To some, the Bay’s tributary creeks are primarily nurseries for fish; to others, they’re potential flood emergencies affecting multiple cities and counties. Both perspectives, one focused on an individual waterway, the other concerned with the welfare of the region, are useful ways of viewing the functionality and health of a watershed. In Wednesday afternoon’s “Scaling up to Sustainable Watershed Management” session, speakers looked at watersheds from angles ranging from the reach to the region, and considered how each scale addresses different aspects of watershed management.
Jonathan Koehler of the Napa County Resource Conservation District focused his talk on the stream level, analyzing how steelhead use the Napa River. The Napa has been designated an anchor watershed for steelhead (Onchorhynchus mykiss) and is second only to the Sacramento/San Joaquin system in stream miles accessible to the seagoing trout. Using a rotary screw trap to detain passing fish, Koehler’s agency and its partners have monitored outbound migrant steelhead in the Napa River system since 2009.
Their data shows steelhead traffic peaks in early April and increases during storm flows. Napa River steelhead smolts, or juveniles, have been relatively large, predicting good ocean survival. Catch rates have remained consistent despite rainfall variations between sampling years. The picture is less encouraging for Chinook salmon. “Abundance has fluctuated substantially during the past five years of monitoring, suggesting that the Napa River population is relatively small and unstable,” Koehler said. This year the conservation district began a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tagging program, using an antenna in the lower river to automatically register the passage of any fish implanted with an electronic identifier tag. The fish monitoring program helps demonstrate when the fish need strong flows, where smolts are hatching in the watershed, and how fish passage and marsh restoration projects affect fish populations, Koehler said. “This unprecedented effort has demonstrated the value of current, scientifically-sound, fisheries data to policy makers and provides a baseline by which we can measure the long-term ecological effects of ongoing restoration work.”
In a presentation that dovetailed with Koehler’s, Gordon Becker of the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration (CEMAR) discussed how smolt outmigrant monitoring can identify high growth habitat for steelhead. Trapping has helped pinpoint these areas and inform restoration efforts targeted at specific reaches within a stream. While prime habitat areas for steelhead face continuing threats, there’s potential for expanding the availability of such habitat and improving its quality. “With smolt trapping data from various Bay Area watersheds, we can better define the high-quality habitat that we’re most interested in protecting,” Becker noted. “The greatest numbers of steelhead smolts appear to derive from stream reaches with higher, perennial flows. These areas should form the focus of an overall program to protect the highest productivity aquatic habitats around the Bay Area.” The data could direct attention to previously unexamined streams and encourage regional planning for conservation and rehabilitation of aquatic habitat. Becker suggested that issues like dry season flow impairment and channel and bank modifications might be best addressed at the stream reach scale. A reach-scale approach would also help focus limited resources and be more likely to generate visible success stories.
The scale of the stream reach is also useful in evaluating the health of an entire watershed. Just as a doctor examines blood pressure and body temperature to assess the overall well-being of a patient, watershed managers can study stream reaches as indicators of how well the watershed as a whole functions. Josh Collins of the San Francisco Estuary Institute explained how reach-scale tools like the Wetland and Riparian Area Monitoring Plan (WRAMP) can help meet the challenges of assessing watershed health. WRAMP helps managers design an ideal version of their watershed by answering a single question: how much of what ecosystem services are needed when and where and why? To do so, WRAMP organizes environmental science and information technology into a comprehensive approach for planning, permitting, and evaluation of watershed health. All of these elements are viewed as progress toward integrated goals for flood control, water supply, water quality, cultural resource protection, and wildlife conservation. Wetland Tracker, the Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP), and Our Coast Our Future are other helpful parts of the watershed manager’s toolkit. “Successful ecosystem health care depends on knowing the target levels of the key services, organizing activities at all levels of government to achieve the targets, monitoring progress toward the targets, and adjusting them for new scientific understanding based on the monitoring results,” Collins explained. Monitoring, he added, “can also help fine-tune the conceptual models that are needed for program planning and the numerical models needed for forecasting ecosystem responses.” He concluded with the idea that watershed science and technology need to be tightly coupled to a system of coordinated government programs that translate the science into effective watershed health care.San Francisquito Creek hosts one of the last remaining wild steelhead populations in Bay Area streams, and is considered an anchor watershed for steelhead restoration efforts in the South Bay. Tidal marshes at its mouth also provide habitat for protected species such as the California clapper rail and salt marsh harvest mouse. Managing this 50-square-mile watershed and floodplain, as Len Materman of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority (SFCJPA) explained, requires juggling far more than wildlife issues. Sediment management and flood risks to Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, and Menlo Park are major concerns, as floodwaters have entered homes several times in the past, most recently in December 2012. The downstream reach of the creek offers an opportunity to reconnect a historic sediment source with marshes that contain important wildlife habitat and are in danger of being permanently inundated as a result of sea level rise. The SFCJPA’s proposed solution, done in conjunction with its Strategy to Advance Flood protection, Ecosystems and Recreation along the Bay (SAFER Bay), could re-create the connection between the creek and Bay marshlands during high creek flow and high tide events. This multi-jurisdictional project between the Bay and Highway 101, which would provide flood protection against creek flows, extreme tides that impact creek flows, and a two-foot rise in sea level, is moving towards construction this summer. “In addition to restoring 14 acres of historic tidal marshland, over half of which would come from a golf course, our proposed project minimizes flow constriction and sediment deposition in the channel and maximizes its transport to the Bay, where it could build up marshlands at the mouth of the system. In this way, people and property are protected, and our marsh habitats can naturally adapt to sea level rise,” said Materman.
