“Rock star” Scientist Forges New Monitoring Framework Path

Dr. Samuel N. Luoma, a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar, the first Lead Scientist of the CALFED Bay-Delta Program and the winner of the recent inaugural Brown-Nichols Science Award, has been dubbed a “rock star” among his peers.

It’s easy to see why.

This distinguished scientist, who is renowned for his expertise and extensive work on contamination issues in the Bay-Delta, is the author of more than 200 peer-reviewed publications. His latest work, Metal Contamination in Aquatic Environments: Science and Lateral Management, co-authored with Philip Rainbow, was released by Cambridge University Press in October 2008.

A Scientific Associate with the Natural History Museum in London, and a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Luoma received the rank of Meritorious Senior Government Employee from the President of the United States in 2006. He spent 34 years as a research scientist at the US Geological Survey (USGS) and currently leads science policy coordination for the John Muir Institute of the Environment at the University of California, Davis.

Luoma’s latest project – and passion – is to develop a new monitoring framework in the Bay-Delta that will provide a way to better combine data from widely distributed monitoring programs, identify gaps in existing programs and assure ongoing interpretive assessments of the data.


“As both nature and human activities change, it is important to keep track of changes in the Delta in a way that cross-cuts issues and integrates the outputs of different institutions and programs.“

-- Sam Luoma, Ph.D.


Science News recently met with Luoma to discuss his vision and goals for the new effort, still in the beginning stages, tentatively entitled, A Framework for Assessing Environmental Change in the San Francisco Bay-Delta.

All of Dr. Luoma’s answers are preliminary and under discussion by all involved in developing the framework.

Science News:

Could you briefly describe your efforts on the new monitoring and assessment framework in the Bay-Delta?


The goal of the assessment activities that might stem from the framework would be to address “Grand Challenges” for monitoring/assessments in the Bay-Delta. Three of the Grand Challenges are:

  1. To understand how the ecosystem is changing in response to changes in infrastructure and water management designed to improve water supply reliability;
  2. To understand how the ecosystem is changing in response to ecosystem restoration activities;
  3. To understand how the ecosystem is changing in response to variability and unidirectional changes in natural processes (driven by climate change or ocean processes, for example).

This approach would allow managers to assess (identify, interpret and begin to understand) environmental changes driven by activities designed to improve water supply reliability and restore ecosystems within the context of changes driven by nature.

The framework involves three components: a monitoring component, an interpretation component and a “reporting out” component. The reporting out component is a regular report to all interested parties, including the public, policy makers and decision makers. It will be integrated with performance measure efforts undertaken by others. The plan reflects an equal priority of the three components.

Some aspects of a successful program built from the Framework might include:

  1. Draw data from a variety of existing programs without compromising their individual missions.
  2. Develop syntheses relevant to the Grand Challenges.
  3. Reduce uncertainties about conditions in the Delta; clarify trends with regard to environmental change; and identify or clarify gaps in data.
  4. Provide a basis for predicting future conditions under different management scenarios.
  5. Report on status, trends and explanations to a variety of users, including policy makers and the general public.
  6. Address important questions for specific Delta characteristics:
    1. Is a variable changing (e.g. pesticide concentrations or exposures)?
    2. Are loadings or other direct drivers of the variable changing; which ones?
    3. How much and what kind of uncertainties are there in estimates of the variable and is uncertainty changing (e.g. shrinking with more knowledge)?
    4. Do changes reflect policy decisions that have been made? Are there ways to improve the goals of the policy (e.g. if the goal is reducing loads, is that the right goal?)

Science News:

Why is this central monitoring framework needed now?


There is a great deal of monitoring going on in the system, but it is widely distributed among institutions and programs with different goals and different missions. One frustration of policy makers is that the monitoring does not always address the questions of most interest to them. Monitoring data is needed that addresses questions by cutting across many different aspects that play into the most complex issues. We are designing a framework for such monitoring.

Now is a particularly important time to integrate the distributed efforts and begin to interpret and communicate status and trends. The Delta is changing, and a number of proposals exist to refine water and ecosystem management to adjust to those changes. As both nature and human activities change, it is important to keep track of changes in the Delta in a way that cross-cuts issues and integrates the outputs of different institutions and programs.

Science News:

Why will this framework succeed where others in the past have failed?


The success of this endeavor depends upon existing programs seeing the value in a broadly integrative program, focused on constructively supplementing and complementing their own efforts. That is the reason the CALFED Science Program is heavily involved in helping us communicate with existing monitoring efforts and helping us develop the details of the framework in collaboration with these institutions and programs.

Science News:

Will this new monitoring environment be able to detect major surprises in the system? If so, how?


The two gaps that our framework attempts to fill are:

  1. The need for identifying a set of monitoring data that systematically cuts across issues such as water quality, hydrodynamics/hydrology, species and habitat monitoring.
  2. The need for ongoing interpretation from that integrated viewpoint accompanied by a reporting out to the public on a regular basis.

Early recognition of surprising changes in the ecosystem requires a program that is focused on looking for meaningful changes in the system and also is dedicated to ongoing interpretation of the monitoring data. To the degree that change noticed by one monitoring and analysis effort is reinforced by careful analysis of data from partnering programs, uncertainties about the change might be reduced and interpretation of something as a surprise might have sufficient credibility to stir management response.