DELTA AGENCY UPDATES: Carbon capture in the Delta is up; Recreation in the Delta, not so much …

The Delta Stewardship Council’s December meeting included updates from the Delta Conservancy and the Delta Protection Commission.

Activities of the Delta Conservancy: Grant programs, carbon capture, easements, and juvenile salmon habitat

Grant programs

Delta Conservancy Executive Officer Campbell Ingram began with an update on the Delta Conservancy’s grant programs.  Under Proposition One, passed by the voters in 2014, the Delta Conservancy was allocated $50 million for ecosystem restoration in the Delta.  Currently, the Conservancy has awarded funding to 29 projects for about $39 million of that $50 million with a potential ecological benefit on up to 8000 acres as a result.  Mr. Ingram pointed out that all of these projects were approved unanimously by all the county supervisors represented on the Delta Conservancy Board, which is a strong demonstration of local support for those projects.

The Conservancy intends to run the fifth and final solicitation for Proposition One projects this coming summer, which should be around $4-5 million of the remaining funding.  That program is ultimately starting to wind down in terms of funding availability, so they are hopeful that upcoming bond discussions will include additional funding for restoration in the Delta.  The grant guidelines for the final solicitation are expected to be released for public review after their January board meeting.

The Conservancy also was allocated $12 million from proposition 68 to promote recreation, tourism, and public access in the Delta.  That program is now open and is an open, non-competitive solicitation, so projects can come in at any time and work through the process. Nine concept proposals have been invited back to produce full proposals.  Mr. Campbell said that they work with applicants to help them prepare the proposals to be presented to the board with a recommendation. He noted that the proposals run the gamut, from historic preservation and local parks to support for visitor centers and trails all throughout the Delta.  They hope that the first of the full proposals will be ready for board consideration, likely at the March or May Conservancy board meetings.

Carbon capture in the Delta

The Delta Conservancy has been working for several years to produce a protocol that allows Delta farmers to consider rewetting their lands through rice cultivation and/or managed wetlands, ultimately to stop subsidence and the huge carbon emissions that result from that subsidence. The protocol allows them to quantify those emission reductions and certify offset credits and market them.

We continue to work with several public and private landowners on pilot projects, and we’re very excited to see more and more land being converted,” said Mr. Ingram.  “Next year, we expect about 2000 acres to be converted to rice plus another 1000 plus acres to be converted to managed wetlands. The Conservancy’s role is to work with those individuals to help them do the estimation quantification of their offsets and to help offset the cost of paying for the third-party validation of those offsets, which is required under the protocol. And then ultimately helping them market those resulting offsets so that they can get a revenue stream for the changed practice.”

Mr. Ingram noted that the California Air Resources Board has agreed to look very seriously at adopting our protocol into the compliance program.  In the coming years, the hope is that the carbon revenue will actually exceed most of the common commodity values grown in the most deeply subsided acres of the Delta.  He pointed out that the Water Resilience Portfolio indicated that state agencies should stop practices that cause subsidence in the Delta. The recent executive order on conserving lands and waters had an emphasis on wetlands. These are important strong drivers to continue this work in the Delta, he said.

Easements 

The Conservancy has been exploring conservation easements; the Conservancy is statutorily authorized to hold easements, although, in their 10-year history, there hasn’t been a strong need.  However, they have heard from other agencies that there is a need to hold conservation easements for mitigation and restoration work. So the Conservancy has been exploring the intricacies and complexities of what it means to hold easements and manage land and endowments, and how to do so effectively.

Mr.  Ingram noted that DWR has a relatively small project that will need an easement, so Conservancy staff are shadowing the process to make sure they understand what they need to know and will bring a decision to the board in 2021 about whether or not this is something that we think they can do effectively and something that they should be doing.

Juvenile salmon study

Towards the end of last year, the Conservancy finalized a juvenile salmon rearing habitat study for the Delta, jointly funded by the Conservancy and the Delta Stewardship Council.  The expectation was to do a wide outreach, including presentations to the Council, the Conservancy Board, and others, and then the pandemic hit, and it fell by the wayside.  So they want to reenergize that effort and return at a future Council meeting for a brief presentation on the study.

