DELTA STEWARDSHIP COUNCIL: Integrating social sciences in the Delta

Integrating the social sciences into environmental science and management in the Delta can contribute to a better understanding of the people who live, work, and recreate in and around the estuary, how the region impacts their health and well-being, and how their behaviors influence environmental issues.  At the February meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, the Council’s Social Science Integration Team gave a presentation on their ongoing efforts to increase interdisciplinary science into the work at the Council and the Delta Science Program.  Then, Dr. Mark Lubell, director of the Center of Environmental Policy and Behavior, followed with a presentation on their ongoing research into the Delta science enterprise and some of the results of the Delta science stakeholders survey.  Lastly, for the Delta Lead Scientist report, Dr. Laurel Larsen spotlighted an article summarizing a recent symposium on eDNA and the Delta.

Social science integration

Integrating the social sciences into environmental management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta means a better understanding of the people who live, work, and recreate in and around the estuary, how the region impacts their health and well-being, and how their behaviors influence environmental issues.  Having this understanding helps decision-makers in managing complex social-ecological systems.

For the past several years, the Delta Stewardship Council has worked to integrate the social sciences into their work by developing a Social Science Integration Team to reach across the agency’s divisions to identify opportunities and support the integration of social science approaches into the Council’s science, planning, communication, and public participation activities.

At the February meeting of the Delta Stewardship Council, the Social Science Integration Team, led by Dr. Jessica Rudnick, California Sea Grant extension specialist housed within the Delta Stewardship Council, reported on their progress.

Why social science?

The Delta is a complicated, messy social-ecological system.  There are many different uses, competing resources, and a whole slew of various actors and entities with some decision-making authority in the system.

“These issues often come in conflict with one another,” said Dr. Rudnick.  “That means we have very different social dimensions at play that we don’t understand very well.  We have a lot of science on the ecological side of the system and a lot less scientific, rigorous approach to understanding those social dynamics.  And as the Stewardship Council is tasked with making decisions based on best available science or science-informed decisions, we need to have social science to inform those decisions.”

Social sciences can inform governance structures and design, improve equity of processes and outcomes, and incorporate understandings of human behavior into management plans or interventions.  Social sciences include many disciplines with theories about how people and social processes work.  Different tools can be applied to various problems.

The Social Science Integration Team has developed a multi-phase plan centered on three goals:

Awareness and capacity building:  This is building an understanding of the social sciences and the types of questions we should be looking at.  We need to recruit the people and tools with the right expertise, develop relationships, and foster connections across disciplines and sectors.

Build relationships and knowledge basis:  The Council is committed to doing this in a co-production or collaboratively production-based process with those interested in better understanding, such as decision-makers, managers, and community members that live in the Delta.  “We know through social science that bringing people in to do the science with us builds a more relevant body of scientific knowledge that’s trusted,” she said.

Integrate and implement learnings:  The team is committed to integrating diverse forms of knowledge and expertise, which means data collection programs that focus on these elements of the system.   “Once we have those relationships and knowledge starting to grow, we can integrate and actually implement what we learn,” said Dr. Rudnick.  “Then we can develop more integrated tools and models that examine how social and ecological dimensions interplay.  We can understand human behaviors and design management and policy approaches that address those behaviors.  We can do a better job accounting for equity and make decisions that take into account power and equity dimensions.  And we can build a learning process into our decision-making.”

The Social Science Integration Team has many different activities across the Council that they’ve been working on, only some of which will be highlighted in the presentation.  Other activities include adding more integrated interdisciplinary research priorities to the Science Action Agenda, adding a social dimension to the ecosystem amendment, and building a social science community of practice.

Advancing Interdisciplinary Research event

Beck Barger, Manager of public participation, then briefed the Council on the Advancing Interdisciplinary Research training and workshop held in October of 2022.

Interdisciplinary science is not merely outreach and education or simply providing more information to encourage change.

“If you had the pleasure of hearing Dr. E MacDonald’s presentation from the training, she references this quandary by explaining that through years of psychological research, we’ve learned that those with the most knowledge can actually take the least action; this is called learned helplessness,” she said.  “And those with the highest environmental attitudes can actually do the most damage; that’s called optimism bias.  So, on that thread, psychological diversity is necessary for a healthy community.”

“Social science isn’t about changing opinions,” she continued.  “It’s about understanding and accepting the values of a community.  And values can’t be changed, but behavior can.  When a project incorporates interdisciplinary approaches, the ability to change behaviors and gain community buy-in increases, which improves the overall success of the project.”

