Toward improved decision-support tools for Delta Smelt management actions

White Paper
By: , and 



The Collaborative Science and Adaptive Management Program (CSAMP) has endorsed a goal of reversing the recent downward trajectory of the Delta Smelt population within 5-10 generations, with the long-term aim of establishing a self-sustaining population. An ambitious agenda of management actions is planned, and more management actions are being considered. This White Paper furthers one of the recommendations in the 2019 Delta Smelt Science Plan – the need to predict the potential ecological effects of taking a management action. Existing statistical models can be highly informative in assessing the response of Delta Smelt to changing system conditions and management actions. However, management actions can shift or alter conditions in ways that models based on analysis of historical data may not be able to represent, and short-term or localized effects may be missed with models designed to assess effects at the population level.

Decision support tools (DSTs) are computer-based tools developed to assist decision-making, often combining computationally intensive analysis and spatial mapping of environmental relationships. DSTs can be used in planning processes that evaluate an array of actions, such as in Structured Decision Making (SDM), where DSTs are needed to compare among alternatives. DSTs can also be used to explore the potential effects of different approaches to implementing management actions. The goal of this White Paper is to identify plausible options for DSTs that could be developed for future use to evaluate management actions that seek to either reverse the decline of Delta Smelt or minimize or mitigate the effects of other water management actions.

Different types of management actions lead to different needs for DSTs. This White Paper was developed using three types of actions currently being considered to enhance the Delta Smelt population: Supplementation with Hatchery Fish, Summer-Fall Habitat, and Food Enhancement actions. These three management actions target different parts of the estuary and different processes, with a variety of possible metrics to gauge performance.

Three DSTs are proposed that collectively address management questions related to the management actions considered, with each requiring a slightly different set of processes to be included and producing an array of outputs at varying spatial and temporal scales: DST 1. Modeling Fish Movement, Survival, and Reproduction Across Their Range. This DST can address management questions that require information about Delta Smelt spatial distribution and movement.

• DST 1 could be used to compare conditions with and without management actions in place, how the management action performs among different types of water years (with varied flow and associated abiotic conditions), and to assess relative change with different variations and strategies of the management actions.
• DST 2. Changes in Habitat Conditions and Delta Smelt Response. This DST is intended to evaluate combinations of conditions that are considered to provide suitable habitat for Delta Smelt, and Delta Smelt response. Delta Smelt habitat is generally described as open water with low salinity (0 to 6), turbidity of at least 12 NTU, suitable temperature conditions, and sufficient food availability to support growth.
• DST 3. Regional Effects of Food Subsidy. This DSTs seeks to evaluate effectiveness of food enhancement actions by providing information on responses of the immediate targets of the action (i.e., phytoplankton or zooplankton) and tracing those to projected growth responses of Delta Smelt.

There is not a single DST that adequately addresses management questions relevant to all management actions, although there is some overlap in the management questions each of the three DSTs can address.

For each of the DSTs a substantial foundation of models and approaches already exists and modeling has already been applied to several of the management actions described. However, a number of outstanding issues remain for further development of the proposed DSTs. These are summarized in this White Paper together with potential approaches that could be applied or tested. Some components for the DSTs are already available and thus development could be relatively easy. However, for several of the topics identified there are gaps in knowledge that currently limit formulation of model structure and process representations. This presents challenges to readily incorporate some needed mechanisms into the models.

Eleven next steps, aligned with relevant DSTs, are outlined. The next steps vary in their complexity or technical ‘lift’ required. Many build on existing work, or methods and approaches that have already been developed or are underway, while others require additional thinking to establish a viable approach. Some interim utility for decisions could be gained during initial development of the DSTs with further features added over time.

Development of a DST requires engagement of both managers and scientists. Identifying the outputs and resolution needed for management purposes early in development of any DST is essential for effective pursuit of next steps and suitable approaches to address challenges. Dialog between managers and technical experts also informs what process-based simulation can do, and what tradeoffs are acceptable to meet a given purpose. To further develop the DSTs outlined here for application in the estuary requires:

- Engagement of a committed group of technical experts with appropriate expertise.
- The development of a coordinated workplan including appropriate project management and tracking.
- Dialog between potential users (i.e., managers and policy makers) and technical experts.
- Resources to pursue DST development including personnel and computational resources.

This White Paper demonstrates the potential for moving toward DSTs for a variety of management actions in support of Delta Smelt that include mechanistic representations of physical and biological processes. Through focused effort from technical experts, managers and policy makers, DSTs can be developed to provide quantitative predictions of management effects on the ecosystem, targeting the changes the management actions seek to achieve, how these effects compare to ambient conditions, and how the effects vary among water year types or with timing and location of actions. Importantly, solid foundations exist which can be leveraged, refined, and built upon to specifically inform current and future management decisions.

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Title Toward improved decision-support tools for Delta Smelt management actions
Series title White Paper
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher Collaborative Adaptive Management Team
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center, WMA - Integrated Modeling and Prediction Division
Description v, 34 p.
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details