Whole Healthy Estuary

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Whole Healthy Estuary

by Josh Collins, Chief Scientist, San Francisco Estuary Institute

More than twenty years ago I sat in my first meeting about restoring a healthy San Francisco Estuary. We agreed that we needed to first clearly define success as a comprehensive set of compatible health goals based on existing public policies. Then we agreed we needed to find ways to assess conditions relative to the goals, so we could periodically issue public reports on Estuary health.

Most people in that first meeting had the same ideas. They’d already written them into the first Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the Estuary (CCMP), backed by EPA’s National Estuary Program of the US Clean Water Act.

A year before the CCMP, EPA had published the first State of the Estuary Report. It highlighted the State’s ecological and economic dependence on healthy physical and biological connections between the ocean, the Estuary, and its watersheds. The report concluded the Estuary had severe environmental problems that were getting worse. The problems justified the CCMP.

Whole Healthy - JoshSolving the problems has been complicated by political and scientific fragmentation. We cut the problems into pieces along the boundary lines between environmental agencies or their policies. Long before the CCMP, the Estuary was divided into the Bay and the Delta based on the jurisdictions of different pollution control agencies. Both regions have been further fragmented by separate sets of environmental policies governing the ocean, the Estuary bottom and its waters, tidal marshes, rivers and streams, and the rest of watersheds. Each part of the system has a different group of dedicated scientists. There’s no Estuary HMO.

The effects of this fragmentation are pervasive. The biggest problems have not been solved and new ones are emerging. Dredged sediment needed for marsh restoration continues to be dumped into the ocean. Runoff continues to degrade local streams. Native wildlife continues to dwindle toward extinction. Novel contaminants are showing up in tide waters. Rapid sea level rise and other aspects of climate change threaten to nullify some health goals.

The biggest plans to fix the problems have taken partial approaches. The Baylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals barely touch watersheds and don’t extend into the Delta. Despite their names, the Bay-Delta Advisory Council, the Bay-Delta Program of CALFED, and the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan barely touched the Bay. There’re multiple plans for some watersheds and none for others. The existing plans are poorly coordinated and mostly disconnected from the Estuary or the ocean. The essential component of any estuary is fresh water. Yet after decades of discussions we still lack a comprehensive management plan based on the fundamental fact that the Estuary and its watersheds comprise a single system for freshwater storage, delivery, and use by people and nature. The CCMP remains the only plan with legal standing that pertains to the Estuary as a whole.

Whole Healthy - Landscape
Photo: Rick Lewis

Here’s some good news. We’re making real progress on Estuary health reports. Ten years after the original CCMP, The Bay Institute (TBI) pioneered an Ecological Scorecard to report many aspects of Bay health, including the effects of freshwater inflows from the Delta. Six years later, building on TBI’s efforts, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership (SFEP) produced a State of the Bay Report based on practical health goals. Now, in 2015, SFEP is revising the CCMP to better incorporate the ocean, Bay, Delta, and watersheds. And, it has produced a bone fide State of the Estuary Report. As much as possible, the same health indicators are applied to the Delta as well as the Bay, while also focusing on regional health conditions. The new report supports a holistic approach to Estuary health care by providing measures of overall condition and the status of connections between the Estuary and the rest of the greater Golden Gate ecosystem. Now we’re able to report on the health of the whole Estuary.

Lasting solutions to the Estuary’s health problems will transcend the political and scientific fragmentation. They could require more collaboration than ever before. Perhaps additional political forces will be brought to bear, with assurances of faster progress. Given the state’s economic dependence on a healthy Estuary, and given its critically poor health condition, major businesses heavily invested in the State might contribute their capacities. I wouldn’t be surprised. Large infusions of private monies to restore a healthy Estuary can accelerate treatments, but they cannot supplant the need for public oversight based on independent accounts of health conditions. After all, the Estuary belongs to everyone, and everyone deserves to know how the Estuary is doing. Comprehensive, independent, expert monitoring and reporting is a hallmark of accountable health care, for ecosystems as well as people.

More than twenty years ago we began to recruit talented people to help take care of the Estuary. They track conditions, report findings, adapt to changing circumstances. I hoped they wouldn’t spend their careers monitoring the ruination of the Estuary. I haven’t lost hope.