Aerial view looking south over Middle River in San Joaquin County, near Bacon Island and Jones Tract in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Photo: Ken James / California Department of Water Resources

From “Wicked” to “Complex”: A New Lead Scientist’s Outlook on Growing Our Understanding of Delta Science

September 22, 2020

By Dr. Laurel Larsen

My first exposure to the story of water in California came through a viewing of the 1974 Jack Nicholson film “Chinatown” as part of my Water Resources Development and Management class at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2003. I was captivated by the fictionalized noir dramatization of the events that led to southern California’s water wars, and I delved into Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert to learn more. I felt compelled by some of the same features that had driven me to pursue dissertation research in the Florida Everglades—recognition of the high-stakes nature of water management decisions in this complex, multi-actor environment, and the inkling that there was more to the story of water than was conveyed in the popular media. First in the Everglades and now in California, I aspired to be a part of the team of scientists peering into and unraveling that complexity, such that water management decisions could be made with improved awareness of likely outcomes.

And now, after many years of performing applied research in the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay, and Gulf Coast, I find myself diving into the California water story as the Delta Lead Scientist, tasked with guiding the independent science underlying execution of the coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem. Here I hope to give you a glimpse into the lens through which I view the continuation of my predecessor—Dr. John Callaway’s—work and what lies ahead in the next three years.

In approaching so-called “wicked problems” like those in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, I have found it useful to adopt a complex-systems framework as my lens. Complex-systems science invokes a variety of tools to elucidate interactions and feedbacks among system components across scales in order to understand and anticipate surprising behavior and enable evaluation of alternative futures. “Surprising” behavior encompasses phenomena such as rapid and threshold-like shifts in the configuration of the system. Examples might include pelagic organism decline or sudden blooms of toxic algae—or other behaviors that would have been difficult to predict from knowledge of how single variables such as temperature, impact the status of one aspect of the system such as species abundance. By their very nature, these phenomena are surprising because they arise from the synergistic effects of several variables.

As the Delta Science Program has worked over the last decade, it has also increasingly embraced a complex-systems framework to meet the challenges of the coming years and decades. Many of its current priorities—as well as many aspects of my vision for leading it into the next three years—fit neatly into this framework:

  • Studies of interactions and feedback: Humans are an inextricable component of the Delta ecosystem. Their decisions about water management are highly influenced by current ecological conditions and ecological processes, and in turn, those ecological processes respond to human decision-making. Understanding these specific interactions and feedbacks in the Delta is a major priority of the 2016-2021 Science Action Agenda and of the Delta Science Program for the coming years. I look forward to acting on this priority by welcoming two social scientists onto the Delta Independent Science Board (Delta ISB) as well as an Extension Specialist on the human dimensions of California water and environmental management and policy, a new position that is jointly held between the Delta Science Program and California Sea Grant. I also look forward to guiding the Delta Science Program’s second Delta Science Proposal Solicitation for collaborative natural-human systems projects as part of an on-going collaboration with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
  • Priorities that span time-scales: The Delta ISB’s recent draft manuscript on “Preparing for Accelerating and Uncertain Environmental Change” calls for new approaches to doing science in a rapidly changing world, which requires both the anticipation of short- and long-term change as well as mechanisms for responding to rapid-change processes (such as pelagic organism decline) before they are complete. The 2021 update to the Science Action Agenda will act on this call for new approaches to understanding change across multiple timescales. Relatedly, the upcoming Science Needs Assessment Workshop will discuss how to anticipate science needs over time-scales longer than the five years covered by the next Science Action Agenda. Working with the Delta Science Program staff to define and address short- and long-term science needs in an integrated fashion is a challenge to which I look forward.
  • Use of a variety of scientific tools:
    • Data synthesis: A key priority is to advance understanding of Delta processes through synthesis of existing monitoring datasets. I look forward to working with the Interagency Ecological Program and State Water Resources Control Board to advance this priority. In doing so, I hope to strengthen connections to local universities that are building data science initiatives and seek opportunities to engage students in addressing real-world data challenges. I also hope to facilitate matching of real-time data products with performance measures and on-the-ground adaptive management needs, and I look forward to working with the Collaborative Adaptive Management Team on this initiative.
    • Integrated modeling: We need to better integrate existing predictive models of habitat, water quantity and quality, and species abundance, and augment existing modeling capabilities with our emerging understanding of social and other processes. I look forward to working with the Integrated Modeling Steering Committee to advance these model integration efforts.
    • Traditional ecological knowledge and citizen science: As the Delta Science Program expands its social science efforts and seeks to elucidate the interactions and feedback between ecological and social processes, there are tremendous opportunities to engage diverse Delta communities to attain new understanding. I look forward to working with the Delta Science Program, the Delta ISB, and stakeholders to identify those opportunities and determine how best to act on them.
  • Anticipate behavior and evaluate alternative futures: The 2019 Delta Science Plan calls for forward-looking and anticipatory science that addresses challenges associated with climate change on restoration and management of the Delta. During my term I hope to implement the Delta ISB’s and the 2019 Delta Science Plan’s call for a formal strategy for horizon scanning to help the Delta science community anticipate unforeseen changes. I also look forward to working with Delta Adapts and the Integrated Modeling Steering Committee to integrate climate change scenarios into predictive models and other long-term planning tools.

