Partnerships, Restoration, and More: A Conversation with the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy
December 18, 2019
By Susan Tatayon
Along with the Delta Protection Commission, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy is fondly known as one of the Delta Stewardship Council’s sister agencies. Although each organization includes the word “Delta” in its name, each is distinct in its charge by the California Legislature and day-to-day work.
I recently sat down with the Conservancy’s Executive Officer Campbell Ingram to discuss how the agency’s work fits in with the state’s Delta Plan, a current preliminary draft amendment to the Plan’s approach to ecosystem restoration in the Delta, and the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee (DPIIC). I am pleased to share highlights from our conversation for this month’s Chair’s blog.
How does the role of the Conservancy fit in the broader Delta agency landscape? With whom does the Conservancy work?
The Delta Reform Act of 2009 created the Conservancy as an implementing entity consistent with the California State Conservancy model, which is to serve a local geography and work with the local communities while also being a state partner and bringing in resources to match locally identified priorities. Our two main focal areas are ecosystem restoration and economic development.
As an implementing agency, the Conservancy contributes to programs like EcoRestore, which aims to restore at least 30,000 acres of habitat in the Delta. Our future work will also contribute to the restoration targets currently being revised by the Council in Chapter 4 of the Delta Plan, “Protect, Restore, and Enhance the Delta Ecosystem.”
The Conservancy’s board has 11 voting members, including five county supervisors - one from each of the Delta counties, so everything we do passes through a local lens of local involvement and awareness. For restoration projects that we fund through Proposition 1 (the Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act of 2014), we notify and work with close to 100 parties, from local landowners to external review panels and state and federal agencies. I am proud to say that our five county supervisors have unanimously approved all 26 Delta restoration projects ($35 million in funding) that we have presented to our board.
I think we provide a unique and beneficial niche in that the restoration we fund has local support. This support is important as we look toward bigger restoration targets for the Delta. We bring people together and give a platform to the locals to talk about where restoration can happen in the Delta. This collaboration only works as well as people are willing to come to the table and have constructive conversations and have the capacity and time to participate. Given our current involvement, I believe the Conservancy can be a go-to for planning and implementation of future restoration goals that are a part of the Delta Plan’s Chapter 4 ecosystem amendment.
How does the Conservancy’s restoration work fit into the work of other agencies that work in the Delta?
As a partner, we strive to be as collaborative as possible. This includes working with the Council, the Delta Protection Commission, state and federal agencies on a wide range of projects and programs.
Last year we completed our Delta Public Lands Strategy, which looked at land owned by the Metropolitan Water District, the Department of Water Resources (DWR), the Nature Conservancy, California Department of Parks and Recreation – to explore how we can meet the Delta community’s request that restoration take place on public lands before looking to privately-owned land. This effort brought together state and federal agencies, local landowners, reclamation districts, and saw good participation and discussion around how we can balance ecological benefits in the context of agricultural viability, water supply, flood protection, and drainage. The San Francisco Estuary Institute’s “A Delta Renewed: A Guide to Science-Based Ecological Restoration in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta,” was the underlying science for this discussion and the ecological vision of what is possible in terms of habitat size, distribution, and other factors.
The number one priority that came out of this process was stopping subsidence in the Delta, a huge shift from 10 years ago. I think folks are starting to align around the thinking that the deep sink in the middle of the Delta is no longer economically viable, and we have to address that problem.
At the November DPIIC meeting, you spoke about the Conservancy’s work to address land subsidence in the Delta while also reducing carbon emissions. Tell us more about how reducing Delta carbon emissions can help reduce subsidence.
Subsidence in the Delta continues at a rate of about one to one-and-a-half inches per year. Altogether, there are roughly 200,000 acres of deeply subsided land in the Delta, with some places in the western Delta sitting at 25 feet or more below sea level. This situation fundamentally threatens California’s water supply. One of the biggest fears is losing the western Delta to saltwater intrusion, which would prevent us from exporting water for up to 36 months.
We also now know these highly subsided areas are an incredible carbon emission source. There are 200 million metric tons or more of carbon – the equivalent of 500,000 vehicles – volatilizing into the atmosphere, the result of microbial oxidation of highly organic peat soils. In other words, when you drain rich wetlands like the Delta to grow agriculture, you expose its soil to oxygen, which “cooks off” layers of peat containing previously captured carbon into the atmosphere.
To address this problem, we have been looking for market-based incentives that can reduce carbon emissions and subsidence. Stopping subsidence and halting emissions is as easy as re-wetting the land’s surface. We have a protocol approved through the American Carbon Registry that allows people to re-wet their land and either grow tule as part of a managed wetland or cultivate rice, which has the same effect but also offers a commodity value. The protocol also quantifies emission reduction. This allows landowners to take the quantified reductions to the voluntary carbon market, which coexists with compliance-offset markets driven by government-mandated caps on greenhouse gas emissions.
The potential of participating in the voluntary carbon market is exciting but also challenging because, at this point, the revenue that can be generated from sales to the voluntary carbon market is only equivalent to what farmers are getting back in terms of leaseback value. We’re working on getting the protocol adopted by the Air Resources Board for compliance with AB 32, which would significantly increase the value of the carbon. At that point, the value would exceed the standard expectation of return, roughly $150 net dollars per acre. For the western Delta, this is a compelling price point.
We are currently working with DWR to run 1,600 acres of existing wetland projects across Sherman and Twitchell Island through the protocol we have developed and having a third party validate the emission reduction quantifications. We are hopeful that by early 2020 we will have quantified emission reduction credits that can be taken to market. DWR or other public landowners interested in this option could then retire or sell these credits for a revenue stream. In the future, we are also looking to apply the protocol to island-scale projects to determine the long-term economic viability of land conversion to something like managed wetlands or rice cultivation.
What challenges or barriers is the Conservancy facing in implementing work around its current project priorities, whether around Delta subsidence or other projects? What ideas do you have to overcome these challenges?
The biggest challenge we face is funding. We have a restoration target that has been characterized as upwards of several billions of dollars in cost over time, compared to the approximately $50 million in Proposition 1 funds that we are working with currently. Funding challenges also affect our ability to implement Delta as Place projects, including recreation, tourism, public access to the Delta, and historic preservation.
Permitting also continues to serve as a barrier to project implementation. A simple, high-level approach would be to convene a team of dedicated, funded staff from the state and federal regulatory agencies with jurisdiction over restoration projects in the Delta to review project sites and associated permits, including overlap and interrelation. I am optimistic, however that the new administration has specifically recognized this as a problem and is convening a series of workshops with the Council, the Conservancy, and others to identify possible solutions.
About the Author
Susan Tatayon is Chair of the Delta Stewardship Council and has more than 30 years of experience in water resources policy, planning, and management. Her monthly blog shares updates about the direction of the Council, progress toward implementing the Delta Plan, and achieving the coequal goals of water supply reliability and restoring the Delta’s ecosystem.
About Campbell Ingram and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy
Campbell Ingram is Executive Officer of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy, which was established in 2009 to pursue the environmental and economic protection of the Delta through internal programs and grant-funded projects. Ingram previously worked in environmental resources as a private contractor, and later with the federal government and the nonprofit agency The Nature Conservancy.