The team decided that awareness connections were needed most to help more professionals embrace the benefits of interdisciplinary work.  So, in October of 2022, they hosted a two-part event to advance the understanding and use of interdisciplinary science.  The training portion focused on what social science can offer.  The subsequent workshop allowed participants to develop mock interdisciplinary proposals while building relationships across disciplines.

Interdisciplinary can mean many things, but Ms. Barger noted that the training and the workshop emphasized social and ecological collaboration.

Participant polls

The shop was attended by 86 scientists, of which 64% identified as natural physical scientists, 34% as interdisciplinary scientists, and 21% as social scientists.  (Ms. Barger explained that it adds up to 123% because attendees could choose more than one category.)

When asked to identify what is inhibiting interdisciplinary science progress in the Delta, 77% identified a lack of understanding of how to do the work, 49% identified a lack of opportunities for collaboration, and 48% identified a lack of funding and incentive.  Again, attendees could choose multiple barriers.

When asked what is needed to facilitate more interdisciplinary work in the Delta, there was a strong correlation between the perceived barriers and the perceived solutions.  68% said training, 66% said funding, and 57% said collaborative work opportunities.

When asked what opportunities would benefit from this approach, attendees highlighted collaboration with agricultural communities for regenerative farming, wetland restoration guidelines for ecosystem services, drought scenario planning focused on community impacts, and others.

“As we look forward into the Council’s future, we hope to see more interdisciplinary science funded through the PSN.  And we hope to provide more training and collaborative opportunities like AIR, as these are clearly needed by the scientific community to better serve our population,” said Ms. Barger.  “While the AIR event provided a platform to build an understanding of social sciences to the scientific community specifically, we’ll now explore how social science can facilitate better collaborative community relationships.”

Assessment of Inroads for Traditional Knowledge in Delta Science and Decision-Making

Next, Dr. Chelsea Batavia, a senior environmental scientist in the adaptive management unit of the Delta science program, briefed the Council on the team’s efforts to foster understanding and collaboration that bridges different knowledge traditions, such as indigenous knowledge.

The Delta science program, as well as other state and federal agencies, tend to rely almost exclusively on Western science at present.   But since time immemorial, long before Western settlement, indigenous peoples have employed different ways of knowing.  Sometimes this is referred to as traditional knowledge or traditional ecological knowledge.

Traditional knowledge is a term of Western academic origins generally referring to the place based knowledge of indigenous peoples.  Traditional knowledge has many different definitions, but most emphasize its holistic qualities.

On the left of the slide is a figure by Nicholas Houde that depicts the six bases of traditional ecological knowledge, which incorporates factual observations, localized resource management systems, knowledge of past and current land use and occupancy, ethical beliefs and values often emphasizing respect and reciprocity, and culture and identity.  All of them are unified within an overarching cosmology or worldview.

“Indigenous peoples and their traditional knowledge have supported diverse, flourishing communities of human and non-human beings with holistic approaches, landscapes stewardship across time, and ecological context,” said Dr. Batavia.

The map on the right was produced by Dr. Don Hankins with CSU Chico; it depicts the ancestral homelands and the story scape or “the sacred geography of creation landscape” in the Delta watershed region.  Dr. Batavia pointed out that the map is specific to the Plains Valley Miwok and is one example of the many Native American peoples who historically inhabited and currently inhabit the landscape.

“Native American peoples were brutally displaced from their homelands by Western colonial settlers in the Delta, across California and around the world, and obstructed from using their traditional knowledge,” said Dr. Batavia.  “Native American tribes resisted and combated these legacies of colonial settlement by preserving, adapting, and revitalizing their traditional knowledge.”

Increasingly with direction from the governor’s office and the California Natural Resources Agency, state agencies are seeking ways to work with tribes in these efforts.  One of the ways the Delta Science Program is working to inform these initiatives is by assessing inroads for traditional knowledge in Delta science and decision-making.

For the assessment, the staff is tracking recent, current, and planned activities within DPIIC agencies that serve as inroads for Native American tribes to use their traditional knowledge in the Delta watershed and to inform Delta governance.  The assessment has multiple components, including a staff-led group literature review of 90 scholarly publications summarized systematically, an annotated bibliography that will be synthesized for various audiences, an assessment of DPIIC agency activities using web-based research, and qualitative analysis of publicly available documents supplemented by interviews with agency staff and managers.

