By

Cariad Hayes Thronson
About the author

Cariad Hayes Thronson covers legal and political issues for Estuary News. She has served on the staffs of several national publications, including The American Lawyer. She is a long-time contributor to Estuary News, and some years ago served as its assistant editor. She lives in San Mateo with her husband and two children.

Articles by Cariad Hayes Thronson

24
May

Cariad Hayes Thronson

In 1996 I began a five-year stint as Estuary News’s first assistant editor; I’ve been writing for the magazine on and off ever since. Many of the stories I’ve written have focused on the laws, lawsuits, policies, and regulations that have affected the Bay and Delta over three decades, and it has certainly been fun to navigate these ever-choppy political waters in stories like last June’s Flow Deal: Peace Treaty or Trojan Horse. But the stories I think I’ve enjoyed reporting the most were the profiles of people who work to protect and improve the Estuary’s environment and communities, such as the late San Joaquin River activist Carla Bard and Delta farmer Alex Hildebrand, as well as those that let...
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VA Agreement Highlights Habitat Questions

Restoring marsh and wetland habitat can have significant benefits for dozens of species throughout the Bay and Delta—that’s beyond dispute. But when it comes to saving the Estuary’s most imperiled fish, how much habitat improvements can help in the absence of dramatically increased freshwater flows is a question that has dogged and divided scientists and policy makers for years. As the State Water Resources Control Board considers the latest proposal from the State and water agencies for a flows agreement that would restore thousands of riparian and wetland acres—while dedicating less water to the environment than proposed under an alternative regulatory framework—critics argue that science doesn’t support its underlying assumptions. The debate highlights how much there still is to learn about...
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Ducks. Photo: Rick Lewis
21
Mar

Delta Restoration Baseline Revealed

When the Delta Stewardship Council amended its Delta Plan and established a goal of restoring 60,000 to 80,000 acres of wetland above a 2007 baseline by 2050, it raised some fundamental questions: How much of that goal has already been met, and where? A recent study, presented at the Delta Plan Interagency Implementation Committee Restoration Subcommittee’s first-ever Delta Restoration Forum in February, provides some answers. The amendments to Chapter Four of the Delta Plan, which focuses on protecting, restoring, and enhancing the Delta ecosystem, synthesized 14 existing agency reports and other documents in establishing the 2050 targets, which are deemed necessary to achieve the larger goal of restoring a functioning ecosystem by the end of this century. However, “there wasn’t...
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Creek snorkel survey. Photo: Rick Johnson
21
Mar

A Steelhead Renaissance in San Mateo Creek

Rich Johnson steps through an inconspicuous gate between two backyards not far from the downtown San Mateo Caltrain station and points down a steep, overgrown streambank to a piece of PVC piping, barely visible beneath the tumbling water. “That’s our furthest downstream PIT array,” says Johnson, an aquatic biologist with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). The Passive Integrated Transponder array is one of four stations along San Mateo Creek that capture signals from tagged steelhead as they migrate up and down the creek.  More than a month after a series of atmospheric rivers deluged the Bay Area in January, San Mateo Creek is still running high, fed by unusually large releases from Crystal Springs Reservoir. The high flows...
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31
Aug

In the absence of a government program to contend with harmful algae blooms (HABs) in the Delta, a loose coalition of academics and environmental and community groups has been studying their spread and potential health impacts both from ground level and from the air.

San Francisco Baykeeper has been sending up drones to monitor eight sites between Discovery Bay and downtown Stockton, as well as photo-documenting the spread and intensity of HABs from airplanes flown by Lighthawk Conservation Flying. At the same time, volunteers with Restore the Delta have been conducting water quality testing for HABs and the toxins they produce. “The airplane and drones together allow us to get a really broad geographic understanding of where these neon green HABs are occurring, says Baykeeper’s Jon Rosenfield. “That paired with site specific water quality testing that Restore the Delta is doing allows us to get different spatial scales of analysis of this problem.” These HABs, which Rosenfield says occur during the late-spring and summer...
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Defining Unimpaired Flows

For the second time in four years, a proposal for a voluntary agreement between agencies and water contractors on flows into and through the Delta from the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers and their tributaries is wending its way through the State Water Resources Control Board. The proposal, which would replace the regime outlined in the Board’s most recent update to the Bay-Delta Plan, calls for substantially less water remaining in the system than the update, but comparing the two requires understanding some terminology, specifically the concept of “unimpaired flows.” In 2018 the State Board adopted Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Plan update, calling for San Joaquin River inflows to the Delta of 40% of unimpaired flow; a framework for...
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13
Jun

Flow Deal: Peace Treaty or Trojan Horse?

