California Dream 2.0

Sustaining Environmental Capital in the Mokelumne River Watershed

Solar panels power Vino Farms (Mathew Grimm)

In July 2011, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report to President Obama on Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy that called for a national inventory on the services that ecosystems provide and a better valuation of those services. The report recognized that environmental capital is a key underpinning of public health and economic recovery. Natural systems provide a wealth of services including clean water and air, productive soils and protection from floods and fires, among many others.

Mokelumne River (Mathew Grimm)

We are happy to announce that in late August, Sustainable Conservation, in partnership with Environmental Defense Fund, Environmental Incentives, Protected Harvest and the Sierra Nevada Conservancy was awarded a $372,000 Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop a pilot program to measure environmental benefits in California’s Mokelumne River Watershed. Once developed, the program will attract funding to pay farmers, ranchers and foresters to enhance nature’s benefits, including water purification, erosion control and wildlife habitat. In addition, the program could potentially help establish better tools for valuing ecosystem services in watersheds throughout the country as called for in the report to President Obama. To read more about it please visit the Western Farm Press

The Mokelumne Program will provide economic incentives to landowners in the region (Mathew Grimm)

The Mokelumne River, which originates in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and crosses the Central Valley before joining the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, provides significant environmental and economic benefits to California and the region. The Mokelumne watershed produces hydro-electric energy, high value crops, timber, important habitat for wildlife, and recreational benefits like whitewater rafting and popular trout fishing.  Notably, the Mokelumne delivers water to 1.4 million people in San Francisco’s East Bay and provides agricultural water supply and storage within the watershed to irrigate over 800,000 acres of vineyards and other crops. 

In recent years, however, the Mokelumne watershed has faced an increased risk of catastrophic fire, significant development pressures, a lack of economic vitality and diversity in its communities, and high unemployment. In addition, development and poor vegetation management have contributed to fire, habitat degradation, diminished species populations and impaired water quality. Climate change is predicted to decrease the amount of water retained in the snowpack and will require dams to be operated differently to protect communities from increased risk of flooding. To address these threats holistically, EDF, in collaboration with other NGO’s, state and federal agencies, and a broad array of watershed stakeholders, is developing a watershed management approach that focuses on community participation. Specifically, the management approach focuses on compensating landowners for resource stewardship and habitat restoration. 

The Mokelumne Watershed Environmental Benefits Program will create a performance-based environmental accounting system so that public and private land managers can consistently pay for and track environmental improvements, and create a meaningful understanding of how conservation efforts in the upper and lower watershed benefit local communities, water users, hydroelectric power generators, and the California economy. Ultimately, this will raise investor confidence in restoration by showing the “bang for the buck” of each investment.  Investors in restoration, such as the USDA, the State of California and the private sector are particulary interested in improving how they target their limited resources so that there is greater accountability, efficiency and effectiveness.

EDF's Belinda Morris gets a tour of Vino Farms from viticulturist Chris Storm (Mathew Grimm)

The next stage of the Program will focus on developing metrics to better quantify the environmental outcomes associated with restoration activities that provide environmental benefits, such as improved water quality and increased water storage. We will build on current efforts underway in other regions where tools have been developed to measure improvements in habitat, water quality and instream flows, which are critical resource needs of the watershed.  This information will help us target those restoration activities (e.g., riparian vegetation restoration, instream channel stabilization, water conservation, etc.) that can result in the greatest environmental outcomes. We will partner with agricultural landowners to test the quantification tools and to measure the environmental outcomes from restoration activities. In addition, we will aim to demonstrate a watershed-wide approach to achieve conservation actions that will support local communities and other beneficiaries of the services that the watershed provides. Most exciting is the fact that the diverse ecosystems and valuable land uses across the Mokelumne Watershed are representative of many California watersheds, therefore by developing and proving out this innovative model in the Mokelumne, we believe there is huge potential to replicate it throughout California and possibly beyond.

Posted in Ecosystem Restoration, Ecosystem Services, Sustainable Agriculture / Comments are closed

Saving the “Endangered” Delta while growing California’s economy

It made the front-page of the San Francisco Chronicle when the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta was recently ranked No. 2 among America’s most-endangered waterways in a report from the Washington, D.C., organization American Rivers. Quoting the American Rivers report, The Chronicle said: “The Delta is ‘extremely vulnerable to catastrophic failure’ from over-pumping and declining ecosystems.” 

Delta Vital To Californians

The Delta is one of California’s most important natural resources, in a number of ways. Millions of Californians depend on it for a large portion of their water supply. It provides a wide range of environmental benefits, from wildlife habitat to recreation. The Delta also drives a significant share of the state’s economy, in agriculture, industry, fishing and recreation.

Everyone agrees: the Delta is vital to California, and it’s in trouble. The question is, how do we fix the Delta’s problems in a fair and equitable manner that’s best for the state’s economy?  That’s the mission of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP), a long-term collaborative project among a state and federal agencies, water districts and environmental organizations. I participate as a member of the BDCP’s Steering Committee.

BDCP: A Balance Between Water Supply and Environmental Needs

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan intends to balance the health of the delicate and endangered ecosystem with demands on that system for water supply in a way that’s best for California’s economy. Essentially, the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is a permitting process. State and federal environmental laws require water projects that convey water from northern California to the rest of the state to obtain permits to operate in the Delta. Those permits will be issued only if a viable plan is established that limits impacts to threatened and endangered wildlife.  

The BDCP aims to ensure that sufficient flows are left in the Delta to create and maintain a healthy ecosystem.  If the Bay Delta Conservation Plan helps to establish a more sustainable level of water pumping from the Delta, Californians could create “a clean tech water challenge to replace the California water wars.”

Clean Tech Innovation for Water Efficiency

EDF’s 2009 Innovations Review featured several companies that are already helping farmers and businesses conserve water. One company, PureSense, founded by third-generation Central Valley farmer Matt Angell, markets a relatively simple product that tells farmers how much water their crops really need. The Wine Group, based in the San Joaquin Valley, says it increased yield three years in a row by 20 to 60 percent while reducing operating costs by 15 percent after installing a PureSense system. 

Another company, Hydropoint, gathers data from thousands of weather reporting stations and then wirelessly transmits watering instructions to controllers installed on customers’ irrigation systems. The 16,500 subscribers to Hydropoint’s data feed saved 11.3 billion gallons of water and $75 million in 2008, according to the company. Customers include Coca-Cola, Lockheed Martin, Google, Apple, Wal-Mart, more than 50 cities and towns, and seven of the 10 largest real estate investment trusts in the U.S. 

These are just two of many examples of new innovations and business practices that could flourish in California if the Bay Delta Conservation Plan crafts a scientifically-credible plan to end California’s over-reliance on this unique and spectacular natural system. That’s our goal and I’ll be back in future posts to report on our progress.

Posted in Ecosystem Restoration / Comments are closed