DELTA SCIENCE NEEDS, PART 2: What do managers need to know to effectively make decisions in the future Delta?

Jennifer Pierre, Paul Souza, and Campbell Ingram discuss what their needs are for managing the Delta into the future:  Will this be the decade of flow?

The Delta is changing much faster than we can respond to, and if rather than being reactive, we want to start to get ahead of things, we need to be thinking about what changes lie ahead and what science and tools managers and decision makers will need to manage those changes.  That was the topic of discussion for the second Science Needs Workshop hosted by the Delta Science Program which brought together Jennifer Pierre with the State Water Contractors, Paul Souza with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Campbell Ingram with the Delta Conservancy to discuss what they saw as their needs for science and tools for managing the Delta into the future.

This is the second of a four-part discussion series to prepare for the Delta Science Needs Assessment Workshop tentatively scheduled for October.  (The first discussion session was focused on climate change impacts on the Delta, and can be found here:   DELTA SCIENCE NEEDS: Looking at climate change impacts)


The science needs effort began with a letter from the Delta Independent Science Board (DISB) to the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee (DPIIC) in February of 2019 that was written in response to the revision of the Delta Science Plan which expressed a desire to see a more forward looking strategic needs assessment. So for about the past eight months, a planning team has been discussing how to put together a robust scientific needs assessment in the context of changing environmental drivers and particularly a changing climate.

A two-day workshop has been planned, tentatively scheduled for October 5 & 6. An advance briefing paper has been completed which discusses the overall rationale for doing a science needs assessment, the intended audience, and the various ways of doing a scientific needs assessment, as well as a draft agenda and outline for the workshop.

The overarching goals for the workshop are:

    • Identify key science efforts that will provide answers and insights for likely management questions in the long term;
    • Discuss how to organize the science enterprise to address these complex and changing problems.

The science needs assessment will feed directly into the Delta Science Plan as well as the Delta Science Action Agenda, which is scheduled to begin its update this year.

These are the four topics planned for the workshop and the focus of the online discussion series:

    1. What do we know about projected climate change impacts for the Delta?  What are we reasonably certain will happen in the future, what changes are likely particularly related to climate change and perhaps, what do we don’t know?
    2. What questions will that raise for management decisions? If we know the Delta is going to change in a certain way, what do managers need to know to effectively make decisions in that future Delta?
    3. If we know what the management needs are, what science needs to be done to give management the answers they need?
    4. Given that we expect the scientific needs will demand more complex cross-disciplinary efforts, probably requiring predictive tools and so forth, what changes are needed in our science governance, science funding, and integration in order to effectively meet the needs in the future?

During the workshop, there will be breakout groups that will be topically oriented to make sure all main areas of interest in the Delta are covered, such as water supply, flood management, habitat management, native species, invasive species, water quality, land use, and Delta as an evolving place.


The first discussion session was held on April 28 and focused on the first of the four questions: What do we know about projected climate change impacts for the Delta?  What are we reasonably certain will happen in the future, what changes are likely particularly related to climate change and perhaps, what do we don’t know?

Dr. Steve Brandt, member of the Delta Independent Science Board, quickly recapped the session.  Lead Scientist Dr. John Callaway gave a presentation on the projected impacts of climate change on the Delta, impacts related to the increase in air and water temperature, precipitation and runoff changes particularly in terms of extreme events, and projected sea level rise.  There was discussion on what time frame should be considered and how uncertainty relates to time changes, and also the recognition that climate change is not the only factor that will change in the future; there will be changes in land use, new invasive species, and contaminant levels – they are all important to consider, and there’s also the human and social responses to those changes.

Water quality impacts were discussed; certainly more salinity intrusion can be expected, increased temperatures, and changes in oxygen levels.  Habitat and species were also discussed; in particular, the species habitats will change by increasing temperature, salinities, and increased inundation.  The other issue is related to human impacts: Changes in water supplies, water demands, salinity management, levee failures, flooding risks, and population, and how these all interact with each other to impact and increase the complexity and challenges of management in the future.


