River Delta Adaptive Management Strategy/2. Introduction

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This report describes a strategy for developing scientific knowledge to support river delta restoration. Despite the completion of approximately 48 publicly supported river delta restoration actions in Puget Sound, the federal and state funding community lacks a cohesive strategy for systematically using that experience to inform future decisions.

The ideas herein were obtained largely from tribal, federal, state, and local partners in restoration, in a collaboration between WDFW and NOAA Restoration Center under the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program. Our goal is to reduce risk, and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of restoration. To achieve this goal, we not only need to synthesize existing scientific evidence, but to learn from ongoing projects, and to actually apply this knowledge to decision making in collaboration with on-the-ground partners.

We anticipate this strategy can support how The Washington Recreation and Conservation Office supports the Salmon Recovery Funding Board and NOAAs Pacific Coast Salmon Recovery Fund, Puget Sound Partnership's Puget Sound Acquisition and Restoration Program, the US Fish and Wildlife Service's National Coastal Wetland Conservation Grants, the Environmental Protection Agency's National Estuary Program, and other state and federal actors. These funds are already intermingled in delta restoration efforts, but are not applied consistently toward learning. Increasing consistency and communication among funders and implementers across delta ecosystems can reduce redundancy that would otherwise deplete the resources of project implementers, while increasing our rate of learning and information transfer.

Only through collaboration will we achieve the Puget Sound Partnership goal of restoring over 7,000 acres of wetland, recovering the estuarine services critical for salmon and nearshore ecosystem resilience. While the steps necessary to reach this goal are known, it will still require a generation of work. Maintaining clarity and continuity between theory, evidence, and practice can only ease that journey, and benefit the heirs of ecosystem stewardship that will come after us.

Importance of Delta Restoration

The estuarine habitats of Puget Sound provide irreplaceable services to fish and wildlife (Simenstad et al 1982; Dethier 1990; Greene & Beamer 2005). Seventy percent of the Puget Sound basin flows through 16 large river deltas which historically account for 71% of vegetated tidal wetlands, and 86% of tidal swamp. Estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems on the face of the earth, with among the highest vertebrate biodiversity of all coastal and marine ecosystems (Johnson & O’Neil 2001). Only 23% of these wetlands remain today. Of tidal swamp, only 7% remains with the rest developed for industry or agriculture (Simenstad et al 2011). An interdisciplinary panel of scientists from the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project concluded that river deltas have the highest potential among all nearshore landforms to provide ecosystem services (Simenstad et al 2011). This high potential requires us to carefully manage these landscapes to optimize these services.

All Puget Sound salmon rear in estuarine environments as they adapt to salt water. Chinook and chum salmon in particular linger during critical phases of growth (Fresh 2006). Puget Sound Chinook and Hood Canal summer chum salmon populations are nearing a condition where they are at risk of extinction (NOAA 2005). Recovery planning suggests that estuarine rearing is likely critical to the recovery of some populations (Beamer et al 2005; SBSRF 2005). Migratory waterfowl, a variety of marine fish, and a broad detrital food web, use estuarine habitats for forage, refuge, and as a source of energy.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency, US Army Corps of Engineers, 15 Tribal Nations, The Puget Sound Partnership, including the Washington State Departments of Fish and Wildlife, Ecology, and Natural Resources, and the Washington Recreation and Conservation Office, along with a range of non-governmental organizations including the The Nature Conservancy and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation all have programs, priority areas, targets or metrics focused on the restoration of Puget Sound river delta wetlands.

The Challenge of Delta Restoration

Over five generations we have transformed Puget Sound delta landforms into agricultural landscapes or urban ports, bisected by transportation corridors. The Puget Sound agricultural economy, with high value lands in the river deltas and adjacent floodplains, produces over $1.0 billion in goods every year (USDA 2007). While this development of deltas appears permanent, delta residents continuously monitor and repair flood defenses and drainage infrastructure. Diked areas of the delta plain have frequently subsided several feet (Cereghino et al, unpublished data) and are isolated from replenishing river sedimentparticles of clay, silt, sand, gravel, or cobble, transported by water, are called sediment.. Sea level is predicted to rise between 6 and 50 inches in Puget Sound over the next 100 years (Mote et al 2008), along with extreme precipitation events (Salathe et al 2009).

The rivers that form Puget Sound deltas are both changed and changing. The timing, intensity, and composition of the flood flows that shape the delta landscape have been altered by dams, watershed deforestation, historical logging practices, wetland destruction, and storm drainage infrastructure. Sediment laden flood waters are funneled by levees to deeper waters (Grossman et al 2011) preventing floodplain accretion. Climate change is likely to further alter the timing of peak flow, the frequency of peak flows, summer low flow, and sedimentparticles of clay, silt, sand, gravel, or cobble, transported by water, are called sediment. budgets as less precipitation falls as snow (Lee & Hamlet 2011), and glaciers recede.

