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Blog Post · June 5, 2023

Restoring Rivers, Restoring Community

This post is the first in a series on community engagement in river restoration projects in California, funded by the 2022–23 PPIC CalTrout Ecosystem Fellowship. Stay tuned for a look at restoration efforts on the Eel River, the San Joaquin River, and Trabuco Creek.

photo - Coots on the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project Site on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta - pixel-ca-dwr-2023_05_18_FL_2279_Dutch_Slough

Healthy ecosystems are good for everyone in California—they provide us with abundant wildlife and fisheries, clean drinking water, and needed space in nature for recreation, among other benefits. Here at the PPIC Water Policy Center, we’ve studied restoration issues in the past—including the importance of restoring more natural flow patterns,  improving permitting, and storing water for the environment. This year we brought in three CalTrout Ecosystem Fellows to look at another major challenge in river restoration: community engagement.

There is a lot of literature on the importance of stakeholder engagement in restoration work. Studies in the US and internationally have shown that robust engagement can improve restoration outcomes. Yet project proponents frequently make erroneous assumptions when trying to engage community stakeholders, as a recent study of urban stream restoration illuminated. This includes assuming that community members and those proposing restoration actions have the same goals; that education and outreach alone will create community support; and that the community will benefit from restoration, and thus support it.

In addition to illuminating—and not falling prey to—these assumptions, proponents of restoration work must clear other major hurdles. These include:

  • Lack of trust. Transparency and accountability are key to building trust and maintaining healthy channels of communication. But community members may feel that their input, even if solicited, won’t matter. This perception may be reinforced by historical events and perceptions of where political and economic power lie in their community, making it hard to solicit their engagement.
  • Lack of capacity. Capacity issues cut both ways in restoration. On the one hand, project proponents may not have sufficient funding—or training—to support sustained community engagement. And many communities, for their part, may simply lack the monetary resources, time, or flexibility to engage. Barriers to engagement can include time of the day of meetings, transportation, language, technology access, and discomfort with expressing opinions. A 2017 guide by The Nature Conservancy suggested that enabling grassroots organizing, civic dialogue, and community events; creating opportunities to practice civic skills; and training community leaders could help make stakeholder engagement processes more effective.
  • Need for knowledge-sharing. Most restoration projects are presented to the community designed and ready to go. This falls into the trap, outlined above, of assuming that the community will share the same goals as the restorationists and fully understand the science. But a community’s needs might not align with what project designers foresaw for a project. Project proponents may also not know that communities fear unintended consequences. In urban restoration projects, for instance, there is often justifiable fear of gentrification, increased rents, and displacement; focusing just on the science of a project may alienate community members. The negative perceptions from this kind of experience can last a long time, hindering future restoration projects. Finally, in many places, knowledge-sharing with indigenous communities is vital to restoration success. The knowledge base of those who have managed the resource for thousands of years is vast and can play an essential role in restoration design and management, but only if engagement occurs early in the design of the project. Lack of trust and lack of capacity are major obstacles to engaging with tribes; outreach planners must take these factors into account.

This is just a sample of some of the challenges facing community outreach and engagement in ecosystem restoration efforts. Useful summaries of the many approaches to constructive engagement can be found in reports by The Nature Conservancy and the Pacific Institute.

Experience also shows that community engagement challenges vary, depending on the type of restoration project and the affected communities. We asked our three PPIC CalTrout Ecosystem Fellows to look at this issue through their journalist eyes. They tackled the complex topic of community engagement and restoration on three very different rivers: the Eel River (North Coast), where efforts to remove aging hydropower dams are underway; the San Joaquin River (Central Valley), where multiple agencies and non-profits are attempting to restore salmon runs and floodplain habitat; and Trabuco Creek (southern California coast), where a broad coalition is attempting to improve passage for steelhead trout.

Over the next few weeks, these journalists will present their observations in a series of blog posts on this site. We hope that their insights will be helpful to those planning similar projects for the future.


California rivers climate change ecosystem restoration community engagement endangered species Freshwater Ecosystems Water, Land & Air wildlife