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SFEWS provides credible scientific information on California's complex water issues, linking new science to policy with great effect. SFEWS retains a regional focus on the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, also known as the Bay–Delta watershed. At the heart of open access from the California Digital Library, SFEWS's scholarly output ranks #1 for the UC Davis Institute  of the Environment and ranks #3 campus wide.

Volume 14, Issue 4, 2016

Issue cover
Cover Caption: The Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), an endemic species of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Photo courtesy of the CA Dept. of Water Resources.

Special Issue: The State of Bay–Delta Science 2016, Part 3

Recent Advances in Understanding Flow Dynamics and Transport of Water-Quality Constituents in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta

This paper, part of the collection of research comprising the State of Bay–Delta Science 2016, describes advances during the past decade in understanding flow dynamics and how water-quality constituents move within California’s Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta (Delta). Water-quality constituents include salinity, heat, oxygen, nutrients, contaminants, organic particles, and inorganic particles. These constituents are affected by water diversions and other human manipulations of flow, and they greatly affect the quantity and quality of benthic, pelagic, and intertidal habitat in the Delta. The Pacific Ocean, the Central Valley watershed, human intervention, the atmosphere, and internal biogeochemical processes are all drivers of flow and transport in the Delta. These drivers provide a conceptual framework for presenting recent findings. The tremendous expansion of acoustic and optical instruments deployed in the Delta over the past decade has greatly improved our understanding of how tidal variability affects flow and transport. Sediment is increasingly viewed as a diminishing resource needed to sustain pelagic habitat and tidal marsh, especially as sea level rises. Connections among the watershed, Delta, and San Francisco Bay that have been quantified recently highlight that a landscape view of this system is needed, rather than consideration of each region in isolation. We discuss interactions of multiple drivers and information gaps.

An Overview of Multi-Dimensional Models of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta

Over the past 15 years, the development and application of multi-dimensional hydrodynamic models in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta has transformed our ability to analyze and understand the underlying physics of the system. Initial applications of three-dimensional models focused primarily on salt intrusion, and provided a valuable resource for investigating how sea level rise and levee failures in the Delta could influence water quality in the Delta under future conditions. However, multi-dimensional models have also provided significant insights into some of the fundamental biological relationships that have shaped our thinking about the system by exploring the relationship among X2, flow, fish abundance, and the low salinity zone. Through the coupling of multi-dimensional models with wind wave and sediment transport models, it has been possible to move beyond salinity to understand how large-scale changes to the system are likely to affect sediment dynamics, and to assess the potential effects on species that rely on turbidity for habitat. Lastly, the coupling of multi-dimensional hydrodynamic models with particle tracking models has led to advances in our thinking about residence time, the retention of food organisms in the estuary, the effect of south Delta exports on larval entrainment, and the pathways and behaviors of salmonids that travel through the Delta. This paper provides an overview of these recent advances and how they have increased our understanding of the distribution and movement of fish and food organisms. The applications presented serve as a guide to the current state of the science of Delta modeling and provide examples of how we can use multi-dimensional models to predict how future Delta conditions will affect both fish and water supply.

Factors and Processes Affecting Delta Levee System Vulnerability

We appraised factors and processes related to human activities and high water, subsidence, and seismicity. Farming and drainage of peat soils caused subsidence, which contributed to levee internal failures. Subsidence rates decreased with time, but still contributed to levee instability. Modeling changes in seepage and static slope instability suggests an increased probability of failure with decreasing peat thickness. Additional data is needed to assess the spatial and temporal effects of subsidence from peat thinning and deformation. Large-scale, state investment in levee upgrades (> $700 million since the mid-1970s) has increased conformance with applicable standards; however, accounts conflict about corresponding reductions in the number of failures.

Modeling and history suggest that projected increases in high-flow frequency associated with climate change will increase the rate of levee failures. Quantifying this increased threat requires further research. A reappraisal of seismic threats resulted in updated ground motion estimates for multiple faults and earthquake-occurrence frequencies. Estimated ground motions are large enough to induce failure. The immediate seismic threat, liquefaction, is the sudden loss of strength from an increase in the pressure of the pore fluid and the corresponding loss of inter-particle contact forces. However, levees damaged during an earthquake that do not immediately fail may eventually breach. Key sources of uncertainty include occurrence frequencies and magnitudes, localized ground motions, and data for liquefaction potential.

Estimates of the consequences of future levee failure range up to multiple billions of dollars. Analysis of future risks will benefit from improved description of levee upgrades and strength as well as consideration of subsidence, the effects of climate change, and earthquake threats. Levee habitat ecosystem benefits in this highly altered system are few. Better recognition and coordination is needed among the creation of high-value habitat, levee needs, and costs and benefits of levee improvements and breaches.

