling bracelets and Virgins of Guadalupe to my wrist through the Bay Delta hearing that I can practically lift to remind me to bring compassion.  I’ve put post-it notes on the bathroom mirror that say, listen, compassion, we’re all in this together.  But if we do that, we can do that.

We can do it if we keep the theme that we’re all in this together.  During the drought, you saw how people rose to the occasion, a message punched through to all Californians.  It is a longer story than that but we were able to achieve what some thought impossible.  There were Californians getting rid of their lawns as soon as they could get any money – over half a billion dollars.  There are folks in LA who have been for squaring imported water with grand goals of 100% recycling of water in LA by 2035, and reducing their dependence on imported water by 70%.  They were 88% dependent on it.  Watch that space for cutting edge efficiency, stormwater, conservation, recycling.  Prop W got the whole county voting to do stormwater projects, $300 million a year.


Here you have these amazing projects with the adaptation atlas and all the work you have together, and you saw some other pictures and why is it King Kong instead of Godzilla … It’s 20 of those that are going to have to fill the Bay now in the way folks are looking at it, and there are more projects than I could possibly talk about.

We have to add these stories and broaden the view of who we are to inspire others.  It’s all those myriad decisions we make every day in every way in just the way we can.  I’m not asking you to not study what your studying and not focus as that science is critical, but also think about the ways in which you can broaden your messages, make your work accessible, and connect with people across a broader scale and start that story going.  We need that story to rise to this historic occasion or we’ll regret it.  We totally have the ability to do it, and it’s sitting in this room today.

Thank you very much.


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