Town Hall Meeting Kicks Off Building of the Delta Science Plan

A science forum was conducted at the 2012 Bay-Delta Science Conference as an experiment to determine whether Town Hall meetings are an effective way of exchanging ideas between scientists and policy leaders. The Town Hall meeting was led by Dr. Peter Goodwin, Lead Scientist for the Delta Science Program, and facilitated by Bruce DiGennaro, a consultant with The Essex Partnership, to receive feedback on building the Delta Science Plan.

Preparation of the Delta Science Plan is required by the 2012 Final Draft Delta Plan. The Delta Science Plan intended to be a shared plan that organizes and integrates ongoing scientific research, monitoring, analysis, and data management for the Delta Science community. The vision for the Plan is One Delta, One Science - an open Delta science community that works together to build a shared state of knowledge with the capacity to adapt and inform current and future water and environmental decisions in the Delta.

The goal of the meeting was to explore possible innovative mechanisms for conducting science to address the problems of today and develop a deeper understanding of the complex and dynamic Delta system to inform future management.

A three-member panel made up of Randy Fiorini, Vice-Chair of the Delta Stewardship Council, Mark Cowin, Director of the California Department of Water Resources, and Ren Lohoefener, Regional Director Pacific Southwest, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) outlined the two or three issues each considered as “grand challenges.” (Grand challenges are broadly defined as “the areas most likely to yield results of major scientific and practical importance if pursued vigorously now.” For example, refer to Grand Challenges in the Environmental Sciences, NRC, 2001).

Mark Cowin said he was interested in how to incorporate science into decision making, and posed several questions:

  1. How do you provide useful information to policymakers faced with making important decisions affecting the environment and the economy?

  2. What is the importance of flow relative to other stressors?

  3. What can the science community provide?

  4. How can we improve policymakers’ collective understanding of knowns and unknowns?

  5. How do actions affect endangered species positively and negatively?

“Improved common understanding of these questions will improve cooperation and reduce litigation,” Cowin said. He emphasized that scientists need to clearly quantify and communicate the level of uncertainty.

Randy Fiorini agreed with Cowin and said that the charge to the Delta Stewardship Council is to come up with a comprehensive Delta Plan and to achieve the mandated coequal goals.

Fiorini also said that we need to improve communication between scientists and policymakers and those that are choosing projects and implementing them. His Grand Challenges were 1) a model or suite of models is needed for the Delta that combines disciplines such as hydrology, biology, and ecology of the Delta to understand the full range of consequences resulting from actions, and 2) scientists, engineers, and policymakers should all be involved from the very beginning of projects to foster better communication and improved decision making.

Ren Lohoefener said we know a lot, but we need a vision into the future; otherwise we only deal with short-term problems. For instance, he said, new invasive species are a “huge” problem. Lohoefener said that a sustainable and obtainable vision is needed and adaptive management and collaboration are needed to help carry out that vision.

Several members of the audience expressed their views, including:

  • Jim Cloern of the U.S. Geological Survey who said we need to revolutionize the way that science and policy interact. He added that, for instance, he and the co-authors of a paper on climate change effects should have collaborated with DWR and other agencies on the study design and progress.

  • Alf Brandt, California State Assembly staff expert on water resource law and policy, said what’s missing is the engagement between scientists and policymakers so each understands the opportunities as well as the limits of what they can do for each other. Policymakers can provide clear questions and exercise judgments as to policy, based on their growing understanding as well as continuing uncertainties that scientists can explain.

  • Tina Swanson, Director of the Science Center at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there’s a need for a translator or interface between science and policy. She added that “science is an emergent process, it is never done” but that many scientists believe policymakers, with their constant requests for more science, seemed to be waiting for the science to support their positions, rather than acting to apply the science we have now.

  • Wim Kimmerer of San Francisco State University recalled “the good old days of CALFED” when there was more discussion between scientists and policymakers. “We need to get lawyers out of the room,” he said.

  • “Who is the science for?” Fraser Shilling from the University of California, Davis, asked. “For the public good? An independent enterprise funded by the public?”

  • “We have failed in our mission to address the problems,” said Bruce Herbold of the Environmental Protection Agency. “CALFED had success in bringing science forward.” He added that competing science programs are eroding confidence in science and that broad teamwork is needed.

Due to time constraints, the discussion was cut short; however, surveys were passed out during the meeting in an effort to discover what strategies for conducting science in the Delta are working well now and what the barriers are.

Results of the Town Hall Survey - Building the Delta Science Plan

Barriers to Conducting Science in the Delta.

Many survey respondents acknowledged when checking the list of potential barriers on the survey that lack of funding, insufficient staff, the need for leadership, and the policy-science divide were definite barriers. Several wrote in additional barriers they recognized to conducting science in the Delta, including:

  • Lack of long-term, consistent funding

  • Communication skills/expectations on both sides of the policy/science divide

  • Too much “combat science” (biased and confrontational)

  • Lawyers and lawsuits

  • Red tape

  • Reconciling the interpretation of data

As for what’s working well now to conduct science, answers included:

  • Mentorship

  • Using subject-matter experts to explore unknowns

  • Bay-Delta Science Conferences

  • Information exchange through workshops and collaborations across disciplines

  • Peer-reviewed publications

  • On-the-ground data collection and preliminary analysis - Interagency Ecological Program (IEP) and the coordination it does with others

  • Multi-agency projects built around specific questions and conceptual models

Survey respondents were asked to describe “one big innovative idea for how science should be conducted in the Delta.” Suggestions included:

  • Enable research groups involved in a particular science field to come together and share each other’s resources to improve research projects

  • Bring modelers into the boardroom

  • Link social and natural sciences. Communicate needs to include taboo topics such as population growth

  • Have one single, integrated decision support model/tool that combines physical and ecological objectives

  • Provide high-level ‘translators’ on science and policy teams

  • Using an ecosystem approach, develop a system-wide organization charged with high-level analysis/synthesis/modeling and communicate results broadly and translated so that everyone can understand them

  • Have a council of half-policy, half-science people, membership external to DSC, ISB, to ensure an outside view of entire DSC process

These ideas and concepts are being considered as the Delta Science Plan is being developed. The Delta Science Program would like to thank Mark Cowin, Randy Fiorini and Ren Lohoefener and the 300-plus attendees for participating in the experimental forum.