Decades of water and land management practices have altered California’s rivers and substantially changed their flow patterns, with devastating effects on native fish and wildlife. Current river management practices have failed to reverse this decline. At a virtual event last week, Ted Grantham—the first PPIC CalTrout Ecosystem Fellow and a cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley—described a new approach to river management that would restore seasonal components of river flow to sustain physical and biological processes necessary for ecosystem health.
Restoring specific “functional flows” would better support fish migration and spawning, water quality, dry-season base flows, and physical conditions that support aquatic species. “By preserving these functions, we believe this is a more efficient and effective approach to environmental water management,” said Grantham, the lead author of a new PPIC report on the topic.
Another component of this approach is improving physical habitat to support the work of these flows. “This includes the river bank, channel, and floodplain that interact with flowing water to create and sustain habitat for aquatic species,” he said.
A panel of experts, moderated by PPIC senior fellow and study coauthor Jeff Mount, discussed how to put this approach into practice.
“The focus on functions is really exciting,” said Bronwen Stanford, senior environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Rivers are meant to be dynamic and variable and change over time.” She said the state is “data poor” on what conditions are needed in streams across the state to “push species from barely surviving into a thriving state.” The functional flows approach gives a “really powerful starting place” to get needed information on how to manage rivers for a range of more natural, ecologically protective flows.
Functional flows is a relatively new approach, with few pilot projects on the ground. Julie Zimmerman, lead freshwater scientist at The Nature Conservancy, described using a functional flows approach in Mill Creek (Lassen County) to protect salmon and keep the creek flowing year round. She noted that California lacks critical data needed to guide functional flows for most streams across the state, but that new efforts could help—including the California Environmental Flows Framework, a project that will provide detailed guidance for developing environmental flow standards in rivers and streams throughout the state. The framework is expected to be released later this year.
Michael Belchik, senior water policy analyst for the Yurok Tribe, talked about efforts to bring the Klamath River and its rich fisheries back to health. “You can do all kinds of things for fish restoration—put in habitat projects, things like that—but you’re not going to achieve restoration unless you have the right flows.” To bring the Klamath back to health also requires dam removal, sediment management, floodplain restoration, and other physical habitat improvements, he said.
Noting that water for the environment has long been contentious, Stanford said that an important next step will be effectively communicating how best to put these practices in place. “There’s understanding across the state that we need this wide range of flows. Helping people understand how to make them happen will be a good challenge,” she said.
We invite you to watch the event video.