Aerial view of wetlands on Sherman Island, with a tractor parked on a levee, in part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Aerial view of wetlands on Sherman Island in part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in Sacramento County, California. Photo: California Department of Water Resources

Toward a More Resilient Delta for All: Protecting, Restoring, and Enhancing the Delta Ecosystem

November 22, 2019

By Jessica R. Pearson

Once a sprawling tidal marsh, settlers throughout the 1800 and 1900s diked and drained the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for agriculture, dredged and straightened its waterways to improve navigation and flood flow to the ocean, and opened its waterways for transcontinental shipping and invasive hitchhikers. Later, federal, state, and local governments built upstream dams for flood and sediment control, water supply, and hydropower. This large-scale engineering of the landscape has hardened the Delta’s natural edges, disrupted seasonal water flow patterns, eliminated most natural land and water connections, and resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat for fish and wildlife.

Despite recent (and notable) investments in habitat restoration, the Delta’s natural ecosystem is in significant decline. To address this decline and to restore the Delta ecosystem to a functioning state, the Delta Stewardship Council is proposing an ecosystem-based shift in approach to conservation and restoration of this vital estuary. Based on robust stakeholder engagement and scientific synthesis, Council staff have worked since 2016 to develop an approach to amend Delta Plan Chapter 4 to address a fundamental shift in how conservation is planned and implemented in the region. A 60-day public comment period is now open through January 21, 2020 at 5:00 PM.

The Delta is recognized in both legislation and throughout scientific literature as an estuary of global importance. To this end, federal, state, and local agencies, along with nongovernmental organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars over the last three decades to restore and conserve the Delta’s natural systems through multibenefit projects. The Yolo Bypass, Stone Lakes Wildlife Refuge, and the Cosumnes River Preserve — which use open space to provide seasonal flood protection for cities, protect viable agricultural land from development, and create complex, nutrient-rich habitat for fish and wildlife — are all successful results of this labor. Still, these efforts have not kept pace with the scale of impacts from land use changes, urban growth, and critical infrastructure development.

A Daunting but Worthy Challenge

Restoring the Delta to its historical, unaltered state is not feasible; however, neither is maintaining the current status quo of incremental restoration progress and species-specific management. Instead, restoration actions must accelerate and focus on creating conditions that favor a more diverse, highly functioning ecosystem. This means making more room for fish and wildlife in the Delta while balancing human land and water uses. It also means identifying barriers to get projects on the ground faster.

In recent years, new scientific research has improved our understanding of the challenges and opportunities for ecosystem restoration in the Delta, as well as the expected impacts of climate change and sea level rise. After reviewing more than 170 physical conservation and restoration projects within the Delta, Council staff found that the projects already on the ground are still falling short of achieving the state’s desired ecosystem recovery and conservation goals. More than half of these projects are still primarily in agricultural production, two-thirds lack tidal water connectivity, and much of the restoration focuses on offsetting environmental impacts caused by water or flood control infrastructure projects, rather than providing an uplift of ecosystem function beyond existing conditions. Additionally, many of these restoration projects and others in the works face substantial delays, funding challenges, and political opposition.

Our analysis of existing species conservation and recovery plans estimate that we need to restore approximately 65,000-85,000 acres of natural communities — roughly 10 percent of the Delta and Suisun Marsh — to meet the recovery and conservation needs of hundreds of Delta species. We know this is ambitious but believe that partnerships bolstered by a shared sense of urgency to get restoration projects into the ground can expedite progress. These restoration actions will depend on willing participants and must be carried out in a manner that respects local land use.

This restoration is not a zero-sum game. A healthy, functional ecosystem brings broad benefits at all levels, from individual farmers that benefit from more pollinators, to Delta communities that have more opportunities for recreation, tourism, hunting, and fishing, and water supply benefits locally and for export areas. With this in mind, we must work together to move from where we are today to a new paradigm that focuses on re-establishing ecosystem function on the landscape by reconnecting land and water, allowing more natural variability in flows, reducing water pollution, and supporting conservation of native fish and wildlife.

A Vision of a More Resilient Delta Ecosystem for All

The Delta Reform Act charged the Council with adopting and coordinating the implementation of a Delta Plan to accomplish the state’s coequal goals of providing a more reliable water supply for California and protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem while protecting the Delta as a place.

To achieve the vision of a restored Delta ecosystem, we propose five core strategies:

  1. Create more natural flows
  2. Restore ecosystem function
  3. Protect land for restoration and safeguard against land loss
  4. Protect native species and reduce impacts of nonnative species
  5. Improve institutional coordination to support implementation

Developed by Council staff with input from partner agencies, stakeholders, and the public and based on the best possible, interdisciplinary science, these core strategies are the foundation of new and revised Delta Plan policies and recommendations in a preliminary draft amendment (Chapter 4).

What’s the Bottom Line? How Can California Achieve This Vision?

At its core, the draft amendment details recommendations to improve large-scale restoration project design and adaptive management to maximize benefit and return on investment. We propose regulatory guidance on the attributes that restoration projects should have based on physical, chemical, and biological processes, land use and land cover, native vegetation, and societal benefits. This guidance is designed to increase the likelihood that projects can achieve their stated benefits, and allows us to learn as we go.

Achieving this vision of a healthy Delta ecosystem for all depends on federal, state, and local agencies coming together to reduce institutional barriers that delay restoration projects — sometimes called “green tape” — and raising expectations for restoration project design and implementation to maximize the benefits of these actions. This includes new and innovative approaches to restoring ecosystem functions that account for our rapidly changing climate.

Public comments about any aspect of the preliminary draft amendment are encouraged through January 21, 2020 at 5 PM and will shape the narrative, policies, recommendations, and performance measures. Once the Council considers a revised draft including these refinements, the California Environmental Quality Act process will begin. The environmental impact review process is expected to last through 2020, with ongoing opportunities for public involvement. We invite all to participate in this ongoing process and join us as we work towards creating a more resilient Delta ecosystem for all.


About the Author

Delta Stewardship Council Executive Office Jessica R. Pearson.

About Executive Officer Jessica R. Pearson

Jessica Roberts Pearson is the Executive Officer for the Delta Stewardship Council. She previously served the Council as a Policy Advisor and Legislative Advisor. Her career in public service began as a Capital Fellow working at the Natural Resources Agency. Pearson went on to serve as an advisor for the Director of the California Department of Water Resources and as Deputy Secretary for the California Natural Resources Agency Secretary. She earned a bachelor’s degree from UC San Diego, a master’s degree from UC Davis, and lives behind levees and amid trees in Sacramento with her husband, two children, and several backyard chickens.