Activities of the Delta Protection Commission: Recreation and tourism in the Delta

Delta Protection Commission Executive Officer Erik Vink focused his presentation on the update of the recreation and tourism chapter of the Economic Sustainability Plan for the Delta.

The 2009 Delta Reform Act directed the Commission to complete an Economic Sustainability Plan for the Delta with the intention being for it to be the basis of recommendations to inform the Council’s efforts to protect and enhance the unique Delta values as called for in the statute.  The Commission’s 2012 adoption of the Economic Sustainability Plan led to recommendations, some of which have made their way into the Delta Plan.  There is a suite of recommendations in Chapter five of the Delta Plan related to recreation and tourism in the Delta.

The 2009 legislation also required the commission to update the Economic Sustainability Plan periodically.  The chapter on agriculture was recently updated, as previous reports to the Council have discussed.  Since 2019, the Commission has been updating the recreation and tourism chapter and is currently presenting it to interested parties.

Recreation in the Delta is on the decline

Mr. Vink noted that there had been some changes since 2012, most notably that the Delta now has a National Heritage Area designation. The Commission and the Conservancy have jointly worked together on the Delta marketing task force, which has resulted in the visit California Delta website, which is a great source of information for activities in the Delta region.  They are also jointly working on Delta signage and branding.  The Commission has also been working on the Great Delta Trail’s planning effort, something that has long been thought about, but in the last several years, they have stepped up their activity to advance the planning effort.

However, the state of the condition for recreation in the Delta is not in good shape and can’t be considered as thriving.  “What we see in the Delta is mirrored elsewhere, which is a declining participation in outdoor recreation,” Mr. Vink said.  “Since the 2012 Economic Sustainability Plan, we’ve documented a decrease in marinas in the Delta.  There has also been a decrease in recreation-related establishments located within the primary zone of the Delta, and that has declined by about 15 to 20%.”

Mr. Vink acknowledged that there have been some upswings in recreation trends in the Delta, mainly around agritourism, farms that have direct sale operations, farm stands, “you pick” operations, wine tasting facilities – those have all increased in the Delta region as well as the associated increases in income per farm for those type of operations as well.

However, the Delta competes with a lot of other regions in Northern California to attract tourism,” said Mr. Vink.  “If the Delta were anywhere else, it would be a real standout, but we’re competing with Napa Valley, the Greater Bay Area, Gold Country – even all the way to our wonderful national parks in the central Sierra.  So we’re a bit unique; we really have something special in this region, but we’re located in a region chock full of special places to visit.”

The market area defined for the Delta has increased by about 1.2 million people since 2012, which is defined as the area approximately 45 minutes away from the Delta, so it includes the Bay Area, a good part of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys, as well as the foothill region. Mr. Vink noted that while the population has increased, visitation is very similar to what was estimated in the 2012 report, about 12 million visitor days per year.  This includes everything from people taking a Sunday drive out to the old Sugar Mill to taste wine to people coming out to the Delta for a day of fishing and even bass fishing tournaments, which are incredibly popular. Any recreation-related activity that brings people out to the Delta region is included.

The economic impact of recreation and tourism activity shows a decline of about 20% in the Delta recreation economy.   “A lot of that is because the higher-value aspects of the recreation economy – and it doesn’t get any higher value than boatbuilding – those activities have declined in greater proportion to the retail-related activities where people are coming out for a day trip to the Delta where they are stopping at the store to buy a sandwich or putting gasoline in their vehicle,” said Mr. Vink. “So it’s about a 20% decline in direct spending in the Delta economy.”

Mr. Vink noted the contrast in the findings for recreation and tourism and that for Delta agriculture, which has not only retained but increased its valuation from the 2012 report.  Some of the changes are due to changes in the way people recreate.

When we conducted focus groups about what’s the what are the problems and what’s standing in the way of people recreating in the Delta, it’s not just the facilities that exist in the Delta,” he said. “It has to do with water quality, it has to do with invasive aquatic weeds which, interestingly, it’s a bit of a plus for people fishing, but it’s a real negative for anyone else doing boating recreation within the Delta region.”

He noted that some of the marinas have really deteriorated over the years, and as they deteriorate further, they become a haven for people living on boats.  “That’s fine in some instances, but if the boats are nearly derelict and abandoned, that it creates an impression that it’s just an area in decline and not a real attractive place to bring people who are just looking to enjoy a good time in the Delta region.”

