2009 State of the Estuary, Mongan, 10/1/09 2009 “State of the Estuary” conference


The 2009 “State of the Estuary” conference, a gathering of Bay Area environmentalists and environmental scientists, was held in Oakland from September 29 to October 1. This conference usually devotes a lot of time to decrying purported devastating effects of water exports on the Bay/Delta system. In contrast, the 2009 conference was remarkable for what was not said. The more technical presentations included the following: • Steve Lindley (NOAA) discussed salmon fishery closure in the last two years. He said this was necessitated by very low survival of smolts after leaving the estuary. He said the closure resulted from problems in the ocean, not from problems in the freshwater environment. In response to a direct question asking if the pumps were to blame, he said they looked closely at that and could find no important effects of the pumps. Larry Brown (USGS) discussed the “Pelagic Organism Decline” (POD). He said that the extensive NCEAS effort could not find any variable associated with the 2002 “change point” for the four POD species. He also said the NCEAS effort found no reliable evidence for export (as opposed to inflow) effects on POD species, and noted that the POD Management Team was now thinking the POD resulted from a climate regime shift affecting the entire ecosystem. Finally, he reported results of a study showing largemouth bass stay in weed beds, don’t eat pelagic fish and are therefore unlikely to be important in the decline of delta smelt Jim Cloern (USGS) reported that bottom fish, crab, and shrimp abundance has been higher since 1999 than in previous years, and phytoplankton biomass has been higher in the last 10 years than in the preceding 20 years. He said this resulted from a cold phase in the eastern Pacific Ocean. That’s hardly consistent with the “devastated estuary” theory.

Bill Bennett said the POD decline may have resulted from an ecological regime shift initiated by the spread of invasive water weeds in the Delta. He noted that silversides, centrarchids and catfish have increased in the Delta and it’s probably impossible to drive the system back to where it favors pelagic fish such as delta smelt. He went on at length about the complexity of the Delta ecosystem, and said we may never really understand the system completely. This line of reasoning troubles me. I think we should focus on trying to rule some things out (like the idea that exports have large effects on the ecosystem). Otherwise, given the complexity of the ecosystem, it is likely to be argued that we must continue to rely on the unsubstantiated opinions of the biological priesthood. Bill Fleenor (UCD) compared flows in recent years when POD species did poorly to unimpaired flows and to historic flows when POD species did well. He did note that unimpaired flows are not natural historic flows into the Delta and that calculated net Delta

2009 State of the Estuary, Mongan, 10/1/09 outflow based on those flows would be incorrect. However, he failed to note that no implications can be drawn from these flow comparisons because so many other things changed when the flows changed. Jay Lund (UCD) reiterated the obvious, but very important and inevitable, truths that • • • • • Sea level will rise Islands in the western and central Delta will flood More invasive species will arrive We won’t be able to export water directly from the Delta forever The Delta will either degrade slowly, or very quickly in an earthquake