The project also seeks to build upon and strengthen collaborations with regional tribes by representing their perspectives about what agencies are doing well and how agencies can improve to better support and facilitate tribes’ use of their traditional knowledge in the Delta watershed.

“We’ll catalog, synthesize, and evaluate what we learn and report and other communication products to be determined,” said Dr. Batavia.  “The assessment advances social science integration goals around engagement and coproduction and builds understanding of the institutional structures and processes that enable or inhibit the expression of different cultures and knowledge systems in the Delta watershed.  We hope this work will ultimately promote equity and enhance inclusiveness in spaces currently dominated by Western science.”

Science for Communities

Cory Copeland, a senior environmental scientist in the performance management unit in the Planning Division, discussed the Science for Communities initiative.

The main goal of Science for Communities is to bring scientists and community organizations together to build trust, grow networks, and help scientists make their work more relevant to the communities their science is studying.

The initiative held a workshop on October 6, 2022, at the Big Break regional shoreline in Oakley, California.  The event was attended by about a half dozen community-based organizations and thirteen scientists from various academic and state agencies.  Presentations were made on science work being done to address critical issues, such as HABs, homelessness, water quality issues, and disadvantaged community issues.  Work is beginning on planning for the next Science for Communities event.

Delta Adapts

The Delta Adapts project is a large multidisciplinary project through which the Council works with communities using the best available science to advance climate change adaptation.

The flood analysis simulated countless atmospheric rivers and then connected them to sea level rise and tidal conditions to project where flooding would occur.

To connect the flooding projections to social science and community impacts, they developed a social vulnerability index, which includes demographics such as the percentage of those who are disabled, living in poverty, elderly, and other factors.  This analysis shows if the community is socially vulnerable to flooding and the scope of flooding impacts.

They also did two economic impact assessments.  The first looked at the value of assets that would be flooded; the second looked at job losses and other economic impacts of flooding.  Other assessments considered water supply and agriculture.

Mr. Copeland said they are doing extensive outreach on the adaptation plan and doing more economic analysis to fully understand benefit-cost ratios for adaptation work.

“We have more metrics than ever, and many of these are social,” he said.  “We’re doing a lot of outreach.  So in sum, we think this is probably the largest multidisciplinary project that connects natural and social work in our agency’s history.  And we’re excited to highlight it as a way that social science integration is happening at the Delta Stewardship Council.”

Delta residents survey

The team is conducting a detailed survey of Delta residents, with the goal of better understanding what people living in the Delta think about Delta issues, how they connect to the region, or what their experiences are with climate change impacts.  Staff is working with Sacramento State’s Institute for Social Research to conduct the survey.

“We don’t have any of this data, said Dr. Rudnick.  “We have a ton of ecological monitoring, but we have very, very little social monitoring.”

At the end of January, 80,000 invitations to participate were sent to Delta residents by regular mail.  The goal is to get a demographically and geographically representative sample in which they can have confidence that the data represents the broader population at large.

“That being said, we hope to see about 2% of people respond because we all get a lot of junk mail,” said Dr. Rudnick.  “If we get 2000 responses, we would be thrilled.  So right now, the data is coming in, and we’ll be excited to share those responses with you all later this year.”

In conclusion …

“We hope this was illustrative of how we’re working on different dimensions across different scales to integrate social science and work towards a more holistic social-ecological approach to studying and managing the Delta,” said Dr. Rudnick.

DR. MARK LUBELL: Governing science in the Delta

Dr. Mark Lubell is a professor at the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at UC Davis and the director of the Center of Environmental Policy and Behavior.  His presentation focused on his ongoing work on science governance in the Delta.

He began by noting that the connection between science and policy in the Delta is important.  The sharing of different types of knowledge to inform policy in the Delta is done in the context of the Delta science enterprise.  The Delta Science Program is the core organization of the Delta science enterprise, which is the collection of science programs and activities that serve managers and stakeholders in a regional system.  The elements of an enterprise range from in-house programs within single agencies or other organizations, to large-scale collaborative science programs funded by governments, to academic research that may operate independently of management and stakeholder entities.

The map on the slide is one of the first maps of a social network that represents the Delta Science Enterprise.  It shows the number of collaborative forums such as DPIIC, CAMT, the IEP, and the organizations that participate.  The map represents the complex system of the science enterprise in which scientific knowledge is generated and delivered to the Delta for adaptive management.

