Reconciling ecosystem and economy

Ecologist Michael Rosenzweig kicked off a UC Davis series of public talks exploring a “reconciliation” approach to improving California’s aquatic habitat. Video: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

A growing number of ecologists say we need to rethink how we go about “saving nature.” We should not attempt to restore a wounded meadow, estuary or wetland to some legendary pristine state, they say. Instead, resource managers should accept that human footprints are everywhere and manage ecosystems for the species and functions we desire.

The approach, known as “reconciliation ecology,” inspired a UC Davis seminar earlier this year on how to manage California’s water systems for both ecosystem and economic objectives. The Center for Watershed Sciences and the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at UC Davis lined up a series of nine public talks by ecologists, biologists, engineers, lawyers and environmental consultants. California water journalist Chris Austin summarizes the presentations.

By Chris Austin

Michael Rosenzweig, a University of Arizona ecologist who first articulated the concept of reconciliation ecology, kicked off the UC Davis seminar on Jan. 6 with his talk “Tactics for Conserving Diversity: Global Vertebrate Patterns Point the Way.”

Reconciliation ecology, in Rosenzweig’s own words, “is the science of inventing, establishing and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work and play.”

Rosenzweig outlined the scientific basis for his assertion that human encroachment on wildlands will continue to cause species extinctions and loss of biodiversity at alarming rates. But his was also a message of hope: We can reverse the trend by changing our human-dominated landscapes in ways that favor desirable species.

Although Rosenzweig first coined the term in the early 2000s, the concept of reconciliation ecology is not new. Efforts to create habitat around the densely developed edges of San Francisco Bay have been underway for the past 25 or more years.  In the Feb. 10 seminar, Reconciling Ecosystem Goals for the San Francisco Bay, Letitia Grenier, a biologist specializing in landscape-scale planning, and Joe LaClair, chief planning officer for the Bay Conservation Development Commission, discuss the challenges of protecting both critical infrastructure — highways, airports, rails — and healthy ecosystems against climate-induced sea level rise in the Bay Area. Grenier is updating the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s 1999 blueprint for restoring of 100,000 acres of tidal marsh around the Bay.

Putah Creek: A ‘novel’ ecosystem

Aquatic habitat restoration projects traditionally have aimed to remove non-native plants and fish introduced by humans, but UC Davis fish biology professor Peter Moyle says most of these alien species do not cause significant harm. Instead, he said, they integrate with native species to form “novel ecosystems” that are often quite different from what historically might have existed.

Moyle and UC Davis researcher Melanie Truan told the story of one such novel ecosystem in their Jan. 13 talk, A Reconciliation Approach to Aquatic Ecosystems in California. Beginning in the 1980s, Davis area students, scientists and local residents took the local Putah Creek from a trashed waterway that was heavily mined for gravel to a healthy stream where both native and non-native fish flourish. Key to the success were changes in dam operations that provided more natural flows at biologically important times but with relatively small amounts of water.

Yolo Bypass: Using floodwaters to boost salmon populations

The seminar title and theme — Reconciling Ecosystem and Economy — was perhaps best illustrated by the Feb. 24 panel presentation, Farms, Floods, Fowl and Fish on the Yolo Bypass.

A consortium of private landowners, conservation groups, government agencies and researchers with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences is investigating how the heavily modified 57,000-acre floodplain used for flood control, farming and duck hunting could also be managed to rear Chinook salmon. Their recent studies indicate that the bypass would make a productive salmon nursery at relatively little cost to farmers. The floodway also is being considered for significant infrastructure changes and habitat restoration as part of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

UC Davis doctoral student Robyn Suddeth kicked off the panel discussion with a presentation of an optimization model she designed to explore when, where and how floodwaters might most economically be applied to manage all the diverse activities.

Robyn Suddeth presented a reconciliation approach to managing the Yolo Bypass for multiple environmental and economic objectives. Video: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences 

The prospects and science of reconciliation in the Delta

With its numerous conflicting water demands and growing populations of invasive species and looming sea level rise, continued change in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is certain. In her March 27 talk, Money, Water and Fish: Prospects for Reconciliation, Ellen Hanak, a senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, explored the possibilities of taking a reconciliation approach in adapting to these changes, outlining the environmental, social, financial and legal issues involved.

The March 10 panel discussion, Science and Ecosystem Reconciliation in the Delta, focused on the multiple scientific efforts to improve the ecological functions in the Delta’s highly altered environment. The event brought together Peter Goodwin, lead scientist at the Delta Stewardship Council, ecologist Robin Grossinger of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, Stuart Siegel of the Wetlands and Water Resources consulting firm and scientist Valerie Connor of the State and Federal Contractors Water Agency.

California’s water system 

Managing for ‘co-equal’ goals. California’s vast network of water infrastructure delivers water from the north to irrigate millions of acres of farmland in the Central Valley and to support urban populations in the Bay Area and Southern California. 

These dams and reservoirs provide water for cities and farms as well as vital flood protection for downstream communities. At the same time, this infrastructure blocks access to upstream habitat for native species, alters their downstream habitat and disturbs natural flow patterns.

In recent years, plummeting populations of native species have meant tighter environmental restrictions and reductions in water available for human use. Clearly, California’s current system of water management is not working for either water suppliers or endangered species.

In the Jan. 27 seminar, Management, Economics and Engineering Perspectives on Reconciliation Ecology, Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, and Jay Zeigler, director of external affairs at the Nature Conservancy, found much common ground in their views on balancing California’s co-equal goals of water system reliability and ecosystem restoration.

Jay Zeigler and Tim Quinn exchanged views on how better to managed California’s overall water system for a healthier environment and economy. Video: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Unmanaged groundwater. Groundwater comprises about 30 percent of the state’s water supply in an average year, and far more in a drought year. Yet while the state regulates surface waters through a water right system, groundwater pumping continues to go largely unmanaged. Associate Justice Ronald B. Robie of the California Court of Appeal and Harrison “Hap” Dunning, UC Davis professor emeritus of environmental law, discussed history and environmental and economic tradeoffs in groundwater law in their March 3 seminar, Environmental Reconciliation and the Law.

Water law. Balancing the multiple uses of the state’s waters for both ecosystem and economic purposes is the task assigned to the State Water Resources Control Board, and it’s always complex and oftentimes controversial.

Michael Lauffer, chief counsel for the State Water Resources Control Board, gave a glimpse into the multiple environmental and economic considerations board members and staff must weigh in regulating water rights and water quality the Feb. 3 panel discussion,  A Regulator Perspective on Reconciliation Ecology. Brian Gray and Richard Frank, environmental law professors at UC Hastings College of Law and UC Davis School of Law, respectively, explained how the “reasonable use” and “public trust” doctrines of California water law often come into play in balancing environmental and economic water uses.

Videos of all nine one-hour presentations in the seminar series can be viewed here.

Chris Austin is the author of Maven’s Notebook, an independent online chronicle of California water policy, politics and science.

Further reading

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, and B. Thompson. (2011) Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California.

Moyle, P. B., W. Bennett, J. Durand, W. Fleenor, B. Gray, E. Hanak, J. Lund, and J. Mount. 2012. “Where the Wild Things Aren’t: Making the Delta a Better Place for Native Species.” San Francisco: Public Policy Institute of California.

Moyle, P. B.  2013.  Novel Aquatic Ecosystems: The New Reality For Streams In California And Other Mediterranean Climate Regions. River Research and Applications.

Rosenzweig, M. 2003. Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth’s Species Can Survive in the Midst of Human Enterprise. Oxford University Press.

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