STATE OF THE ESTUARY: The Wetlands Regional Monitoring Program: A regional vision for coordinated monitoring

An update on the development of a regional plan to monitor the restoration of tidal marshes in the San Francisco Bay Area

The monitoring of tidal wetlands in the Bay Area has typically been implemented on a project-by-project basis in order to fulfill regulatory permit requirements. While providing data and insights for a particular project, it doesn’t provide an understanding of regional tidal wetland status and trends or how drivers such as sea level rise and development are impacting tidal wetlands.  A regional approach to monitoring tidal wetlands is needed to provide insights into where and how to implement tidal marsh restoration projects that would provide the greatest benefit to the diversity and resilience of estuarine habitats.

Recognizing this, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has funded the development of a Wetlands Regional Monitoring Program for the San Francisco Estuary through a collaborative and science-based process led by the San Francisco Estuary Partnership.  The project recently completed the development of a scientific framework for the Wetlands Regional Monitoring Program which focuses on management questions that will inform decision makers of the condition of the Bay’s tidal marshes on a regional scale and improve the effectiveness of permitting and monitoring of tidal wetland restoration projects.

Luisa Valiela is an Environmental Protection Specialist in the watershed division of US EPA Region 9 and is EPA’s lead for advancing Clean Water Act programs in the San Francisco Bay.   Xavier Fernandez is the Chief of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board’s Planning and TMDL division; he is currently leading the water board’s climate change and wetland policy update and is heavily involved with the San Francisco Bay Regional Monitoring Program.  At the 2019 State of the Estuary conference, Ms. Valiela and Mr. Fernandez gave a joint presentation covering the goals and objectives of the Wetlands Regional Monitoring Program, the development process, and the Program Plan that will be released in early 2020.

WHY REGIONAL MONITORING?

The update to the Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Project in 2015 had the goal of 100,000 acres of tidal marsh by 2030.

We’re talking about functioning marshes,” Xavier Fernandez said.  “We’re not talking about marshes that have just been breached and are in the process of developing, which do have value but are not really the 100,000 acres that we’re talking about.  That’s a pretty big effort.”

Regional monitoring is needed because it supports efforts to meet regional objectives.  Regional monitoring facilitates project specific monitoring by standardizing protocols so that project specific monitoring can feed into regional monitoring.  Regional monitoring also develops the information needed for sea level rise and climate change adaptation.

We need to understand what has happened in the past, but we’re also going to need to project into the future,” he said.

COMPONENTS OF THE WETLANDS REGIONAL MONITORING PROGRAM

The graphic shows the components that are expected to be part of the final monitoring program.  The last two years have been spent developing the science framework.  The next two years will focus on data management, administration, and governance and eventually an implementation roadmap.

The science framework has recently been completed and is expected to be released in early 2020.

The science framework is about getting the science right and getting everyone on board so that we have a program that everyone believes is going to answer the questions that our land managers and our decision makers have in the Bay Area,” said Ms. Valiela.

The structure of the science framework begins with the guiding questions; those then lead into the management questions which ensures that the program will provide information about the things that land managers and decision makers want to know about as they make investment decisions in how the wetlands are managed.

The management questions then have to drill down into levels of specificity to include metrics and protocols.  Ms. Valiela noted that the graphic is very simple, but there’s quite a bit of detail behind it all; those details will be available as an appendix to the program when it is complete.

This gives you our thought process of how we’ve taken in input and synthesized it in a way that gets to the details that we need to have for having boots on the ground essentially when people are actually going out into the field,” she said.

GUIDING QUESTIONS

There are five guiding questions:

  1. Where are the region’s tidal marshes and tidal marsh restoration projects, and what net landscape changes in area and condition are occurring? This is essentially a baseline map that is updated over time so they can measure progress towards meeting the goal of 100,000 acres by 2030.
  2. How are external drivers such as accelerated sea level rise, development pressure, and changes in runoff and sediment supply impacting marshes? This is looking at stressors to marshes in an integrated way to provide land managers the information they need to make decisions.
  3. What information do we need to collect to better understand regional lessons from tidal marsh restoration projects to inform emerging science and improve the success of restoration projects? This is developing standardized protocols so project-specific data can feed into the regional monitoring program so that lessons can be learned from each project as it gets implemented and then other projects can use those lessons and do better for the next restoration project.  It also helps with funding decisions.
  4. How do projects to protect and restore tidal marshes affect the distribution, abundance, and health of plants and animals? This is about condition, looking at wildlife and fish, and will also help with funding decisions.  With Measure AA and funding from the EPA, how can those funds best be spent to meet the goal of 100,000 acres by 2030.

