Regional Monitoring Research Plan

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

2023-2024 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?” The reason? 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 this 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 and have served as models for developing similar programs internationally.

SCCWRP’s best-known monitoring program is the Southern California Bight Regional Monitoring Program, conducted every five years since the mid-1990s. The ongoing program mobilizes participating agencies to collect data from across a much greater spatial area 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. SCCWRP also is helping to develop and implement a statewide program to monitor the health and resiliency of estuaries and other coastal habitats. Finally, SCCWRP is developing a standardized monitoring design that will generate comparable assessments of the dozens of stormwater BMPs that are installed each year throughout Southern California, laying the groundwork for regional assessment of this critical infrastructure (see Stormwater BMPs research theme). The key to success in developing integrated monitoring designs is SCCWRP’s ability to bring all parties to the table – from local and regional agencies to state and federal 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 information and implement findings. Regional monitoring also provides an important launching platform for SCCWRP’s member agencies and research collaborators to test new technologies and assessment tools.

This year, SCCWRP will continue to coordinate multiple regional monitoring programs and initiatives across Southern California and beyond. SCCWRP’s focus for 2023-2024 will be on:

  • Regional marine monitoring (Bight ’23): SCCWRP is continuing to work with more than 80 partner agencies to finalize planning for and launch the 2023 cycle of the Southern California Bight Regional Monitoring Program (Bight ’23), one of the largest and longest running marine monitoring programs in the country. Bight ‘23 program will consist of seven elements: Sediment Quality, Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia, Trash and Microplastics, Harmful Algal Blooms, Shoreline Microbiology, Estuarine Condition, and Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Condition. The Bight program is an integrated, ongoing regional monitoring collaboration that 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. 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. SCCWRP is coordinating field sampling activities for the annual regional survey, which samples more than 500 sites across all 15 major watershed areas between the Ventura River in the north and the Tijuana River in the south. Among the largest watershed monitoring 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? and (3) What are the stressors responsible for the impacts observed? For the third cycle of SMC regional monitoring, participants also are focusing more effort on trend assessment, and adding a new element focusing on causal assessments at sites of interest in poor biological conditions. 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. Through this monitoring initiative, the SMC also is working to identify ways to improve biological conditions in modified channels by reducing stress levels or changing management activities.
  • Statewide estuary monitoring: SCCWRP is working with a statewide team of partners to develop and implement a monitoring and assessment framework for estuaries across the state. The framework addresses which components of the ecosystem should be assessed, and how to evaluate ecological functioning in these highly heterogenous systems. SCCWRP is focusing on California’s 24 estuarine Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), plus another 25 estuaries of management concern in Southern California and Baja California. SCCWRP is refining the application of 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. SCCWRP is also developing advanced data management and data visualization systems to improve coordination across statewide programs and to enhance access to data and data products for agencies and the public.