The largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas lies at California’s heart. It’s a place of constant change, affected by daily tides, sea-level rise, water diversions that serve 25 million residents and a growing population closing in around it.
Yet most of those people have no idea the Delta is the subject of one of the largest habitat restoration projects ever proposed in the U.S. Known as Eco Restore, it is a companion to another proposal called California WaterFix, which calls for reforming water diversions by building two giant tunnels.
In a new study, Brett Milligan, assistant professor of landscape architecture at U.C. Davis, argues that human uses of the Delta have become an afterthought in these two enormous planning efforts. Furthermore, Milligan and his co-author, PhD candidate Alejo Kraus-Polk, contend that the success of both efforts will be far more likely if they change focus now to make people an integral part of the process.
Water Deeply recently spoke with Milligan to learn more about these conclusions.
Water Deeply: How did this study come about?
Brett Milligan: It generally grew out of working with other researchers in the Delta. I’m from a design background myself – landscape architecture – and realized there was a human component to these restoration projects. And for the most part, it seemed like people were not talking about that. It wasn’t something that was in the foreground in any way.
Water Deeply: You note a “considerable void” in integrating human factors in Delta restoration activities. Can you elaborate?
Milligan: The one part that is discussed is recreation. And that’s OK. But often that’s just a very prescriptive set of ways that people interact with the Delta: boating or hiking or kayaking. But that doesn’t cover all the things that are happening out there.
We make the point in our report that it’s cost effective to include human uses, and if they’re properly planned, it saves money. But these things are often considered outside the scope of projects. They’re seen as not integral to the restoration.
Water Deeply: Is that appropriate?
Appropriate is an interesting term. I think it’s counter to a lot of the objectives of restoration work, particularly in a context such as the Delta, where you have a very unique cultural heritage there. You have a high degree of urbanization surrounding these projects. When people are occupying these landscapes in ways that are not planned for or guided, they tend to have a detrimental effect on some of these projects.
Water Deeply: How can including human uses of the landscape save money on restoration activities?
Milligan: There are a variety of ways. One of them that we point out is citizen science. It brings more eyes on to the landscape, which might bring more favorable uses on to the landscape.
Planning for human uses at the outset, it’s much more cost effective because then you don’t have to go back and rebuild to accommodate it later. If later you want to bring in recreation, you typically have to mitigate for that, which makes things much more expensive.
Another thing we mentioned in the report is that scientists all know the Delta has novel ecology. It’s forming so fast and it’s a very dynamic place. But all the literature offered to the public is geared toward tourism, recreation and cultural aspects of the Delta, and totally shuns all that dialogue about the novel ecology and the kind of challenges we’re faced with. We argue that [this] should be really brought to the fore, so people really know what the Delta is about.
Water Deeply: You talk a lot about the need for ecosystem reconciliation in the Delta. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Milligan: The basic idea is that, rather than separate out these ideas that are just for other-than-human things, we have to reconcile ourselves within these landscapes that we are trying to create for other species. Rather than thinking of this type of separation, because of the magnitude of how much we have altered habitats and things across the Earth, it’s the idea of trying to bring some of this into the landscapes we inhabit.
Water Deeply: Is this being practiced by those planning the Delta’s restoration?
Milligan: I think it’s very much caught on in the scientific community. I think it’s particularly appropriate in the Delta, where it’s very clear the Delta is never going to go back where it was (historically). It’s an impossibility, based on the degree of transformation. But it’s still not really clear how it’s going to be practiced or moved forward, in terms of how that reconciliation actually happens.
Water Deeply: You refer to some restored landscapes in the Delta as “feral.” What do you mean by that?
Milligan: Feral generally means kind of removed from domestication. If you look at the Delta, I think it was 98 percent domesticated in terms of what reclamation did to all those wetlands. So restoration in the Delta, whether it happens deliberately or not, is really taking these landscapes from a domesticated state into a somewhat wild state.
But in the Delta, we have two types of restoration: naturalized or restored. A naturalized landscape is the more feral version, something like Franks Tract or Big Break, which are these accidentally rewilded landscapes that happened through accidents like levee breaks. Versus something that is a restored landscape, where the effort is intentional – something like McCormack-Williamson Tract, which has been in the works for 20 years and is still yet to happen.
If more levee breaches happen, we’ll have more of these feral landscapes, where we’ll be dealing with a largely novel ecology. Another great example is Liberty Island. When Liberty Island breached, it was sort of just let go. Nobody was really managing it. At first, duck hunters pretty much took over that area.
It’s debatable, but I think there has always been a sort of feral quality to the Delta – sort of the bayou of the West – where people went to get off the grid and escape. Some of that is due to the waterways. There’s nowhere else in the country that has this kind of maze of waterways and a low density of habitation within there.
Water Deeply: What are the risks if these human values are not accounted for?
Milligan: I think the biggest risk is, if there isn’t community buy-in on the restoration projects, then oftentimes they’re seen as an imposition rather than a type of amenity for the community. Those projects that have a good connection with the local community really increase their rate of success, because you have those communities looking out for those projects. If restoration is imposed, it plays itself out where it can get sabotaged, and there isn’t support for it.
I think most of the scientific community is aware of this now. I’m not sure it has been put in a set of best practices yet. But I think that has come to light through trial and error.
Water Deeply: What advice do you have for those who are planning Delta restoration projects?
Milligan: The biggest thing is, we don’t really have a champion, or someone who is really looking at integrating human uses at a senior level. I think a lot of the human-use stuff sort of gets subcontracted elsewhere. It’s not in the central discussion. I think bringing somebody in who could actually integrate how science is working with other users could help forward science or restoration efforts.
There’s also a real lack of teeth in Delta policies in terms of human uses. Again, if you compare that to the Bay, it’s mandated. But it’s just sort of recommended in the Delta plan. I think there’s room there to make more robust planning regimes to make human uses more of a focus.
Water Deeply: You also write that restoration of the Delta is likely to create landscapes that are “unprecedented.” What do you mean by that?
Milligan: All deltas are very dynamic. You can see these huge changes that have happened in a very short time that have transformed the Delta over and over. Some people wonder if we’re at a tipping point. With sea level rise, are we going to see more levees overtopped, is the Bay going to move into the Delta or are we going to radically alter how water moves through the Delta through underground pipes?
It just seems like we’re on a precipice of more radical changes happening throughout the Delta to create yet another new Delta.
There’s this really interesting notion of the Delta as an evolving place, which I think nobody has really figured out what to do with. Because the Delta changes so fast, it’s not something that human societies are adept at dealing with. We sort of like static conditions we can plan around. The Delta has never offered that. So the type of conditions that people encountered when they settled in the Delta are very different from what we face today.