Leaf Litter

Leaf Litter Talks with Dr. Mathias Kondolf

Fluvial geomorphologist and Berkeley environmental planning professor, Matt Kondolf, shares some insight-and alarming facts-about the dynamics of the Bioregion’s river systems.

By Amy Nelson

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We were thrilled to have an opportunity to chat with Matt Kondolf, an internationally recognized expert in aquatic system dynamics and river restoration who has conducted much of his research in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Bioregion. Dr. Kondolf is Professor of Environmental Planning at the University of California Berkeley, where teaches courses in hydrology, river restoration, and environmental sciences. He is a fluvial geomorphologist who has been involved with numerous programs and studies pertaining to river systems in the Bioregion and beyond.

Dr. Kondolf was a co-author of the CALFED Ecosystem Restoration Program Strategic Plan and served on the program’s science board until 2005. He developed the restoration flow regime for the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam, which was adopted in recent settlement negotiations to restore salmon in the San Joaquin. He co-authored the report ReEnvisioning the Delta, and as chair of the board of the UC Berkeley Delta Initiative, organized a 2006 symposium on urbanization of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, its potential impacts, and alternative futures.

Dr. Kondolf was also a principal investigator in the National River Restoration Science Synthesis project, a national-level study of river restoration. He is a member of the Federal Interagency Levee Policy Committee and the National Research Council Committee on Hydrology, Ecology, and Fishes of the Klamath River Basin. He also serves on the Environmental Advisory Board to the Chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

From an ecosystem perspective, what do you think makes the Bay Delta region so special?

San Francisco Bay itself is one of the largest estuaries on the West Coast. The upper part of the estuary is the San Joaquin Delta, which, historically, was a very productive area ecologically. But this area has been wholly transformed, with the reservoirs on most of the rivers altering flow regimes, sediment load and access to upstream habitat. You also have the largest population concentrated in the lower part of the estuary.

The region is also an interesting place in that the climate, overall, is Mediterranean, yet we have these salmonid fish species, which are not Mediterranean. In a way, these fish are relics of the Pleistocene, during which they spread, extending their range from Baja, California all around the Pacific Rim to Japan. So [the San Francisco Bay Bioregion] is an unusual area ecologically, as it’s the southern limit of many of these salmonid species, and with this Mediterranean climate, the fish were already on the edge. Now, with tremendous pressures for water diversion, alteration of catchment areas for urban and agricultural use, and alterations to physical and ecological processes, well, you have quite an exciting mix of factors.

This is also an area in which the populace tends to have a very high environmental awareness and motivation to improve and restore the environment broadly.

Let’s talk about these “pressures” for a minute. What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) to the region over the next decade?

There are two big trends. One is continued expansion of population and how we handle that. Up to the present, we have not done a very good job. We have allowed the real estate market to drive many of the development patterns. It’s not even a pure market because certain things, such as highway construction and delivery of water in this region, are highly subsidized. So we have these incentives toward sprawl. Sprawl creates a whole set of problems, such as air pollution and urban runoff. Because of the economics of developing in marginal areas, it also presents a huge incentive for developers to go to places like the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, where they can buy land that is relatively cheap and build subdivisions that appeal to people who work in the metropolitan region but can’t afford to buy a house in the city or nearby suburbs. Up until the recent crash, people were motivated to pay very high prices for houses that were in areas like the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, many of which are below sea level or, if above sea level, are in floodplains that would be inundated by ten feet of water during a 100-year flood.

The other challenge is how we manage water in coming decades, especially in light of the changing climate. The water problem in California has often been characterized as one of shortage. In fact, we have a lot of water, but its distribution in time and space is not the most convenient to us. Then, the way we allocate the water we use is not necessarily in keeping with current realities. Our water allocation system is basically a holdover from the 19th century. Because of that, it’s serving us very poorly in the 21st century. In California, we don’t regulate groundwater extraction. We don’t even know how much groundwater is taken out. The state doesn’t require permits to take water out of the ground – unless it is shown that your well is affecting an adjacent river. The burden of proof is on someone else to show that. Unless that’s shown, groundwater is essentially unregulated. Our system of appropriate rights has frozen in place many uses that don’t make a lot of sense now, economically or environmentally. They are not serving society today. They are inherited from a very different time.

I realized only recently that the entire Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area, which is part of the San Francisco Bay Delta Bioregion is below sea level, and in many areas, more vulnerable than pre-Katrina New Orleans. I also learned that it hasn’t always been that way. How did this happen?

This is a result of the incentives we’ve created. Local governments are financially strapped, and their ticket to increasing revenues is to attract big box stores. To do that, they need to be able to put them in or near existing developments. If they can’t do that, they need to build the developments for them. So some jurisdictions that are in the Delta have been promoting growth or reacting favorably to developer proposals.