Population levels, distribution patterns, and life histories of the salmonid populations that currently motivate restoration have been altered through broad scale habitat alteration and fragmentation, over harvest, food web modification, genetic modification, new interactions with introduced organisms, and pollution (NOAA 2005).

The geomorphic processes that created the historical delta landscape follow a predictable pattern. Islands built of sandy river sedimentparticles of clay, silt, sand, gravel, or cobble, transported by water, are called sediment. advance the delta front. Islands become vegetated and infill with silt, clay, and large woody debris. Diurnal tidal flows maintain a network of sinuous blind sloughs, while a network of river distributaries pulse, opening and closing to provide the easiest conveyance of river flow to the sea. Patterns of soil anoxia and pore water salinity control which plants establish and thrive, and these patterns vary systematically with floodplain elevation, and the relative influence of the river. The habitat services of deltas are strongly tied to these processes that form and sustain their structure.

The Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project published a series of analyses to guide restoration of delta ecosystems in Puget Sound (Fresh et al 2004; Clancy et al. 2009; Greiner 2010; Simestand et al 2011; Schlenger et al 2011; Cereghino et al 2012). Based on this body of work, the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program (ESRP) funds actions to restore delta ecosystems. These projects attempt to recover the historical resilience and services of deltas by restoring some portion of historical freshwater inputs and tidal flows. No individual action has or will fully restore a whole river delta. Instead, a sequence of efforts incrementally restores some proportion of the historical delta and its processes.

Compared to a delta formed by historical processes, restoration creates a landscape of anomalies surrounded by constraints, and acted on by novel forces. There is no reference or precedent for the evolution that will shape our future deltas. There is no assurance of equilibrium or evolutionary continuity. Under these conditions, restoration is another step in an unalterable ongoing experiment in ecosystem manipulation. The ecological outcomes are not easily predictable, and interact with other ongoing ecosystem experiments, from global climate change, to a doubling of global nitrogen fixation (Brady & Weil 2008), to regional hydrologic modification. To assume we will re-attain some kind of pre-disturbance system is fundamentally flawed.

This situation, while of our own creation, may foster unnecessary confusion. Delta ecosystems remain ecologically irreplaceable. The places where rivers meet the sea have unique functions that cannot be found or created anywhere else. Our comprehension of the least disturbed delta sites provides our only window into the potential range of functioning in these complex systems. The only path lies in front of us.

Each step of restoration occurs within a web of transportation, industrial, agricultural infrastructure tenuously protected by a system of ditches, dikes and drains. Restoration of deltas is a drama that pits family farms against fish nurseries, as mutually exclusive uses of a finite land base. Underlying the technical challenge of restoration is a vigorous social debate: how much do we value estuarine goods and services, and what costs are we willing to incur over the next generations to sustain human settlements below the high water mark.

Integrating Research and Restoration Practice

We can observe and act in river delta ecosystems, without generating new scientific evidence. We do so every day. Howeverm, we are supported by an evolving body of principles derived from ecological theories and postulates (Greiner 2010) and through generations of transferred field experience. By not procuring new scientific evidence, and testing our principles and postulates, as we restore river deltas, we increase the risk that our actions are less than effective. If we wander forward in the absence of scientific evidence, we depend entirely on socio-political processes, to set our goals and chart progress.

However to use science, we face two parallel challenges: 1) to make meaningful observation of complex ecological systems, and 2) to integrate that understanding into policies and behaviors. Neither is assured. We struggle with the scales and interconnections in ecosystems (Ehrenfeld & Toth 1997; Simenstad et al 2006), making inference in ecosystems (Holling & Allen 2000), or even understanding the bounds and behaviors of any complex system, including our human systems (Meadows 2008). We struggle with recognizing and responding to cultural dynamics in human land use (Hardin 1968), the potential disconnections between political and ecological systems (Holling and Meffe 1996), lack of consensus around our cultural construction of value (Lansing et al 1998), and we face barriers to implementing big ecosystem projects in complex organizations (Slocombe 1998; Marmorek et al 2006; Boevers 2008). We even struggle with the simpler challenge of implementing useful monitoring in the fast paced restoration arena (Field et al 2007), seldom asking whether the scientific method is the right tool for all situations (Cabin 2011).

