California’s ecosystems play an essential role in protecting the state’s water supply, minimizing unwanted flooding, and sequestering carbon—among many other benefits. But the unintended consequences of more than a century of water and land development—compounded by the impacts of a changing climate—are pushing many of these ecosystems to the breaking point. “We need large-scale restoration of our ecosystems, so that they function better both for biodiversity and for the services they bring to people,” said Letitia Grenier at a virtual event last week.
Grenier, senior scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the 2020 PPIC CalTrout Ecosystem Fellow, discussed a new report that surveys successful restoration efforts throughout California and examines how to overcome regulatory barriers.
“The environmental permitting system we have was built quite a while ago,” said Grenier. “It wasn’t designed to support restoration projects.” As a result, it’s now hindering the progress of such projects, she says—and that’s a problem. “We need to be doing restoration faster and bigger than we’re able to do it right now, and permitting is one of the issues that’s slowing things down.”
A panel of experts, moderated by Grenier, discussed how to accelerate ecosystem restoration through improving permitting practices in the state.
One way to do this is with better up-front coordination across similar projects. “We’ve been working for the past 20 years with agencies and the legislature to develop policy and regulatory incentives to make it easier to get important habitat restoration work done,” said Erika Lovejoy, program director of accelerating restoration with Sustainable Conservation. She says that programmatic permitting, in which pre-written permits cover a range of activities across a priority area, has led to a notable increase in restoration along the coast. “The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has reduced their administrative review time by more than 75%, and that has really helped project proponents get to implementation a lot sooner.”
Another promising approach involves working at the watershed level, which facilitates achieving multiple benefits for different stakeholders as ecosystems improve. Xavier Fernandez, planning manager of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, described a restoration project along the Napa River that has given the river space to meander, which reduces flooding, benefits wildlife, and recharges groundwater—and has benefited neighboring agriculture as well. “The vineyard owners found that having this riparian corridor around the river helps keep harmful insects like the glasswing from impacting their grapes.”
Fernandez also noted, “You can’t forget the uplands that surround the waters. The restoration actions we put in place quite frankly would not have been very successful if sediment was still coming down off the vineyards. It took a big-picture view to maximize the benefits of that restoration action.”
Heather Dyer, CEO/general manager, San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District echoed Fernandez’s sentiments. “Many of our ecosystems are highly impaired and the status quo is not working,” she said. “I’d love to see a more coordinated effort to look at watershed recovery as a whole—multi-stakeholder, multi-agency processes with many scientists from many different fields.” She says that project proponents need to decide what a healthy, resilient system looks like in two decades and then determine the steps to get there.
We invite you to watch the event video.