That is an incredible amount that we have to get to.  Right now, I think we’re a little over 50,000, just to put it in perspective,” said Mr. Fernandez.  “There is somewhere over 70,000 in planning.”

  1. How do projects to protect and restore tidal marshes impact public health, safety, and recreation? Mr. Fernandez said there are two ways to look at it.  From the public health perspective, they don’t marshes to create a nuisance with mosquitos spreading West Nile virus and other diseases as that would have the opposite of the intended effect, he said.

I prefer to look at this from the other end, which is more positive end.  We need to engender a feeling of appreciation and love for our tidal marshes in order to get stewardship into the future, and that involves recreation, and public health and safety.”

SCIENCE DEVELOPMENT

Ms. Valiela said that while EPA has been funding this effort, there are many partners that have worked collaboratively on the development of the framework.  Those partners include the San Francisco Estuary Partnership, the San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, as well as other agencies, NGOs and stakeholders.

The steering committee has representatives from different agencies working in San Francisco Bay as well as the Delta, regulatory agencies, interested parties, and very active members of the restoration community.  They have been meeting regularly for the last two years, and have held technical workshops on various aspects of the marsh such as the physical processes, vegetation, and fish and wildlife.  Mosquito abatement folks have become a new and very important partner, especially when it comes to data management since they also have been operating and collecting data for a very long period of time.

The science consultation efforts included a peer review of the draft as well as utilizing an interdisciplinary science advisory team within the Bay Area.

There are so many ongoing efforts as anyone who works in the Bay, you know it’s crowded working here,” said Ms. Valiela.  “There’s always something you don’t know about.  There’s the spartina program, there’s the tidal marsh recovery plan, and there are all sorts of other efforts that are linked with ours through these members that we have to constantly keep our door open, to keep the partnerships growing.”

NEXT STEPS

They have just completed the phase one effort; there are two more years of effort and funding to go.  “Planning is an important process, but it always feels like it takes too long,” Ms. Valiela said.  “We really hope to get something that can get stood up in the next two years, but our next steps will be to work through the governance issues.  If this was simple, it would have been done before.  It’s not.  To do wetlands monitoring on a regional basis is going to take a lot of conversation with regulatory agencies, with the restoration community.”

It cannot be underscored enough – the data management plan is going to be a behemoth discussion,” she continued.  “There is already a lot of data being collected on a project specific basis.  How to make that the most useful as possible but actually thinking more regionally means we’re going to need a server.  Somebody is going to have to host our data.  Someone is going to have to analyze our data and communicate it back to us.  There’s a lot of effort needed to communicate that information back out to the interested community, so we have a lot to talk about in the next two years.

Xavier Fernandez said they are also going to have to find a sustainable source of funding.  “There are lots of ideas,” he said.  “There are permit-driven fee structures of some sort.  There’s potentially going to the restoration authority to see if they might want to fund some of it since this will answer some of their questions.  It could be possibly public-private partnerships with Google or some other group.  This is something we’re going to explore further and trying to come up with at least a starting point where we can start the monitoring.  We’re thinking we’ll probably need to start small and then grow over time as we identify and are able to obtain funding.  What we do know is this will not be sustainable if we go from grant to grant to grant.”

They will need to collaborate with regulators on permit conditions.  “This is not going to replace all project-specific monitoring or all permit monitoring,” Mr. Fernandez said.  “It has the potential to replace some of it, but we’re still going to have permit conditions that require project-specific monitoring but we’re also going to have to connect it to allow regional monitoring without increasing the burden of monitoring, especially for voluntary restoration projects.”

They will need a timeline for implementation.  “Right now we’re looking at in order to develop all of this, it will take at least another couple of years of planning.  But again, the goal is 100,000 acres by 2030 so we’re going to have to come up with this implementation timeline pretty quickly.”

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