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Will science save California’s delta?

Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta in California, US, looking northwest. The Sacramento River is above, the San Joaquin River below. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Moving water through the state of California, US, involves a complex array of local water districts, aging federal projects, cobbled together state projects, pumps, and levees. In certain areas, export pumping actually reverses natural water flows, killing millions of fish and removing organic materials and nutrients that would otherwise support the base of the food chain. As environmentalists increase demands for water conservation and ecosystem restoration, and a growing number of urban consumers and agriculture projects push for more water, it has become a matter of when, not if, California’s water infrastructure will fail.

With natural disasters and pitfalls looming, and a government record of failed water restoration and technology-dependent projects, in 2009 the California legislature began backing away from its traditional micromanaging strategies. A package of legislation to overhaul California's water infrastructure and to oversee the ‘coequal goals’ — providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem — created the Delta Stewardship Council (DSC). The DSC operates in cooperation with the Delta Science Program (DSP), which initiates, evaluates, and funds research to fill in the critical gaps in understanding of the evolving Bay-Delta system.

An ecosystem in decline

The Bay-Delta (the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the San Francisco Bay), a massive artificial basin, is made up of non-engineered levees spanning nearly 1,400 miles (2,253 kilometers) — many 33 to 39 feet (10 to 12 meters) below sea level. To grasp the scale, consider that levees spanning a mere 112 miles (180 kilometers) — some only seven feet (two meters) below sea level — failed when Hurricane Katrina submerged 80% of the costal city of New Orleans, Louisiana, US, in 2005, killing over 1,800 people.

The likelihood of an ‘atmospheric river’ over the Pacific aligning itself with northern California for days, dumping 10 to 20 times the volume of the Mississippi River on the state, is another serious threat. Michael Dettinger, of the US Geological Survey and Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, US, completed research in 2013 confirming that some of the most intense rainfall recorded in the US is focused over the Bay Area.

The activity and shifting of the Hayward fault, which runs under the Bay Area, is also widely believed to be overdue. Flooding or unleashed seismic activity could easily destroy levees, turning California’s freshwater ecosystem into a saltwater graveyard. Flooding may seem unlikely to some, as the state is approaching 1,000 days of drought. However, drought is a condition that could exacerbate flash flooding.

Two Delta smelt fishes compared for size, side-by-side. The adults and young fish prefer slow moving surface waters and move seasonally throughout the Delta. Fishery scientists have labeled Delta smelt as an indicator species for the Bay-Delta. Indicator species are organisms whose presence is an indicator of the overall ecosystem health. Since the 1970’s the Delta smelt population has seen a precipitous decline in numbers. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The heart of California’s water system, supplying 37 million residents and businesses statewide, rests in the Bay-Delta — and water flowing through the delta irrigates up to 45% of all the fruits and vegetables consumed in the US. Commercial fishery accounts for 80% of species living in or migrating through the Bay-Delta. Even though it blooms with biodiversity, the Bay-Delta is a hotspot in decline, explains DSP lead scientist Peter Goodwin, the DeVlieg Presidential Professor in Ecohydraulics and professor of civil engineering at the University of Idaho, US, and director of Idaho’s EPSCoR program.

“The Bay-Delta hosts 700 species, but more than 50 are either endangered or threatened,” Goodwin noted when addressing audience members at XSEDE14. He also reiterated the role scientists, engineers, and advanced cyberinfrastructure will play in endeavoring to provide Californians with a sustainable water system, while also protecting and enhancing the Bay-Delta ecosystem.

The best available science

President Obama and California governor Jerry Brown made a joint 2012 statement that resonated intensely throughout the scientific community: California water and Bay-Delta decisions were to be made on the basis of science. Not only that, says Goodwin, “but the council shall make use of the best available science.” It became evident that there had to be a way of integrating science into the decision making process. “It became the law.”

For decades in California’s complex water system, if you wanted to stop something from taking place and you were an NGO or water contractor, it was easy to side step action. That's no longer the case. Today, prominent scientists make up the Delta Independent Science Board (DISB), and evaluate a broad range of scientific programs that support management of the delta. Their aim is to make the science underlying Bay-Delta programs, its applications, and the program's technical aspects, the best that they can be.

“We know now,” says Goodwin, “with a great deal of certainty, that if something isn’t done to manage the infrastructure and the ecosystem, the consequences will be disastrous.” Scientists are now looking decades into the future to understand how this immensely complex system works.

“The coordinated science plan is now online,” adds Goodwin. The plan development included more than 1,000 individual contributions and 230 agency contributions. The plan organizes science to inform policy and to support adaptive management. Goodwin believes cyberinfrastructure, funded in the US by the National Science Foundation (NSF), will be the innovation needed to truly solve California’s water woes.  

The road ahead

Realizing there were big questions yet to answer, the Delta Science Program held its first Environmental Data Summit in June. Jennifer Schopf, director of international networking at Indiana University, in Bloomington, US, gave the keynote address noting “the outcome of a funded project isn’t just the data anymore; it is the data and everything else that went into producing it.”

Schopf, a program officer at the NSF before joining Indiana University in 2013, pointed to the NSF’s data sharing policy — including software, applications, and analysis pipelines — which reflects a more holistic approach to data management, and one that is essential to advance the Delta Science Program. “Sharing, archiving, finding, and re-using data are the single biggest hurdles scientists will face,” added Schopf.

This fall, another community centered on modeling will come together to present ideas and learn from each other. “The only way we are going to understand the future is through modeling and simulation,” says Goodwin. “But currently we’ve got, for example, the same hydrodynamic models being applied to the same restoration area by separate entities.” One goal for the fall event is to embrace many different models and make it easy for researchers to apply model results without having to set things up from scratch. Goodwin hopes that the vision that emerges from the community modeling workshop will include what is needed terms of a simulation center.

Biennial Bay-Delta Science Conference will take place in October, and Goodwin estimates that well over 1,200 people will attend. With a project of this scale, he adds, there are going to be several job opportunities for both US federal and state positions — and he encourages anyone who is interested to apply.

As the Delta Stewardship Council presses forward to tackle the enormous goals of creating a reliable water supply for a growing state population, and trying to reverse the environmental damage done by 160 years of water development, the main challenge will be developing systems that enable data filtering and processing into useful information. It is often said that knowledge is power, and power ultimately leads to the ability to change how we exist in and affect society. The council is planning and moving toward some pretty extreme changes — but, in this case, power will ultimately come from cooperation.

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