IEP ANNUAL MEETING: Dr. Jay Lund: Floods, droughts, and climate change, oh my!

Dr. Jay R. Lund is Professor of Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.  Dr. Lund has research and teaching interests in the application of systems analysis, economic, and management methods to infrastructure and public works problems. His recent work is primarily in water resources and environmental system engineering, but with substantial work in solid and hazardous waste management, dredging and coastal zone management, and some dabbling in urban, regional, and transportation planning.

The Delta’s ecosystem and native species are in decline, despite the considerable efforts and resources devoted to reversing the trend.  In his plenary presentation at the Interagency Ecological Program’s Annual Meeting, Dr. Jay Lund emphasizes the need for proactive planning and acknowledges the importance of learning from failures.  He highlights how failures have influenced California’s water policies and plans.  Don’t be afraid of failure; rather, embrace it as an opportunity to learn and improve the system’s management.

Variability and change

In the last 100 years, California has changed its fundamental economic structure several times, which changes the shape of our water demands, the kinds of water demands, and the politics that drive the whole system.   He noted that as a country, we’ve gone from being a very poor society to one of the world’s richest societies, which is why we care about ecosystems now when we didn’t so much before.

California’s ecosystem and water management system has to deal with an environment full of variability and change.  There are probably no other water systems and ecosystems that have to deal with more natural variability and enhanced natural variability that climate change brings us.

The variability in the system is in many different timescales:  tidal timescale a couple of times a day; seasonal timescale: wet season, dry seasons; floods and drought years; levees that occasionally fail; and human variability of budgets, election cycles, and leadership.

“So we have a lot of variability that affects all of our plans, all of our monitoring programs, all of our modeling efforts, and our ability to develop that in a way that serves the whole community,” said Dr. Lund.

There are other forms of variability: climate change, invasive species, species composition, and channel geometry and connectivity.  “I think with the recent adoption of the West False River barriers, we should also be thinking about making permanent and temporary changes to the channel geometries in the Delta.  This is something that’s really been neglected.  We have a lot of technological capabilities, but I don’t know if we have the political will.  People get used to things being in this one spatial arrangement.  But we fundamentally altered that physical landscape in ways that probably are not God-given.  We might be able to think of some better ways to do it.  And I think we have the technology to do that.”

Our understanding has changed over time; we’ve come a long way with modeling and improving our understanding of the elements of the system, said Dr. Lund, although he noted we haven’t come as far in synthesis efforts.

Changes in economic structure and water demands are really important.  Urban water demands are not growing and will likely shrink over time.  In California, agricultural water demands have probably plateaued, and they’ll also have to shrink over time to meet the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Then there are political and regulatory changes, such as voluntary agreements.  If voluntary agreements don’t work, he said there will be one, two, three, or four other things we’ll try before finding something more likely to work.

The state of Delta ecosystems

California’s ecosystems are on a very unpromising trajectory for many species, with largely worsening conditions into the future, despite the very sizable regulatory structures, agencies, and resources that have been poured into trying to reverse the decline.

“I would agree that if we hadn’t done what we have done, it would be even worse,” said Dr. Lund.  “But I don’t think we’ve done enough, and I don’t think what we have done has been very well crafted from an engineering or larger scientific perspective.  It has been driven in many ways, politically.”

We’ve done little preparation for variability and change, he said.  The ecosystems have evolved in this highly variable system.  Some studies now show what happens to ecosystems during droughts and floods.

“So really, this system is driven by floods and droughts; our science and our integration of science needs to reflect that empirically and mechanistically,” he said.   “Our management tends to be very myopic and in a highly variable system that often leads you astray.  We have an ethos in management and in law that is reactive.  We want bad things not to happen, but we don’t really think very much about what’s the good thing we want to happen.  That’s a harder discussion, politically, socially, and scientifically.”

The organization of ecosystem management lacks sustainable accountability, resources, and mutually supporting authorities.  You could cover the slide with logos of all the different agencies and stakeholders involved in ecosystem management, and it’s hard to see how this system could work.  A similar compilation of logos for safe drinking water would include state, federal, and local agencies, and stakeholders, all with definite, mutually accountable, mutually supporting relationships, including funding that sustain the whole enterprise.

“We need to make ecosystem management as successful as safe drinking water management, which is still not perfect, but it’s 98% perfect,” said Dr. Lund.  “A lot of it is how do you build the relationships among the institutions – not blowing up boxes, but creating synergies across the boxes so that they have mutually supporting roles in a larger, well-organized science-based context.”

The closest he has seen to ecosystem management in California is the Central Valley Joint Venture for Waterbirds, which is an organization tying together the different private, NGO, state, federal, and regional authorities to produce common plans and form mutually sustaining relationships.

