Science Advisors Provide Guidance on BDCP Adaptive Management

There are many perceptions of what adaptive management means. Basically, adaptive management is taking an action, monitoring the right things to assess the response to the action, analyzing the monitoring data, revising your understanding and taking the next action based on that new understanding.

Recently, a group of nine renowned independent science advisors presented recommendations and guidance for incorporating adaptive management into the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) in the BDCP Independent Science Advisors’ Report on Adaptive Management.

“Contrary to popular belief, monitoring is not the be all and end all of adaptive management,” said Cliff Dahm, CALFED Lead Scientist and one of the advisors who prepared the science report.

“Monitoring is a part; but it’s not enough,” Dahm said. “If you don’t manage the data, think about it and analyze it from multiple perspectives, you can't fully evaluate it. Evaluation leads to improved understanding and policy planning implementation. After the monitoring, if you don’t spend the time needed to finish the synthesis and integration which leads to new understanding, you’ll fail.”

“Then we have to effectively communicate the resulting new understanding to the right people (policymakers and decision makers), and it’s up to them to make well-informed decisions using that information. If we’re going to make progress in the Delta, we need to come up with a governance structure with teeth,” Dahm said.


“If we’re going to make progress in the Delta, we need to come up with a governance structure with teeth.”

--Cliff Dahm, BDCP Adaptive Management Report
Independent Science Advisor


“The challenge is large for such a complex plan as BDCP,” said Wayne Spencer, report author and BDCP Science Co-Facilitator. “The report focused the collective expertise of a group of scientists who have learned from the mistakes of other adaptive management programs. I think the framework it presents for how to integrate a strong, scientifically sound approach into an inherently political and economic process represents an improvement over previous adaptive management frameworks, which typically have not sufficiently defined roles and decision-making processes to allow for effective implementation. Too often, adaptive management has boiled down to, ‘we’ll try this and if it doesn’t work we’ll drop it and try something else,’” Spencer, of the Conservation Biology Institute, said.

“I believe BDCP will continue to struggle with understanding and applying the recommendations within a very complex and contentious process,” he said. “But if it embraces the intent, if not all the details of our recommendations, it will represent an improvement over previous adaptive management programs.”

Spencer added that what is new in the adaptive management framework that the advisors devised is “much more explicit integration of scientific expertise with governance expertise, especially in the all-important feedback loop from emerging scientific information to decision making. This is where most adaptive management programs have faltered: as new data, observations, etc., accumulate, there is usually insufficient communication up to the policy makers and managers who actually control program actions, funding, staff assignments, etc.,” he said. “The report therefore recommended having a body of highly skilled individuals, [polymaths] that follow and understand the science, but also follow, understand and can influence the decision makers, to ensure that policies are adjusted to new information in an effective and cost-effective manner.”

Roger Patterson, assistant general manager of The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and co-chair for the BDCP Implementing Structure/Governance Workgroup, said he thought the report was “very helpful-focused and to the point.” He believes it will be implemented as part of BDCP and be very helpful in shaping the final adaptive management component.

“I particularly thought the recommendation for BDCP to utilize a body of polymaths as part of program implementation was useful,” Patterson said. “I think this has been a missing component in past efforts and found the recommendation by the science advisors very intriguing.”

Polymaths go beyond disciplinary boundaries in their expertise and can assimilate the diverse information, understand the consequences-both technical and policy implications-and make recommendations to both the senior decision makers and the technical staff.

Laura King Moon, assistant general manager of the State Water Contractors and a BDCP program manager, said that most of the steering committee also liked the notion of setting up a body of skillful polymaths who understand the technical and policy implications of information passed along by technical staff.

Moon also thought the report “did a good job of pointing to the volumes of scientific information already available on which to base proposed BDCP conservation measures, and provided some thoughtful guidance on how to approach ongoing uncertainties through experimental design, monitoring and adaptive management.”

She added that the adaptive management framework was “very useful conceptually-especially the need for an explicit step in the process known as ‘assimilate and recommend,’ [which is the critical step to be performed by the polymaths.] I believe the report will have a strong bearing on how BDCP moves forward,” Moon said. “It has already influenced how we have conducted the use of the Ecosystem Restoration Program’s Delta Regional Ecosystem Restoration Implementation Plan (DRERIP) conceptual models to evaluate the proposed conservation measures, with the establishment of a synthesis group to review the results of the individual evaluations and formulate recommendations on how to move forward on the measures. Many of the recommendations about how to integrate science into the design of the measures are already being followed and will continue to occur as we refine the proposals,” she said.

Patterson, one of the co-chairs for development of BDCP governance, said he believes that adaptive management is an “integral part of what will be needed for success given the uncertainties associated with the Delta. Our challenge is to provide for true adaptive management within the framework of the BDCP in a way that allows us to achieve both our ecosystem restoration and our water supply goals.”

When asked how she saw adaptive management and governance being linked, Moon agreed that it was “complicated. I think the adaptive management framework described in the report is basically how it has to happen,” she said, “and the BDCP governance working group is still working on the details of how that approach can work in a conservation plan that is designed to provide durable regulatory assurances. Stay tuned!”