Phil Isenberg, former chair of the Delta Stewardship Council and longtime California Water veteran, once said, “Public policy is almost always a mess.  Let’s acknowledge the inevitable and figure out how to manage a messy situation.  Trying to define a policy “problem” is hard enough.  Trying to find a solution is even harder.  Trying to do either in a policy-making structure in which everyone is involved, but nobody is in charge, is nearly impossible.”

“That’s the sort of system we have to think about in terms of the Delta Science Enterprise and how to solve the governance issues involved in that sort of system,” said Dr. Lubell.

His research seeks to answer four questions:

  • What aspects of the complex Bay-Delta social-ecological system should we observe?
  • How can we integrate knowledge, collaboration, and the scientific workflow across the science enterprise?
  • How do we link scientific and other kinds of knowledge to policy decisions and adaptive management?
  • How do we sustain the science enterprise?

To study these questions, Dr. Lubell’s team performed interviews, conducted surveys, held workshops, and convened a science governance focus group.  Currently, they are working on coding interviews with CSAMP participants, conducting interviews with leaders of science programs, and supporting Dr. Rudnick in her analysis of the Delta Community Survey.

Delta science stakeholder survey

Tara Pozzi, a mixed methods social scientist focused on climate change adaptation, decision-making, and collaboration networks at UC Davis, then discussed some of the findings from the Delta science stakeholder survey.

The survey was distributed to various forums and listservs in the fall of 2021.  They received 222 responses, 180 of which were used for the analysis.

Most respondents were from state agencies and filled many different roles for the science enterprise, including science communication, science to support management decisions, science synthesis, and providing scientific advice to policymakers.  They also worked on many different issues, the most common being water quality and contaminants, climate change, and ecosystem restoration, and the least common being biodiversity other than fisheries, and economic development.

Respondents were asked how well they perceived the Delta science enterprise is accomplishing its objectives; they were given statements and asked to what extent they agreed with the statement.  The results are shown on the slide below.  The gold and yellow represent disagreement, and the blue and turquoise indicate agreement.  The responses are ordered from highest agreement to lowest agreement.

“Over half of the survey respondents agreed that the science enterprise has integrated different types of science to understand the Delta and has helped overcome conflictual issues,” said Ms. Pozzi.  “However, the majority are dissatisfied with the progress that’s been made in identifying solutions to problems.  Monitoring, policy implementation, and interpreting management are policy implications from science in the Delta.  So essentially, the key finding is that the science enterprise has helped develop knowledge, and it’s been useful for this, but it hasn’t been as useful as connecting to policy and predicting future problems.”

Respondents were asked how they perceived the science enterprise’s ability to link science to policy.  For these questions, respondents selected their primary forum and then answered a set of questions on that forum’s performance.  The slide below shows the breakdown of respondents by primary forum.  Most respondents identified the Interagency Ecological Program Work Team as their primary forum.

Respondents were then asked how effective their primary forum has been with various Delta management goals.  The results are shown on the slide below.  The goals were based on the Delta plan’s nine-step adaptive management cycle, so each question related to either the plan stage (shown in red), or do stage (shown in green), or evaluate and respond stage (blue).

“Overall, respondents reported their forum was most effective during parts of the planning stage, and least effective during parts of the do stage, when designing and implementing action and monitoring plans,” said Ms. Pozzi.  “There were varying results for the evaluate and respond stage.”

“Respondents felt that their forum was most effective at communicating science to decision-makers and analyzing and synthesizing data to evaluate management,” she continued.  “The fact that this did score so highly really points out that these steps are critical for the adaptive management cycle beyond just the evaluate and response stage.  I also want to note that there is a wide spread of responses for every response category from zero to 100.  This suggests that each forum plays a unique role in the adaptive management cycle and may not contribute to all stages.”

Respondents were asked about their satisfaction with their primary forum.  The results are shown on the slide below.  Over 60% responded that they are satisfied with the amount of participant interaction, presence of effective leadership, and transparency of information sharing outside of the forum.  About 50% said they were dissatisfied with financial resources, and 40% with the level of staffing and engagement with Delta stakeholders.

“Additionally, we modeled the relationship between respondents’ level of satisfaction with their forum and the effectiveness of that forum to meet adaptive management goals,” said Ms. Pozzi.  “We found that social and institutional factors played a much larger role than resources.  Effective leadership, trust among participants, representative engagement, and coordination with other science forums were the highest predictors of forum effectiveness.”

There were also several qualitative response questions in the survey; some responses are shown on the slide below.   Respondents were also asked what the top science needs the Delta science enterprise is not currently addressing and what suggestions respondents had for top priorities; those answers are also shown on the slide.

