Mount Tamalpais from Corte Madera Marsh

CA WATER COMMISSION: Governance and collaboration

The California Water Commission is in the process of completing the task assigned to them in the Water Resilience Portfolio of examining the state’s role in funding conveyance projects.  At the April meeting, the last two speakers on the panel discussed governance issues and collaboration. 

First, Sharon Farrell is the Executive Vice President of Projects, Stewardship & Science with the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, a cooperating association of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  She discussed how to build and sustain integrated regional networks and how they can help advance state priorities, such as resilient conveyance and water management.  Dr. Michael Kiparsky, director of the Wheeler Water Institute at the Center for Law, Energy, and the Environment at UC Berkeley School of Law, discussed multi-benefit project governance and the role of innovation in sparking transformation.

SHARON FARRELL:  The importance and value of regional collaboration

Ms. Farrell began by noting that she is pretty familiar with the complexity and the need for an integrated adaptive approach to managing land and water resources at a watershed and regional scale.  Currently, she directs a cross-jurisdictional partnership in Marin County called One Tam, which focuses on regional resource stewardship, including sea level rise adaptation projects, creek and floodplain habitat restoration, groundwater recharge projects, forest health projects, and other resilience and climate adaptive work. The partnership is now in its eighth year and continues to grow the network’s shared purpose, discussing water use issues and the collective maintenance of conveyance systems.

For the past five years, Ms. Farrell has also facilitated the California Landscape Stewardship Network (California Network), which focuses on growing the pace, scale, practice, and quality of cross-boundary environmental stewardship.  Her remarks in this presentation reflect her experience working at all three scales: local, regional, and statewide.

The California Landscape Stewardship Network began in 2016 and today involves approximately 30 cross-boundary partnerships focused on landscape-scale work across approximately 40% of the state. These partnerships are structured to work together to meet regional goals, and the network provides a connection and coordination role to amplify everybody’s efforts. The California Network shares and advances its work through facilitating peer exchange, convenings, white papers, and working with state, regional, and local leaders.

Meeting the challenge of working at the landscape-scale

While the benefits of undertaking stewardship at scale are significant if not essential, Ms. Farrell acknowledged that working at scale is complex and comes with complications.  It’s important to recognize regional differences.  Collaboration is complex; how do we incentivize organizations to work in networks? How do we integrate regional needs with system solutions?  The 2018 water plan update also recognized the complexity of having different landowners, different policies, cultures, often limited resources, coordination, and capacity to support collective goals.

So acknowledging and embracing this, the California Network’s mission is centered around how to shift paradigms, systems, practices, and culture to reduce these obstacles and complications and forge new solutions,” she said.  “Similar to a number of the water resilience portfolio principles, our participants seek to innovate solutions that enable us to work more easily and with greater paces to understand the ways in which regional networks can support California’s efforts to craft integrated multi-benefit solutions.”

The role of networks

Fundamentally, networks are human-powered endeavors advanced by both formal and informal social structures.  “We can think of these networks as webs of relationships connecting people or things,” she said.  “What we’re seeing through our work right now in California is there’s a growth in impact networks seeking to advance complex social and environmental issues.  Impact networks bring together individuals and organizations for learning and coordinated action based upon shared purpose.  They provide a transformational way of working across the typical boundaries that often hold us back. They offer a collaborative and more equitable infrastructure and provide flexible organizing systems that span regions, organizations, and silos of all kinds. The California Network believes that undertaking environmental work in this context provides an essential and durable social framework for delivering multi-benefit work at the appropriate scale. This results in transformational and long-lasting impact.”

Earlier this year, California Natural Resources Agency Secretary Wade Crowfoot said that an integrated, multi-benefit approach is needed and to avoid working in too many silos. He also offered that California needs to integrate fire into existing Integrated Regional Water Management Plans.

Regardless of the type of plan, it includes how to best integrate different environmental sectors and plans more broadly at a regional scale, whether water, forests, corridor, connectivity, biodiversity, or working lands, so that the outcomes and impacts are more transformative.  This is a central question being asked on all levels: state, national, practitioner level, and it presents perhaps one of the largest and more daunting tasks without a one size fits all solution.

When I reflect on the question of how can we achieve integrated and multi-benefit projects at a watershed or larger scale to yield transformational impact, regional networks can be the missing middle between state goals and local efforts,” said Ms. Farrell.  “Regional networks can help integrate a variety of state goals into a multi-benefit set of projects and grounding them with local understanding.”

