July 24th, 2012

New Approaches to Habitat Restoration

Category: June Meeting

The Delta Dialogues are designed to get stakeholders engaged in constructive dialogue. And such dialogue doesn’t have to be limited to the regularly scheduled meetings and phone calls.

I participated in one such “outside” dialogue this past Wednesday afternoon. Based on the conversation about habitat at our June 15 Dialogues gathering, Carl Wilcox took the initiative and initiated additional discussion with some Dialogues participants. Carl’s idea was to take some people out in the field and think about what the opportunities are in the Delta on the habitat issue.

So last Wednesday, July 13, Carl met with Brett Baker, Russell van Loben Sels, Leo Winternitz, Mike Tucker of NOAA Fisheries, and myself at the head of Steamboat Slough.

We spread maps across the top of a pick-up truck and stood there for 45-50 minutes talking about habitat opportunities and constraints in the north Delta.

There were three main issues we discussed. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we achieved consensus, but here are the three big things we hashed out.

1. Setback levees.

There was a mutual recognition — just by looking at maps and by sitting there and talking about the reality of the Delta on the ground — about the islands and the waterways in and around Steamboat Slough and nearby islands that are part of proposals for habitat restoration. Particularly as it relates to setback levees.

In the past, there has been discussion of doing setback levees — pulling back the levees from the waterway and providing more flood plain habitat on the water side for fish.

What we realized through this discussion Wednesday was that if you look at any one of those islands, the levee ring about the island is the high ground. And it is precisely on this high ground that you see a ring of high-value agriculture with permanent crops as well as the homes, the barns, and the supporting businesses of the farms. The lower, sometimes wetter land – with lower-value row crops – is in the center of the islands.

Given this geography, the six of us recognized the concept of setback levees might not be viable in this area, because it would affect the most valuable agriculture and infrastructure near the levees. Therefore there would likely be very little interest on the part of farmers in setting back levees, and if some were interested, the costs to move roads, houses and businesses, and compensate for permanent crops maybe prohibitive. As a result of this discussion, we explored other possibilities for how you’d enhance the habitat value without setback levees.

2. Eminent domain.

The second outcome of the conversation had to do with the open question of eminent domain. Specifically, we talked about the expectation that the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, in order to do habitat restoration on a large scale, might use eminent domain to achieve their habitat goals.

Both the stewardship council and the Delta Conservancy have said they aren’t going to use eminent domain. But the BDCP has not backed away entirely – they’ve said they don’t think it will be necessary, but they have not ruled it out.

A point that came out in our discussion at Steamboat Slough — a point made particularly well by Russell — is that if the BDCP would back away and come out with a definitive statement that it would not use eminent domain, farmers might be willing to have more of a dialogue about habitat restoration opportunities in the Delta. Right now, farmers feel threatened by the possibility of eminent domain, so dialogue is not possible.

3. A new approach to restoration that protects high-value land.

Regarding those islands in the North Delta that have that characteristic high land around the levee and deeper land in the center, we discussed the idea that good design might provide opportunity for compromise.

Specifically: If you could — through good design — create connectivity between the river and tidal wetlands located on the lower-value agricultural land in the center of some delta islands — thereby preserving the higher value agriculture and infrastructure on the higher elevation rings of the island — there might be more opportunity for partnership around restoration.

This would be a slightly different concept than we’ve seen before. Right now, habitat restoration is built around the strategy of buying big chunks of these islands — and buying out landowners over time. That requires dealing with lots of landowners, and it means you wait a long time. Valuable agricultural land and infrastructure can be degraded in the process. With this different concept, you could compensate farmers for the loss of their lower value agriculture, protect high-value agriculture, and do habitat restoration in a faster, and possibly less costly fashion.

Beyond all these specifics, what was great about our gathering at Steamboat Slough was that everyone recognized the value of incorporating local knowledge into what’s being proposed for the Delta. When stakeholders in the Delta get into a real dialogue, we can bring a dose of reality to some of the concepts that have been out here for a long time.

That’s the point of the Delta Dialogue. I look forward to talking more about this at the next meeting.