In a region as highly urbanized as the Bay Area, inviting local governments to the watershed planning table is not only a good idea, but produces a better plan at the end, according to Josh Bradt of the San Francisco Estuary Partnership. Comprehensive watershed planning by local government “promotes improved watershed health and function by identifying multi-benefit solutions and funding strategies” he says. “Municipal and county governments are uniquely positioned to be anchors of watershed planning and management.” Bradt noted local governments have many watershed responsibilities, such as public health and safety, environmental protection, infrastructure maintenance, as well as common concerns such as undersized and deteriorating stormwater infrastructure, increasing regulatory requirements, staff and budget constraints. Developing a watershed management plan for the city of Berkeley involved an analysis of existing policies, programs, and assets, and hydrologic modeling of two of the city’s watersheds—one still mostly natural, the other a paved-over “ghost drainage.” The plan’s recommendations carried an estimated $83 million price tag for those two watersheds, with work on the remaining eight watersheds within city boundaries costing an estimated additional $125 million. “One challenge was to identify how green infrastructure would complement existing gray infrastructure, and not compete with it for limited capital, operations and maintenance, and staff resources,” Bradt explained. Green infrastructure, he said, not only increases resiliency to climate change but beautifies communities and neighborhoods, improves the curb appeal of residential properties, and fosters pedestrian safety. Funding sources for watershed plan implementation could come from a combination of local tax measures, greenhouse gas reduction funds, vehicle license fees, and state water bonds.
The institutional setting of watershed management matters, according to UC Berkeley’s Louise Mozingo. The Bay Area’s water agencies have a diversity of mandates in terms of water supply, water treatment, flood control, and environmental policy. Innovative urban water strategies such as greenstreets, conjunctive water management, water recycling, decentralized water treatment bioreactors, and unit process wetlands have been implemented within an existing, highly fragmented system. Even though coordination and overlap can be problematic, multiple jurisdictions do lend themselves to experimentation. The public also has a stake and a voice, expressed in a multitude of friends-of-creeks groups. “Community advocacy has focused on surface water systems, on place-making,” Monzingo said, “yet we need to think of water supply, water treatment, and surface water as a single resource system.” While recognizing that change in watershed management is still “an accretion of local decisions,” she’d like to see place-making extended to “science-based systemic problem solving with regional benefits.” To do this, jurisdictional fragmentation problems and complexities need to be addressed. Although the Integrated Regional Watershed Management Plan is a step in this process, coordinated regional water resource management still faces significant institutional obstacles.
Closing the session, California Water Resources Control Board member Steven Moore discussed the status and future of integrated water management. The Integrated Regional Water Management legislation of 2002 helped bring institutionally isolated functions like water supply, pollution control, groundwater supply, and stream and wetland restoration together in a regional context. However, Moore said, IRWM has serious limitations; it is “match-funded by voter-approved bonds that are an unreliable source of public funding going forward, and is implemented by a fragmented governance structure lacking needed flexibility for revenue generation and expenditures.” One solution might be voluntary groupings of public agencies and private organizations throughout a watershed or basin that are endowed with revenue-raising powers. Said Moore, “Regional unified water authorities could build on partnerships and experiences of existing integrated water agencies to improve the governance for all aspects of water, ensuring California can meet its sustainability goals into the twenty-first century.”