Managing with and through failure

In this grand adventure, you’re going to see failures.  Failures are not something to run away from; failures are things to run towards because failures provide many opportunities.  And you’re going to have failures anyway, Dr. Lund noted.

Whenever there’s an earthquake anywhere in the world, the geotechnical faculty at UC Davis and other academics go to see how things fail, so they can improve the building codes and building construction.  That ecosystem provides earthquake safety.  We should have a similar interest in failure here, Dr. Lund said.

“Failures bring resources; they bring focus both within and between agencies,” he said.  “They’re an educational opportunity.  We talk about engaging stakeholders, but they are busy people and don’t have much patience for us most of the time.  But bring them a failure, and they will at least give you the time of day.  So take advantage of it.  Sometimes you can get action out of it.”

“But the actions that you would like to see coming out of failures have to occur within a short window of opportunity before those busy stakeholders get diverted to many other things that they are also concerned with,” he added.

The other big problem is that our decentralized governance structure has difficulty deciding what kind of ecosystem we want.  It’s easy to say we should return to the past and make the ecosystem great again, but we can’t do that.

“We can’t make the ecosystem great again.  What can we do?  Our scientists cannot make those decisions.  But we can help frame and inform that discussion.  And that’s probably the bravest and perhaps most essential thing we can do strategically.  Who else is better to frame that than people that study this all the time?”

Adaptive management

People say the word adaptive management to mean all kinds of things; it usually means they promise to fix it later.

“I like the original meaning from the 1978 work that has modeling at the center of it, where you build models, you know the models are wrong, you know they’re imperfect, but they do help get your head together,” said Dr. Lund.  “They help provide a framework for combining mechanistic knowledge and empirical knowledge and improving that knowledge in a systematic way.  Anyone who’s done modeling knows that modeling is not completely transparent, but it’s probably more transparent than any other alternative.  We should use that to improve and test our thinking over time.”


The graph on the slide is a Pareto optimality curve.  Pareto optimality is an economic state where resources cannot be reallocated to make one individual better off without making at least one individual worse off.  Pareto efficiency implies that resources are allocated in the most economically efficient manner but does not imply equality or fairness.

There are many different interests in this system, fish and money being two of them.  On the graph, each star represents a different solution.  Each solution gets you a different amount of money or a different type of fish.

“The solutions that are interior are inferior; the ones out on the edge, it’s the best you can do,” said Dr. Lund.  “The slope at the point of the trade-offs you decide on is the trade-off between those two objects.”

The shape of that trade-off curve is important for the politics and the game theory of resolving ecosystem problems.  “Where you have a nice concave shape like this, there are reasons for compromise.  If it’s the opposite – a convex shape, then the people that want money and the people that want fish have a hard time compromising.  And so we want to avoid that; we want to try to have as much concavity in the shapes as possible.”

“We have alternatives to do this.  We can manage flows.  We can manage habitat; we can do all kinds of things.  And part of our difficulty and challenge is how to add things like adding floodplain habitat to change the shapes of these trade-off curves and create more knees.  So the sharper the knee in these trade-off curves, the more attractive that knee solution is.”

In conclusion …

  • This drought is largely over hydrologically, but there will be some long legacy effects that we’ll see on the ecosystem, groundwater, among other things.
  • Delta has high rates of variability and change in many ways. We’re focused on climate change, but climate change is part of several larger trends in our societies, economies, and ecosystems.
  • Native ecosystems are mostly on an unpromising trajectory.
  • Delta science and management are not organized or resourced to succeed quickly enough with this problem. This is not the fault of any individual, said Dr. Lund; it’s partly a structural issue that we can try to solve, but we will have to live with it because we can’t rearrange the boxes very well.  That’s well beyond our pay grade and really anybody’s pay grade because nobody is in charge of the big picture.
  • Even if we plan proactively, we need to prepare for failures. In the voluntary agreements, other plans, and discussions with policymakers, they think they can come up with a plan, implement it, and it will be a success, not a failure.  “Does anybody really believe that?  These are really complex systems where we don’t know much about what’s happening.  If there is no failure that we detect, it probably means we haven’t been looking.  We should expect there to be failures.”
  • Frequent failures shape California water policies and plans. Lund pointed out that from the engineering side of water management and over California’s history, our successes have been built on piles of failures.  “The only reasons we’ve made big, strategic changes in our water system from the human side is because of failures.  We should expect to see at least that kind of failure rate on the ecological side, where we only have a few decades’ worth of trying to solve those problems.  Whereas with water supply and flood control, we’ve been trying to solve those problems for 1000 years, and only in the last 100 years have we had any success.  So we need to prepare for failures.  And in fact, utilize those failures to help us make strategic improvements.  That’s the only thing that will help you rearrange the boxes.”
  • Managing trade-offs and adaptive management can help. Frequent failures have always shaped California water policies and plans; managing the trade-offs and adaptive management can really help.

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