by Ariel Rubissow Okamoto
An issue paper endorsed by the Delta Stewardship Council this August seeks to spark progress throughout the myriad stages of habitat restoration. As public and private interests gear up to help endangered fish and migrating birds by restoring habitats in six priority zones of the Delta and Suisun Marsh, this paper lays out tools and concepts for getting the most out of these investments and learning from our mistakes. The paper details steps for achieving effective restoration, reviews barriers such as conflicts with existing land uses and the complexity of permitting processes, and recommends strategies for addressing these challenges. Just 19 pages with well-organized links and numerous tangible examples, it’s a smooth overview of ways to organize our thoughts and actions as California embarks on large-scale restoration in the Delta with few pennies, failing species, and ambivalent local landowners. Throw in drought and sea level rise and the way forward is no shining path, to say the least.
“We’ve tried to tease out the Delta Council’s role in making restoration more efficient and effective,” says the Council’s Jessica Davenport, who wrote the issue paper. The evolving role seems to be to facilitate the use of best available science and adaptive management, as well as to remind project proponents of the importance of keeping invasive species out, sustaining existing land uses such as farms where possible, and connecting to other habitats. Planners and regulators would like to see 8,000 acres of tidal marsh and 17,000-20,000 acres of floodplain habitat in the six priority zones by December 2019 (see map).
The Council also wants to help restoration project proponents ensure their proposals are consistent with Delta Plan regulations and implement the Delta Science Plan. To this end, the Council has been finetuning performance measures and hosting early consultations between regulators and habitat designers. But the nuances of how to track performance and manage adaptively remain fuzzy. “The devil is in the details. Everyone talks about adaptive management but hardly anyone actually does it. Science dribbles into practice,” says ecologist John Wiens, a member of the Delta Council’s Independent Science Board from Oregon State University.
Reviewing the new issue paper, Wiens thinks it maps out some substantive first steps to addressing his board’s recommendations. “They can’t take on everything at once in such a complex system. The real barriers won’t be on the science, they’ll be on the policy and implementation,” he says.
The path to overcoming such barriers lies in actually learning lessons from past projects. A three-page section at the heart of the paper distills some thinking points. First, though project design and permitting take time, managers need to strike a balance between extensive modeling of alternative scenarios to get the optimal design and choosing a “good enough” design. “Agencies, responsible parties, and the public need to exercise a combination of patience and pressure,” states the paper.
Second, size matters. According to the paper, a few large efforts tend to yield far more ecological functions and ecosystem diversity than several smaller and isolated efforts. What also matters is elevation and location, the third point made in the paper. In a landscape full of deeply subsided holes (some delta islands are more than 20 feet below sea level), the six priority zones represent the most promising locations for restoration, or the least subsided flood plains, river corridors, and brackish tidal marshes on the Delta’s perimeter.
Fourth, the paper calls out the importance of “continuous learning” from both success and failures, and offers examples from both intended and unintended restorations such as levee breaches: “Results have been mixed. Some areas – like Sherman Lake breached in the 1920s and Liberty Island breached in 1998 – have yielded relatively positive habitat outcomes. Others – like the Franks Tract breach in the 1930s – have experienced rampant colonization by invasive species such as Brazilian waterweed, water hyacinth, Asian clams, carp and largemouth bass that can harm native species like delta smelt or salmon or, at a minimum, do not provide the quality of food and shelter of a tidal marsh dominated by native plants or of a pelagic habitat dominated by native plankton production….” states the paper.
Those in charge of constructed restoration projects, meanwhile, must allow time for the project to fulfill its targets while being watchful for failing effort, the paper argues. “Monitoring will reveal that some ecosystem functions are present on the first day and remain for the long term, others may rise and fall over time, and yet others that may not develop for years…. Good communication that involves the public and policy makers, as well as managers, in the learning process will lead to more realistic expectations and fair evaluations of habitat restoration efforts.”
Such exhortations to ongoing scrutiny and adaptive management certainly address one gap that the independent science board thought needed to be closed. Another gap the board warned could plague these well-intended, but top-down, government projects is the lack of local buy in. Indeed, Delta restoration planners have been surprised by the lack of willing sellers of properties in the priority zones.
“Projects almost always fail without serious local input,” says Petrea Marchand, a consultant for Yolo County. “You can’t just have check-the-box meetings and invite local stakeholders, you have to actively seek their input and design your project based on that input.”
The paper offers Yolo Bypass as an example of what we need to do more of in the future. The Bypass is a large area that is both farmed and used for flood and wetlands management. Yolo County recently received state and federal funding to hire UC Davis researchers to evaluate the impacts of fish habitat restoration proposals on local landowners and the agricultural economy in the area. The funding for science made an enormous difference in the county’s ability to coordinate habitat projects while increasing the level of comfort their community feels with restoration proposals.