Dr. Lubell then presented recommendations based on their research, noting that these are not all from the same effort and more recommendations will be forthcoming.  He also noted that some of these are from their empirical knowledge, and others evolved from professional judgment via ongoing conversations and policy engagement.

“One of our core recommendations is developing a Science Enterprise Leadership Consortium, which I likened to the DPIIC for science, so that the different scientists are talking with each other as much as possible,” said Dr. Lubell.

He noted that there are technical issues to consider.  One is figuring out how to resolve scale mismatches between status and trends and effectiveness monitoring in real-time forecasting and population dynamics.

“There are long-term monitoring efforts, like the IEP, which are spread out over space and over time, and it does a good job at getting at trends and population dynamics,” said Dr. Lubell.  “But when it comes to monitoring effectiveness, like some management decision, maybe closing a gate or something like that, that decision is done in a very short term, and maybe spatially proximate.”

“There’s ongoing research that needs to keep going to keep researching these organizations and social barriers to collaboration so that we can come up with more concrete recommendations and institutional changes,” he continued.  “There are hundreds of scientists working on things like the IEP that is the ecological side of the monitoring.  But on the social side, there’s just a few of us working on the social monitoring, so we need to increase the investment to make the two sides of the social-ecological science more balanced.”

DELTA LEAD SCIENTIST REPORT: eDNA techniques for addressing biodiversity and management concerns in estuarine systems

This month, Dr. Laurel Larsen spotlighted the article, Environmental DNA Methods for Ecological Monitoring and Biodiversity Assessment in Estuaries, which summarizes a workshop that the Science Program co-sponsored with the UC Davis Coastal and Marine Science Institute in January 2020 on environmental DNA, or eDNA.

Advances in genetic technology are infiltrating nearly every discipline and many sectors of daily life, and environmental science is no exception.  Much like forensics, where fragments of skin, fingernails, or hair left behind could link us to a crime scene or verify that we were present at least somewhat recently at a particular location, the cells that organisms shed throughout the environment can be used similarly.

So how does eDNA work?  It starts with collecting a water sample from a location of interest; the DNA shed from organisms is suspended in the water samples.

Two different techniques are used for analysis:

Quantitative PCR (or qPCR) identifies the fragments of DNA unique to a particular species through an assay.  This technique is best suited for research questions asking whether a particular species, such as the Delta smelt or a new invasive species, uses a habitat or whether a known pathogen might afflict a particular species in a specific location.

Metabarcoding is a technique that allows for the simultaneous identification of many taxa within the same sample.  This process takes much longer but generates a richer set of data.

Environmental DNA has the distinct advantage of being able to sample the environment in a non-invasive way, as opposed to traditional sampling, which relies on catching fish and runs the risk of injury or death to the species.  Some species have behaviors that make them harder to catch, so eDNA is a good way to detect species that are inherently challenging to catch.  And eDNA can be used to monitor environments such as shallow shoals and wetlands that sampling boats can have difficulty accessing.

However, Dr. Larsen noted that using eDNA to understand patterns of species abundance and where those species are found is still in its infancy.

The figure on the right shows the types of organisms that can be detected using eDNA.  The different lines and symbols indicate whether an assay is available, has been tested in the San Francisco Estuary, or is available at all.

“There’s not yet an assay for each species that we might be interested in monitoring in the Delta,” said Dr. Larsen.  “There are very few assays that have been specifically honed for the Bay Delta, which needs to be done before widespread monitoring applications as eDNA has different decay rates and patterns of decay in different environments.”

The 2020 workshop this article summarized was designed to synthesize knowledge on the state of the science of eDNA and explore its broader application to meet management goals for the Bay-Delta.  The authors pointed out that expanding the use of eDNA is consistent with established monitoring protocols already being used in the European Union and the Midwestern US.  Dr. Larsen also noted that the Delta ISB also called for greater integration of eDNA into monitoring in their monitoring enterprise report last year.

“This spotlight paper also makes a convincing argument for a concerted investment in further eDNA studies for the Bay Delta, which is a call that the Science Program has taken seriously,” she said.  “Two of the projects we funded in our 2021 PSN focus on expanding eDNA applications in the Delta.”

“I’ll conclude by saying that this cycle of convening symposia and commissioning written products to synthesize knowledge on emerging scientific techniques, which results in investment and emergent research priorities, is a great illustrative example of the Delta Science Program’s role in really moving the needle on best available science in the Delta.”

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