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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Using Conceptual Models in Ecosystem Restoration Decision Making: An Example from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, California


The Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta (the Delta) is located on the western edge of California’s Central Valley and is of critical ecological and economic importance. However, ecosystem alterations for human uses changed many of the Delta’s natural processes, and it is now considered in need of restoration. An approach was developed to evaluate and rank restoration actions in the Delta under the Ecosystem Restoration Program’s Delta Regional Ecosystem Restoration Implementation Plan (DRERIP). The DRERIP approach provides an explicit framework for evaluating restoration actions, using linked conceptual models, an action evaluation procedure, and a decision-support tool. Conceptual models allow scientists and managers to synthesize scientific information and make qualitative predictions about ecosystem function and restoration outcomes to guide and focus restoration efforts. The action evaluation procedure is a structured assessment of restoration actions. The procedure clearly describes actions to be evaluated, assesses the magnitude (importance and scale) and certainty of anticipated ecological outcomes, estimates degrees of worth (achieving intended outcomes) and risk (causing adverse consequences), evaluates the reversibility of the action, and identifies opportunities for learning. The values for worthiness, risk, reversibility, and learning opportunity are used in the decision- support tool to determine the fate of a proposed action. The decision-support tool is a structured decision tree that determines the disposition of an action: whether a restoration project should be discarded, revised with a different approach and re-evaluated, or implemented; and, if implemented, at what scale (targeted research, pilot project, or full implementation). The DRERIP approach provides managers with a valuable tool for restoration planning, and a foundation for integration with quantitative methods for a comprehensive ecosystem restoration plan.

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