Pearls in the ocean of information that our reporters didn’t want you to miss

Above: Lewis holding white sturgeon in Delta. Photo: Jim Ervin

MEGA-PEARLS-Part 1-Diversity, April 2021

A Stream of Science Takeaways

ESTUARY News sent reporters to the first virtual Bay-Delta Science Conference in April 2021, with a theme of Building Resilience through Diversity. This special edition of Pearls shares more than 25 takeaways in four parts (between April 21 & April 29).

PEARLS PART 1:  Human Dimension of Delta Science

Above: Lewis holding white sturgeon in Delta. Photo: Jim Ervin

“People underestimate the risk of staying the same,” said Melissa Jones, environmental equity activist and director of a coalition of the Bay Area’s health departments, during one of half-a-dozen diversity-themed talks at the 11th annual Bay-Delta Science conference. Indeed, the historically white-male-science-data-dense event had a fresh vibe this year, emanating from the open-door theme, the free zoom access and chat exchanges, and a universal dose of Covid-spread humility. Talks both honored young scientists of color and young activists conducting community-based science in Stockton and East Palo Alto, and also challenged established scientists to make room at the table. “Acknowledging privilege is key to ceding privilege to others,” said Levi Lewis, a UC Davis scientist with a multi-racial background who just took over the famous Hobbs fish lab. “We are all gatekeepers.” Levi and co-plenary presenter Priya Shukla narrated interesting parallels between the scope of their biological research and their personal histories. Both enjoyed access to nature as children, for example, which fueled their curiosity about science. Shukla, who’s family immigrated from India, closed her talk by suggesting the return of a giant jewel in the Queen of England’s crown to its country of extraction might achieve some cultural healing. “What is your Kohinoor diamond?” she asked the science conference audience. “What could you give up to seed opportunity?” ARO
Above: Lewis holding white sturgeon in Delta. Photo: Jim Ervin

Illustration: Rene P. Martin

Art, science, and nature have a long history of cross-pollination that can help communicate complex scientific ideas, diffuse divisiveness, and inspire creature caring. “Until science became so specialized, there wasn’t as much a divide between science and art,” said San Francisco Estuary Institute’s senior designer, Ruth Askevold, during a conference panel on the intersection of art and science. Other panelists shared insights about their work. “Artistic renderings can be more useful than photographs for identification, because an artist can call attention to particular aspects of that organism,” said the University of Kansas’ Rene P. Martin, originator of the popular #sundayfishsketch hashtag. Another panelist, Regional San’s chief scientist Lisa Thompson, described working with U.C. Davis and photographer Dave Giordano to create a series of fish portraits. What started out as a way to identify fish turned into something more. “It’s hard to get people to conserve something if they don’t know what it looks like, or have only seen it as a filet in a grocery store,” she said. “Hopefully work like this helps people think a little bit more about conserving animals.” AG
Illustration: Rene P. Martin

Above: Larsen explores vegetative diversity. Laurel Larsen hasn’t seen much progress in diversifying the faces of geoscience during her decades-long career. Larsen, the Delta Stewardship Council’s first female lead scientist, opened this spring’s conference by lamenting not only the lack of variety in skin color, gender and cultural backgrounds in Bay-Delta science, but also the legacy of weaponizing scientific uncertainty, cherry picking data to support stakeholder positions, and combat science that has stalled progress on ecosystem restoration in the Delta for decades. “The Delta science community needs to do more to build social capital, and to invest in the co-production of science with stakeholders,” said Larsen. “When science doesn’t represent lived experiences it is unlikely to produce trust.” Joining Larsen in kicking off agency commitments to entertaining alternative attitudes was another lead scientist, Steve Culberson of the Interagency Ecological Program. Culberson declared his program’s “passion for community science.” In a next day plenary, Cal Fish & Wildlife’s first female chief deputy director, Valerie Termini, added her voice to the call for more diversity, which she pointed out is a strength of all natural ecosystems. Termini launched the state agency’s first JEDI team (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) three years ago. “Everyone in the ecosystem needs to be part of the conversation. It makes us stronger and more effective.” ARO

Above: Larsen explores vegetative diversity.


