21st Century Delta: Reconciling the desired with the possible

The Sacramento - San Joaquin Delta, as seen from a ship traveling through the Stockton Ship Channel on September 24, 2013. Photo by Florence Lo, California Department of Water Resources

The Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta, as seen from a ship in the Stockton Deep Water Ship Channel in 2013. Photo by Florence Lo, California Department of Water Resources

This is this first in an intermittent series of articles on the future of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

By Steven Culberson

Estuaries are hard places to understand and even harder to explain. Estuarine scientists, myself included, have struggled to learn how changes in the San Francisco Estuary led to declining fish populations and waning productivity, particularly in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

We keep searching for what is broken or missing so we can fix or replace it. The thinking is that if we can return or repair these parts of the ecosystem, native aquatic species will recover sufficiently to be resilient in the future.

The trouble is we can’t go back to the way things were more than 150 years ago, before engineers repurposed the Delta’s maze of marshy islands, channels and sloughs for agriculture and water delivery. As fish biologist Peter Moyle has said, “How do you bring back tule or cattail marsh to an island that has sunk 30 feet from decades of farming its peaty soil? You can’t.”

Likewise, fixing what is broken in the Delta has been a daunting if not quixotic pursuit. Scientists for the most part take the classic “reductionist” approach of breaking down complex problems into smaller and simpler units: (1) Identify the ecological features that are damaged or in short or excess supply, (2) pinpoint factors responsible for these problems, then (3) take steps to improve conditions factor by factor or species by species.

This painstaking process has unquestionably improved our understanding of how the Estuary works. But for all the reams of studies produced over the past 30 years we have yet to arrest, let alone reverse, the ongoing decline in pelagic fish populations and ecological health of the Delta.

I propose an alternative but complimentary “reconciliation” approach to restoring the Delta:

  • Reconcile what we would like to have the Delta be like with what is possible, using our understanding of the historical landscape and its remnant physical features as design guides.
  • Focus on returning the physical features where ecological processes occur — islands, marshes, deep areas, shoals, shallows, littoral edges, eroding streambeds and riparian corridors — without necessarily worrying about identifying or understanding the precise effect these actions will have on the species of concern.
  • Put mud flats where mud flats would go, tidal marshes where tidal marshes have been and are likely to endure. Put open water next to shallows.
  • Work with alien species as part of new, unprecedented estuarine ecosystems.

Return estuary-like features to the estuary and the natural arrangements between geomorphic elements and habitat will re-establish and re-configure themselves. Ecosystems are, after all, self-regulating and self-organizing, even as they change through time. Systems ecologists have struggled to teach us this and we should be willing to learn, given our relative lack of restoration success in the estuary (see Jorgensen 2012).

Creating habitat interfaces or “edges” like those visible in the photograph below would be a good start on fixing our estuarine system.

In Sherman Lake, just north of Antioch

Sediments emerging on ebb tide from submerged vegetation in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The strip of non-native vegetation here in Sherman Lake, just north of Antioch, traps sediment when plentiful and releases it back into the water column over time. Re-introducing geomorphically active sites like this will help return some ecological dynamism to support desired species, native and alien. Source: Google Earth

We need to make choices and invest resources in the absence of perfect knowledge of the ecosystems being managed. This doesn’t mean we dispense with scientific rigor or altogether abandon the reductionist or species-based investigations. Rather, we should view the estuary more as a system than an assembly of parts and let the ecosystem itself sort out the particulars.

We cannot afford to wait until we’re sure about what will work. Because the pace of rigorous science proceeds slowly we’re unlikely to gain sufficient additional understanding about estuary functions over the next decade to make bold, large-scale changes in management. Yet the demands for a better functioning Delta ecosystem exist now.

It’s questionable whether we can even predict the total outcome of our restoration actions in a changing self-regulated system. Species in ecosystems as complex as estuaries can change roles in unexpected ways, like switching from one prey to another or shifting habitat use in response to a competitor.

We must take the ecological gamble. Provide the types of flows, landscapes and habitat mix we already know make for a better functioning ecosystem. Stand back and let the Bay-Delta reorganize itself the way estuaries do – and learn to live with the outcome.

Steven Culberson is a senior ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento. “The findings and conclusions in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (117 FW 1)”

Further reading

Jorgensen, S.E. 2012. Introduction to Systems Ecology. CRC Press. 360pp.

Moyle, Peter. “Ten realities for managing the Delta.” California WaterBlog. Feb. 26, 2013

Rosenzweig, M.L. 2003. “Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth’s Species Can Survive in the Midst Of Human Enterprise. Oxford University Press, 209 pp.








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5 Responses to 21st Century Delta: Reconciling the desired with the possible

  1. spsculber says:

    Reblogged this on mujani — a blog for observation and commented:
    A work-related thingy, with a lot of help from my friends and the UC Davis Watershed Science Center.

  2. Pingback: Bloggers on reconciling the desired Delta with the possible, the State Water Board, Sites Reservoir, SWP allocation, groundwater rules, and more …MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK

  3. Pingback: Fixing the Delta & Environmentalism | Parkway Blog

  4. Hello,

    I am inquiring about using the first picture you have on your post, for an educational research project. Please let me know if you will grant us permission to use it.

    Thank you.

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