This session focused on the second of the four questions: What questions will that raise for management decisions? If we know the Delta is going to change in a certain way, what do managers need to know to effectively make decisions in that future Delta?

Participating in the discussion was Campbell Ingram, the Executive Officer of the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta Conservancy; Jennifer Pierre, General Manager of the State Water Contractors; and Paul Souza, Regional Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

CAMPBELL INGRAM:  Prioritizing projects to maximize available funding

Campbell Ingram, Executive Officer of the Delta Conservancy, kicked off the discussion by noting that while the Conservancy is one of several agencies that works on ecosystem restoration in the Delta, they are the only one that is statutorily charged with doing so in coordination with the community.  The Conservancy Board includes 5 county supervisors, one of each of the five counties.

The Conservancy received $50 million in Prop 1 funds; so far, that has yielded 29 projects to date, distributing just over $39 million and affecting about 8,000 acres in the Delta.   They expect to run one final solicitation for the remainder of the funds, and after that, they will be hoping for funding to move forward.

From our perspective, successful restoration in the Delta really depends on three key factors: sufficient funding, community buy-in and support, and strong science, which I’m really hopeful will help be a unifying force to help us address the first two,” he said.

Restoration in the Delta is estimated to cost $2-3 billion and while some see that as feasible, Mr. Ingram thinks it unlikely that funding will materialize, so there is a need to prioritize to best spend the funding that becomes available.  So how do we prioritize?  How do we know what type of restoration and where that restoration ought to occur in the Delta?  And how do we best spend the next $50 or $100 million or even a billion dollars, so the question really becomes what actually works and what should we do first?

Into the future with climate change, I see that question really remaining very similar,” he said. “What of what we’ve done in the past works?  What’s changing, how is that changing what we think works, and how should that change what we do into the future?  So to be able to really engage on those issues effectively, I think we most need the ability to synthesize data and develop adaptive management structures that will allow us to support that decision making moving forward.”

He noted that an open solicitation, which was required for Prop 1, is not the best strategy for implementing priorities.  “I’m hopeful that strong science that helps make the case for both the level of investment and priorities and also helps us advocate for how we structure our programs to be more effective and look at more directed action programs.”

Mr. Ingram praised the effort at the Delta Stewardship Council to incorporate social science and to bring social scientists on staff.  “I think local awareness and buy in is really critical for an effective restoration program over time, so how do we better interact with the Delta community and address their concerns and get their buy in, so I’m really hopeful that the science needs assessment will dedicate some significant time and space to that effort.”

In summary, I’m hopeful that the science action agenda can help unify us around well-supported prioritization, data synthesis and adaptive management systems, and better engagement with the community.  I think if we can do that, all of that can really help come together and better support compelling funding requests that get us to where we need to go.”

JENNIFER PIERRE: Better coordination, tying research to management questions

Jennifer Pierre, General Manager with the State Water Contractors, focused her comments on the broader science approach, noting that there is a lot of expenditure occurring in the Delta and its tributaries for science, but as we move forward and the questions become more complex, there’s a need for better organization and coordination.

There are a lot of different science programs: the Interagency Ecological Program, the Delta Science Program, the State Water Contractors has a science program, there are Prop 1 studies – all sorts of things going on but there isn’t the broader umbrella that says what are we trying to achieve so we can coordinate our funding and our efforts in a way that helps us build our collective knowledge, she said.

From my perspective, the first step we need to do is really collectively define what those management questions are and do it in a way that we can all track them,” said Ms. Pierre.  “Really collectively saying this is what we’re trying to understand, and then as science and research gets conducted, we can link that research to those questions.  It seems really simple but we really don’t have that. … I think we do need to really figure out what are we prioritizing, how are we going to fund it, who is doing what, and making sure that the feedback on the result of that information is not only easily connected back to those management questions so that decision makers understand why we did that research and what it means for the next suite of decisions, but also that we’re not duplicating efforts or missing big holes in research we should be doing.”

