Dutch Grad Students Study Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta

Two Dutch graduate students spent the past three months (April-July 2012) visiting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to conduct a pair of comparative analyses of our Delta and the Rhine-Meuse Delta in their homeland of the Netherlands.

Tjalling Vlieg, 24, and Toon van den Heuvel, 25, are both graduate students in Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Vlieg is researching the application of adaptive management for flood management in both deltas, while van den Heuvel is focusing on the ecological assessments of water bodies in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta-the effects of nutrients, particularly ammonia on the ecosystem.

“It’s really nice to be here,” van den Heuvel said, “We’ve been received very well.” This included opportunities for interactions with Delta Stewardship Council (DSC) members-DSC member Randy Fiorini even took them on an aerial tour of the Delta-and many scientists and resource managers working in the Delta.

The idea to bring Dutch students to Sacramento for a work study was born after DSC Chair Phil Isenberg visited the Netherlands in 2009 for the International Conference on Delta and Coastal Development. In March 2010, Isenberg met with the Dutch Consul General in San Francisco and proposed the idea of the Council hosting Dutch graduate students interested in water policy.

“It was really very refreshing to have these two eager young minds here with us for a few months,” said Anke Mueller-Solger, Interagency Ecological Program (IEP) Lead Scientist, who co-mentored van den Heuvel with Sam Harader of the Delta Science Program. “Their enthusiasm is infectious, and it was very interesting to get their Dutch perspectives on some of the things we are trying to accomplish here. I’m really looking forward to reading their final reports and hope that they will publish them in a journal such as San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. It’s so important to provide young scientists with opportunities such as this.”

Van den Heuvel, who is working on a Master of Science degree in Environmental Science, is adapting a Dutch ecological assessment system to evaluate the ecological health of two water bodies in the Delta: the Sacramento River at Rio Vista, and the San Joaquin River at Turner Cut in the central Delta.

The Dutch system focuses on biotic data (species data) to evaluate ecological health and the effects of stressors such as excessive nutrient inputs. The species that live in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are “totally different” than those in the Netherlands, he said. He’s hoping to identify representative indicator species for water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Before starting that work, he read many papers and reports by scientists that work in the Delta to develop a conceptual model about the effects of nutrients and ammonia on a variety of Delta species (phytoplankton, invertebrates, and fish). He then compiled available monitoring data about these species and is now evaluating them for use as indicators in the Dutch assessment system.

Van den Heuvel, who has a chemical engineering background, also visited the Sacramento Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant. “Sac Regional puts lots of ammonia in the Delta,” he said. “I’m hoping to be able to show the effects of ammonia on fish species in a way that might not have been done here before.” During his visit to the plant, he learned that they’re planning to remove more nutrients from the wastewater including ammonia.

Initially he said he had lots of ideas for his work study but after discussing them with his mentors Sam Harader and Anke Mueller-Solger, he narrowed his ideas down to doing the ecological assessment. “I’m happy to learn more about the ecology,” Van den Heuvel said. “The goal is to develop more technical solutions and mitigation measures.”

At this point he thinks that the Dutch system may work better to understand and show the effects of ammonia on the food web and on fish, but he still has work left to do. “My head is so full now, I learned so much,” he said. “It’s very exciting and I want to work really hard to finish my thesis soon, while it’s still all fresh in my mind. And then I want to find a way to come back.”

Vlieg, who is working on his Master of Science degree in International Land and Water Management, has a special interest in innovation in water management, change management, adaptive water management, and related stakeholder decision making. “Not only technology and hydrology, but as much management transitions in society or the way people cooperate (or not) and seize opportunities regarding water. I believe those interests of mine become even more challenging, interesting and also very complex in delta areas, where people and nature are abundant. Or maybe I should say where people are, and nature has been abundant?” he said.

The Rhine-Meuse Delta in the Netherlands and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are two such areas which was why he decided to research the application of adaptive management for flood management in the Rhine-Meuse and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and to compare adaptive management in concept and practice between the two deltas. Science Program mentor Chris Enright warned him what he was up against by taking on this topic. “I told Tjalling that he would likely find himself educating flood managers about adaptive management as much as he would learn from them,” Enright said.

During the California part of his research at the Delta Science Program, Vlieg interviewed about a dozen practitioners and experts on Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta policy, science and engineering. During his interviews he posed questions like ‘What is it about water management that makes it adaptive?’ and ‘How is the adaptive management theory translated into practice?’

His hope was to gain knowledge on how adaptive management is defined in both deltas and what the barriers and enabling factors are for implementing adaptive management so as to derive transferable insights and recommendations.

Vlieg is currently analyzing interviews and literature. “I’m definitely finding differences in what people in California perceive as adaptive management and what people in the Netherlands perceive as adaptive management,” he said. “As well for the way adaptive management is applied for flood management purposes in both deltas.”

Initial findings from Vlieg’s study indicated that different emphasis on principles, processes and tools for adaptive management occurred between those interviewed in California and the Netherlands. For example, continuous and deliberate learning and communication tools were emphasized as important parts of adaptive management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, while the Dutch put more emphasis on adaptive management as a means for selecting and timing actions to have the greatest number of opportunities to adapt. He also found little emphasis on adaptive management for flood management in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Vlieg looks forward to continuing his comparative interview analysis in the Netherlands.

Tjalling Vlieg and Toon van den Heuvel camping in Yosemite - photo courtesy of Tjalling Vlieg.
Tjalling Vlieg and Toon van den Heuvel camping in Yosemite
(Photo courtesy of Tjalling Vlieg)

The duo made good use of their free time - visiting as many places as possible, including: Yosemite, San Francisco, Monterey, Carmel, Point Reyes, Lake Tahoe, Redwood National Park, the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, Death Valley, and more.

Vlieg said the most breathtaking moments of his trip were hiking up to the rim of the Grand Canyon and the moment he was pulled over while he was testing the Mustang they rented. “The Highway Patrol here can be strict and a bit aggressive,” he said. “Good thing is that being a foreigner allows you to act stupid.”

Van den Heuvel said he enjoyed sleeping on the beach under the stars after their hike in the Redwoods. But the two agreed that their favorite experience was when they went backcountry hiking in Yosemite. On the first day they encountered winter weather with snow and freezing temperatures during the night, but the next morning while hiking up Cloud’s Rest, it was like summer. “We reached the top of Cloud’s Rest at 7:30 in the morning and the view was astonishing,” Van den Heuvel said.

They said they also appreciated all the “nice Americans” who invited them over for dinner and barbecuing. “I loved the food and the hospitality,” Vlieg said, “or should I say it the other way around?”

The Delta Science Program coordinated Vlieg and van den Heuvel’s research and stay in California with Peter Wijsman of Arcadis, a former visiting Dutch student to the CALFED Bay-Delta Program, who now represents the International Delta Alliance in California.