Phil LaRiviere — Reminiscences of the Bay's Citizen-Scientist Gadfly and Prophet Par Excellence
By Peter Baye, December 2012
My personal memorial ceremony for Phil LaRiviere was to open up my old paper files for the 1990s on Sonoma Baylands, Charleston Slough and Cargill dredge permits. While re-reading years of Phil's unofficial and official memos, letters, analyses, technical attachments, annotated aerial photos, and even his original cartoons, I basked in all their inspired, analytic, citizen-scientific glory.
Phil's writings do a far better job of conveying his distinctive voice and analytic methods than I could by trying to describe or summarize them. His 1992 "Technical Critique of the Cargill Salt Submission" was one such example. It began "A careful reading of the subject submittal, and a few checks of the calculations, have revealed that....there are more than a few errors or discrepancies in the numbers presented", and after pages of enumerating and explaining each and every one of them, he chided the authoritative scientific consultant work as being a "display of wishful thinking, rather than serious treatment of the data reported."
Of all the causes that inspired Phil's correspondence with me over many years, Sonoma Baylands stands out as the focus of his passionate and widely misunderstood scrutiny. As Phil and Florence quoted themselves in a 1996 letter, "We want the wetland creation part of the project to succeed!...Let's not have a failure here!".
The failure that Phil would spend more than a decade warning about, as a lone (but correct!) voice of the wetland advocacy community, was that contrary to design predictions, the project's levee breach to tidal flows of the bay would quickly be choked. The proposed undersized ditches would not erode wide open in the predicted time of 3 to 5 years. This would defeat the official project purpose of achieving a "fully vegetated" salt marsh suitable for endangered species only 10 years after breaching. Phil pointed out the paradox: the accelerated time-line for "fully vegetated" tidal marsh was the project's justification for using dredged material. Without the use of dredge material, it was predicted, that the project would take 50-75 years to become fully vegetated. Naturally, Phil was alarmed when his re-analysis of channel and fill elevations for the proposed project didn't confirm agency predictions. Phil was old-fashioned in his manual methods of paper calculations, but later evidence proved all his concerns and criticisms were warranted. The tidal choking of Sonoma Baylands channels was significant for much more than 5 years, and the permit requirement for a "fully vegetated" marsh within 10 years of levee breaching, was not met by a long shot. (Just look at the current Sonoma Baylands restoration on Google Earth today, to see whether the permit-promise of fully vegetated tidal marsh by 2005 was kept.) The Sonoma Baylands pilot unit finally turned to marsh by the late 2000s, but the main unit today is still mostly mudflat, with fringing low cordgrass marsh.
The fact that the Sonoma Baylands eventually showed some signs of recovery from its tidal choking-induced developmental delays was cold comfort to Phil. He was frustrated, but completely undeterred, by what he perceived as high-handed, exclusionary agency stonewalling and rejection of his critical analysis. One letter he wrote me in April 1994 stands out, when he was in full swing with Sonoma Baylands before it was constructed. It was just the purest Phil LaRiviere: "l am constitutionally unable to sit by silently while we roll on toward another Kesterson, or Lake CDFG, or Rieber Plan. I will do everything in my power, and in the Committee's power if it so wills, to beat some sense into this project. I am Out on a limb now and going further..."
Phil's metaphor of "beat some sense into this project" cut pretty close to the mark at times! Indeed he never sat by silently, and did everything in his power, to make wetland restoration projects succeed, whether their lead agencies wanted to listen or not!
A lot of policy was perceived to be at stake with Sonoma Baylands, and unquestioning cheers were what agencies were seeking. [l incidentally mentioned to a senior wetland official around 1996 that I routinely sent Phil photos and updates from the field about Sonoma Baylands to keep him updated and informed. He looked at me with the same mix of astonishment and horror that George C. Scott displayed in "Dr. Strangelove" when his character learned that the Soviet ambassador was allowed to see the big screen in the War Room!] It was not a fluke that Phil personally received defensive correspondence from the top executives of lead federal and state agencies. His analysis and opinions mattered a lot.
