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Reconsidering IEP Sampling Programs
  • June 29, 2021

Image of two CDFW biologists sorting samples on boat.
IEP Biologists sorting trawl survey samples onboard Program vessel. Photo credit: Steven Culberson

Welcome to my new blog! I hope you find it interesting and thought-provoking. This is the first in what I see as a series of short articles ("blogs") that treat issues of interest to the Interagency Ecological Program and the San Francisco Estuary science and technical community. If you have feedback or questions please let me know at iepleadscientist@deltacouncil.ca.gov. Here we go:

The Interagency Ecological Program (IEP) has been monitoring in the San Francisco Estuary for a long time. With the passing of IEP’s 50-year Anniversary in 2020, I’ve been doing some reflecting on where we’ve been, and where we’re headed. There’s lots to say (for future blogs, perhaps?!), and recount, and hope for, but one thing is clear to me as the IEP Lead Scientist -- we must review and revise our data collection programs.

What do I mean when I say “review and revise our data collection programs?” Well, it’s complicated. But I mean four things at least:

  1. We have to reconfirm the need for the information we are collecting or change what we do to meet that need;
  2. We have to examine the scientific justification for collection and analysis procedures while remaining devoid of programmatic inertia during the examination;
  3. We have to be open to new ways of collecting data and producing information especially where overlap or gaps exist in current programs, and;
  4. We must communicate better -- data collection achieves little if the implications of these surveys are not effectively delivered to policymakers, and if policymaker concerns are not reflected in our surveys.

Before I expand briefly on these thoughts, I will express great concern I have for pursuing potential Program reforms without appropriate resources, or serious, dedicated technically-oriented investigation – doing these evaluations quickly and without proper preparation, and at least some minimum external review, may lead to unintended consequences. Proper review takes money, brainpower, and time. Existing long-term datasets supported by IEP programs are not to be abandoned lightly, or without mechanisms in place to ensure proper conversion to updated methods. In some cases, failure to continue particular datasets may mean losing the ability to understand ecological change into the future, at just a point in time when unprecedented and rapid changes are occurring in the natural world around us. Abandonment of our past may mean moving blindly into the future. How will you evaluate ecological change without a data history? How will you define change if you don’t have a record of how things used to be? Conversely, are we being thoughtful stewards of the resource we are responsible for tracking and evaluating? Are we serving the public good? Are we effectively describing what we find?

This is a picture looking to the rear of an IEP trawling vessel towards Contra Costa County. A net is deployed behind the vessel to capture aquatic organisms for identification.
Trawling near Chipps Island. Photo credit: Steven Culberson

At the heart of this reconsideration lies the need to effectively connect conversations agency directors, senior policymakers, and stakeholders have with the conversations of scientists and science program managers. Meaningful refinement cannot occur until we establish useful communication between data collectors and data users – this can’t be just creating effective products; it means we have to create effective interactions too.

Paramount in these discussions is the choice of what monitoring focus the IEP pursues: do we focus on the performance of listed species and the specifications of species performance as identified in Biological Opinions? Do we rather decide that the Estuary and its associated ecosystems are of value, and that we need to monitor the ability of the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary to provide ecosystem services that human beings desire?

I doubt we’ll decide the answer to these questions as “either/or,” but until we understand the motivations behind collecting information about the ecological functioning of the Estuary we’ll have difficulty structuring and understanding our monitoring enterprise. Why we need the information is a question that needs answering before we decide how to collect it.

In future blog posts I’ll go more in-depth into these four aspects of our reconsideration in turn, and treat other, related topics too, but for now I’ll close by suggesting the following:

  1. We’re pretty adept at monitoring some things, but we could do better at learning from the ecosystem we’re responsible to monitor. I’d suggest more fine-scale monitoring at more carefully selected locations so we can articulate and understand important ecological processes across the broader Estuary. Ecological processes underlie everything we do to derive services from the Bay-Delta – from drinking water to healthy fisheries and habitats.
  2. Decision-makers and scientists need to spend more time talking directly to one another. Technically-informed policymaking is poorly done via proxy – at the very least weak delegation of authority results in inefficient program management. Where data collection and interpretation is concerned it’s better to have technically-savvy decision-makers sitting together with Estuary-aware applied scientists than risk miscommunication and mimicking the familiar game of “telephone.”
  3. The time is ripe for the IEP to embark on a concerted review process. New Biological Opinions and renewal/reissuance of water rights will depend upon accurate monitoring information in implementation. The Delta Independent Science Board is recommending such direction in its recent draft report on the IEP Science Supporting Management of the Delta (PDF), and the IEP is evaluating options for program element reviews of its long-term monitoring efforts.

I look forward to discussing more of this with you soon in future blogs. It’s time to revitalize our Estuary monitoring efforts -- let’s get to work!

The Grizzly Island Road bridge over Montezuma Slough, seen from the nearby shoreline.
Grizzly Island Bridge over Montezuma Slough in Suisun Marsh. Photo credit: Steven Culberson

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