As we move forward into a more uncertain world with climate change, we need to be willing to take some risks, said Ms. Pierre, acknowledging an unwillingness on the part of decision makers to make a decision that might not work.

We need to get in the space where it’s okay to do something that might fail, but we are also setting up a science program that allows us to learn from those failures – a safe to fail concept,” she said.  “That was something we were really pushing within the voluntary agreement governance structure when we were having that conversation was really getting to a space where we’re collectively failing and we’re collectively succeeding where it wasn’t about blame or who was responsible for that so we could safely implement those experiments.”

We also need to be honest with ourselves about what we know and what we don’t know, what uncertainties we have, how large are those uncertainties, how certain are some of our certainties and do so in a way that allows us to ask questions that maybe up until now we haven’t been that comfortable asking because we didn’t want to admit that there were uncertainties around certain things we were doing,” she continued.  “So getting to a space where we’re all on the same team, under the umbrella of these management questions is going to help us advance the totality of our science program and allow us to plug in a way that meets all the needs.”

Lastly, how can we synthesize information more quickly to inform the decisions?  Ms. Pierre acknowledged that partly that’s it’s because there aren’t really a lot of dedicated positions available to synthesize information, and oftentimes it’s done on a volunteer basis.

But do we have the right systems in place in order to take the data we have for 2018 and really help it inform 2019 and 2020 rather than five years later, we get a report,” said Ms. Pierre.  “So what’s the right balance on the data we’re collecting and how it informs decisions, again going back to defining certainty and safe to fail so we are actually able to make that step forward.”

PAUL SOUZA: The decade of flow

Paul Souza, Regional Director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, offered five points:

The first is the importance of synthesis.  It’s really important for policy makers to have an understanding of how the different lines of evidence and different research fit together, Mr. Souza said.  For example, the Delta smelt is a multifaceted problem: there’s a habitat restoration component, a water quality component, a flow component, an invasive species component, and a water temperature component, and figuring out how all of these issues fit together is critical for defining a conservation strategy that can be successful.

We need to try some things because what we’ve been doing isn’t working,” said Mr. Souza.  “The species condition has only been declining for as long as any of us can remember, so it’s important for us to try things that are based on science and have a scientifically rigorous approach in place to determine whether or not they made a difference.”

He also cautioned against being focused on single species management as there can be unintended negative consequences to other species in the ecosystem.  “So taking it up to the next level and really being focused on what multi species require and having an ecosystem strategy is critical, and perhaps that’s the ultimate synthesis of how do we best manage the resources that we can for the greatest good.”

The second point is flow. Flow is arguably the third rail in California water; it’s pretty easy to see polarization when that conversation comes up,” said Mr. Souza.  “I would argue that from a management perspective, we have more to learn but we had significant signature advancements in the past decade.  I think the next decade needs to be the ‘decade of flow’.  I think we need to continue to challenge ourselves to understand what habitat benefits and hopefully fisheries population increases that we get from different amounts of flow in different water year types.”

It’s a fair question for people to ask what are the benefits for that amount of water, so we need to develop a scientifically rigorous strategy with hypotheses and performance metrics and then conduct the action and see what it happens, he said.

Let’s make the next decade the decade of flow and figure that out with scientific rigor,” he said.

The third point is the need to prioritize habitat restoration.  Although we all want more money for science and conservation, Mr. Souza noted that he’s worked in a lot of different places in the country, and there’s no place like California in terms of capacity: amazing leadership and relatively a lot of money from the state as well as federal programs with significant investments such as the Central Valley Project Improvement Act, so having a better framework to prioritize habitat restoration would be really helpful for all of us.

In the Sacramento Valley, they are working on revitalizing floodplains and slowing the water down and letting it spread across the landscape.  It’s good for fish and birds.  But the question is, what projects should we start with?