The way our flood management policies operate, if you build a levee that is certified to provide protection against the 100-year flood, the area behind that levee is officially no longer in the floodplain. Someone can buy a house there, and they are never informed that they’re in the floodplain – officially they are not – and they are not required to get flood insurance, yet they are still at a substantial risk of flooding. The 100-year flood is not the biggest flood. There’s the 200-year, 500-year, 1,000-year flood, and all of those floods have a non-trivial chance of occurring in any year. This is what’s called the “residual risk.” You’ve taken care of the risk of the 100-year flood by building this levee. Assuming the levee continues to function the way it’s supposed to and it does protect you against the 100-year flood. It’s not going to protect you against the 200-, 300-, 400- or 500-year flood. So if you buy a house behind that levee and take out a 30-year mortgage, over the lifetime of your mortgage, you still have a 26% chance of being flooded by one of those floods that is bigger than the 100-year flood.

What percentage of the population do you think is aware of that risk?

That’s a good question. One of my graduate students is going to do a study of risk perception in one of these communities in the Delta. My sense is that most people don’t understand this. Most people are used to the government requiring them to use a seatbelt in a car. The government doesn’t let them smoke cigarettes in buildings and restaurants anymore. [They think] “Certainly the government would not let me build or buy a house in a region that is not safe.”

Tell me about the Delta Initiative, and its attempt to improve the threatening situation.

The Delta Initiative is a research and planning initiative at the University. As part of that initiative, we published a report a couple of years ago that was one of the first reports to highlight the land use dimensions of the Delta issue. We held a couple of charrettes for the Delta Vision process during which we emphasized land use and got stakeholders and some very knowledgeable people together. We developed maps that would articulate ideas about how to solve some of the problems in the Delta in the future. In addition, we’ve been working with legislative staff trying to bring land use considerations into some of the legislation. Last year there were a couple of bills passed that have improved the situation. They require local jurisdictions to address some of these flooding issues that were ignored before. They are, over time, requiring higher standards for flood protection. There certainly have been improvements, but there is still a long way to go.

Do “higher standards” mean higher levees?

Yes. Higher levees to protect against 200-year flood.

What kind of opposition have you encountered?

What you’d expect. The real estate industry doesn’t like this because of potential restrictions. With the housing market having collapsed, this is a good time to put in place rational measures to prevent mistakes in the future.

Has a slowdown in the economy and development/housing market given any new footing to protecting creeks/streams/rivers where encroachment into buffer zones has made it difficult to restore without structural armament?

It is giving us a breathing pause. It creates a very good opportunity to buy up some critical pieces of land. In the Delta, some areas that are either slated for, or being eyed for development, should clearly be set aside as flood bypass. Now is the best time to try to have those acquired by government agencies and other responsible parties. That’d be their highest and best use for society – to create flood bypasses at strategic points to reduce the risk to existing development – and avoid building new houses that will, one day soon, be under water.

In the newspapers recently, there have been articles about people whose houses are “under water.” The expression refers to houses on which people owe more for the mortgage than the house is now worth. The irony is that so many of these “under-water” houses are in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, where probably very soon – within the next few decades – they will physically be under water.

Has this “breathing pause” that’s been granted by the decline of the housing market been enough of a pause to make any progress in terms of policy changes?

A lot of things are being held in abeyance pending the finalization of the Delta Vision Task Force recommendations. The Governor appointed a Blue Ribbon Task Force to make recommendations to him and to the legislature regarding the future of the Delta. They are just wrapping up their process now.

The Delta Vision process is a high level process. Last fall they produced a Vision document that was quite impressive. It emphasized that we can’t go on doing the same thing we’ve been doing. We really need to rethink how we treat this area and not approach it unidimensionally, but recognize the interrelations between land use, economy, water supply and ecology.

Was the report you produced referenced in the creation of the Delta Vision Document?

It was referred to quite a bit in the discussions, and we presented before the Task Force. The next stage was a strategic plan. As the strategic plan was being implemented, they tended to focus more on water supply issues. We came before the Task Force again and reminded them not to forget about the land use issues.

It is my understanding that most of California’s water system is designed with snow serving as reservoirs. How is this system being impacted by global warming, and what, if anything, is being done to address this?

Some rivers will be more vulnerable than others. For example, the San Joaquin River is impounded by Friant Dam. Friant Dam is a relatively small dam, in terms of how much of the river’s annual flow it can impound. We have many reservoirs that impound two, three or four years’ worth of flow in a river. Those are designed to provide year-to-year carry-over storage.

The Friant Dam only impounds about a half of a year’s flow. You might expect that it would have less of an impact on the hydrology of the river, but the San Joaquin is a very much snowmelt dominated river system. It has its big flows in June. By June, they’ve already started irrigating.

There’s a small canal that diverts water to the north, and a larger one that diverts water to the south with capacity to move 5,000 cubic feet/second. During the snowmelt flow, the river is essentially diverted toward the south, where it irrigates five counties, which are almost always within the top 10 agricultural producing counties in the nation. From the point of view of agriculture, it’s a very important water supply system. On the other hand, it has basically killed the San Joaquin River. It exterminated what was formerly a run of spring-run Chinook salmon numbering up to a half a million fish. The dam cuts off access to the upstream reaches, and by changing the hydrology, it has dried up the river in two reaches downstream.

