A few months before his retirement in October 2021, Ariel Rubissow Okamoto asked Ted Sommer, lead scientist for the California Department of Water Resources, to reflect on his accomplishments and hopes for the future. Sommer is a leading researcher on native fishes, and has published more than 60 research articles in peer-reviewed scientific publications since 2001. Sommer began his long career at DWR in 1991 under Dr. Randy Brown. Early on he founded the Feather River fish monitoring program, but his work moved progressively downstream to the Bay-Delta, where he has also helped manage the Interagency Ecological Program since the late 1990s.
According to his longtime colleague Jim Cloern, an emeritus scientist with the United States Geological Survey: “Ted has a special gift in communication, he’s irreplaceable!” Former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fish biologist Bruce Herbold said: “Ted helped develop a commonality between DWR and other resource agencies and universities, creating a solid, collaborative approach to Delta science and showing its relevance to decision-making. That was not always an easy task, because some of the science was unpopular with management and water users.” Audio excerpts from this interview appear above.
ARO: Pretend I’m a Safeway cashier in Los Angeles. Why should I care about native fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta?
SOMMER: Well how about this lovely salmon cutlet in my shopping basket? The Delta is one of the primary migration corridors for salmon and supports a strong fishery that benefits us all. Another reason to care is your water supply. In the Delta, we have a number of what we call listed species, species with protected legal status, that have a strong impact on California’s water supply. When our fish do poorly, it actually impacts our ability to distribute water to the residents of California. Lastly, a number of our native fish in the Delta are just plain cool. We’ve got one that smells like cucumbers; we’ve got another that gives live birth, like humans; and we also have swimming dinosaurs, a sturgeon species that has basically been swimming around since the Jurassic. So there’s a lot to appreciate about Delta fish.
ARO: You’ve spent a lifetime studying why native fish thrive or decline in the Delta. Tell us about two major scientific research breakthroughs, or a-ha moments, and two fish that got away.
SOMMER: The first big a-ha moment was the discovery of the importance of floodplain habitat in the Estuary. Honestly, until some of us started doing research on the Yolo Bypass, people didn’t seem to recognize we had any floodplain in the Delta. Eventually, we figured out that this seasonal flood overflow basin is one of the single most important fish rearing and nursery habitats, and food banks, in the system. It’s also a big migration corridor. It was incredibly exciting. First, getting our first nets and toes in there, and then seeing what a special place it is. A whole suite of important management actions came directly out of that work.
The second major pivot point was probably the pelagic organism decline. All of a sudden, around 2001-2002, a whole group of fish species that live in the channels simultaneously started to decline, all at once. It was a shocking moment because we realized something really big was going on out there, and it wasn’t good. But one great outcome was that a group of us with different specialties were able to look at different aspects of why the decline may have occurred. And what we learned had a lot of management importance, and led to new regulations and projects.
As far as science that got away, or that we seem to have a hard time nailing down, I’d say it would be the potential role of contaminants in ecosystem health. We know contaminants have an effect on multiple species. There’s also evidence that some fish have problems caused by contaminants (such as spinal deformities or reproductive failures). But there’s the big question of what does it mean? That’s been the hardest thing to kind of tease apart.
ARO: You’ve been the top DWR scientist through some challenging droughts, deluges such as the one that resulted in the Oroville Dam failure, and political battles such as small fish versus big ag. Did these events lead to any paradigm shifts for DWR?
SOMMER: The big shift is [accepting] that there’s really no such thing as a normal water year anymore. For a decade or so, we’ve been see-sawing between extreme wet and extreme dry years, but we’ve gotten very few of the intermediate years our water system is set up to manage. This paradigm shift is not only a big deal for how we manage aquatic resources, but also water supply, flood risk, and so many other things.
ARO: Doesn’t it raise questions about our water infrastructure, too? Should we have the same infrastructure going forward?
SOMMER: It’s new territory, for sure. People are already talking about whether we can increase our water storage capacity, but the more important thing is going to be increasing our flood conveyance in the valley. We are under-sized right now. Similarly, with sea-level rise, we have to think about how to support our aquatic resources not just in the next 10 years, but also 50 years down the road, when some habitats will be underwater. People often think of the Delta as having a fixed geography, with roads and boundaries, but with the sort of natural and climate-generated changes ahead, there will be major flooding. We need to be planning now for [a different geography].
ARO: When you’ve challenged these old paradigms, what things never change?
SOMMER: Everything’s always more complicated than it seems. It’s human nature to want to latch onto simple, elegant ideas for solving problems. One of the hardest things in natural resources management is that there’s rarely one thing that we can do that will make everything better. Getting people to understand the breadth of these problems is difficult, or to appreciate that moving money to one specific thing isn’t going to fix everything.