If we had a common scientific currency about habitat restoration projects, it would help us be better and help us get earlier successes, which breeds future success that is very meaningful,” said Mr. Souza.  “So I challenge the scientific community to help us with that common currency so we can move away from random acts of conservation and the projects that just happen to be ripe, and make sure we’re getting the most important things done in an order.

The fourth point is hatcheries.  “Some of our fish are in such bad shape, I think we need to be more aggressive with captive propagation,” said Mr. Souza.  “I’m a big fan of Rio Vista.  We’re expanding our propagation efforts as we can right now with existing facilities for Delta smelt.  Rio Vista is exciting to me because it’s a chance for multi-faceted group of scientists from different organizations to get together to talk about the Delta, and at the same time, expand our propagation on site.”

Delta smelt need more captive propagation in my view,” he continued.  “The scientific community seemed not in consensus about this a few years ago, but I feel like that’s changed now and I’d love to see more active experimentation with captive propagation to we can see if we can make a difference.  Longfin are struggling as well; there are a host of fisheries in the Delta that are on the list that are going to need attention, and I think to the extent that we can be more aggressive with science and captive propagation, it’s in our in interest.”

The fifth point is the human dimension.  “I think we need professional help in California,” Mr. Souza said.  “I’ve spent a lot of my formative years in the Fish and Wildlife Service in the Everglades, and we had a $20 billion restoration project over 30 years that we were able to convince the state of Florida and the US Congress to fund … There was a disparate group of interests that put their differences aside and came together and instead focused on the common ground.  And that’s the power of Everglades restoration.  Compromise is a strength.  It’s not a weakness.  I’ve been in California in this position now for four years and we are stuck in many cases in the old ways of thinking, and I would love to get some help, so some science expertise, leaders in the scientific community that can bring people together and in the end, help us with that very difficult conversation about trade-offs and optimization of as many of the variables that we can achieve.”


Question: Dr. John Callaway said that as a restoration ecologist he appreciates the focus on restoration.  “To me, I think one of the real challenges is not just looking at restoration or flow, it’s looking at restoration and flow, and thinking about how we connect up flow so that it’s used effectively with restoration.  So do you have any thoughts how we can address that issue?

Jennifer Pierre agreed.  “I think we could be doing a lot more science on what is that landscape and flow interaction, what is it generating, what types of ecosystem functions are occurring there, and then how does that inform how we design select sites and implement actions to try to recreate those ecosystem functions that we want as much as we possibly can, as well as potentially even avoid some that we may learn we don’t want to see.  So I think that really is where a lot of the thinking has been headed.”

On the Sacramento River, what they’ve been looking at is what is that landscape water interface and how do you maximize the use of both, because we don’t have unlimited water and we don’t have unlimited land, but we know that we need both in order to create the conditions that we’re seeking for the fish in our ecosystem, so I think targeted science on those specific areas would be really valuable, to learn what we should be doing and what we should be doing more of.”

Paul Souza said it’s the other side of the same coin: flow and restoration go together and we have to be thinking about those two issues at the same time.  “If you put water in a highly channelized system and it moves too fast, it could not provide the level of benefits that otherwise it would.  Maybe there would be benefits of that water moving at an accelerated rate into the estuary in the estuary part of the equation, but clearly not the same kind of floodplain benefits that you’re going to get if you knock down some of the berms and levees, spread that water across the landscape that would help with groundwater and also create habitat for fish and birds at the same time.  You can’t really think about one without the other.”

Campbell Ingram said that the way the Conservancy evaluates proposals is to bring together technical teams to evaluate them, so if there are four or five different scientists on the team, there are probably multiple different understandings of the flow-habitat relationship.  “Having a body of scientific understanding that is more widely distributed … something that helps more in guidance for all of us to have a shared understanding of what we think those relationships are and that can then inform and cascade down through the decision making process.”