They are working through a set of recommendations with interested parties, including local agencies, businesses, recreation providers, State Parks, and other state agencies interested in recreation and tourism in the Delta.

We’re going to work with them on these specific recommendations, many of which were included in the 2012 economic sustainability plan and so they still remain right even today, but this time with more of a focus on what do we specifically do moving forward to advance some of these particular recommendations.

Delta Plan recommendation R-12 talks about encouraging partnerships to support recreation and tourism and calls out both the Commission and the Conservancy to develop partnerships between state and local agencies and private parties.

So that’s really where we’re focused with our discussions. Currently, we had a thorough discussion of that last evening; we’re going to continue it with other people when we reconvene again in late January. And as that develops into a specific proposal and specific recommendation that I expect that we will take to our commission, I appreciate the opportunity to revisit that with the council as well. We recognize that the Commission and the Conservancy really are doing the lion’s share of this work. But we value the participation of Council staff. And we certainly hope that there might be added participation from Council staff because we need all the help we can get to continue to advance this.”

Predation: Is it bass fishing versus native species?

At the end of Mr. Vink’s presentation, Councilmember Maria Mehranian asked, “We have talked about the negative impact of bass on the ecosystem and Delta smelt and salmon specifically … In your comments, you said that it is very popular, and we are promoting that, or if we’re not promoting that, at least we are facilitating that. I was wondering … how do we balance out all that with the protection and enhancement of equal ecosystems in the Delta?

We are really observing what’s happening out in the Delta; we don’t have any active efforts related to managing the bass population,” said Mr. Vink.  “I continue to learn about aspects of that part of the recreation economy. And from a recreational fishing standpoint, it’s an outstanding resource – it’s one of the prized areas.  The Delta region is nationally recognized for that.   Most recently, this was addressed with the work that was coming out of the Department of Fish and Wildlife on what to do with Franks Tract …  they did great work, working collaboratively with both the local community and the recreational fishing community, which is largely bass fishing. And I think they’ve developed a proposal that really will respectful of both of those communities and will also improve ecosystem conditions.”

I don’t know how you control the spread of bass in the Delta ecosystem because the conditions are just so perfect for fostering them, and I really don’t know what the solution is to that,” Mr. Vink continued.  “I certainly recognize the role that they play on predation for these threatened and endangered fish, and at the same time, the Delta has often been compared to conditions similar to what you’d find at a bass lake anywhere in the country with warm water, and conditions that are really favorable to fostering those types of fish.”

As you can tell, I don’t have a good answer to this, but I want to learn from the people who know more. But we certainly recognize the benefit that makes to the recreations economy in the Delta. And so I can’t envision a situation under which bass fishing would disappear completely. We certainly had a situation where striped bass coexisted with a very healthy salmon population and Delta smelt population for decades and decades, so I’m not sure that just because there is bass in the Delta that that has led to such dire condition with our native fish.”

Councilmember Maria Mehranian pointed out that predation has been mentioned as a stressor in the Delta in numerous reports.  “It is really this question of ecosystem versus the economy?  How do we balance that?  There would be some rules and regulations to balance it all out in an ideal world. But I’m not sure if we have that.”

Delta Stewardship Council Executive Officer Jessica Pearson noted that the topic would be picked up when they continue their work on the ecosystem amendment.  “The main strategy that we had developed in draft form is to deal with these issues is really to ensure that we’re creating high-quality habitat in the right places for the right species so that they can thrive and compete in this system with invasives and a thriving bass population,” she said.  “That’s a big part of it is just making sure that we’re doing what we can to create the right kinds of conditions for native species, and making sure that that the food web can support those species.

Ms. Pearson pointed out that we’ve come a long way on the science in the last 10 years on these issues.  “There’s always been a debate as long as I’ve worked on these issues about bass and predation on listed species, and what we’ve found for the science that we and others have funded over the years is maybe that’s not quite as acute and widespread of his threat as we originally thought. Also, there’s a question of what can you really do about it? And where should we spend our resources? So I think that the debate continues, but the science seems to be telling us that maybe bass predation is not quite as much of a smoking gun as we once thought.”

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