The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has long been the subject of intensive study. Collectively we are spending well over $50 million each year on scientific monitoring and research. All stakeholders agree that ecosystem restoration should be informed and guided by sound science, but what qualifies as sound science and how that translates to decision making is subject to broad debate.
Key state and federal laws, such as the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, and many others use some form of the “best available science” concept as the basis for policymaking and decision making. While lawmakers intended best available science to foster and improve decision making, it also often forms the basis for endless lawsuits designed to delay, disrupt and limit progress in the Delta’s management. Regulatory paralysis ensues, and important management decisions are not being implemented.
The next administration must move beyond the endless discussion about best science and instead focus on how science is used to implement management decisions. New approaches and leadership linking science, management and policy at the ecosystem level are desperately needed. Absolute scientific certainty about water management and ecosystem restoration decisions in the Delta will never be achieved. As has been discussed in previous installments in this series, the Delta is a highly complex and constantly evolving ecosystem; an ecosystem challenged by an over population of invasive species and endangered species that are often too few in number to determine their short-term trends, let alone their long-term fate from management actions.
As a result, some uncertainty will color each and every key decision that must be made about the Delta. And with this uncertainty comes risk – risk associated with not knowing for sure exactly how a management decision will impact the estuary or the endangered species that are the subject of protection. While risk can never be eliminated in the Delta, it can be effectively managed through science-based adaptive management.
Key decisions must be made with a constant focus on monitoring, assessing, and adapting to improve progress toward the desired outcome. Only then will we move beyond uncertainty and risk and achieve much needed progress in the Delta. Management based experimentation and innovation will also facilitate much needed action and coordination among the multiple state and federal agencies and stakeholders involved in the process.
As a new administration takes over, the next Governor must be prepared to move beyond the endless discussion and take bold actions in the Delta. He must appoint a team of water and wildlife managers that are not afraid to make decisions, learn, and adapt. California desperately needs water and environmental managers who are prepared to manage and are not paralyzed by risk. Balancing the human and ecosystem needs in the Delta demands it.