Science and Policy in a Labyrinth

Bay-Delta Conference Offers Latest Scientific Information

Salmon, smelt, and predation, oh my. Food webs, turbidity, zooplankton too. These were some of the many topics covered at the 6th Biennial Bay-Delta Science Conference held in Sacramento.

Nearly 1000 scientists, managers, and policymakers attended the late September conference where the latest scientific information critical in shaping management and policy decisions for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the San Francisco Bay was presented. Addressing the conference theme, “Ecosystem Sustainability: Focusing Science on Managing California’s Water Future,” speakers discussed many other topics like harmful algal blooms, the ecological history of the Delta, conservation, and public policy.

Plenary speaker Phil Isenberg, Chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, kicked off the conference with a talk on the nexus between science and policy. “The public policy debate on water in the Delta is coming to the point where the politicians-if not directly, at least indirectly-have conceded that they don’t know much about what to do,” Isenberg said. “There are no win-win solutions in this water world. The supply of water in California does not seem to be growing; the demand seems to be growing and the public perception and attitudes about water are relatively high during droughts and they disappear rapidly after the drought seems to come to an end.”

There are 240 federal, state and local agencies that have some decision-making authority in and around the Delta. “The deadlock in water policy is largely attributable to the fact that everybody’s been able to block everybody else,” Isenberg said. “The science that policymakers need is not simply the science of pure biology; it’s a mixture of the biological sciences, engineering, landscape ecology . . .” He added that scientists must rise above the edge of the foxhole and step into the arena of public policy using the tools of their expertise and ‘simple English’ to articulate a position that will inform policymakers. “It is the most important job I can visualize over the next 30 or 40 years,” he concluded.

During his plenary talk, Delta Lead Scientist Cliff Dahm quoted from Jared Diamond in his book, Collapse - How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: “People often ask what is the single most important environmental problem facing the world today. The single most important problem is our misguided focus on identifying the single most important problem because any of a dozen problems if unsolved will do us grave harm because they all interact with each other.”

“This is clearly the case in the Delta,” Dahm said. “We need to make progress on multiple fronts if we’re going to improve the quality of the aquatic systems that exist within the Delta.”

 


“The deadlock in water policy is largely attributable to the fact that everybody’s been able to block everybody else. The science that policymakers need is not simply the science of pure biology… scientists must rise above the edge of the foxhole and step into the arena of public policy…”

--Phil Isenberg, Chair, Delta Stewardship Council


 

Anne Castle, Assistant Secretary for Water and Science with the U.S. Department of the Interior, gave an overview of federally-supported science activities in the Delta in her plenary talk, “From Sequestration to Smelt: Cutting Edge Science Solving Bay-Delta Problems.”

Another presenter was Vince Resh, a member of the new Delta Independent Science Board (Delta ISB) and a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, at the University of California, Berkeley. He drew parallels between issues facing the Delta and those facing Vietnam’s lower Mekong River. One example is the issue of stakeholders and the recent Tibetan protests that reached their height during the 2008 Olympics.

“The issue of Tibet and China has nothing to do with human rights, has nothing to do with the Dalai Lama,” Resh said. “It is all about resources; in particular, water resources.” Maps of the Himalayas show that the great rivers of Asia are all flowing within 150 miles of each other-the Yellow, the Yangtze, the Mekong-and they’re all in land held by Tibet. “When we think of the political considerations and the policy decisions that are going to have to be made in light of science here, this is really not something that’s unique to the Delta,” Resh said. “It’s really an issue worldwide. These are multi-jurisdictional and extremely important areas.”

John Wiens, another member of the Delta ISB and the Chief Conservation Science Officer at Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science, also spoke. He discussed conservation and management in the labyrinth that is the current Delta.

“If we’re going to deal with the problem of sustainability of the Bay-Delta ecosystem, it will require no more ‘business as usual,’” he said. “We have to change the way we are doing things. This applies to the way we do science, it applies to the way we think about policy, it applies to the way we combine those two.”

 


“Look at what’s achievable, what’s important, what is cost-effective. We need to recognize that we have to make trade-offs. We need to begin to learn to deal with ‘good enough.’”

--John Wiens, Delta Independent Science Board


 

Wiens noted that the Bay-Delta system is a labyrinth, in terms of its land uses, the people, the vested interests, the agendas. “The way we have to begin to approach the Bay-Delta system is by thinking in terms of a labyrinth,” Wiens said. “The way we normally think about science is linearly-linear equations, linear accelerators, linear programming. We assume that natural systems behave linearly unless proven otherwise.” But natural systems are not linear, he contends. “They are complex networks, food webs of interconnections of various sorts which eventually reach the point of chaos theory where there are multiple bifurcations, a lot of unpredictability and uncertainty that characterizes these kinds of systems,” he said.

“These are the realities of the kinds of systems we deal with that are particularly exposed when we think about the Bay-Delta system. We have to prioritize,” Wiens said. “Look at what’s achievable, what’s important, what is cost-effective. We need to recognize that we have to make trade-offs. We need to begin to learn to deal with ‘good enough.’ What is good enough for us to move to the next step? Doing science that is good enough implies that you have a vigorous adaptive management program in place so that you can be continually adjusting if your good enough was in fact, wrong.”

Special sessions were held throughout the conference including a viewing of the documentary RiverWebs. This film was a tribute to Shigero Nakano and the research he inspired with collaborators from the western U.S. and Japan. Nakano was a leading aquatic ecologist from Japan who died tragically in a boating accident in the Gulf of California in 2000.