Delta Resiliency: After an Event

VerdeXchange, which is held annually in Los Angeles, drew some impressive panels on many issues. I was asked to participate in a discussion of “Delta Resiliency: After the Event.” In this case, the event is referring to “the big one”  — an earthquake (or a flood for that matter) that results in catastrophic levee failures, the inundation of delta islands, and the radical conversion of the delta into a vast saltwater lake. Any discussion of resiliency requires a brief description of what it means. I found the definitions in Andrew Zolli’s recent book, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, particularly apropos:

In engineering resilience generally refers to the degree to which a structure like a bridge or a building can return to a baseline state after being disturbed. In emergency response it suggests the speed at which critical systems can be restored after an earthquake or a flood. In ecology is connotes an ecosystem’s ability to keep from being irrevocably degraded.

A System of Systems

Zolli’s comments reminded me that the Delta is a system of systems, each affecting the other in unpredictable ways. Focusing on one of them is generally what we do. But contemplating the outcomes of a seismic event that scientists say is “only a matter of time” demands the bigger picture.

The Ecosystem

First, there’s the ecosystem, the degradation of which has been the driving force behind our interest in the region for decades. It has proven to lack resilience in the face of alterations of its terrain and the extraction of water for agricultural, municipal, and industrial uses. One of the co-equal goals of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) is to recreate the Delta’s ecosystem, protect it against future degradation, and restore its ability to “bounce back” from unpredictable disturbances in the future.

The Physical Infrastructure

The second obvious system is the physical water diversion, storage, and transmission facilities that criss-cross the Central Valley and supply water for cities and agriculture as far south as San Diego. Those physical pipes and pumps are robust but not invincible (they have a useful life and need repairs and replacement). But frankly the engineered facilities can be designed to handle most earthquakes and floods. Their core purpose and real value, however, is entirely linked to the water they store and convey. Consequently, the ecosystem’s fragility has made the water storage and conveyance system increasingly vulnerable and surprisingly fragile itself.

The Emergency Responders

Seeing the connections between these two tangible systems so clearly is largely the result of  a highly complex system comprised of political, regulatory, governmental, utility, environmental, academic and other stakeholder interests throughout California and beyond. While it doesn’t typically characterize itself as such, this institutional system represents the Delta’s emergency responders. In fact, it has proven to be “antifragile” to use a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his new book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Our institutional system seems to get stronger through struggle. Not necessarily more satisfying in producing specific outcomes to our liking — but stronger and more robust nonetheless. The people involved in attempting to address the vexing challenges of the Bay Delta have been working on this massively complex problem for decades — as was mentioned to me by a colleague in the midst of the fray.

After the Big One

Ironically, the more devastating the chaos, the better our emergency responders perform. After super-storm Sandy, and in the midst of a hotly-contested presidential election, Governor Christie ends up shaking President Obama’s hand and thanking him for his cooperation and support. So I’m pretty confident that after “the big one” we’ll see everyone come together and help one another address the catastrophic consequences of losing lives, land, property, and infrastructure affecting two-thirds of the population of California in one capacity or another. Not to mention the unpredictable impacts on the ecology.

What’s perhaps just as ironic is that the BDCP has been the result of one of the most globally ambitious, complex, and expensive collaborative efforts that I know of designed to restore systemic resilience — allowing for the bounce-back that resilience implies. It is an integrated plan that reduces risks, strives to repair and restore that ecology, and in so doing improve the reliability of the water system. After the big one, we’ll inevitably come together and reinvent the plan to restore a system of systems that will be more damaged than it needs to be — if we act now.

Champions of One System Only

Most of us are champions of one system only — not the hugely complex and amorphous system of systems. The BDCP, and CALFED before it, attempted to reach the higher altitude perspective that embraced it all — looking for a way to increase systemic resilience for all of our interests. Because we know what we will likely do following the event, and we know that the event will happen, why don’t we start now to improve our chances of success then?

Weakness of Statistical Intuition

Closing thought: our statistical intuition is not very good. We rarely opt for the ounce of prevention. It’s a primary theme of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  The events we’re discussing will happen. Our sense of urgency is dampened by the our confidence that it won’t be happening today. One day, we will be horribly wrong and ingloriously flipped into another state of being. We should begin doing today what we will struggle to do then. It’s an investment that will serve us well.