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Connecting the Drops in Watershed Management

Lori Pottinger February 12, 2019

The interrelated nature of water issues has given rise to a management approach that integrates flood control, environmental water, and water supply. The Yuba Water Agency manages its watershed in this kind of coordinated manner. We talked to Curt Aikens, the agency’s general manager, about the lessons they’ve learned from this “integrated management” approach.

PPIC: Your agency manages the watershed for hydropower, water supply, flood control, and ecosystem health. What are some key elements to making it all work together?

Curt Aikens: I think the most critical elements to making this work for us are employing science and broad collaboration to sustainably manage all of the resources.

We try to make the most of every drop of water we touch—this infographic highlights how we do that. Our water provides recreation, carbon-free electricity, habitat for fish and wildlife, and a sustainable water supply for farmers and the 80% of our population that relies on groundwater for drinking water. In drought years, we transfer water to the state for use in the Central Valley and Southern California. We use the proceeds from those transfers and from hydropower sales to invest in reducing flood risk in Yuba County and other environmental, water supply, and public safety projects.

In managing this integrated system, we’re fortunate that our agency’s boundary fully contains our groundwater basins and most of the Yuba River watershed. The river flows right down the middle of the county.

We worked hard to get where we are today. In the 1990s we were involved in a contentious debate with conservation groups and state agencies over environmental flow requirements for the Lower Yuba River to support salmon and steelhead trout. To resolve the situation, we developed a collaborative, science-based settlement called the Yuba Accord. This agreement, which improved salmon and steelhead habitat, is a foundation for our success, because it helped us solve a number of problems collaboratively.

We try to ensure that everything we do has multiple benefits and comes from a strong collaborative effort. The Feather River Setback Levee is a great example of that. After Yuba County flooded in 1997, we commissioned a comprehensive flood study that presented half a dozen options to reduce future risk. Working with local conservation groups, we eventually settled on a program to set the levees back and strengthen them. This significantly lowered flood risk while producing ecological benefits for the river. The community gained a new, stronger levee, a significantly lower flood risk, and real ecological benefits.

PPIC: Is it harder to address multiple problems with one project?

CA: Today, it’s actually harder to implement a project with a single purpose. We live in a world with multiple interests, and we’ve found that multipurpose projects are a much better way to get things done. The Yuba River has more human impacts than most other rivers in the state. So we try to get ecosystem benefits out of most of our projects, whether it’s improving fishery habitat in our flood control work or strengthening water supply management through a project to build forest health.

Collaborative, science-based initiatives cost more and take more time upfront, but in the end you can get better results and more durable, sustainable solutions.

PPIC: Can this approach work well for water agencies that share a watershed with other entities or have other complicating factors in how they manage their system?

CA:  I think it absolutely can. There are many examples of multiple jurisdictions working together to resolve common water or natural-resource challenges. For example, the work being done on the voluntary settlement agreements in the Bay-Delta has brought together a really diverse group of conservation and water interests working toward an innovative solution. This approach is collaborative and science based. It also presents the opportunity for fish and wildlife habitat creation, new flows to support fish, and funding to help finance these activities.

Collaborative agreements, rather than a mandated regulatory approach, offer much greater promise for California’s environment and economic stability. This is exactly our experience with the Yuba Accord.  Continued leadership from Governor Newsom and his administration can help California create a sustainable solution for the entire Bay-Delta watershed.

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