Beyond an eagerness to advance the science priorities outlined above, there are a few other aspects of the position to which I am personally looking forward. In engaging with the Delta Stewardship Council, the Delta Science Program, and the Delta ISB thus far, I have been struck by the energy and welcoming personalities of the people who compose this agency, as well as the diversity of ages and career stages represented. It seems to strike a particularly good balance, with recent graduates bringing new energy, creativity, and ideas into the agency and more senior colleagues bringing their deep experience with the Delta or similar systems and institutional knowledge. I look forward to learning from and being inspired by all the people I work with, both inside and outside this agency.

I also feel that it’s important to acknowledge that STEM in general—and earth science in particular—suffers from a dearth of diversity, mirroring a lack of equitable representation of many racial groups in society at large. I see it as an imperative to consider how the decisions I make in this position may begin to reverse the injustices that have led to the present situation, and to actively recruit participation in our science by individuals from underrepresented groups. I am also pleased to report that the Delta Science Program will be soliciting proposals for research on environmental equity and justice in the Delta region and require proposals to indicate how the research may affect underserved communities. These actions represent positive steps that can be taken toward reversing the mounting tide of inequity facing this region and our science.

As I embark on this new position, one of the things I most look forward to in a post-pandemic world is exploring the Delta, both on my own and with stakeholders. My passion for what I do has long been grounded in a strong sense of place and love of the physical and visual experience of water. I hope to see some of you soon from the stern of my canoe! Until that time, feel free to drop me a line and share your thoughts.

About the Author

Portrait of Delta Lead Scientist Dr. Laurel Larsen.

Dr. Laurel Larsen is the Delta Lead Scientist and an Associate Professor in Geography and Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. She holds a PhD in Civil Engineering (Water Resources) from the University of Colorado, Boulder, a Master’s degree in Earth and Planetary Sciences, and an undergraduate degree in Systems Science & Mathematics and Environmental Studies, both from Washington University in St. Louis. Prior to starting at Berkeley in 2013, she was a Research Hydrologist and Research Ecologist at the US Geological Survey in Reston, Virginia. Dr. Larsen is an interdisciplinary ecohydrologist with expertise in environmental fluid mechanics, fluvial geomorphology, biogeochemistry, watershed hydrology, and data science, and she is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America. Past research has involved work on large-scale restoration projects in the Everglades, Chesapeake Bay watershed, and US Gulf coast, in addition to studies of salmonids and groundwater in coastal California. In her free time, she enjoys a variety of forms of outdoor adventure, gardening, and chasing her toddler son and dog.