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Delta Stressors: Where to Begin?

December 2011

The Delta Stewardship Council continues to ask for help from experts and leading authorities to develop a ranking system and a plan of attack to confront the wide variety of stressors in the Delta and the various challenges they pose.

At its November meeting, the Council acknowledged that stressors are an extraordinary challenge for all parties involved, but the Council members have no choice but to identify the most pressing problems first, get to work on those and then eventually move on to the others. To do this, they need scientific help.

“There are an endless number of priorities,” said Council Chair Phil Isenberg. “Let’s accomplish these near-term things while we puzzle through the larger problems. If we don’t have a starting point, we can’t explain anything.”

“We can’t get away from a ranking. We can’t get away from prioritization,” added Council member Hank Nordhoff. “We just can’t afford to do everything at the same time.”

The Council invited four experts to its recent meeting to provide their insights on Delta stressors in support of Draft Delta Plan chapters 5 and 6, respectively titled “Restore the Delta Ecosystem” and “Improve Water Quality to Protect Human Health and the Environment.” Each panel member offered unique insights and understood the value of establishing a pecking order to tackle the stressors.

Ellen Hanak, senior policy fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California, told Council members about the Institute’s new research effort to develop science-based Delta policy relevant information.

“One thing we’re aiming to do is use expert consultation to try to get to some scientific consensus on some quick-and-dirty priorities,” Hanak said. But she also added that this may be a difficult process.

“Science isn’t done with the objective of getting to quick policy prescriptions,” she said.

Isenberg singled out the effective work of the Institute, which includes a wide-ranging reform agenda detailed in Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation, an in-depth look at the state’s water management challenges. One of the key features of the new PPIC report is its preliminary look at a “fee-for-stressor” approach, which opens the discussion about how to pay for solving the various stressor problems and will be a key part of any plan.

“It’s a broad responsibility [applying stressor fees],” Hanak said. “Our sense is a broad-brushed approach will be a useful starting point.”

The panel of experts covered the broad spectrum of ecosystem stressors including water quality impairment, diversions and altered flow, insufficient habitat quality and quantity and non-native species effects including predation and food web impacts.

Without offering rankings, the group did spell out some particularly pressing items from methyl mercury in fish to overly deep channels to climate change that all work together to put the Delta in distress and make the solutions difficult to find.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg situation,” said Chris Foe, staff environmental scientist for the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. “How much each of these stressors contributes to the collapse of the system is unclear.”

The panel also encouraged the Council to look to the future and manage what is possible in the present. “I would put my resources on what invasive species can we expect, what will the Delta look like and what fish will it support,” said Bruce Herbold, fisheries biologist with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 9.

“We need to be prospective,” said Carl Wilcox, regional manager, Bay-Delta Region, California Department of Fish and Game. “We need to look into the future.”

With all the complexities and the interconnected issues, the Council recognizes it will be dependent on staff and a variety of experts to keep it all in order.

“You’ve backed up the truck to this Council and unloaded…a load of stuff,” said Council member Randy Fiorini. “We need to be able to figure out a way to process it all and figure out a way it makes sense as it applies to chapters 5 and 6 [of the Delta Plan].”

Isenberg added, “One thing I know, we need a clear, focused section dealing with stressors, however defined.”

To view the Fifth Staff Draft of the Delta Plan, click here.

Coequal goals

The Delta Stewardship Council was created in legislation to achieve the state mandated coequal goals for the Delta. "'Coequal goals' means the two goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. The coequal goals shall be achieved in a manner that protects and enhances the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place." (CA Water Code §85054)