Monitoring change over time is an ecological research approach that has become popular in the restoration community. This may have emerged out of the needs of wetland mitigation, which largely drove the development of best restoration practice before the listing of salmon under the Endangered Species Act. Mitigation programs use monitoring change over time to determine if a site is ‘functioning’ or ‘not functioning’. Establishing the verifiable condition of a restoration ‘site’ is motivated by the competitive relationship between the regulator and the regulated. These ‘proof of restoration’ studies, built from the stated goals and objectives of restoration, have provided the foundation of monitoring education for environmental professionals over the last two decades.

In the design of a “monitoring change over time” research project, practitioners frequently find that they don't have the resources to estimate a range of site scale parameters using random representative sampling. Detecting all change is too broad a goal, and so a devil’s bargain is made between being comprehensive and being robust. Professional scientists, with varying levels of field research experience in estuarine ecology, do the best they can with not enough, and so typical restoration monitoring is neither comprehensive nor robust.

Where robust monitoring is developed, another problem may emerge. The objectives of ecosystem and population restoration and management are different and more complex than the objectives of mitigation. Mitigation requires the production of a facsimile of the destroyed site. Ecosystem restoration necessarily considers processes and dynamics at scales larger than a real estate parcel (Goetz et al 2004; Fresh et al 2004), and ecosystem restoration may require diverse and complementary actions to incrementally achieve a change in both ecosystem state, and processes, to achieve resilience over time.

When faced with the challenge of ecosystem restoration and management, observation of site change over time may not provide the information necessary to inform decision making. While monitoring, if fully implemented, may allow for measurement of a site, hopefully to a control or reference, it may be that the selected parameters don't encompass all the important dynamics of the ecosystem, or whether the target state is, or will be, stable let alone resilient. Monitoring may not determine what is causing change, or creating risk, or what other factors are affecting site evolution, and if those factors are changing, or if the target state will ever be attained or sustained. In many cases, the critical questions of restoration are social and political.

Monitoring change over time may be a very inefficient way to answer the questions of ecosystem restoration. Even if monitoring does provide evidence, knowledge needs to be reviewed, synthesized and repeatedly and consistently delivered to diverse audiences. It is easy to develop a long list of realistic scenarios wherein efforts to build scientific evidence fail to inform decision making:

  • Postulates are not developed prior to data collection--experimental design is not based on a full analysis of the situation
  • The language leading to the design of investigations is imprecise and poorly defined, leading to misunderstanding between scientists, practitioners and stakeholders
  • The needs of decision makers are not considered before gathering new evidence
  • Sampling strategies fail to isolate and develop parameters that address the questions being asked
  • Ecosystem dynamics include important non-linear responses or feedbacks that are not detected by simplistic efforts
  • Evidence of change is not attributable to the restoration treatment due to insufficient controls
  • Poorly targetted quantitative evidence only illustrates the obvious rather then expanding knowledge
  • Analyses only applies to a single location, and does not transfer to new situations without a repetition of effort
  • Study results are viewed in isolation, and not synthesized and interpreted as part of a larger body of evidence
  • Decision makers don’t understand the potential limitations or the aggregate meaning of available evidence
  • Evidence becomes buried or lost due to personnel changes or poor documentation practices
  • The desire to be professionally successful results in promotion of poorly developed evidence
  • Useful observations from non-quantitative sources are ignored because they have no quantitative basis
  • Decision makers deliberately or unconsciously thwart the open review of scientific evidence
  • Social, political, or economic shortcomings in leadership fail to align successive waves of investigation to develop a cogent line of analysis.

Many of these issues arise when we fail to perceive that by “monitoring” we are actually conducting quantitative ecological research for use in political systems. We often call these efforts by a name other than research-- effectiveness monitoring, adaptive management, or evaluation protocols--perhaps to avoid the impression that research does not have practical value. When we attempt to quanitfy the processes, structures and functions of ecosystems, to inform a decision, we are doing research. To do this well, we depend on the scientific method--a body of theories and practices, developed over generations. Quantitative observation of ecosystems to make inference is ecological research. Without the use of the scientific method, quantitative monitoring is likely to be either useless or misleading.

Because of, 1) the many potential scenarios for failure, 2) the proliferation of scientifically ambiguous research hidden by nomenclature, and 3) the ultimate goal of directly affecting socio-political policy, the design of restoration research must be even more precise, logical, and rigorous than other ecological research. An isolated practice, like monitoring change over time, has no intrinsic value to our overarching purpose of using scientific evidence to improve delta restoration decisions. Data collection only delivers value when methods are statistically rigorous, executed with a high level of professionalism, and where research methods are designed to effectively inform policy.

The development of a weight of evidence over time does not depend on the deployment of a particular protocol. By contrast, over-reliance on a single approach to sampling or measurement may in fact reduce the effectiveness of ecological research (Holling & Allen 2000). Quantitative evidence gathered in different settings using different methods may increase the certainty of inference through weight of evidence, as long as each investigation is designed as robust ecological research.