“Many Delta residents like to fish, to hunt, to birdwatch…. There’s a lot of potential for the same kind of good feelings people have for restoration in the Bay to come to the Delta, but it’s so polarized here. It’s like people here aren’t allowed to merge their love of nature with support for restoration. So we have to find ways for it to work for farmers and landowners, and to engage the locals in restoration. Economics is central, because that’s what driving a lot of the fear,” says Davenport.
In Yolo County’s case, Marchand describes how researchers interviewed many of the landowners and farmers in the Yolo Bypass, and used their input in modeling actual impacts of restoration on the local economy. Locals have a much more realistic grasp of site-specific constraints, infrastructure, and land use than big government agencies, she says. They also have doubts about whether input is taken seriously.
Using the UC Davis researchers gave the county science necessary credibility for all sides. When the state and federal governments adopted the county’s agricultural impacts models into their restoration plans, it helped build more trust. “There’s real power in those types of partnerships. It makes such a difference to everyone to have that level of common understanding of the information tools and data used to make decisions,” says Marchard.
The paper highlights how support is building for a single plan for the Yolo Bypass that integrates flood protection, habitat restoration, water supply, recreation and local sustainability. “It could be something as simple as a single document or a single map that shows areas of overlap. Once those areas and opportunities are identified, it’s going to be really difficult to ignore them,” says Kristopher Tjernell, Special Assistant for Water Policy to the State’s Secretary of Natural Resources, who has been convening an unofficial “executive council” to begin to work on the project.
There isn’t much time. The state must move quickly to meet deadlines for fish habitat creation imposed by federal biological opinions related to endangered species law. “The Yolo Bypass is ground zero. This effort will be to make sure all entities at all levels working to implement the biological opinion and other necessary projects are communicating regularly and fluidly with the flood control side of the house. With integrated planning and coordination everybody’s outcomes will be better than if we do it from our silos. The benefits could be tremendous, and if we can do it in Yolo we can replicate it across the Delta and beyond,” he says.
Looking back over the last few decades, Davenport sees other positive signs of incremental change in the battle for integration over polarization. “If someone is an ecologist they are now more fully aware that one of biggest challenges for them is making sure neighbors are happy with their project, as opposed to understanding the month of year delta smelt is going to show up. By the same token if someone is a policy person they now understand how important it is to do research on the life cycle of a delta smelt. So there’s more understanding and appreciation for both sides,” says Davenport.
While much progress has been made, a number of challenges remain. Stakeholders and project proponents still fuss about all the permitting requirements, for example. Some people want a one-stop Delta restoration shop, with a streamlined process; others argue that each permit is there for a different and valid reason. “You can’t just skip over steps or you might miss something important that permits are there to catch, but regulatory agencies can develop programmatic biological opinions covering all restoration projects within a region, as has been done with the Suisun Marsh Plan,” says Davenport. The Council also has been looking for opportunities to share the vision of specific restoration projects with regulators early on, to help streamline permitting. “We want to avoid the kind of sequential redesign that often happens with each permit hoop because it’s inefficient,” says Davenport.
Beyond the paperwork, two other challenges loom large for Wiens. Most of the Delta restoration plans, he says, continue to focus on wetlands rather than the habitat in the water itself. “If you restore the wetlands and but are not thinking about flows at same time, then you’ve really only got half a restoration going on,” he says.
The other challenge receiving more lip service than serious attention, he says, is the potential loss of restoration investments to climate change. “In the Bay Area, you’re mostly dealing with sea level rise. But the Delta will be hit by the future on all sides – by a combination of sea level rise, tidal intrusion, and big changes in the seasonality and magnitude of flows and extreme events. There’s a risk that habitat restoration projects will be designed and approved and implemented without really taking advantage of some of the modeling tools now available to look at vulnerability,” says Wiens.
In the meantime, the title of the Council’s paper, “Restoring the Delta with Science and Society in Mind,” hints at the many scales at which such big environmental projects have to be meaningful. As Wiens sees it: “Every project that is planned or undertaken is going to be influenced by other projects and will influence subsequent projects, so there needs to be real linkage and a strong network among them.”
Tjernell says the State is fully committed, “all the way to the top, to finding the necessary synergies between state interests – whether it’s flood control and fish habitat or agriculture and water supply – to move forward with vim and vigor. “The rubber is hitting road now and there needs to be more coordination,” says Tjernell. “It’s the kind of paradigm shift in project planning and interagency coordination that needs to be replicated across the natural resources management realm. We need to change the topic sentence. The new topic sentence is that if you are not fully integrating with your counterparts in other natural resources agencies across local, state and federal government, you’re probably missing an opportunity.”