Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Think Big! (Or illegal)

I've been slacking.  I have so much that I want to share that I don't know where to start!  Like how my sister graduated weeks ago and I still managed to run 12 miles after the parties, that I just finished the San Diego Rock 'n' Roll half-marathon last weekend, or about the delicious lemon bar cookies I discovered and have been trying to replicate. (Not to mention pizza at Bruno's and camping in Joshua Tree.)  But let's talk a little bit about hydrology, because I know that's what you were really hoping for. :)

This Tuesday, Last Tuesday, A few weeks ago (see, I'm really behind!), I got to go to a day of the H2O (Headwaters to Ocean) conference, and I left feeling really inspired. The website describes the conference as "consist[ing] of roughly 100 presentations with the latest information relating to coasts, oceans, beaches, wetlands, rivers and watersheds."  My sort of stuff!

The plenary speakers were fantastic.  Eric Stein of the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCWRP), Robin Grossinger of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, and Letitia Grenier, who is the Science Coordinator of the San Francisco Bayland Goals Climate Change Update report, spoke together about the idea of "resiliency".  Eric and Robin have teamed together in the past to look at the historic habitats along the coast.  In the work I do, we use their work a lot.  For example, when we are beginning to design a restoration project, we consider what types of habitats were at that location historically.  Eric and Robin's groups have produced a series of historic maps that are overlain with the different habitats that existed previously (like dunes, beaches, freshwater or tidal marshes, etc).  So while it's often not possible to fully restore the site to the historic habitat due to modern constraints (flood protection, existing infrastructure, etc), their work is still important in helping us understand the physical processes in the area and what mix of habitats might be possible.  (Also, that leads to a whole different debate- can you still call it restoration if you're making something new/different?  But that's a question for another post.)  Anyway, the point is, as the speakers said, it's not about recreating the past; it's about using the past as a tool to design better, more resilient projects.

Historic ecology of the Ballona Creek area.

Here's an example: Eric talked about a river restoration project where the goal was to restore some of the historic riparian habitat (think, green corridor areas next to a river or stream).  There was some of this habitat remaining, but it was very degraded.  The project team was able to look at the historic maps to see that the degraded riparian areas could be grouped into three larger zones that corresponded to historically, lush riparian areas.  They were able to examine the processes that historically created those zones (areas of higher ground water), and to confirm that those processes still existed today and would likely still be able to sustain a lush riparian habitat.

Another example: Eric discussed a lagoon that was restored without considering the historic ecology.  The design placed the mouth of the lagoon in an area that historically had an extensive beach.  Not surprisingly, the new project has to dredge sand out of the mouth of the lagoon regularly to keep the system open to the ocean.  The historic ecology was showing large amounts of sand moving to that area, but the project team didn't take that into account.  It's not a very resilient project when you have to get equipment out there every other year to dredge the sand.

What I got out of Eric and Robin's talks was that a lot of historic processes are the still the same today, and that to build a resilient project, it's better to work with the processes, rather than against them.

But it was Letitia that really got me pumped up! (I know, huge nerd here).  She talked about thinking on a much bigger scale than just the current project.  She described a restoration where the team was not just looking at the site at hand, but also considering the potential for acquiring other lands and restoring even more areas.  She showed maps of the site and then some of the other sites that could be acquired to connect multiple restorations (larger habitats with connecting habitat corridors are better for the critters because they can get around more easily without getting run over or whatnot).  Letitia also talked about one restoration site in the delta that was originally slated to be a subtidal restoration (for fish habitat), where they planned to grade the site down to lower elevations.  However, it was recognized that this site was at a great elevation for marsh habitat without the grading.  Fortunately, the plan has been changed since when the project team recognized that with more of the delta restored there would be plenty of subtidal habitat and this land was much better suited for marsh.

Sacramento- San Joaquin River Delta. Source.
Letitia ended her talk by reiterating that we need to think big and out of the box (or illegally, as she suggested) to create resilient restoration.  She gave the example of the South Bay Salt Ponds (which I worked on) where it was decided that the goal of the restoration was 90% of the ponds restored to marsh habitat OR 50% of the ponds restored to marsh.  This was a totally new concept- the environmental permitting generally requires a recommended alternative, but the South Bay Salt Ponds team said, "nope, we don't know what the recommended alternative is going to be yet."  There is and will be extensive monitoring of each restoration within the salt ponds to see if the overall project is having a negative effect on the birds and other animals who currently use the site.  If there is a negative effect, the restoration will stop when 50% of the ponds have been restored.  If things are looking good, then 90% of the ponds will be restored.  The South Bay Salt Ponds team changed the game and really looked at the big picture in order to create a resilient project.  

Salt Pond A21 in 2008 and then in 2009. Source.

I left the conference really thinking about the restoration sites I'm working on and thinking about how we could make them more resilient.  I continue to feel inspired and proud of my company knowing that we do consider the big picture and that we're really at the front of our field (we had multiple people presenting at the conference and I heard lots of positive remarks about the work we're doing).  We just have to keep on saving the world, one marsh at a time (with all the other marshes in mind as well). ;)

Oh, and I also just submitted my first abstract!  Just thinking about presenting in front of a bunch of people who might ask me hard questions makes me want to puke.  At least I've got until November to prepare...

* I may have missed a fact or two in my summary of the plenary session, but I believe I'm capturing the gist of the talk.  I apologize if I have something wrong.

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