A 30-year comprehensive plan that addresses habitats and ecological processes, public and private land use, levee system integrity, and water quality through tidal restoration and managed wetland activity in the Suisun Marsh is now a reality and moving into the implementation phase.
After 15 years of development, the Suisun Marsh Habitat Management, Preservation and Restoration Plan (Suisun Marsh Plan or SMP) was officially unveiled on Thursday, April 24, 2014. The Plan addresses concerns over use of resources within about 50,000 acres of the largest contiguous brackish (fresh and salt water) marsh on the West Coast. Operations of the federal Central Valley Project and State Water Project influence the health of the ecosystem, much of which is privately owned and home to waterfowl hunting clubs.
Jessica Davenport, an ecosystem restoration and land use program manager with the Delta Stewardship Council (Council), has worked diligently to help finalize the agreement during its waning days of evolution. She says the lengthy development of the non-regulatory document was due in part to the concerns of the many stakeholders in the Suisun region.
“There was a long, difficult process to come up with an agreement on how to move forward to simultaneously address several different goals in the Marsh in a way that was acceptable to all the regulatory agencies with their biological concerns, and also the land owners who wanted to maintain their duck hunting uses of the Marsh,” said Davenport.
Steven Chappell, Executive Director of the Suisun Resource Conservation District (SRCD), is anxious to take the new SMP out for a “test drive” because he believes the plan is robust.
“The Marsh is a landscape that has been protected in more of an open space setting than other more highly developed areas of the Delta, which allows us greater opportunities for ecosystem restoration,” said Chappell. “We now have a process to allow current land use to move forward, but also contribute to the recovery of listed species – and work with agencies in a partnership instead of the regulatory combative nature that was kind of the recent history.”
The conversations surrounding the Marsh involve several different issues, the first being the natural uniqueness of the region.
“It’s a brackish marsh, which means it doesn’t have the full salinity of sea water,” said Davenport. “It’s diluted because you have the inflow from the rivers and then you have the water coming from the ocean through the Bay, all of which supports certain types of plants and animals (that thrive in the brackish environment).”
Artificially maintaining that brackish balance has been an art form in itself.
“The Suisun Marsh Preservation Agreement signed in the '80s authorized to control salinity gates and a freshwater distribution system. Under certain conditions they shut the gates so the water doesn’t become too salty,” said Davenport.
Then there are the private duck clubs and public lands managed for waterfowl in the region, which can only remain operational with consistent maintenance of the area’s levee system. Levee maintenance, however, can harm endangered species if not done in the right way.
Finding the right balance that everyone could support while still providing an avenue for continued restoration projects was, to say the least, a challenge-and-a-half. On top of that, the completed SMP had to mesh with the Council’s newly adopted Delta Plan.
One element in the proposed SMMP did concern the Delta Stewardship Council – its adaptive management plan, or the means by which the Marsh’s management could be monitored and periodically adjusted if it were not achieving the SMP’s desired objectives. Some felt the SMP’s adaptive management plan was not as strong as the requirements of the Delta Plan.
An advisory committee, led by the Council, was created and an agreement was reached by the various agencies on how adaptive management would work for restoration projects that would tier off the SMMP’s environmental documents.
“The adaptive management advisory team brings several different agencies together so project proponents can hear the different needs of the different agencies in one place,” said Davenport. “They can hear what the SRCD thinks, what the Fish and Wildlife Service thinks, so the project proponents can leave with a level of certainty that their efforts are helping improve knowledge about managing the Marsh.”
Davenport and Chappell believe the SMMP accomplishes the coequal goals because of a multi-agency compromise between the maintenance and the restoration components. The agencies include the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Department of Water Resources, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Delta Stewardship Council.
“Of the more than 50,000 acres of managed marsh in the Suisun region the agencies settled on a goal of 5,000 to 7,000 acres of tidal restoration,” said Davenport. “And rather than mitigate for every time they dredge or cover up a little bit of salt marsh, the agencies said on the whole this plan will result in a good balance that achieves all the goals without having to be so meticulous about a one-to-one mitigation process.”
Meanwhile, Chappell says the agencies will allow new restoration projects to piggy-back on the SMMP’s universally accepted environmental documents, thereby virtually eliminating a duplication of efforts in trying to acquire new state-required environmental impact reports and/or federally-required environmental impact statements.
“As long as new projects tier off of the SMP’s environmental documents, and stay within the thresholds that were analyzed, it should really streamline restoration activities and give the project proponents an environmental baseline that’s not controversial,” said Chappell. “Even if the new projects exceed the threshold there would be a minimal amount of environmental documentation as long as their proposed project is consistent with the SMMP.”
Chappell is particularly pleased at how this new way of doing business will save money.
“In the past, as project proponents went through the regulatory process, each agency might tack on additional requirements, obligations, and responsibilities resulting in a ‘not-so expensive’ restoration project being saddled with a large monitoring and permit compliance element,” said Chappell. “You could have a $400,000 restoration project coupled with a million dollars of compliance.”
Chappell summed up the trials of the SMMP’s development by saying there is now a plan that will get the job done in the Suisun Marsh.
“We now have a robust plan that will move multiple stakeholder objectives forward concurrently with the idea of trying to streamline project implementation and permitting regulatory requirements in a way that not only are uniform but are efficient,” said Chappell. “The results will lead us to quickly implementable outcomes that are more beneficial to the targeted species than us just doing restoration to meet our acreage obligations.”
To review the Suisun Marsh Management Plan, please click here.