Delta Stewardship Council Bids Farewell to Lead Scientist Cliff Dahm

After three years of serving as the Lead Scientist for the Delta Stewardship Council and Delta Science Program, Dr. Cliff Dahm has resumed his duties as a full-time professor at the University of New Mexico. Dahm, an internationally recognized expert in aquatic ecology, climatology, and restoration biology, began his tenure with the Delta Science Program (then known as CALFED) July 1, 2008.

Science News caught up with Dahm recently to discuss his Lead Scientist tenure and to discover his plans for the future.

Science News: As you finish your Lead Scientist term, what do you consider some of the highlights/accomplishments of the past three years? Your biggest challenges?

Dahm: The biggest challenges and the biggest accomplishments go hand-in-hand. I arrived in Sacramento in July of 2008. I was met with a rapidly deteriorating fiscal situation, a heat wave, and smoke-filled skies. Furloughs, stop work orders, and bond freezes were the focus of my first few months on the job. We lost many excellent staff to more stable job situations. The first year was very challenging, but crisis often breeds opportunity. Movement was afoot for new legislation focused on the water crises in California and the Delta. This new legislation that passed and was signed into law in November 2009 created the Delta Stewardship Council (Council) and the Delta Science Program. Navigating this transition and providing the science support to the Council has been a highlight and hopefully an accomplishment. Recently, we have been able to fund new badly-needed research, invest in some new young investigators, and take leadership roles in the development of parts of the Delta Plan. This remains a time of transition, but I have tried to provide leadership in challenging times and position the Delta Science Program for a more stable and pivotal role as the Delta Plan is implemented.

Science News: When you started with the Science Program, it was part of the CALFED Bay-Delta Program. Now it’s under the Delta Stewardship Council. How has that change impacted the Science Program?

Dahm: Our mission to provide the best possible scientific information for water and environmental decision making in the Bay-Delta system remains the same under the Council. This was important to us as we provided input into the enabling legislation that created the Council. The past efforts of the Science Program under the leadership of the past lead scientists were a distinct positive upon which we wanted to build. I note three major changes in the Science Program under the Council. The first is that the Science Program reports directly to the Council. Therefore, the Science Program focuses on effective communication with the Council. We try to be responsive to the needs of the Council for science and engineering input. Second, a new Delta Independent Science Board (Board) has been constituted and is working diligently to provide scientific oversight to the development of the Delta Plan and to science programs active in the Delta. Assisting the new Board is an important responsibility for the Delta Science Program. Third, the Science Program is currently playing a leadership role in developing parts of the Delta Plan. This involves significant staff time and intellectual effort. Planning responsibilities, supporting a new Board, and assisting the Council are clear changes to the Delta Science Program.

Science News: One of your goals was to bring an ecosystem perspective-including biological, physical, and chemical effects on aquatic systems-to bear on some of the questions and problems in the Bay-Delta region. Were you successful in that?

Dahm: I’d say the jury is still out. I view myself as an ecosystem ecologist. By this I mean that I try to understand and integrate the physical, chemical, and biological attributes of the systems that I am studying. This can scale from small streams to the ocean. The current legal structure promulgates an emphasis on protection of individual species, but I’d argue that healthy ecosystems are critical and take precedence over the needs of individual species. The emerging Delta Plan tries to take an ecosystem or landscape perspective, and I am very supportive of this approach. As the Delta Plan is finalized and implemented, we will see if an ecosystem and landscape approach prevails.


“...Healthy ecosystems are critical and take precedence over the needs of individual species. The emerging Delta Plan tries to take an ecosystem or landscape perspective, and I am very supportive of this approach.”

--Lead Scientist Cliff Dahm


Science News: You’ve been very involved in the creation of the Delta Plan-what are your thoughts on the Plan?

