A Path Forward for California’s Freshwater Ecosystems

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Californians rely on freshwater ecosystems for many things: water supply, hydropower, recreation, fisheries, flood risk reduction, biodiversity, and more. These ecosystems—and the social, economic and environmental benefits they provide—are part of the state’s natural infrastructure. But they are changing in undesirable ways in response to water and land use, pollution, introduction of non-native species, and a changing climate. Declines in native biodiversity are the most direct measure of these changes, with numerous species now protected by state and federal endangered species acts (ESAs) and many times more likely to need protection in future.

For the past 40 years, the ESAs have played a prominent role in managing the state’s freshwater ecosystems. While this approach has prevented extinctions, it also places an emphasis on reducing harm to listed species, rather than improving overall ecosystem condition necessary to recover their populations. And these laws are not forward-looking enough to help species adapt to changing climate and reduce future species listings. This approach also fuels controversy and litigation due to perceptions about trade-offs between species protection and economic uses of land and water.

To maintain the benefits that Californians derive from their freshwater ecosystems—and arrest the decline of native biodiversity—a new approach is needed. We recommend that the state adopt the principles and practices of ecosystem-based management. This involves the simultaneous management of water, land, and organisms to achieve a desired ecosystem condition that benefits both native biodiversity and human well-being. The goal of ecosystem-based planning is to develop a shared vision for the ecosystem, agreement upon a common set of facts, and a unified plan to achieve it. We are not proposing major reforms to state or federal endangered species acts. Rather, we recommend a shift in the way these acts are implemented.

Ecosystem-based management relies on robust governance frameworks that are transparent, collaborative, and supported by science and secure funding. Many programs are starting to adopt its principles and practices, but much more needs to be done. Actions needed to achieve ecosystem-based objectives include setting aside water budgets for the environment and using this water to improve ecosystem condition and create multiple benefits. Binding, comprehensive agreements between regulatory agencies, stakeholders, and water users—developed as part of sustainable watershed management plans—should guide implementation. These plans can be used to align agency actions and permitting and can be adopted by the State Water Board as water quality control plans.

California needs to change course in how it manages freshwater ecosystems to protect the many beneficial uses they provide. Ecosystem-based management offers a more comprehensive, flexible, and adaptive approach, and one that is compatible with existing laws. We believe this approach is better able to improve ecosystem outcomes that benefit both people and nature and respond to today’s challenges while preparing for an uncertain future.

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Public Policy Institute of California

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This research was supported with funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation and the funders of the PPIC CalTrout Ecosystem Fellowship.