This does not suggest that restoration capital should be spent on all manner of basic ecological research. The delta restoration community is faced with specific and known concerns and challenges. In the case of large river deltas in Puget Sound, we have a broad agreement about the importance of ecosystem stewardship (PSP 2012), and have documented wide scale degradation (Simenstad et al 2011; Fresh et al 2011). Restoration hinges on the assumption that our efforts lead to the development of ecosystem services. To make capital investments in restoration, without investigating known risks and tradeoffs is a poor management of public assets. Restoration practice must reclaim targeted and applied research as an integrated and critical tool of restoration practice. This work requires collaboration between scientists and policymakers built on shared understanding and development of a cohesive body of evidence. It will take a level of clarity, documentation, and collaboration rarely found in governance.

This work is possible. We are increasing our understanding of tide gate effects on salmonid rearing (Lyons & Ramsey 2013), are building our understanding of vegetation distribution (Hood and Hinton 2003; Hood 2006; Beamer 2012), and tidal channel formation (Hood 2002; Hood 2004; Hood 2007). These new sources of evidence expand and refine policy debate and improve restoration practice. This delta adaptive management strategy leverages these impromptu practices, within a shared framework, and the strategic application of capital assets in the context of project development.

A Proposal for Restoration Learning

While we may lament the lack of resources for restoration science, to increase those resources we must demonstrate the value of restoration science. Restoration science provides value when it informs a decision that changes our practices and decisions. To achieve this continuity requires a shift in funding methods and priorities from generalized monitoring of change over time at project sites, to development of carefully designed ecological research designed to achieve learning goals that are anticipated to affect restoration policy and design.

Capital project selection and implementation is the moment where, ideally, best professional judgment draws on scientific evidence to allocate public resources. The funding decision is where scientific evidence is made clear, or is muddled over. It is where risks are identified, and where best practices are rewarded. Limitations in our ability to integrate science-based planning and the science of restoration into our funding decisions increases our risk of failure. The solution comes through better integrating scientific processes and funding decisions. Funding programs are positioned and authorized to act in such an integrative manner.

How do we select a restoration research action? This framework proposes that we maximize the leverage our on-the-ground action to test and refine postulates that 1) strongly affect restoration outcomes, 2) are weak in empirical evidence, and 3) where we anticipate new knowledge will lead to a change in policy. This does not limit research to the boundaries of restoration sites, which would reduce our ability to leverage natural experiments, the work of other actors, or observe important off site effects. It does require careful design, and rigorous vetting of new research actions.

Even if we achieve this focus, we will still face difficult decisions. Typically, the amount and type of captial restoration funds available precludes investments in long term intensive studies to answer critical questions about large scale biotic response to system restoration. Capital restoration program funds are more suited to facilitating smaller incremental improvements to restoration methods. As a result, we must live with assumptions about long term, large scale outcomes that are incorrect or insufficient for making good decisions and ensuring the success of our restoration projects. This product aims to create common ground between political leadership, project developers, funders, and researchers working in delta ecosystems so that we can coordinate our efforts to build a body of knowledge that is applicable to policy and design.

This document is not intended to replace planning by the Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project or the further refinement of the Shared Strategy for recovery of Pacific salmon. Any work we accomplish here may strengthen these related efforts. By focusing on a single physiographic system (river deltas) we are better positioned to leverage and synthesize learning and disseminate knowledge.

We propose to accomplish the following four tasks here:

  • Provide a generalized ecosystem model to organize our shared understanding delta ecosystem.
  • Define our assumptions (however superficially) about how restoration efforts interact with delta ecosystem dynamics by intergrating information from restoration project practitioners as well as ecological researchers.
  • Define a set of topics that reflect opportunities to improve restoration practice and reduce risk, and state our working assumptions.
  • Propose programmatic methods for investing in targeted research and integrating new knowledge into decision making.

These tasks will prepare us to maximize learning that can improve restoration practice. Six elements of the Estuary and Salmon Restoration Program will require development to support implementation of this strategy:

  • Evidence synthesis and transfer - Contractual and network-based mechanisms for capturing and integrating new evidence and transferring information between practitioners.
  • Revision of RFPs and selection criteria - Modification of the methods used to select and contract projects.
  • Design Predictions - Incorporating specific predictions about critical dynamics into project design.
  • Core monitoring - Defining a set of observations that are consistently applied to all river delta projects, used to establish baseline conditions and detect problems.
  • Learning projects - competitively selected investigations, ranging from short term intensive efforts to longer term low intensity efforts, designed to affect policy by testing and refining postulates on priority topics.
  • Research gaps - Specific pivotal issues that are beyond the reach of project-based learning, where we actively advocate for the funding of basic ecological research.