Image credit: Caleb Scoville

“Entrepreneurs of political division”—not its actual impact on water policy—have turned the Delta smelt into a national scapefish. In a departure from typical conference fare, Tufts University sociologist Caleb Scoville’s presentation “From California’s Water Wars to America’s Culture Wars” used Twitter tweets, Google searches, and newspaper op-eds to examine how the Delta smelt became a politically charged symbol of environmentalist excess and regulatory overreach. His data show that public and media reactions don’t map to changes in regulations, water conveyance, or drought, however. “What if the controversy operates according to a political and media logic divorced from water operations?” Scoville asked. Anti-environmental op-eds mentioning the Delta smelt were six times more likely not to be about water than pro-environmental pieces. They also tended not to mention salmon, whose protected status also affects water policy. Anti-smelt opinion was also stronger outside California. Tellingly, by far the highest peak in Google searches for “Delta smelt” followed a diatribe by Fox personality Sean Hannity, one of those entrepreneurs of division. “Hannity … didn’t report the controversy; he helped create it,” said Scoville. He noted that the small size of the smelt makes it the epitome of “uncharismatic microfauna,” an easy target for ridicule. “The Delta smelt is a vehicle through which California water politics became enrolled in the national politics of ‘us versus them’, part of a broader, emotionally charged partisan politics that has nothing to do with water,” he concluded. JE


Image: Delta social linkages. Lubell et al. 2014. Ecology and Society.

The Delta connects to its world in six ways, none of them working all that well. Reporting on last year’s Estuary Connectivity Symposium at Davis during this year’s conference, Annika Keeley of the Delta Science Program noted that the obvious longitudinal connections–up and down the channels–are only one dimension to consider. Lateral connections bind the waterways to adjacent wetlands, forests, floodplains, forests, and pollution sources. Vertical connections link surface flows with groundwater, a two-way exchange impeded, for instance, when water tables are lowered by pumping to keep fields on subsided islands dry. Lattice connections radiate outwards along habitat corridors, including field and road margins, that are undervalued and often blocked. Ecoscape connections reach farther, even internationally, as through bird migration. Finally, human response–the social connection–suffers from a “scale mismatch between governance structures and ecological processes.” The Delta Stewardship Council, says Keeley, is distinctive in that “its mission really is to connect” agencies and realms of knowledge. Its limitation is its narrow geographical reach. JH

Image: Delta social linkages. Lubell et al. 2014. Ecology and Society.


Image: 44 measures for salmon recovery scored for level of perceived benefit and agreement.

By polling stakeholders about measures to help salmon, a new study seeks to ease the way to consensus—but also confirms familiar sticking points. In a conference talk exploring work for the interagency Collaborative Adaptive Management Team, ESSA Technologies crystallized 44 much-discussed interventions for salmonids and asked well-informed survey participants to rank them. Three groups of actions emerged: “no brainers,” effective and popular but sometimes very expensive; “low hanging fruit,” widely accepted and easy to implement; and bones of contention, measures deemed effective but lacking consensus (see yellow highlight above). Among the latter were control of striped bass; study of juvenile salmonid habitat use within the Delta; and, naturally, questions of water flows and conveyance. “The benefit of more precisely identifying who disagrees and why,” suggests ESSA’s Natascia Tamburello, “is that you can develop more targeted approaches to reducing disagreement instead of just letting people stew in their set points of view.” JH

Image: 44 measures for salmon recovery scored for level of perceived benefit and agreement.


Editor: Cariad Hayes Thronson
Contributors: John Hart, Ariel Rubissow Okamoto, Joe Eaton, Alastair Bland

Produced in collaboration with the Delta Stewardship Council. 

The Bay-Delta Science Conference presents the work of hundreds of scientists and summarizes gigabytes of data.  The editors of this small stream of takeaways acknowledge the larger river of work and wish they could have covered more sessions and more science.  Keep us in your loop for future Pearls and Estuary News stories.  editorestuarypearls@gmail.com

Read Part 2-Fish-Birds, Bay

About the author

Ariel Rubissow Okamoto is both today’s editor-in-chief and the founding editor of ESTUARY magazine (1992-2001). She enjoys writing in-depth, silo-crossing stories about water, restoration, and science. She’s a co-author of a Natural History of San Francisco Bay (UC Press 2011), frequent contributor of climate change stories to Bay Nature magazine, and occasional essayist for publications like the San Francisco Chronicle (see her Portfolio here). In other lives, she has been a vintner, soccer mom, and waitress. She lives in San Francisco close to the Bay with her architect husband Paul Okamoto.

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