This role of regional networks is not new; there’s a growing emergence throughout the country requiring us to act and think differently.  “For example, when I began my work with One Tam, which includes federal, state, regional, and local land managers, the partner executives struggle to define regional resource stewardship goals, the goals that transcended their individual needs and perspectives. At one point during the partnership’s first year, when a leadership meeting was stalled, the Park Service Superintendent at the time said that he was willing to have other partner projects receive funding for their work first, if those were the highest priorities for that regional landscape. That was a turning point in the formation of this now eight year-old collaborative.  The conversation shifted from ‘me’ to ‘we.’

It was a pivotal moment that shifted One Tam’s priority setting to looking at a larger geographic scale to meet the network’s goals. Like many stewardship networks, One Tam moved its work beyond a site-specific, parcel-by-parcel, benefit-by-benefit to the scale at which people and nature function: watersheds, habitats, ecosystems, water systems, and cultural landscapes. It unlocked its ability to undertake cross-boundary multi-benefit work beyond its initial scale.  

As this partnership has matured and evolved, we’ve recognized that we have created an essential foundation for broadening our work,” said Ms. Farrell.  “That foundation provided the partners with the confidence to leverage public-private funding to complete a county-wide LIDAR and vegetation map and, more recently, a regional forest health and wildfire risk reduction plan.  Both of these efforts helped achieve state goals at a regional scale.”

This work also prompted the network to quadruple its geography, forge new connections with the region’s wildfire prevention authority, and expand participation to more than 70 organizations. Currently, the Network leaders are examining the role of the network in addressing important water use, conveyance, and restoration actions. Questions include integrating these connections into the individual and collective work, who else needs to be involved at a local, regional, and state level, and how can national and state funding be leveraged within the network to maintain conveyance infrastructure.

Regional networks get things done

One Tam’s evolution demonstrates how regional networks can adapt, integrate local and state goals, have complex purposes, and build connections with other local and regional networks to address shared challenges comprehensively.

The approach that One Tam’s partners undertook in forming and building that partnership is similar to that of many landscape stewardship networks and represents a shift in process and governance,” said Ms. Farrell.  “It acknowledges that traditional decision-making processes and organizational structures don’t readily scale up. Regional networks require working together in new collaborative partner-based approaches where traditional authority is replaced with influencing and empowering versus directing and commanding action.

In One Tam’s fifth year, researchers published a report highlighting the impacts that the partnership had achieved.  The research revealed that sustained collaboration requires high levels of trust and connectivity between partners and their networks.  Only when these foundational impacts of trust and connectivity are met can outcome-based impacts such as direct activities on the ground achieve scalable outcomes.

At that time, all of the executives involved in this partnership agreed that they would invest in the capacity because they knew that that shared culture was critical,” said Ms. Farrell.  “They have invested in staff, money, and resources in the capacity to ensure the partnership’s functionality and that every member sees themselves as a collaborative leader.”

She pointed out that One Tam’s story of impact does not stand alone; Stewardship networks of varying sizes are achieving impacts throughout California and nationally. Another example is the North Coast Regional Partnership, a model for integrating water and land management needs at a regional scale. 

Ms. Farrell said that the state is looking for regional approaches to advance collaborative landscape-scale stewardship, and agencies and legislators are still seeking specific roles the state can play to activate and sustain this work at a regional scale.

Through our work, we’re learning that integrated multi-benefit work can best be achieved as state agencies keep their mission and keep their focus and integrate their efforts with other state agencies through regional networks because those can be both accountable and adaptable over time,” she said.  “The integration happens on the landscape itself at a scale commensurate with the desired outcomes.”

In conclusion …

As you explore what water conveyance and other priority water portfolio goals to undertake, I would offer that let’s work together,” said Ms. Farrell.  “Networks provide a really important tool. Consider networks as regional hubs that can integrate these and other multiple state goals together to achieve landscape-scale impact. When thinking about green infrastructure investments, we can think about them in the context of regional natural resource stewardship networks, so those green infrastructure investments are integrated into broader natural capital goals for our region.”