Question: Steve Brandt asked, from the panel’s perspective, is it wise to pursue centralized scientific direction or do you think it would be of benefit to incorporate a more federated approach when organizing Delta science to answer the prime questions?

Jennifer Pierre said that some of the bottom-up research has been amazing, such as DWR using COVID-19 genetic approaches for the ecosystem, so she doesn’t want to hamper that.  “What I was suggesting was really more having an umbrella of management questions so that as those ideas come up, there are clearly linked to the broader management questions.  I certainly wouldn’t want to create a top down science program that didn’t allow for that level of creativity, but I do think their work should be able to be linked to what are we trying to understand and hopefully we have enough foresight in developing those management questions to capture what the big questions are.  I wouldn’t want to suggest that we should not leave space for that to occur.”

Paul Souza said that in his experience, the most effective science for policy makers has a wonderful mix of bottom up and top down at the same time.  “There is an amazing amount of science that’s being completed right now in California,” he said.  “But I can’t tell you what all of that science is.  I’m not sure how much of it is actual science for policy makers.  We have a lot of science investment that are kind of long term, long series needs that help the big picture, but I would always invite more conversations about the science investments across all of the different programs that we see so that we’re getting actionable science.  We have to make decisions in real time.  We don’t have 5 or 10 years to wait, and I think a healthy dialog that’s bottom up and top down at the same time will increase the portion of science that is actionable by policy makers.”

If history is any indication and taking social science into consideration, any attempts to develop a top-down approach in our very diffuse system would utterly fail so it’s good to be comfortable with a federated system,” said Campbell Ingram.

Question:  Both Paul Souza and Jennifer Pierre talked about the need to take risks and to try new things in science and in restoration and in our management, and I think that is an incredibly important point.  I wanted to highlight that for restoration and for other management needs that we have, permitting and process right now does hinder our ability to take risks.  It is hard to try something new and it can take a very long time to get permission to do so.  I wanted to get your thoughts on what can we be doing now to streamline process and our opportunity to take those risks?

Jennifer Pierre said that the State Water Contractors are very supportive of the Cutting the Green Tape Initiative that the California Natural Resources Agency has been promoting which they hope will advance restoration.

With these species that we’re trying to monitor for that are rare, we have to figure out ways to monitor that doesn’t require a take permit because it’s going to be more and more difficult and that is something we ran into in 2017 of not really being able to implement some of the studies we needed to do,” Ms. Pierre said.  “I’m relying on you to be creative about how you monitor so that you can reduce the permits that are necessary to do the monitoring that we think is so important.  Then on the restoration side, it is cutting the green tape.”

With respect to the Science Action Agenda, Ms. Pierre reiterated the need for the various science to be transparent about how what they are doing actually links back to it.  “That’s one of the missing connections that we continue to have,” she said.  “That’s something that we’ll commit to as part of our science program is to say, ‘we’re funding this research, here’s how it links with this question’ and so we can track that.  Hopefully the IEP, which is the largest science program, can do the same.  I think that’s going to be critical for decision makers to understand why is IEP doing the study and why it matters to them.  If there’s buy in on the science action agenda, then it’s going to be easy for people to be supportive of the work that’s being done in order to implement that agenda.”

Mr. Souza also supports the state’s leadership in cutting the green tape.  He pointed out there are federal tools such as programmatic approaches that can be permitted with a large but focused effort rather than having to permit project by project, as long as they fit certain criteria.  It’s a strategy they’ve used with success in other places.

We need to have courage,” Mr. Souza said.  “I can’t help but remember a conversation we had around the enhanced Delta smelt monitoring program.  There is a fear about take associated with some of these activities, and it takes some courage and willingness to take some risk to learn.  Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring in my view has taught us so much about the species distribution, both good and bad, and we have to be willing to take some risk if we think it’s going to give us information that’s going to help us with our broader strategy.”


The next discussion session will be held online on July 28.  Keep an eye on Maven’s calendar or the Delta Stewardship Council events page for more information.


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