As anthropogenic factors like salt accumulation through irrigation and freshwater storage combine with drought and sea-level rise, the Delta is headed for a saltier future. The June 2021 paper, published in San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, integrates biological and physical sciences to draw a comprehensive picture of Delta salinity and changing freshwater inflow. Changing salinity patterns could have a profound impact on the region’s ecology, affecting how and when fish like the Delta smelt or Coho salmon spawn, and which aquatic plants survive. The paper insists that the patterns observed suggest that the future will be difficult to predict, as extreme weather events will lead to bigger fluctuations in salt levels, and recommends that management agencies encourage interdisciplinary coordination when approaching future challenges. The paper concludes that researchers and policy-makers should work more closely together, and consider water-management projects as science experiments. Co-author Ted Sommers believes that this type of management will require substantial investments in science support and flexibility from regulators and water managers, but “the good news is that there is an increasing interest in using science to guide annual decision-making.” As with any experiment, “clearly-stated assumptions, alternative hypotheses, and predictions should be part of the planning process.” Funding can then be structured in a way that permits monitoring before and after implementation, and enable managers to more effectively respond to a rapidly changing system. 

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Building a temporary drought barrier at False River to deter the tidal push of saltwater from San Francisco Bay into the central Delta in June 2021. Andrew Innerarity / California Department of Water Resources
 

When it comes to managing Delta salinity, a new research paper suggests we treat public policy like a science experiment.

As anthropogenic factors like salt accumulation through irrigation and freshwater storage combine with drought and sea-level rise, the Delta is headed for a saltier future. The June 2021 paper, published in San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, integrates biological and physical sciences to draw a comprehensive picture of Delta salinity and changing freshwater inflow. Changing salinity patterns could have a profound impact on the region’s ecology, affecting how and when fish like the Delta smelt or Coho salmon spawn, and which aquatic plants survive. The paper insists that the patterns observed suggest that the future will be difficult to predict, as extreme weather events will lead to bigger fluctuations in salt levels, and recommends that management agencies encourage interdisciplinary coordination when approaching future challenges. The paper concludes that researchers and policy-makers should work more closely together, and consider water-management projects as science experiments. Co-author Ted Sommers believes that this type of management will require substantial investments in science support and flexibility from regulators and water managers, but “the good news is that there is an increasing interest in using science to guide annual decision-making.” As with any experiment, “clearly-stated assumptions, alternative hypotheses, and predictions should be part of the planning process.” Funding can then be structured in a way that permits monitoring before and after implementation, and enable managers to more effectively respond to a rapidly changing system. 

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About the author

Michael Hunter Adamson was born and partly raised in the Bay Area and spent his childhood balancing adventure with mischief. As an equally irresponsible adult he has worked for The Nature Conservancy, the arts and education nonprofit NaNoWriMo, taught English in Madrid-based High School equivalent, and volunteers with The Marine Mammal Center. As a writer for Estuary and AcclimateWest, Michael employs his love for nature and his interest in people to help tell the unfolding story of the living Earth.

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