Promising up to 825,000 acre-feet a year of new water to protect endangered fish and thousands of acres of habitat improvements, the Newsom administration and others hailed the March announcement of a proposed voluntary agreement on Bay-Delta flows as the beginning of the end of California’s water wars, and a boon to the Bay-Delta ecosystem.  “We think this has the promise to give us more benefit for ecosystems because we would be combining both flow and habitat assets,” says California Natural Resources Agency spokesperson Lisa Lien-Mager. And by providing an alternative to government mandates already in the works, proponents say the deal will head off litigation that could delay guaranteed environmental flows for years. Following a decade of stop-and-start negotiations,...
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Will Salmon Simmer Again?

After two critically dry years that coincided with Trump-era rollbacks to environmental protections, some iconic Delta fish are closer than ever to the point of no return. Last fall, the fall midwater trawl found zero wild Delta smelt, while a coalition of environmentalists and fishermen is asking a federal court to help prevent a repeat of 2021’s near-obliteration of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. Their lawsuit is just one of several projects....
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17
Jun

Trail to a Fire-Safe Watershed

Long insulated from severe risk by mild temperatures and the fog that regularly swaddles the Santa Cruz Mountains, San Mateo County now finds itself — like the rest of the Bay Area — facing the climate-driven prospect of catastrophic wildfire. The threat is leading one of the county’s largest landowners to devote unprecedented resources to fire-prevention efforts in the Peninsula Watershed — efforts that will also restore parts of the landscape to an approximation of their historical condition. “In the last few years, the weather has changed in regards to the relative humidity,” says Fire Safe San Mateo County’s Denise Enea. “Normally you would go up to [the redwood-forested ridgeline at the edge of the watershed] and it would be...
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23
Mar

Refreshing the Estuary Blueprint

The San Francisco Estuary Partnership’s next update to its 2016 Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan for the Estuary—or Estuary Blueprint—will bring a new focus on equity and environmental justice to ongoing efforts to restore and protect the Bay and Delta. “We really want to do more to engage communities of color and indigenous communities as partners in our work,” says Partnership Director Caitlin Sweeney. “So we are looking at all our actions and initiatives through the lens of environmental justice and racial equity inclusion, as we do with climate change.” Sweeney says the update’s steering committee is taking a multi-pronged approach to integrating equity and environmental justice into the Partnership’s work. “We are looking at every single one of the...
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Flow Rules Stalled As Tunnel Advances

As California stares down the barrel of yet another dry year, alarm bells are already ringing over conditions in the Delta. Environmental groups, fishermen, tribes, and a host of others are calling on the State Water Resources Control Board to complete and implement a long-delayed update to the Water Quality Control Plan for the Bay and Delta (Bay-Delta Plan), to protect the imperiled ecosystem. At the same time, plans for a structure with the potential to divert more water than ever to southern cities and farms are creeping ahead. By law the Bay-Delta Plan — which establishes minimum flows through the Delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and their tributaries — is supposed to be reviewed every three...
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18
Nov

Fish passage structures can be improved for the benefit of multiple species, if they are designed to account for differences in behavior, physical ability and size, according to a new literature review.

Historically, most fish passages have been designed to help native salmon return to their upstream habitat and spawning grounds, with little consideration for other migrating species such as sturgeon and lampreys. “There is an assumption that if you just build a fish passage structure, fish will go thorough it, but that is not always the case,” says Department of Water Resources fisheries biologist Zoltan Matica, who conducted the review. “The challenge is to understand that this isn’t only a physical barrier, it can be also a mental barrier.” For example, some species that engage in schooling behavior, such as shad, may refuse to even enter a structure if it limits them to passing one at a time. According to the...
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22
Sep

More Grants for Real People

Even as “environmental justice” and “community engagement” have long been watchwords of restoration and resilience efforts, economically disadvantaged communities on San Francisco Bay’s shoreline have often felt sidelined by them. But that may be changing: the summer of 2020 saw new initiatives to give communities more power to shape and participate in restoration projects in their own backyards. In July, the San Francisco Bay Restoration Authority kicked off its new Community Grants Program, allocating $200,000 of its $25 million 2020-21 budget to projects led by community-based organizations in economically disadvantaged bayside communities. “This program will welcome new voices and partnerships, and work with community leaders to develop projects that empower and benefit communities that historically have been excluded from habitat...
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The Delta’s Blooming Problem

Bright-green blotches of algae have been popping up all over the Delta since early summer, from Discovery Bay to the Stockton waterfront, befouling the air and poisoning the water with toxins that can sicken or even kill humans and animals. Veteran Delta watchers believe that this year’s harmful algal blooms may be the worst ever, and worry that some features of Governor Gavin Newsom’s recently released Water Resilience Portfolio for California will aggravate the problem. “We don’t have enough data to know if this is the worst year ever, because we haven’t been out there every single year for years and years monitoring,” says Meredith Howard, an environmental program manager with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. “I...
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wetland landscape photo
13
Sep

Better scientific preparation could help Delta water and environmental managers respond to droughts more effectively.