ARO: What role has science played in organizing the vast bureaucracy of water management by humans in California?
SOMMER: Science now plays a huge role in management. The science enterprise is much larger, and much more sophisticated, than it used to be. While a lot of areas of water management are still siloed and compartmentalized, there are also many areas of collaborative work now, with teams from different agencies, NGOs, and universities all working together. Through the science we are finding common ground, more objectivity, more focus. I’m not downplaying the idea that water isn’t still amazingly contentious in California. There’s still polarization on the science front, but it is also one of the areas of common ground, that has been helpful in keeping us out of the courtroom. Early on in my career, the war wars were a big part of our activities. Having more collaborative science has toned things down.
ARO: Collaboration is often hard and expensive. What have you learned about how to do it best?
SOMMER: It’s helpful to focus on a specific topic, and to work with a group of people to break things down into pieces, come up with conceptual models, and then develop some questions to answer. Facilitation also helps. For sure it’s slower and more expensive, but the payoff is, there’s more buy-in. That does not mean that every single little project that someone does should have a huge number of partners and multiple levels of oversight.
ARO: In your six years as lead scientist, did DWR actually let you lead?
SOMMER: Leadership is an interesting concept. At DWR, I didn’t actually have staff that I supervised, or a budget. But you don’t necessarily need that to be a good leader. Creating this position, for example, provided an opportunity for us to have regular briefings with our different directors and deputy directors. That was not a line of communication we had before: top managers hearing about science and science issues on a regular basis is not a trivial thing, these are very busy people. As lead scientist I was also able to provide technical input across a lot of different parts of DWR, which is also a form of leadership. I was also given the ability to develop major research projects that I thought were management-relevant. I was also given free rein to work on mentorship and recruiting. In addition, I was assigned to be one of the primary media contacts on Bay-Delta natural resources, becoming the public face of the department’s efforts. So yes leadership, but not necessarily management. I don’t think I would have been nearly as effective at that.
ARO: What have you learned over time about what works in terms of communicating complex water management science to the public or politicians?
SOMMER: Scientists love to go into great depth, demonstrating their breadth of knowledge, throwing in all the jargon. But that does not work with decision-makers and the public. Using plain English and distilling things down to clear, focused messages works better than fire-hosing people with a whole lot of information and expecting them draw their own conclusions.
ARO: What things are you amazed water engineers still don’t know about all the knobs they can turn in the state’s water system to manage it better for fish?
SOMMER: Our water engineers have an incredibly hard job. They often have to balance a whole suite of different regulations with the need to meet water supply obligations at the same time. But they don’t always know the whys behind those regulations. One of the things I did as DWR’s lead scientist was more education of our water managers about the science behind the rules they have to follow. Probably the best example is the seasonal closure of the Delta Cross Channel to protect downstream migrating salmon. A lot of the engineers know they need to close the channel gates but don’t necessarily know the timing of when the fish are going downstream, and why when the fish stray through the channel into the central Delta they do so poorly.
ARO: What advice do you have, if any, about changing monitoring programs for the estuary? Is there a need for a change of focus?
SOMMER: I’d think very carefully before making big changes. There’s always a pressure to overhaul long-term monitoring but that totally undermines your long-term data. We have one of the better long- term datasets for an estuary. This information is gold. But folks get excited about new technologies that come on board, and automatically assume because it’s new, that it’s somehow going to be better. Monitoring can’t answer all our questions, it’s just one tool. We also need companion modeling and companion experiments. (Photo: Sommer monitoring conditions first hand).
ARO: Can you give me an example of an unexpected twist or turn in a DWR research initiative and what you learned from it?
SOMMER: The best example has to do with the Suisun Marsh Salinity Control Gates. They’re a series of complicated gates that are opened and closed to tidally pump low-salinity water into the marsh to support waterfowl habitat. In general, I’m not a big fan of big, engineered structures in our waterways, because they often block fish passage and movements. But in 2016 the governor’s office asked us to come up with some ideas for how we might be able to improve habitat for Delta smelt. This resulted in the Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy, which included a proposal to use the gates to move more fresh water into Suisun Marsh to see if that could support Delta smelt habitat. I was a little dubious but as a research opportunity, it seemed was worth trying, and in 2018 we did. We were very pleased with the result. We were able to successfully freshen up the marsh, show that water quality improved, and see evidence that smelt responded favorably. So first, this was cool biologically to me, to see fish actually respond to a management action. Second, it was great to use an engineered structure in a completely different way to help support listed fish management. It inspired me to start looking for other opportunities to use our infrastructure in [new ways].