I think Phil has had a huge and lasting influence on wetland professionals' "common sense" about tidal marsh restoration in the Bay Area. He was correctly convinced that the agencies weren't listening to his caveats and predictions about Sonoma Baylands. Unfortunately, Phil was also stubbornly and wrongly convinced that agencies and wetland professionals didn't notice that his predictions and caveats were later proven quite prophetic and correct. Of course, they could not officially acknowledge that a lone citizen-citizen equipped with pencil-and-paper analysis was correct, and agency policies, official predictions, permit conditions, were simply wrong. But they did notice, as did an entire generation of wetland professionals working on a new generation of tidal wetland restoration projects orders of magnitude larger than Sonoma Baylands. If there was one professional object-lesson that Phil instructed from his analysis of Sonoma Baylands and neighboring Carl's Marsh, it was that one cannot gamble that tidal restoration will be successful if relying on the wildcard of erosion rates of undersized tidal breaches and undersized tidal ditch connections. These undersized features might not be capable of eroding through wide marshes to reach "equilibrium" size. Phil's admonition was to avoid persistent choking of tidal flows from undersized channels, as this defeated the basic marsh restoration design goals of accelerating tidal mudflat-marsh succession. That acceleration is more important than ever today, with even greater sediment deficits and looming high rates of sea level rise.
I don't know of any tidal restoration projects since Sonoma Baylands that have not conformed to Phil's risk-avoidance strategy for tidal restoration designs. But because he never got an official acknowledgement from the agencies that his predictions and admonitions were correct, I know he thought nobody was listening to him. I don't think Phil ever recognized (stubborn as he was!) that he actually prevailed in the larger arena of scientific opinion. Today his once-radical outcast view that full-sized tidal inlet channels are necessary from the start of breaching, are part of the received view — the tacit conventional common sense of a new generation of wetland professionals who were just kids when the Sonoma Baylands debate raged.
I believe Phil's critique of Sonoma Baylands hydrology also motivated, at least in part, one PhD thesis — Stuart Siegel's study of the neighboring twin "pilot" project with a full-blown tidal breach and no dredged material, at "Carl's Marsh". There were other wetland scientists who felt Phil was probably right about Sonoma Baylands, before the evidence confirmed Phil's original dissenting predictions about long delays in marsh habitat for endangered species as promised. Contrary to Phil's public stance, they muttered private doubt in hallways after meetings. They were willing to defer to the official policy-enforced view that official "success" was just around the corner. Phil did not yield to false admonitions because of the huge courage of his (well-analyzed) and ultimately correct convictions. I will always have huge admiration for the civic and principled example he set.
Personally, my favorite aspect of Phil is the least public aspect of his "swamp physicist" persona, it was his satirical silliness and absurd humor he used to offset the exasperation of his role as perennial tidal marsh pariah. The best examples are a pair of 1995 Sonoma Baylands illustrations, one public (to explain the problem), and one a witty private hydrological parody "with apologies to M.C. Esher".
In all my years working professionally in regulation and management of the Bay's wetlands, I can think of only two other legendary figures — Janice and Frank Delfino — who belong in the same pantheon of extraordinarily tenacious, and indefatigable scientist-scholar wetland activists. Phil, routinely "swamped" government agencies officially responsible for local wetlands with his superior and overwhelming technical analyses — putting in more work-hours than agency staff, executives and consultants over years that extended past their tenure. I don't think anyone has ever matched both Phil's analytic capacity and fierce tenacity fueled by moral conviction. I am still awed by the amount and detail of his critical reviews, and his lobbying to fix inconsistencies and errors in wetland designs and assessments. The more they tried to set his sharp criticism aside, the more he redoubled his work and fought on. Phil was swamp gadfly and swamp scientist supreme, and will live on as an inspiration.