Regional Monitoring Research Plan

View SCCWRP’s full thematic Research Plan for Regional Monitoring (PDF)

2021-2022 Executive Summary

Southern California environmental managers and scientists spend an estimated $50 million every year on monitoring aquatic environments, but have struggled to answer the big-picture questions being asked by the public: “Is it safe to swim in the ocean?” “Are locally caught fish safe to eat?” and “Are local ecosystems adequately protected?” Most of this money is allocated to keep tabs on the relatively compact areas that surround specific outfalls – monitoring that is required under state and federal laws. Consequently, when scientists compile the compliance-based monitoring data from dozens of agencies, the resulting regional picture is incomplete. Recognizing this challenge, SCCWRP has stepped in to coordinate and facilitate wide-scale regional monitoring programs across a variety of habitats, including streams, wetlands, estuaries, beaches and coastal waters. For each monitoring program, SCCWRP works with dozens of local and regional agencies to standardize data collection and coordinate analysis efforts, leveraging the limited resources of many to obtain comprehensive data on some of the region’s most pressing environmental challenges. These programs are among the top regional monitoring programs in the nation, serving as models for developing similar programs internationally They also are adaptive to pressing management needs and priorities. In particular, as climate change alters baseline monitoring data for species distributions and habitat quality across the region, researchers are adapting monitoring programs in multiple ways, including by developing climate change assessment tools to standardize and maintain climate variables, as well as by modifying existing ecological assessment tools to disentangle biological/habitat shifts linked to climate change from shifts linked to other human-induced stressors.

SCCWRP’s best-known monitoring program is the Southern California Bight Regional Monitoring Program, conducted every five years since 1994. The ongoing program mobilizes participating agencies to collect data from across a much greater expanse than just their outfall zones, allowing environmental managers to paint a comprehensive picture of the health of coastal waters that stretch from Point Conception in Santa Barbara County to just south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The Bight Program’s freshwater counterpart, the Southern California Stormwater Monitoring Coalition (SMC) Regional Watershed Monitoring Program, was launched in 2009 to monitor an area that stretches from the Ventura River in Ventura County to the Tijuana River straddling the U.S.-Mexico border. Both programs renew their research plans regularly, keeping the programs focused on current management needs. The key to success in developing integrated monitoring plans is SCCWRP’s ability to bring all parties to the table – from local and regional agencies to state and national entities – to work toward agreement on goals, study design and data interpretation. Not only do the comprehensive data sets help environmental managers establish appropriate priorities and goals for addressing big-picture challenges, but regional monitoring also fosters productive interactions among dischargers and regulators as they develop and collaboratively interpret monitoring data and implement findings. Moreover, regional monitoring participants have come to rely on regional data sets to interpret their own local monitoring data. Finally, regional monitoring provides an important launching platform for SCCWRP’s member agencies and research collaborators to test, vet and calibrate new technologies and assessment tools.

This year, SCCWRP will continue to facilitate the 2018 cycle of the Southern California Bight Regional Monitoring Program, known as Bight ’18, and the 2019-2023 cycle of the SMC Regional Watershed Monitoring Program. SCCWRP’s focus for 2021-22 will be on:

  • Regional marine monitoring (Bight ’18): SCCWRP is continuing to work with more than 80 partner agencies to complete the sixth cycle of the Southern California Bight Regional Monitoring Program (Bight ’18), one of the largest and longest running ocean monitoring programs in the country. This integrated, ongoing regional monitoring collaboration provides holistic answers to questions regarding the extent and magnitude of anthropogenic impacts, the range of natural variability upon which scientists evaluate these impacts, and shifting baselines of natural condition as global pressures alter even our most untouched parts of the coast. Bight ’18 is made up of five major study elements: Sediment Quality, Ocean Acidification, Harmful Algal Blooms, Trash, and Microbiology. Bight ’18 includes monitoring of new habitats not previously monitored, new sampling techniques, new pollutants, and development and testing of new ecosystem response assessment tools. During each Bight cycle, SCCWRP facilitates the development of study designs, data management plans, data analysis, and co-authoring of final assessment reports. Since its inception in 1994, the Bight program has conducted comprehensive monitoring of approximately 1,500 square miles of near-coastal ocean, with more than 2,000 sites sampled.
  • Regional watershed monitoring: SCCWRP is facilitating the third cycle of the Southern California Stormwater Monitoring Coalition (SMC) Regional Watershed Monitoring Program, which runs from 2019 to 2023. This year, SCCWRP will continue finalizing study designs and coordinating field sampling activities for the regional survey, which samples at more than 500 sites across all 17 major watersheds between the Ventura and Tijuana Rivers. Among the largest watershed programs in the nation, the program encompasses data on water quality, physical habitat and riparian condition, and biological communities, including benthic invertebrates and algae. The monitoring questions for the third five-year cycle are: (1) What are the extent and magnitude of impact in Southern California’s streams? (2) Are the extent and magnitude getting better or worse? (3) What are the stressors responsible for the impacts observed? For the third cycle of SMC regional monitoring, participants are focusing more effort on trend assessment, and adding a new element focusing on mapping the extent of perennial, intermittent and ephemeral streams. Additionally, this cycle of regional monitoring is targeting assessment work at specific sites of interest, including soft-bottom engineered channels and sites where restoration efforts and/or implementation of stormwater BMPs (best management practices) are likely to affect biological condition.
  • Statewide estuary monitoring: Estuaries are critical habitat for a multitude of species, including unique plants, fish nursery grounds, and migratory bird nesting.  SCCWRP is working with a statewide team of partners to develop a monitoring and assessment framework for estuaries across the state. The framework will address which components of the ecosystem should be assessed, and how to evaluate the ecological function of the these highly heterogenous systems. SCCWRP is focusing initially on the 24 estuarine Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) across the state. SCCWRP will develop recommendations on suites of indicators (and associated sampling protocols) across multiple trophic levels that can be used to assess key estuarine functions. SCCWRP also is developing approaches for contextualizing the resulting information using comparisons to reference, paired estuaries and regional ranges of condition. Ongoing field testing of the recommended indicators will be used to continue refining protocols.