The Central Valley Improvement Act of 1992 required that restoration of salmon on the San Joaquin River be studied, and a lawsuit by environmental groups led by the Natural Resources Defense Council prevailed so that the Bureau of Reclamation and the Friant Water Users Association (the contractors who buy this water) are required to implement a new flow regime that would restore the fish. One of my former students and I developed the ‘restoration flow regime’ that was ultimately adopted.

I point out the San Joaquin because it is a system that is very much dependent upon snow melt. To the extent that some of that snow that we have been getting in the past becomes rain in the future, Friant Dam is not built to store that water. It is really built for snowmelt. If you go to other parts of the system – rivers that are already rain dominated – then it’s not going to make such a difference.

Last year, the journal Restoration Ecology published an article written by you and four colleagues entitled ‘Two Decades of River Restoration in California: What Can We Learn?’ In this study, you looked at stream and river restoration projects undertaken in California between 1980 and 2003. Your goal was twofold: compile a database (and contribute to the NRRSS) AND gather information to inform and improve future practice. What did you learn?

We didn’t learn as much as we would’ve hoped because there has been so little documentation of river restoration projects and how they performed in the years since they’ve been built. There has been very little monitoring and systematic evaluation. That was one of the big outcomes of the study. It was a disappointing outcome, but an important one to recognize.

We also documented a tremendous increase in urban stream restoration projects. A lot of the benefits of urban stream restoration projects are difficult to quantify in scientific, ecological terms, but probably have more to do with social cohesion in the neighborhood and developing community.

Part of our study was a detailed look at what are called “compound channel projects.” These are projects that are designed to improve flood capacity and ecological function in rivers. In a compound channel, if you have an existing channel with some ecological value, you leave it alone and just try to increase your capacity – not by bulldozing the stream and turning it into a huge, trapezoidal channel – but rather, you bench along the sides and create a floodplain by which you can convey the 100-year discharge. You leave the original channel intact as much as possible. These projects had been implemented in many areas. Our analysis of numerous projects shows that it is much better if you can implement these projects before or during urbanization, when it’s possible to set aside a wide corridor for the channel and floodplain. Then you can create a system that has tremendous ecological value. It is able to accommodate the 100-year flood without any problem, with excess capacity, in which you can allow a channel to erode and migrate around without running into conflict with human infrastructure. That’s what you can do if you can implement before build out is complete. In many cases these projects have been attempted in urban areas that have already been built out, where existing buildings and infrastructure limit the potential width of your river corridor. In these situations, you are much more limited in what you can achieve. In those cases, the benefits may be more on the social side than the ecological side.

Was any action taken as a result of the study findings? Have there been any changes in the way stream restoration is approached in California since your article came out?

We are working with State and federal agencies to find ways in which we can create a database in which information about more projects can be uploaded and be widely availability. That’s been one of the difficulties. There’s been no single clearinghouse.

Based on your experience conducting this study, how do you think collaboration between institutions/academics, government, and consultants can be improved so that the practice of stream restoration can be linked with the best available science?

Graduate students in my hydrology and river restoration courses are required to do a significant term project involving original research. Many of them perform post-project appraisals of stream restorations. Their work is then presented at a public symposium. The final papers are available on line at http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/WRCA/escholarship.html. This is potentially a very useful model that can be applied broadly to restoration.

As a university professor, have you noted any trends in the education system in response to regional issues?

I started teaching a graduate course on river restoration in 1992. At that time, all of my students were environmental planners and ecologists. Then, engineers began taking my course. Now, civil and environmental engineers make up 50% of my classes. I think that’s a good sign.

What themes do you hear from your past students when they make the transition from school to the working world?

Often, students come in looking to learn “how to implement.” I try to convince them to step back and truly understand how a river works first. Sometimes, it’s best not to implement anything and leave the river alone. I also focus on the social dimension of river restoration, and the ability to communicate. Once they are in the working world, many of my former students value their understanding of natural processes and their sharpened communication abilities because they need these skills in order to know what a river can be and effectively convey their vision to colleagues, clients, stakeholders, officials and members of the community.

More than one of our staff members has, at one point, been a student of yours. If you had to choose one thought or idea that you hope your students (of LA and geology) took away from your teaching, what would it be?

To step back and look at the big picture. Almost always, we are approached by clients with very specific questions and possible solutions for the perceived problem, such as “My bank is eroding. Should I protect it with rock vanes or root wads?” I hope my students remember that they need to understand a site spatially and temporally first and foremost. They may need to look at a site in a watershed context and examine the changes have occurred over a long period of time in order to better understand “the problem.” (And whether it really is a problem at all.)

Your mentor, Luna Leopold, legendary geomorphologist & hydrologist, passed away in February of 2006. Can you tell us one or two things that he taught you that greatly impacted you and your views on issues today?

I have talked to many of my former classmates and one thing we all felt he imparted to us was his sense of professionalism. In my first class with him, he was very clear about how we should publish, how much we should publish, how we should take notes, store data and organize our thinking. He had a very systematic approach.

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