Advice on Voluntary Settlements for California’s Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Part 3: Science for Ecosystem Management

by Jeffrey Mount, PPIC Water Policy Center*

The Delta. Photo credit: Carson Jeffres


Improving Delta ecosystem functions under the State Water Board’s proposed Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan will require a complex series of changes to water and land management—and a strong science program to guide actions. This science effort will need to go well beyond current Delta science programs in scope, authorities, and funding. The most promising approach is to expand the existing Delta Science Program and grant it the authority and responsibility to support the plan. As part of this effort, parties engaged in the Delta should create a Delta Science Joint Powers Authority (JPA) to better pool and administer science resources to be used by the Delta Science Program. The JPA also would be a forum for agencies, water users, and other stakeholders to develop consensus and collaborations on science-based management.


The State Water Board is updating its Water Quality Control Plan for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Multiple parties that would be affected by this plan are seeking to negotiate voluntary settlement agreements for the Board to consider.  In two previous posts, a group of us* have suggested that the Board and negotiating parties take a new approach to resolving some of the Delta’s ecological and water supply problems. The first post calls for integration of freshwater flows with tide and landscape management to improve food web productivity, maximize habitat for desirable plants and animals, and reduce the impacts of harmful algal blooms. The second post describes a suite of actions to meet these objectives.

This approach cannot succeed without a strong science program that is well-funded, authoritative, and useful. Most important, this science program must go beyond meeting the traditional interests of specific state and federal agencies and integrate science to meet broader objectives. It must also be an integral part of any adaptive management program. In this blog post we propose a science effort to inform and assess the implementation of the Water Quality Control Plan.

Science in the Delta Today

The San Francisco Estuary, including the Delta, is one of the most studied in the world (Cloern and Jassby 2012, Healey et al. 2016).  Science and monitoring is done by many state and federal agencies, water utilities, water user organizations, universities, stakeholder groups, and a large network of consultants (summarized in Hanak et al. 2013 and Gray et al. 2013). Many reviews of the science enterprise in the Delta have recommended reforms. Two particularly useful reviews are by the National Research Council (2012) and the Delta Independent Science Board (DISB 2016, Weins et al. 2017). Several persistent themes from these reviews inform the proposals made here. These include:

  • Conflicting agency goals lead to fragmentation of scientific efforts (Lund and Moyle 2013);
  • Divergence among preferred actions of different organizations — combined with fragmented science administration — leads to advocacy-based or “combat” science, pitting different organizations against each other in their scientific efforts;
  • The lack of reliable funding — and the inability to deploy it quickly — hampers the ability to conduct innovative science and monitoring, respond to new opportunities and information, and sustain vital long-term investigations.

Since the publication of the 2012 National Research Council report, there have been efforts to improve Delta science, principally through cooperation and collaboration among the many current efforts. But as the NRC report pointed out, “collaboration does not equal integration.” While these efforts have improved the quality of the science, they are not sufficient to support the integrated, ecosystem-based management program recommended in our previous posts.

Matching Science with Management Goals and Objectives

In our view, no single state agency has the capacity or authority to guide the implementation of the ecosystem management actions needed over the next 15 years. In addition, science funding has been unreliably based on a boom-bust cycle of state bonds and other sources; it has been unable to support the sustained research needed to inform and improve management. However, we believe the building blocks for an effective science program exist. The core of our proposal is to elevate the existing Delta Science Program (DSP) by granting it responsibility and resources to guide the science needed to implement the Water Quality Control Plan.

The Delta Science Program was established by the 2009 Delta Reform Act. Its mission is to provide the best available science for decision making in the estuary and watershed. The DSP answers to the Delta Stewardship Council, which appoints its lead scientist and approves the program’s budget. The program also houses the Delta Independent Science Board—a group of distinguished scientists and engineers who advise on scientific issues. At present, the DSP primarily tries to coordinate the many disparate science activities in the Delta, develop syntheses on important topics, and run modest grant and fellowship programs.

Although the DSP is structured to do just the kind of integrated science needed to meet the needs of the Water Quality Control Plan, it lacks the necessary budget and authority over the science agenda. We propose expanding its mission and finding creative ways to grant it the financial and institutional capacity to succeed.

The New Delta Science Program and Delta Science Joint Powers Authority

The Delta Science Program should be given resources and decision-making authority to:

  • Work with agencies, water users, and other stakeholders to develop a science action plan to meet the Water Quality Control Plan’s ecosystem-based objectives and, where possible, the broader science needs of state and federal agencies and stakeholders;
  • Build capacity to project outcomes of flow-tide-landscape investments with integrated hydrodynamic, ecologic, and economic models supported by data collection networks;
  • Coordinate protocols and data for monitoring in the estuary and the watershed to inform the Water Quality Control Plan;
  • Implement and oversee a science program that can guide management actions as experiments and assess outcomes and performance measures;
  • Build trust and promote consensus on the science used to inform decision making (recognizing that there will never be consensus on the decisions themselves).

The DSP has a good foundation to take on this task. Its 2016 Delta Science Plan and 2017-21 Delta Science Action Agenda cover many of the proposals in our earlier posts, and could readily be adapted to organize the science needed to guide implementation of the Water Quality Control Plan. In addition, the DSP already has a governance structure that provides both administrative oversight (by the Delta Stewardship Council) and scientific oversight (by the Delta Independent Science Board and review panels).