ARO: Another proposal in the Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy is enhancement of the flooded island of Franks Tract. It’s a complicated multi-benefit project with a lot of important considerations for the people who live around the Tract, but it could also really improve smelt habitat and manage invasive weeds. How do we convince people that these cumbersome multi-benefit projects are worthwhile?
SOMMER: Though the price tag is quite high for the project, few other projects would have so many different types of benefits. For example, we’re in the middle of a drought now, and we had to build a very expensive drought barrier to keep salinity from intruding in the Delta. The Franks Tract project would put a habitat plug near the same location as that current temporary barrier, and give us a long term solution to the salinity intrusion problem. So I’m excited about Franks Tract because it is a multi-benefit project that would solve so many different types of problems: the intrusion problem we have during droughts; the need to provide habitat for species we care about; and the need to improve recreational opportunities for boaters and local residents because the Tract is a state park. So big price tag, but the payoff is tremendous.
ARO: What has been the most personally important experience in your years of work?
SOMMER: Ultimately, the most important thing has been the people. A lot of folks don’t realize what a team effort science is. There’s often this obsession with individual scientists coming up with great ideas and doing it. But so much of what we do is really part of teams. I have great memories and appreciation of work with my professional siblings, and also professional offspring, working with younger staff, bringing them along. There’s just nothing like working with a well-functioning team.
ARO: Do you have advice for those young career scientists and engineers about do’s and don’ts for the future?
SOMMER: If you don’t like it, change it. There are a lot of folks who arrive, and they see something they don’t like, and then just jump ship. I stuck with DWR for 30 years because I thought it was an effective organization, very can-do. But I also stuck with it because I saw a path forward to make positive changes.
ARO: What issue in your work has frustrated you most?
SOMMER: The idea that collaborations are always a good thing. In my opinion, the pendulum has swung too far in in the area of excessive collaboration on every little project. There’s an expectation than everyone and their brother has to be involved to be of benefit. Collaboration is certainly important for high-profile science, but it’s not effective for all aspects of science. I really feel that individual researchers need to have some independence and ability to follow their noses and intuition and develop pilot projects. Those projects may ultimately bubble up to something that a broader team may be interested in, but I do get frustrated when small research projects devolve into a monster planning efforts. It makes it hard to get anything done.
ARO: If you had your dream budget, and you could do anything you wanted outside the box or inside the box, what three things would you do?
SOMMER: One of my dreams has been to have a field station that would be a center of excellence. Right now most of our scientists are in their own silos, departments, agencies, organizations scattered around different parts of the Delta. One of our long-term goals was to build a field station in Rio Vista in the heart of the Delta. I think that would be one of the most important things that would generate trust and collaboration between scientists, the water community, and Delta residents. Right now a lot of the Delta residents feel that we’re outsiders, and we’re determining their future. We need to have water people, particularly scientists, living in those communities, working with them, giving them a chance to become engaged. On the science side, there’s a couple things I would do. First, we need to stop thinking of invasive species as some intractable problem we can’t solve. Aquatic weeds are winning right now in the Delta, for example. We’re losing a lot of the shallow water habitat to them. We need more research into things like bio-control, more resources, a bigger toolbox. One last thing I would like is for us to have the ability to do some big manipulations. A lot of the science we do is more passive, taking advantage of a change in the Estuary like a drought or a flood or a levee break, and then monitoring it. But if we had a model floodplain or a model wetland where we could actually make predictions, manipulate conditions, and monitor the response, that would be a really valuable tool.
ARO: So if you went away for five years to Africa, what would you want to see when you came back?
SOMMER: Success with some of the actions we’ve taken that are just now gaining steam. Habitat restoration has been in the works for a while, but it’s only now that there’s really some major dirt-moving. Projects are finally getting built. I want to see the big projects like Fremont Weir Notch into the Yolo Bypass, and Lookout Slough restoration, up and running. I want to see if they worked, and what we can learn from them. I would also hope to see some of the other actions we’ve been taking for Delta and longfin smelt and spring run salmon making a difference. It’s one of the biggest disappointments in my career, seeing species like Delta smelt doing so poorly, despite a lot of good work. I would hope in five years we might see things starting to turn around.
ARO: What are you looking forward to next?
SOMMER: I have a lot of outdoor adventures planned. I love to bike, climb, hike, ski. I just got back from hiking the entire John Muir Trail. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
ARO: So why are you retiring?
SOMMER: I’ve had a good run. We have amazing talent right now at DWR, and in the broader Delta science enterprise. I need to get out of the way and watch the great things they’re going to do. I sometimes felt a little guilty taking up so much attention or bandwidth. I want more of these younger, talented people to have the same chance to shine. It’s been a privilege to work in the science community for so long. I’ve had a great career. I’m just hoping other folks get to do as many cool projects as I’ve been able to do!
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Top photo courtesy Ted Sommer.