Estuary News

December 2019

Big Picture Review of Regional Science and Governance

Offshore, kelp forests were dwindling. Outside, hillsides were burning. Inside the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland, scientists and policy people were sharing the latest findings concerning the vital shallows in between: the San Francisco Estuary. The patient pursuit of knowledge, essential to smart action in a changing world, had chalked up a fruitful two years. Of the action itself, there was rather less sign.

Felicia Marcus might speak to that better than anyone. As chair of the State Water Resources Control Board, she had coaxed along a nine-year process, mandated by law, to raise minimum flows in the major rivers that sustain the Estuary. The Board took the first of several wrenchingly hard decisions 12 months ago. Result: the process was put on hold, pending another round of stakeholder negotiations, and Marcus lost her job.

Marcus did not mention these facts in her Tuesday morning talk on how we must see and teach the interconnectedness of Bay, Delta, watershed, and the California water system as a whole. “Are we going to be the generation that loses salmon?” she demanded, concluding with a series of questions, a kind of call-and-response. “Can we give native fish a fighting chance?” Catching on quickly, the audience roared back the appropriate answers, about as well as scientists can roar. Then Marcus added a note of dount and urgency: “Can we? I don’t know.”

As if to back her up, a brief ceremony marked the addition of the Bay to Mission Blue’s list of planetary Hope Spots, marine or estuarine areas that have gained, or at any rate deserve, a high level of protection. And Erik Vink of the Delta Protection Commission reported that Congress has designated the Delta a National Heritage Area. These distinctions are reminiscent of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize: given less to honor past achievement than to spur the recipient on.

A spur seems to be in order.

Photo: Noah Berger

In a Tuesday afternoon panel — “Panels and Engineers and Regulators, Oh My” — six well-situated people talked about how to organize the Bay and Delta regions for the larger actions that are going to be required, notably to meet sea-level rise. How can we confront the regional effects of rising tides, for instance on highways and low-lying sewage treatment plants? How can we ensure that local actions, like seawall building, don’t simply shove the impacts around? Can every place, asset, or island be defended, and for how long?

A lot of good people are working on such problems. A staple of conferences these days is the “spaghetti chart” showing how many partner organizations are involved in any big issue, and we saw a couple of these. “We don’t have a government gap,” Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) planning director Jessica Fain remarked. “We have a government abundance.” But getting all those levels and agencies to pull together where it counts remains the headache it always has been. Veteran water reformer Phil Isenberg was quoted: “Everybody’s involved, no one is in charge.”

Who, if anyone, should be in charge? The Bay Conservation and Development Commission seems the logical lead agency for threatened Bay shorelines, as many “policy actors” agree. BCDC itself seeks no added authority but is pushing local governments and other powers to converge on a Regional Adaptation Strategy. The goal, said BCDC’s Fain, is to “start to create some conversation about best practices.” That conversation, she acknowledged, might lead to “hard choices” some time in the future. No one seemed in much hurry to get there.

Drawing on the results of an extensive survey, Mark Lubell of the University of California at Davis reported, “Everybody wants a plan, nobody wants to establish a new authority.” And anything that impinges on land-use control by local governments is a “non-starter.”

Lubell did point to a nearby model, the Delta Stewardship Council. Back in 2009, faced with a similar logjam in the Delta, the Legislature came up with an ingenious solution. Agencies and governments whose work affects the Delta must “certify” that actions of certain types comply with an overarching vision, the Council’s Delta Plan. The Council can overturn such a certification on appeal, effectively blocking the decision or project from going forward. (The Council staff’s refusal to bless California WaterFix was one of the last straws for Jerry Brown’s two-tunnel plan.) In the Bay Area, such a mechanism might backstop an agreed-upon Regional Adaptation Strategy. But at the moment, even this indirect form of supervision seems politically out of reach.

Sharing science at a conference poster session. Photo: Noah Berger

Can there be a plan without power? Can a blueprint be developed and carried out on a purely cooperative basis? One lever toward unity is the competition for funding. Maya Hayden of Point Blue had earlier reviewed the discouraging outlook for San Mateo’s bayshore marshes. In the governance panel, Erika Powell told how the need to make a common pitch for federal grants led the county and its 20 cities to launch a Flood and Sea-Level Rise Resiliency Agency. It comes into being on New Year’s Day 2020. It will not, of course, impinge on land-use autonomy.

In the end there seemed to be a surprising convergence on two points. First, the present system isn’t working. Second, no one who is part of that system is in a position to rock the boat. Indeed, on the panel, it was the representatives of agencies with the most direct clout — BCDC, the Stewardship Council — who spoke most soothingly to their governmental colleagues.

Mark Lubell noted: “It often takes a crisis before you have that unification of political will.” Perhaps the best we can do, he suggested, is have a good plan ready for the moment when an undeniable emergency shocks open the doors to action.

There may be another route, however. Several panelists noted how strong leaders, above or outside the local establishment, have made things move. Governor Schwarzenegger’s Delta Vision Task Force started the ball rolling for the Delta Stewardship Council, and ex-Assemblyman Phil Isenberg kept it moving. In San Mateo County, it was Representative Jackie Speier and Supervisor Dave Pine who championed the new flood agency. Mike Mielke of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group gave Diane Feinstein credit for starting the push toward Measure AA; Jim McGrath of the regional water board gave her similar credit for purchase of the Bay’s salt ponds. The list can be run backward all the way to the three founders of Save the Bay. Without their grass-roots insurgency — a major insult to local government privilege — we might still be reading learned papers about the effects of recent Bay fills.

“What’s missing here is political leadership,” said Mielke. “Would the governor be interested in calling the region together” to confront sea-level rise, in something analogous to Delta Vision?

Mr. Newsom, how about it?

Planetary Hope Spot: San Francisco Bay

Delta, California’s First National Heritage Area

Related Prior ESTUARY stories

Reflecting on the Rush to Resilience, June 2018

Two Hearts Beating Not Quite as One-see page 7, June 2016

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Special coverage 2019 State of the Estuary Conference

About the author

John Hart is an environmental journalist and author of sixteen books and several hundred other published works. He is also the winner of the James D. Phelan Award, the Commonwealth Club Medal in Californiana, and the David R. Brower Award for Service in the Field of Conservation. For ESTUARY, he writes on groundwater, infrastructure, and California water politics and history.

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