Dahm: The Delta Plan is a work in progress on a highly accelerated timetable. Initially, I thought the role of the Delta Science Program would be one of review and oversight as the Delta Plan was prepared by consultants. As the process continued, the Delta Science Program took leadership on three chapters (Chapter 2 - Science and Adaptive Management for a Changing Delta, Chapter 5 - Restore the Delta Ecosystem, and Chapter 6 - Improve Water Quality to Protect Human Health and the Environment) with significant input into the introductory chapter, the water supply chapter, and the governance and finance chapters. Input of the Delta Science Program has been provided with limited staff and very tight deadlines. I don’t yet know what the final product will look like, but I suspect aspects of the Plan will be controversial and generate litigation. My roles have been to assist with the writing of parts of the plan, to review the scientific underpinnings of the plan, and to try and link science to the policies and recommendations in the plan. The Delta Plan is an ambitious undertaking whose effectiveness and success will not be known for years to come.

Science News: What key issues do you see as challenges for the Science Program going forward?

Dahm: Finding stable long-term support of the Delta Science Program is essential. The roller coaster of boom and bust funding must be replaced by sustained and stable funding. If a competent, dedicated, and loyal staff is to be assembled and retained, year-to-year uncertainty in funding must be addressed. The Delta Science Program also must maintain independence, transparency, and credibility. This means good scientists and engineers working in a supportive environment where rigor and excellence are required and regularly assessed. Finally, successful implementation of the Delta Plan will be a key issue for the Delta Science Program in the future with the application of adaptive management and best available science serving as major challenges in the years to come.

Science News: Do you have any words of wisdom for the new Lead Scientist?

Dahm: I’d offer three pieces of advice. First, there are excellent scientists working in the Delta and San Francisco Bay. Engage them and utilize their expertise. Second, the Delta is an exceptionally complicated system with numerous changing and interactive parts. The learning curve is steep and challenging. Listen carefully, read much, consult experts, and acknowledge the uncertainties. Third, successful communication of the science in the Delta involves telling clear and concise stories based upon the best science and engineering you can access. Communication is a critical part of the job and doing this well is vital.

Science News: Any parting message you’d like to offer?

Dahm: Thanks to the numerous colleagues and friends who helped make my tenure during this challenging time for California and the United States a better experience than I expected after my tumultuous first year in Sacramento. These are difficult times for us all. Water is a resource of fundamental importance to California. This resource needs to be shared between basic human needs, cities, agriculture, and the plants and animals that are dependent on our aquatic ecosystems. Shared sacrifices during times of limited supply with resource replenishment during good times (coupled with conservation, reuse, and good stewardship all the time) are principles we must adopt for water management in California. The highly variable nature of California’s water supply demands a flexible water use and allocation system consistent with what nature provides.


“...These are difficult times for us all. Water is a resource of fundamental importance to California. This resource needs to be shared between basic human needs, cities, agriculture, and the plants and animals that are dependent on our aquatic ecosystems.”

-- Lead Scientist Cliff Dahm


Science News: What are your plans for the future?

Dahm: I return to the University of New Mexico where I am a professor in the Department of Biology. I return to three main ongoing research programs. First, I am a co-principal investigator on the Sevilleta Long-Term Ecological Research Program ( I was a co-principal investigator on the original proposal in 1988, and our renewal proposal for six more years of funding from the National Science Foundation is due in February. I want to help make the next proposal a success.

Second, I am a lead investigator on a program for the State of New Mexico called Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The focus of this project is the climatology, hydrology, and water quality of the mountain source waters for most of New Mexico. New Mexico is the second driest state in the United States (Nevada is the driest), and the amount and quality of such waters from the mountains now and in the future is a major concern. Four of my graduate students, numerous undergraduates, a postdoc, and two faculty colleagues are working with me and colleagues in hydrology and climatology throughout New Mexico on this project. Year three of this five-year project is ending, and I plan to take a leadership role in years four and five.

Third, the Gila River in New Mexico is arguably the best example of a free flowing river left in the southwestern United States. An adjudication made by the Supreme Court in 2004 requires New Mexico to decide how to utilize an additional allocation of water from this system by 2014. I hope to assist in this technical determination over the next two years.

Finally, I look forward to being back in the classroom. I enjoy teaching and working with students, and I look forward to teaching Ecosystem Studies and Geomicrobiology in the fall. These are my plans for the next couple years. I haven’t yet sorted out my longer term options.

Dahm’s last official day in the DSC office was August 19. He will, however, continue to support the Council’s science efforts four days a month during the DSC Lead Scientist recruitment period and the transition to new science leadership.