That’s one key takeaway from a review of environmental management and the use of science during the 2012-2016 drought commissioned by the Delta Science Program and published in the June 2020 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. “There are lots of mysteries about how to manage water to benefit species, agriculture, upstream and downstream users. I think science is going to be the best solution,” says lead author John Durand of UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Science. Durand and his team based their review on available reports and data, as well as discussions with agency staff, stakeholders and researchers. They focused on water management actions during the drought through the lens of four priorities identified by water managers:...
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05
Aug

Although the Covid-19 pandemic and attendant economic cataclysm have tripped up some ambitious plans for funding climate resilience in California, other measures to integrate adaptation and planning are still on track.

In July, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Association of Bay Area Governments released the draft of Plan Bay Area 2050, a 30-year plan to guide growth in the nine-county region. “The biggest new integration in the plan is a set of investments to protect our Bay and ocean shorelines from rising sea levels,” says MTC’s Dave Vautin. The plan calls for just under $20 billion in investments ranging from seawalls and traditional levees to horizontal levees and wetland restoration to protect communities and infrastructure. “The draft showcases how that system of infrastructure improvements could protect 98% of all homes at risk over the next 30-years, as well as all major highways, railways and the vast majority of offices and...
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18
Jun

Adaptation Complexities Spur Innovation

By Cariad Hayes Thronson Driving over the Bay flats toward the Dumbarton Bridge’s western approach in San Mateo County it’s easy to imagine how a few feet of sea level rise could submerge the roadway. The bridge touches down only 750 feet from the shoreline, and the approach skims just above the fill it’s built on. At least three to six feet of sea level rise are a virtual certainty by the end of the century. Countywide, a vulnerability assessment found that in a mid-range sea level rise scenario, property worth $34 billion would be flooded on the bayshore and the coast north of Half Moon Bay. Facing that reality, San Mateo County’s leadership has undertaken some of the Bay...
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18
Jun

Planting for Resilience

By Cariad Hayes Thronson Travel brochures for Napa County almost universally feature the same images: a valley floor carpeted with vineyards, nestled between hillsides dotted with spreading valley oaks. As climate change brings hotter days — and more of them — to the county, these twin pillars of the landscape, grapevines and oak trees, are both challenged by it and central to local resilience strategies. A climate action plan has been in the works since 2011 but has yet to be adopted — a delay some local activists attribute to pushback from the powerful agriculture industry. Meanwhile, other entities are spearheading efforts to adapt to the new climate reality, centering on the county’s iconic flora.  Efforts to support oaks continue....
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16
Apr

Smack in the middle of the unprecedented disruption of normal life brought on by the Covid-19 crisis comes a new report detailing the challenges sea level rise might bring to the Bay region without proactive planning.

 Released on March 26, Adapting to Rising Tides: Bay Area compares the effects of rising waters on communities, natural lands and critical regional systems. “Shoreline flooding from sea level rise and storm events will impact everyone in the Bay Area because the transportation systems we rely on, schools, childcare, and hospitals we depend on, jobs at which we work, and beautiful natural areas we love are at risk, and interconnected across the Bay,” says Dana Brechwald of the Bay Conservation and Development Commission. BCDC developed the report together with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission/Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Area Regional Collaborative, using funding from Caltrans and the Bay Area Toll Authority. “We needed a study that showed us where the...
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19
Mar

Regulatory Teams Coordinate

By Cariad Hayes Thronson In March the San Francisco Estuary Partnership released its Wetlands Regional Monitoring Program Plan, which lays out the science framework for a long-term program to monitor tidal wetlands around the Bay. “The focus of the plan is how we’re going to answer five guiding questions about the status and trends of our tidal wetlands,” says the Partnership’s Heidi Nutters. The framework is only the first phase of what will ultimately be a four-year planning process. Nutters says the team planning for wetlands monitoring is also working closely with the Bay Restoration Regulatory and Integration Team (BRRIT), which comprises representatives from each of the agencies that permit projects.
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