Regionalizing watershed management
“Whisky’s for drinking; water’s for fighting about.”
— Mark Twain
For decades, the United States has been fighting with Canada and Mexico over rights to rivers along national borders. In the arid West, rapidly growing cities are competing for water rights along state borders in Arizona, California, Colorado and elsewhere.
Even in regions where water has traditionally been plentiful, bitter battles are erupting. Georgia, Alabama and Florida, for example, are wrestling over two river systems that cross state boundaries.
Nationwide, water battles are intensifying, as booming populations, migration to urban areas and chronic drought conditions strain metropolitan water supplies. However, the same phenomenon that has produced conflict also has given rise to cooperation.
Many local governments have begun planning and managing their watersheds regionally. Working with other local jurisdictions, they are addressing stormwater, wastewater, land use and development to ensure that the quantity and quality of water supplies in their regions remain ample.
Two years ago, acting on a statewide directive issued by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, three Georgia localities embarked on a watershed assessment study to determine how to best protect the region’s beleaguered water sources. Gainesville, Forsyth County and Hall County are — like the rest of metropolitan Atlanta — facing a severe water shortage and a water quality crisis. They assessed three different watersheds, with the primary focus on popular Lake Lanier and the Chattahoochee River watershed.
“Watersheds don’t know political boundaries, so from a scientific standpoint, it made the most sense [to work together],” says David Dockery, environmental services administrator with the Gainesville Utilities Department. “We also realized that some restrictions on development and watershed protection measures would come out of this study. We wanted to approach it in a regional fashion to not drive development from one side [of the watershed] to the other.”
The local governments tested the water chemistry in more than 30 streams. They found that, in urban areas, the streams were affected by altered hydrology, erosion, degraded habitat and sedimentation. Then, using the collected data as a baseline, the governments developed computer models that simulated how future development or other changes would affect the watersheds.
The governments also outlined several options that each could use to protect the watershed. For example, they recommended establishing buffer zones around rivers and streams, building regional detention ponds, improving erosion controls, and using trenches and semi-pervious surfaces to aid in stormwater filtration and groundwater absorption.
The results of the watershed assessment can be applied by each locality individually. For example, in a proposed ordinance, Gainesville is calling for a 100-foot buffer zone, while rural Hall County — where residents are concerned about infringement on private property — is proposing a 50-foot buffer.
“All three entities aren’t doing exactly the same thing as far as implementing watershed protection, but we’re all basically on the same page,” Dockery says. “We’re [proposing] ordinances that are seeking the same ends, but the means vary a little from entity to entity.”
That flexibility helps stave off resentment, which can result when one or more regional partners dictates what the others should do. Public resentment also is possible, which is why public meetings about regionalization are important. During the assessment, Gainesville and Hall County held 26 public meetings — two for each of the 13 community watersheds identified in the region.
“Politically, no one wants to give up their turf, to a certain extent,” Dockery says. “There are also cultural issues — when we’re dealing with the way rural folks look at water as opposed to how urban folks look at water. There’s a private property rights issue to deal with, and we’re sensitive to that.”
Dockery notes that the three governments still handle their water supplies separately and that the regional assessment is not part of a source water protection plan. (A separate regional development commission is working on guidelines for source water.) However, he says that protecting the region’s watersheds will have peripheral benefits, such as a cleaner water supply.
Inclusion and education
Cleaning up the water supply was the motivation for forming the Medford Waste Commission early in the 20th century. At the time, the residents of Medford, Ore., were plagued with foul-tasting and odorous water that had tadpoles and other aquatic life floating in it.
Medford is situated within the Bear Creek watershed, which joins the Big Butte Creek and Rogue River watersheds (owned primarily by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management) in making up the Rogue River Valley. Within decades of MWC’s formation, the commission had secured rights to groundwater within the Big Butte Creek watershed and rights to surface water within the Rogue River watershed. By default, it became the regional water manager.
The jurisdictional mosaic gets even more complicated, however. The Big Butte Creek and Rogue River watersheds cross three counties, private timberlands and cattle grazing areas.
Building consensus among those entities has been an important part of managing the region’s water, says Medford geologist Bob Jones. “It’s a long, steady process, and you have to keep working at it,” he says. “One of the things that will help you achieve success in working together is having all the main entities, people with jurisdictional authority, at the table at the same time.” Talking to stakeholders separately opens the door to miscommunication and suspicion, he notes.
The commission is involved with two local watershed councils, which include a cross-section of stakeholders — environmentalists, loggers, landowners and others. The groups meet monthly to discuss project status and proposals.
Sometimes, projects are put to a simple majority vote, Jones says. When parties are unable to negotiate an agreement, opponents are sometimes willing to step out of the proceedings to let the project continue.
The commission also has undertaken efforts to educate the public about watershed management. For example, it has published brochures with other entities in the region, and it has made door-to-door visits to discuss programs with residents.
“So often people say we need an ordinance to stop something from happening, and I’m not saying that’s not sometimes true, but what happens so often is they don’t get enforced,” Jones says. “So we’ve taken the tack that it would be better to do an education campaign.”
Rather than correcting harmful behavior with short-term punitive responses, the MWC assists stakeholders in identifying ways to eliminate or modify the behavior to produce long-term improvements. For example, when a private entity recently sprayed herbicides that affected a spring in the Big Butte watershed, the Waste Commission convinced the owner to stop spraying over water and to allow monitoring by the commission. In another instance, the commission helped to work out a master plan for cattle grazing that protected particularly sensitive areas of the watershed.
A matter of necessity
Long-term, cooperative relationships are key to successful regionalized management, says Chip Norton, watershed manager for Cambridge, Mass. Massachusetts is divided into numerous watershed regions, with much of the populated area around Boston served by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. However, since the mid-19th century Cambridge has had its own water supply, drawn from the city and four nearby communities.
Although Cambridge does not supply water to the region, it relies on regional partners to help protect its watershed. “One of our problems is we own 5 percent of the watershed, so it makes things difficult,” Norton says. “A lot of water suppliers own most of their watershed. I think regionalization is a trend that comes out of necessity.”
Cambridge has learned to communicate with and rely on the cooperation of other entities and stakeholders in the watershed. As part of the Cambridge Watershed Advisory Committee, the city works with conservation commissions, fire departments, planning boards, sewer departments, health boards and other groups to protect its water supply.
It builds relationships and resolves issues via meetings on a case-by-case basis, and it keeps residents informed through a quarterly newsletter. According to Norton, the city has dealt with a variety of issues, including those related to highway runoff, urbanization and development.
“We’re really looking at the next 100 years,” he notes. “This water supply has to be here forever.”
The wave of the future
With chronic water shortages and water quality problems throughout the country, regionalization is likely to become more commonplace, according to Dockery. Instead of staging never-ending turf wars, local governments are now more apt to look for ways to work together.
The process can have several benefits. For example, taking a holistic view of watersheds makes good environmental sense, and, by pooling resources, local governments can implement changes more efficiently and less expensively than they could individually.
Regionalization is not always easy. However, by bringing all stakeholders to the table, local governments can reduce conflicts, build consensus and, in some cases, avoid the time-consuming and politically charged process of developing ordinances.
Kim O’Connell is a freelance environmental writer based in Arlington, Va.