Estuary News

December 2019

Flows and Ecosystem Function Dominate Delta Plan Amendment

With the Delta lagging behind the Bay on four of the State of the Estuary Report’s five indicators, the last long-range plan for restoring its ecological health abandoned, and the threats from climate change becoming ever more alarming, the need for a new regulatory vision for the region may never have been greater. A pending amendment to the Delta Plan, shared by Ron Melcer at the State of the Estuary Conference as part of a policy update session, is meant to provide that vision and the strategies to achieve it.

The amendment — to Chapter Four of the Delta Plan, which focuses on the Delta ecosystem — was developed in response to the state’s pivot away from the 2013 Bay-Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), said Melcer. “The Delta Plan was [originally] written anticipating that the BDCP would be adopted and then implemented,” he said, “so the high-level objective of the amendment is really just putting a framework back on the landscape that thinks comprehensively about ecosystem issues and species recovery.”

The amendment is based on three papers that synthesize the latest science on the condition of the Delta ecosystem, the effects of climate change, and ecosystem protection, restoration, and enhancement. It includes five core strategies and 15 specific recommendations to guide restoration projects in the Delta, with a view to establishing a resilient, functioning Estuary by 2100.

Delta adaptation zones.
Source: DSC

The first two strategies focus on creating more natural flows and restoring ecosystem function. “We’ve been looking at it across several key attributes,” said Melcer in a follow-up conversation. These include restoring geomorphic and biological processes, and reestablishing native vegetation, but also encompass scale and connectivity. “These projects have to be large-scale,” said Melcer. “You can’t just do a project on a plot the size of your yard and expect the Delta ecosystem to recover.”

Using the most recent analyses of Delta topography and tidal datums, fish migration routes, and other criteria, the amendment identifies areas where restoration is likely to produce the most benefit. “For the kind of restoration which is opening levees up and restoring tides to diked areas, the two most suitable areas are Suisun Marsh and the Cache Slough area,” said San Francisco Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s Stuart Siegel, who provided some of the analyses, in a follow-up interview.

Longfin and delta smelt, two fish that are a target of floodplain habitat restoration.
Photo: Jim Irvin.

The amendment also establishes a framework for classifying potential restoration projects into tiers, according to how relevant they are to the core strategies. “This is a really important distinction [from other plans],” said Gerrit Platenkamp of Environmental Science Associates, who also contributed to the amendment, in another interview. Restoration project proponents will need to identify which tier the project falls into, and the system will also help guide restoration funding.

Another core strategy is to protect land that is suitable for restoration. “There are places in the Delta where restoration is possible, and because of subsidence there are also places where it’s not,” said Melcer, noting that the Delta is losing the equivalent of two football fields of land per day to subsidence. The plan includes regulatory policies and recommendations for protecting suitable land from development, and also for halting and reversing subsidence.

Subsidence on Brannan Island adjacent to Georgiana Slough.
Photo: Amber Manfree

Importantly, the amendment includes performance measures that set “quantitative ecological objectives for the landscape,” said Melcer. The measures include a goal of 65,000 to 85,000 acres of riparian and wetland restoration by 2050, many in “conservation opportunity regions” recently identified by the non-regulatory 2018 Delta Conservation Framework. “Those numbers are based on an analysis of existing conservation and recovery plans for the region and are on the scale of the BDCP,” said Melcer.

The final core strategy identified in the amendment calls for improving institutional coordination to support its other goals and strategies, echoing a theme highlighted by other presenters on the panel. The Coastal Conservancy’s Amy Hutzel introduced the new Bay Restoration Regulatory Integration Team (BRRIT), launched last summer. The group is charged with coordinating permits across agencies to accelerate projects in the Bay and allow marsh to be restored over the next decade.

Other presentations focused on the need for regulatory changes that respond to the inevitability of rising seas. Outlining the Bay Conservation and Development Commission’s long-term plans, Shannon Fiala noted that the Commission recently adopted Bay Plan amendments that address Bay fill for habitat projects, as well as environmental justice and social equity. The Bay fill amendment recognizes that more fill may be necessary for habitat restoration and allows for more beneficial reuse of dredged material. Other plans with amendments in the works include the San Francisco Waterfront Special Area Plan and the Seaport Plan, while the Suisun Marsh Protection Plan will be reviewed in 2020.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board’s Christina Toms outlined various ways that the Board is responding to climate change, including participating in the BRRIT and supporting the recommendations of the Baylands Goals Update and San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Adaptation Atlas. She also noted that the Board is developing an amendment to the Basin Plan that will document the threat that climate change poses to Bay habitats and beneficial uses of the state’s waters, and identify preferred strategies for sea-level rise adaptation.

Photo: Amber Manfree

The Delta Plan amendment and other policy updates reflect the growing emphasis on geographic and agency integration. “This amendment to the Delta Plan’s Ecosystem chapter is the final link in a suite of regional plans to guide ecological recovery of the entire Bay-Delta system,” said Siegel. “With the stage now set, we as a region are ready to shift our focus to implementing these plans.”

To accomplish this shift, Siegel would have the region focus on ensuring adequate institutional capacity, acquiring necessary lands, permitting projects efficiently, utilizing best available science, and providing funding all the way through long-term land management. Also critical would be to bring the public along every step of the way.

“We have long known the value of ecological recovery as an essential element of achieving the Delta Plan’s co-equal goals. We now also understand these ‘nature-based strategies” will help us adapt to climate change,” he said.

Delta Plan Amendment 2019

Delta Conservation Framework 2018-2050

Related Prior ESTUARY stories

Reflowing the Sierra to the Sea, December 2018 

Back to the Bones of the Delta, March 2017

Permitting Opens a Fast Lane, June 2019

Haggles over when and where for Delta conservation, December 2018

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Top Photo: Ron Melcer outlines amendment at October 2019 State of the Estuary Conference. Photo credit: Amber Manfree

Special coverage 2019 State of the Estuary Conference

About the author

Cariad Hayes Thronson covers legal and political issues for Estuary News. She has served on the staffs of several national publications, including The American Lawyer. She is a long-time contributor to Estuary News, and some years ago served as its assistant editor. She lives in San Mateo with her husband and two children.

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