The value of networks is that they can target long-term priorities, they could integrate complex purposes, be adaptive to climate change plans and needs, and build the necessary social infrastructure and connectivity to meet these needs. But doing so means we need to invest in their ongoing capacity and the infrastructure, such as having a coordinator or organization serving as a backbone. We recognize too the bond funds are not currently seen as a good source of funding for this kind of work. But we ask that you keep this in the back of your minds going forward as there may be opportunities to influence the state in making long-term investments in sustained network capacity and infrastructure. This will help ensure increased impact, durability, and inclusivity.”

The importance of working on landscape-scale is sometimes overwhelming, but it has become widely recognized within the National Conservation Stewardship community as essential.  Larger projects with multiple benefits are absolutely critical to address effectively the challenges of building climate change resiliency, maintaining biodiversity, connecting wildlife corridors, protecting water supplies, and restoring ecosystem benefits and services.  As the complexity and scale of environmental, social, and economic challenges continue to grow, place-based regional networks are very likely the true vehicle to keep pace with these and other challenges that we foresee.”

DR. MICHAEL KIPARSKY: Multi-benefit project governance and the role of innovation

My starting point is the assumption not only that we need more multi-benefit natural infrastructure in California water but that we need to accelerate a paradigm shift towards viewing multi-benefit natural infrastructure as the baseline expectation for our water management efforts going forward,” Dr. Kiparsky began.  “Gray typically single-purpose infrastructure is no longer universally a good fit for California when you think about it narrowly with respect to gray infrastructure and its abilities to meet defined goals in the face of changing conditions. But it’s also not ideal given the widely recognized need to incorporate broader sets of interests, including ecosystems, disadvantaged communities, and others in how we manage our water and natural systems.”

He suggested the Commission think beyond the traditional notions of conveyance and emphasize taking advantage of existing natural waterways, including setback levees and new ways of managing streams, rivers, and floodplains.  The state has the opportunity to explicitly recognize the potential of conveyance that goes beyond just moving water from its source to its point of human use and includes slowing down the passage of water, enabling it to contribute to multiple aspects of the hydrologic cycle to provide as many uses and benefits as possible before it leaves the system.

So how can we actualize the full potential of multi-benefit projects?  To figure this out, it moves beyond technical questions of developing new techniques into institutional questions of how to govern integrative projects amidst fragmented institutions that were not designed for this new paradigm.

What I’d love to see us aim for is embodied by formal cost-sharing and joint decision making, but our institutions, as they now stand, can stand in the way,” said Dr. Kiparsky. 

‘Weak’ vs. ‘strong’ multi-benefit projects

The Yolo Bypass is a well-known multi-benefit landscape.  The Yolo Bypass enables flood flows to leave the Sacramento River, inundating a massive area above Sacramento to reduce pressure on levees.  As it does so, it benefits juvenile salmonids, waterfowl, and native vegetation, provides community and recreational benefits, and it even contributes mildly to groundwater recharge.

Now, despite its immense and multifaceted value, I would define this as a weak multi-benefit effort from a governance perspective,” said Dr. Kiparsky.  “Why? Because the Yolo Bypass is operated and governed primarily as a flood control project.  So, for example, when native vegetation grows in the floodway and reduces the flood conveyance capacity, the vegetation gets mowed down despite its other values that it might have for ecosystems and society.  This is not a bad thing. There’s no value judgment I’m making here. It’s just how it is.  Because of this, I might describe the Yolo bypass more accurately as ‘single benefit plus’ rather than multi-benefit.  As significant as the non-flood risk management benefits are, they are ultimately ancillary and subsidiary to those for which the project is primarily managed for.”

The Yolo bypass is an anomaly in that it has the luxury of immensity, but most of the projects that will be considered by the Commission likely will have trade-offs in their management if they’re managed for multiple benefits, he said.   However, if they are conceived originally as multi-benefit and not opportunistically developed in this way, then there could be an expectation of more sophisticated joint management.

The Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer Recharge Program in Idaho is an example of a large-scale program where junior groundwater users divert wet season streamflow at a very large scale – 258,000 acre feet a year on average, and recharge it using existing conveyance systems, existing canals, and associated infrastructure. This increases downstream streamflows later in the year, allowing senior water rights holders to avoid calls to the junior users.

Now there are some issues here, and it’s complex,” acknowledged Dr. Kiparsky.  “But this illustrates the opportunities that arise from a legal system or a governance system that recognizes the hydrological reality of interconnected groundwater and surface water.  This is something that we have struggled with here in California or and people trying to think of incentives struggle with this idea.”