Placing the DSP in charge of science for the Water Quality Control Plan is insufficient, however, given both funding and institutional constraints. To overcome these hurdles, we suggest that the DSP be the core of a new Delta Science Joint Powers Authority (JPA). This JPA would be modeled, in part, after a successful water quality research effort in Southern California. The Southern California Coastal Water Research Program (SCCWRP) is a JPA that unites sanitation and stormwater agencies with water-quality regulating agencies. Together, these parties develop and fund a common scientific effort to support management and monitoring decisions on stormwater and wastewater. This program—which has also benefitted from excellent leadership—shows how to develop high quality, useful, and consensual science support for policy and management decisions.

Like SCCWRP, the Delta Science JPA would be funded and overseen by a group of regulated and regulatory entities and other parties. It would be chaired by the DSC, with a science program led by the DSP’s lead scientist. State and local public agencies would be signatories to this effort and contribute financial support or personnel. Federal agencies cannot sign JPA agreements, but they can contribute resources and serve on the JPA board. The JPA board can also include non-governmental stakeholder representatives, such as environmental non-profits. In this way, the parties affected by and overseeing the Water Quality Control Plan would have an opportunity to pool resources and build consensus on a science agenda and integrate scientific findings and actions.

The JPA structure provides a better way to fund scientific research and experimentation than is currently available to the DSP or other state agencies. JPAs can exercise authorities granted to any signatory agency.  Because local agencies generally have more flexibility to administer funds than state agencies, the JPA will be able to write contracts to support research and monitoring activities more quickly (days instead of many months), and with less overhead.  At present, difficulties in securing timely contracts from state and federal funders present a hurdle to science in the Delta and lead to missed opportunities for research by agencies, universities, non-profits, and private consultants.

We estimate that $20 to $30 million annually is needed to fund this science program.  (This is in addition to the current DSP budget of approximately $10 million, and does not count planned restoration efforts or monitoring activities currently being conducted by agencies.) Without a budget of this scale, there is little hope for a successful, collaborative, science-based ecological management program in the Delta. Funding sources could include pooled contributions from JPA members, contracts for research, appropriations from the state General Fund, and small fees on the use of water originating in the watershed and the discharge of pollutants into waterways both upstream of and within the estuary. For example, a $1/acre-foot fee on water use would generate more than $20 million annually.

In conclusion, we believe this proposed approach—elevating the Delta Science Program and anchoring it within a new Joint Powers Authority—is a practical and effective way to develop the scientific support needed to guide, evaluate, and adapt implementation of the Water Quality Control Plan. It builds on existing institutions while establishing a way to build consensus around a science agenda, pool and use resources more efficiently, and tailor a science program to meet the needs of an integrated, ecosystem-based approach to improving ecosystem conditions in the Delta.

*This blog post summarizes some of the ideas generated by an informal group of experts who have met several times to explore concepts for better management of the Delta. Group members include (in alphabetical order): Jon Burau (US Geological Survey [USGS]), Jim Cloern (USGS), John Durand (UC Davis), Greg Gartrell (consulting engineer), Brian Gray (PPIC), Ellen Hanak (PPIC), Carson Jeffres (UC Davis), Wim Kimmerer (San Francisco State University), Jay Lund (UC Davis), Jeffrey Mount (PPIC), and Peter Moyle (UC Davis).

Further Reading

Cloern, J., and A. Jassby. 2012. “Drivers of Change in Estuarine-Coastal Ecosystems: Discoveries from Four Decades of Study in San Francisco Bay,” Reviews in Geophysics. 50.

Delta ISB (Delta Independent Science Board). 2017.  Improving Adaptive Management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.  Delta Stewardship Council.

Delta Science Program. 2016. Delta Science Plan: One Delta, One Science.  Delta Stewardship Council.

Delta Science Program. 2017. Science Action Agenda: A Collaborative Road Map for Delta Science. Delta Stewardship Council.

Gray, B., B. Thompson, E. Hanak, J. Lund, J. Mount. 2013. Integrated Management of Delta Stressors: Institutional and Legal Options.  Public Policy Institute of California.

Hanak, E., J. Lund, J. Durand, W. Fleenor, B. Gray, J. Medellin-Azuara, J. Mount, P. Moyle, C. Phillips, B. Thompson.  2013.  Stress Relief: Prescriptions for a Healthier Delta EcosystemPublic Policy Institute of California.

Healey, M., P. Goodwin, P., M. Dettinger, and R. Norgaard. 2016. The State of Bay–Delta Science 2016: An Introduction. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Sci. 14

Lund, J. and Moyle, P. 2013. “Adaptive Management and Science for the Delta Ecosystem.” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Sci. 11.

NRC (National Research Council). 2012.  Sustainable Water and Environmental Management in the California Bay-Delta.  National Academies Press.

Weins, J., et al. 2017. “Facilitating Adaptive Management in California’s Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta.” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Sci. 15.

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7 Responses to Advice on Voluntary Settlements for California’s Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Part 3: Science for Ecosystem Management

  1. J Rizzi says:

    Way to pitch for funding! Good job. Now if studied the responsibly restricting the Delta flows out and the SALTY Sea flows in at Benicia that would be even better. Keep 1/12 section open to fish and small boats. 1/12 at the shipping channel put in a lock to make traffic easier and safer than it is today. The remaining 10/12 install tidally controlled louvers the close as the salt water comes in and 100% open for fresh water to go out.
    Conclusion a fresher water Delta, and more more fresh water to be able to export without hurting the environment. NEVER studied before and Science groups do not what to study and see the light at the end of the tunnel.

  2. Morgan Shimabuku says:

    I absolutely agree with this advice. The authorities in the Bay Area need to form a JPA for better data management and integration, which will lead to better management decisions and eventually a healthier Delta for all.

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