May - June 2010
Vol. 73 No. 3


The watershed approach to planning

If everything is hitched to everything else, how can we plan across disciplinary boundaries and political boundaries to solve multiple problems and deal with multiple concerns? One of the best answers we know today is to think in terms of "watersheds".

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and California Environmental Quality Act of 1970 ask for a sort of comprehensive holistic integrated planning. No matter what the nature of the project, they require planners to consider a wide array of categories of environmental concerns ranging from air and water to endangered species and historic preservation. Yet if you look at a typical Environmental Impact Statement or Report, that's all you have: a list of categories without much connection. How can planning move to the next level of really integrating the parts?

The answer may be found in the watershed-based approach.

A watershed is the land area that drains into a stream or larger river. Watersheds can be small or large, and they can "nest" within one another, encompassing one small headwater stream drainage, to an entire river's drainage area. What's key is that a watershed includes the land from the top of the drainage, where rain and precipitation fall and run into the watershed's particular waterway(s), all the way to the bottom, where the waterway enters a larger creek, river, or bay. No one set of boundaries is ideal for all purposes, but because flows of water are so fundamental to natural processes and because the ridges between watersheds are often key separators for both natural processes and humans, watersheds often form very practical planning units. In addition, because watersheds are defined by flows, they almost intrinsically focus us on connections.

In "thinking like a watershed", planners evaluate the ecological footprint of the whole watershed, incorporating all inputs and impacts from the top across and through to the bottom. By bringing together such a wide variety of concerns - transportation and transit, water resources, siting and design of larger developments as well as individual structures, and wildlife - this approach can produce plans that are truly comprehensive and effective at protecting the environment. The planning doesn't isolate each input, but rather addresses the connections, relations, and synergies across the whole. Whatever the avowed focus of the planning, planners look at the full ramifications. Many of our worst environmental mistakes of the past were the results of limiting the scope of our thinking - ignoring downstream consequences or whole categories of unintended effects.

A fundamental premise in this approach is that good watershed planning is about designing with nature, rather than against it. Early civilizations often did this by necessity: building your village in a flood-prone valley would quickly prove disastrous, and so communities learned (sometimes the hard way) not to do it. Watershed-approach advocates are taking this concept one step further towards tackling some of our toughest environmental problems: by promoting the benefits of the "ecosystem services" provided by a healthy watershed, such as flood and erosion control, water-pollutant filtration, the microclimate cooling and carbon sequestration of healthy vegetation, water conservation, and groundwater recharge.

This approach has gained credibility at all levels, from federal to local. For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "Healthy Watersheds Initiative" takes a holistic, integrated approach to environmental protection, with multiple benefits such as climate-change mitigation, drinking-water protection, and fish and wildlife enhancement. Closer to home, the California Local Government Commission is promoting the adoption of its "Ahwahnee Water Principles" in cities and counties throughout the state, citing the need to think along regional and local watershed lines when designing land-use policies and strategies. The water principles advocate for compact, mixed-use, walkable cities as the most resource-efficient approach to sustainable water use and land use, both environmentally and economically - and tout the protection and restoration of green infrastructure (such as trees, vegetation, and open space) as the foundation for healthy, sustainable cities.

In the Bay Area, watershed approaches to planning have produced significant, effective solutions to costly environmental problems, such as control and pollution treatment of stormwater runoff, flood and erosion control, and urban heat islands. The solutions are thus win-wins for the environment and the community, improving not only the ecological health of a watershed, but providing economic and community benefits as well, through lowered stormwater and flood costs, and "greener" streets and cities overall.

In San Francisco, watershed-based approaches underlie the city's new "Better Streets" program as well as a whole array of stormwater-control and -treatment programs. Under these programs the city is implementing demonstration projects such as natural stormwater-catchment areas along street curbs, rainwater-harvesting programs using cisterns at schools and individual homes, and even green-roof projects to capture and retain precipitation - thus reducing flooding as well as providing cooling effects in hot weather. The city has also committed to planting roughly 5,000 trees per year as part of its efforts to combat climate change.

In the East Bay, recent projects such as the lower Codornices Creek restoration efforts are touted not only for their restoration of habitat for threatened steelhead trout, but as successful flood-control projects that benefit the adjacent West Berkeley communities - and San Francisco Bay - by reducing extensive flooding and damage.

This concept has already proved to be critical in a number of major Sierra Club campaigns.

  • In the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD)'s long-term water-supply plan (from the Sierra Foothills and the Mokelumne River to the San Francisco Bay urban users), Club activists in the East Bay and the foothills gained valuable improvements by stressing the connections between water use and withdrawals from remote rivers, across the ecologically threatened Delta, to our own San Francisco Bay. By highlighting the ecological damage and costs of greater water withdrawals, this emphasis influenced decisions by the EBMUD Board to focus investments more heavily in increased water conservation, recycling, and reuse,.
  • San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy system water proposals have included issues such as restoration of the Hetch Hetchy Valley and salmon habitat along the Tuolumne River. As with the EBMUD campaign, highlighting the impacts of new pipeline construction across entire watersheds and their sensitive habitats, along with careful scrutiny of water-conservation potential in the entire region (including East Bay and Peninsula cities) receiving water from San Francisco through watershed-based conservation strategies, led to substantially reduced water-use projection, which ultimately catalyzed the dropping of a proposal to build a new pipeline.
  • Sierra Club California and the Bay Chapter oppose the state's recent water legislation and upcoming water bond measure (slated for the November 2010 elections; see article, preceding page), which promote piecemeal approaches to the Bay/Delta watershed ecosystem. Major elements of the legislation and bond measures - including planning, construction, and funding - are based on parochial interests of individual agencies, elected officials, and pro-development concerns, rather than addressing the fundamental integrated factors that influence the health of the Bay/Delta as a whole. These flawed programs include (at great environmental and financial costs) subsidies on agricultural water and expansion of dams and reservoirs. In this case, it is the failure to include critical elements of a comprehensive watershed-based approach that define some of the the water legislation's and bond measure's greatest flaws.
  • There have been many creek, wetland, and stormwater-runoff-pollution battles and policy-development measures throughout our Chapter over recent years. For example, past and ongoing campaigns to improve creek-protection ordinances throughout the Chapter have not only included stronger creekside buffer zones (i.e. areas fully protected from development), but have also expanded to include a broader set of full watershed factors such as improving stormwater and sewage treatment and reducing runoff from streets and other impermeable surfaces.

The breadth, depth, and complexity of our environmental problems - from climate change to water resources availability to air quality - are now acknowledged to require integrated solutions. The watershed approach offers just such an opportunity, and its rapid acceptance as an effective planning model suggests we'll be seeing much more of this approach - and hopefully a lot more green and blue around us - in the future.