Nutrient Dynamics of the Delta: Effects on Primary Producers

Increasing clarity of Delta waters, the emergence of harmful algal blooms, the proliferation of aquatic water weeds, and the altered food web of the Delta have brought nutrient dynamics to the forefront. This paper focuses on the sources of nutrients, the transformation and uptake of nutrients, and the links of nutrients to primary producers. The largest loads of nutrients to the Delta come from the Sacramento River with the San Joaquin River seasonally important, especially in the summer. Nutrient concentrations reflect riverine inputs in winter and internal biological processes during periods of lower flow with internal nitrogen losses within the Delta estimated at approximately 30% annually. Light regime, grazing pressure, and nutrient availability influence rates of primary production at different times and locations within the Delta. The roles of the chemical form of dissolved inorganic nitrogen in growth rates of primary producers in the Delta and the structure of the open-water algal community are currently topics of much interest and considerable debate. Harmful algal blooms have been noted since the late 1990s, and the extent of invasive aquatic macrophytes (both submerged and free-floating forms) has increased especially during years of drought. Elevated nutrient loads must be considered in terms of their ability to support this excess biomass. Modern sensor technology and networks are now deployed that make high-frequency measurements of nitrate, ammonium, and phosphate. Data from such instruments allow a much more detailed assessment of the spatial and temporal dynamics of nutrients. Four fruitful directions for future research include utilizing continuous sensor data to estimate rates of primary production and ecosystem respiration, linking hydrodynamic models of the Delta with the transport and fate of dissolved nutrients, studying nutrient dynamics in various habitat types, and exploring the use of stable isotopes to trace the movement and fate of effluent-derived nutrients.

Contaminant Effects on California Bay–Delta Species and Human Health

Many contaminants in the California Bay–Delta (Bay–Delta) exceed regulatory standards, affect aquatic species, and potentially affect human health. Recent studies provide multiple lines of evidence that contaminants affect species of concern in the Bay–Delta (e.g., the decline of several important fish species referred to as the “Pelagic Organism Decline” or POD). Contaminants occur as dynamic complex mixtures and exert effects at multiple levels of biological organization. Multiple chemicals impair processes at cellular and physiological levels (measured as growth, development, and behavior abnormalities), and when viability and reproductive output are affected, populations are affected. As an important example, the population decline of the endangered Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) is significantly associated with multiple stressors, including insecticide use. New analyses presented in this paper show significant correlations between pyrethroid use and declining abundance of POD fish species. Water sampled from the Bay–Delta causes multiple deleterious effects in fish, and Delta Smelt collected from the Bay–Delta exhibit contaminant effects. Fish prey items are also affected by contaminants; this may have an indirect effect on their populations. Co-occurrence with thermal changes or disease can exacerbate contaminant effects. Contaminants also pose threats to human health via consumption of fish and shellfish, drinking water, and contact recreation, in particular, mercury, cyanobacteria toxins, disinfection byproducts, pathogens, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals and personal care products. The role of contaminants in the decline of Bay–Delta species is difficult to accurately assess in a complex, dynamic system. However, tools and approaches are available to evaluate contaminant effects on Bay–Delta species, and separate the effects of multiple stressors. Integrated monitoring and focused mechanistic studies are instrumental for addressing management needs. Effect and risk assessments should be conducted for different species across multiple life stages, with emphasis on early life stages of high-priority Bay–Delta species.

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Perspectives on Bay–Delta Science and Policy

The State of Bay–Delta Science 2008 highlighted seven emerging perspectives on science and management of the Delta. These perspectives had important effects on policy and legislation concerning management of the Delta ecosystem and water exports. From the collection of papers that make up the State of Bay–Delta Science 2016, we derive another seven perspectives that augment those published in 2008. The new perspectives address nutrient and contaminant concentrations in Delta waters, the failure of the Delta food web to support native species, the role of multiple stressors in driving species toward extinction, and the emerging importance of extreme events in driving change in the ecosystem and the water supply.

The scientific advances that underpin these new perspectives were made possible by new measurement and analytic tools. We briefly discuss some of these, including miniaturized acoustic fish tags, sensors for monitoring of water quality, analytic techniques for disaggregating complex contaminant mixtures, remote sensing to assess levee vulnerability, and multidimensional hydrodynamic modeling.

Despite these new tools and scientific insights, species conservation objectives for the Delta are not being met. We believe that this lack of progress stems in part from the fact that science and policy do not incorporate sufficiently long-term perspectives. Looking forward half a century was central to the Delta Visioning process, but science and policy have not embraced this conceptual breadth. We are also concerned that protection and enhancement of the unique cultural, recreational, natural resource, and agricultural values of the Delta as an evolving place, as required by the Delta Reform Act, has received no critical study and analysis. Adopting wider and longer science and policy perspectives immediately encourages recognition of the need for evaluation, analysis, and public discourse on novel conservation approaches. These longer and wider perspectives also encourage more attention to the opportunities provided by heavily invaded ecosystems. It is past time to turn scientific and policy attention to these issues.