Using science to make good management decisions in the Delta has never been straightforward. To begin with, there are a lot of different flavors – from stakeholder science to agency science to federal, state or university science, and the kind of science used in courtrooms. There’s also the complexity of any science related to a dynamic aquatic system, and the high stakes of any science used to justify taking scarce water away from one user and giving it to another. Synthesis and coordination of all the science has been a priority for decades now, but hasn’t yet reached the threshold of clarity that everyone seems to be waiting for. Just how much science do we need, then, for California to feel comfortable investing in big, expensive upgrades to Delta habitats and infrastructure?
Such questions were no doubt on the minds of those in the room for the Wednesday afternoon session on the Delta Science Plan. The Delta Stewardship Council approved this plan in October 2013, just before the conference, Peter Goodwin explained after stepping to the podium. Goodwin is the top scientist for the Delta Science Program. “The science program doesn’t do science, it facilitates science,” he explained.
The Program’s new plan lays out a vision for One Delta, One Science—an open Delta science community that works together to build a shared body of scientific knowledge. The idea is to help differentiate between genuine disagreements about what the data tell us from uncertainties associated with the information. Once that’s sorted out, the Delta Science Plan suggests ways to collaboratively reduce uncertainties until tradeoffs among alternative actions become clear.
“The current organization is inadequate; collaborative science is a better [approach],” said Goodwin. “The challenge is, as the knowns grow, so do the unknowns. That’s why our plan provides a menu of decision tools, including papers, panels, and workshops. Synthesis figures heavily throughout.”
Goodwin yielded the microphone to Delta Science Program manager Rainer Hoenicke, who introduced a panel of prominent Delta science producers and users to discuss how to move forward with a joint science agenda. Hoenicke began by commending several current programs for providing an excellent foundation for increased collaboration, citing the Interagency Ecological Program, California Fish and Wildlife’s Ecosystem Restoration Program, the California Water Quality Monitoring Council, and a series of synthesis workshops sponsored by the State Water Resources Control Board, among others. Despite the close working relationships of many individual scientists and coordinated efforts, it is difficult to track all activities related to data generation, model development and calibration, new results, and insights gained, he said. Hoenicke was confident, however, that the new science plan would create a shared process for prioritizing research, managing conflict, building trust, synthesizing science, and advancing the state of knowledge for the San Francisco Estuary and its watershed.
Hoenicke asked the panel to comment on how to make science-based adaptive management more effective. Adaptive management was conceived in the 1970s to provide for management in the face of uncertainties and new information, explained panelist Anke Mueller-Solger, lead scientist for the IEP. The process often starts off well, but fails when those attempting it don’t have means or time to complete the final phases of evaluation and adaption. “We need a way to close the loop,” she said.
The next panelist, Mike Chotkowski of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, had this perspective: “The problem in the Delta is that scientists don’t agree on the facts, on the uncertainties, or how to move forward.” Economic and ideological positions tend to distort the science, he said, citing new opinion surveys (see Delta Economics story). “If we are to succeed with one science, we must move away from managers and stakeholders. We need a science establishment that can bring all sides together,” he said.
The relationship between stakeholders and science has always been problematic, especially when it comes to endangered species management. “The process of remand of biological opinions shows disagreement over facts,” said the next panelist, Carl Wilcox of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “The challenge is to find ways to overcome these disagreements using the Science Plan processes.”
Many disagreements derive from uncertainties, and uncertainty helps maintain the status quo, even if it isn’t working. “Managers don’t do a good job of communicating gaps and needs to scientists,” said the next panelist, Maria Rea of NOAA Fisheries. “We need to help researchers focus on the most relevant issues, and provide safe places for scientific debate—out of courtrooms,” she said. “Science cannot give us all the answers. We also need to better communicate the underlying legal structure that guides agency decision making.”
Money also plays a role in how science is used to make management decisions. The good scientific research and analysis required to set priorities often requires significant funding, said panelist Paul Helliker of the California Department of Water Resources (DWR). Together, DWR, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, and their water users fund the lion’s share of Delta science, but this expense competes with other priorities. “We need more coalitions and collaboration [to get by], but trust is not great between agencies, and between agencies and stakeholders,” said panelist Sue Fry of Reclamation. “Agencies must model trust for stakeholders, and build coalitions using the open nature of the Science Plan. We need a mutual understanding of our end points.”
The U.S. Geological Survey’s Lee Case agreed that collaboration must be fostered both “internally and externally.” Many scientists are also concerned about federal and state funding cuts punching holes in important data sets used for management. Snapshots aren’t good enough to answer questions over time, he said, so scientists need to anticipate and communicate what’s ahead, rather than just focusing on writing up end results. “We need new ways of doing research that can help us simplify and communicate a very complex system,” said Case.
Hoenicke then asked the panel to share their priorities for science action. Wilcox felt priorities should be issues in court: spring outflow and longfin smelt. Rea’s priority was the low survival rate of outmigrating salmonids. “We don’t have good life cycle models, or good synthesis of how to use tools like salinity, temperature and flows” to help the fish, she said.
Chotowski got the last word in, on sustaining Delta science over the long term: “It’s hard to address complex issues without adequate resources. Agencies tend to answer science questions that are relevant to immediate management needs but not invest in answering the hard, big-picture questions about how the Estuary works.”
Delta Science Plan
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