The Heyborne Ponds recharge project in Colorado is a multi-benefit project that simultaneously seeks to promote wildlife conservation, address threatened and endangered species recovery, support recreation, and facilitate water availability for agriculture.  Recharge ponds create migratory bird habitat, and the resulting infiltrated water reaches the river with a time delay, which allows for a retiming of surface water flows closer to times of deficit for water users.  Doing so aids compliance with legal requirements for both additional surface water use and for meeting downstream threatened and endangered species protection requirements.

This project is a couple of orders of magnitude smaller than the other examples, but I’d argue that this is the best example of a strong project from a governance perspective,” said Dr. Kiparsky.  “That’s because a range of stakeholders, state agencies, environmental groups, and local water entities not only came together in collaboration to support a project, but they all contributed funding at significant amounts relative to the total project costs. This happened in part because the benefits are clearly spelled out, distributed, and they’re accounted for with daily metering and modeling. So clarity has led to the opportunity for actual cost-sharing in this project. That’s a little bit different than a lot of the other managed aquifer recharge projects.

Setting the bar for multi-benefit projects

California’s moonshot effort to implement Flood MAR calls for multi-benefit nature projects, but it appears, at least on the surface, to set a low bar for weak multi-benefit projects, said Dr. Kiparksy.  “To quote, Flood MAR is designed to be multi-benefit, providing flood risk reduction, drought preparedness, aquifer replenishment, ecosystem enhancement, and other potential benefits.  Now, this is a great goal on the surface. But if you think about it, it’s lacking in at least a couple of ways.”

First, it’s almost automatic that a project that draws on high flow water and recharges it will, at some level, reduce downstream flows, thus at least incrementally reducing flood risk by definition.  Not necessarily a problem, but also does that mean that a project that does both of those things is special and deserves the term multi-benefit?” 

Second, the relative or absolute magnitudes of these secondary benefits in this list isn’t mentioned, and its level isn’t stated for qualification or validation. Again, it’s not to say that qualification and validation is not happening – it is.  But it is useful to emphasize the notions with specificity and to do so more clearly as Flood MAR scales beyond the pilots and demonstration projects that, by their nature, have so much attention paid to them.”

Stakeholder input, buy-in, and collaboration have become truisms in this business, and this has happened just over the last decades, he said, acknowledging that it can be quite difficult.  

I’d suggest that even great success in these measures in these ways leaves the possibility open to both thinking about how to incentivize hard work of this kind, but also the potential to envision a higher standard,” said Dr. Kiparksy.  “I would assert that the ultimate realization of multi-benefit projects tends towards a reversal of the jurisdictional fragmentation that has arisen from our tendency to artificially divide the hydrological cycle up for our convenience in managing one piece of it at a time.”

In my view, this reversal will have two parts from the perspective of multi-benefit projects. First, it will have not only broad collaboration among disparate interests, but joint funding for project costs will signify true buy-in from these disparate parties. Second, and relatedly, the joint management of a project will include joint decision-making that allocates benefits on an ongoing basis when trade-offs are necessary.  That will become necessary in some projects.” 

Both of these are markers of a robust model for joint governance that, if actualized, would help with funding because more sources of funding can be brought to bear.  Also, less legal conflict reduces costs in terms of legal fees and reduces delays in urgently needed projects.

So how do we get there?

Dr. Kiparksy then gave some thoughts on what needs to be done.

Clarity:  “There needs to be an effort to get clear on what we need, and that will happen over time. It will involve refining the necessary metrics, needs, and definitions, and continuing to get quantitative, where appropriate.” 

Legitimization:  More clarity will help ultimately contribute to legitimization.  “A definition of legitimacy that I really like is ‘taken for grantedness.’  That legitimacy comes over time through proven concepts and a suite of socially relevant activities.”

Funding requirements:  Monitoring is expensive and may seem like overhead, but because of the innovation lifecycle, it is all deeply justified.  “The work that Jenny’s doing on these case studies, and Graham’s doing on his case studies – that expense and effort is necessary because proving early concepts with clear understanding is perhaps the best way ultimately to generate heuristic measures that can make accounting more efficient in the future. More importantly, the Heyborne project illustrates clear accounting is an important driver for decisions to join in formal cost-sharing, at least in many cases.”

Institutional and organizational change at the state level:  “To its credit, the Department of Water Resources created a division of multi-benefit projects. As I understand it, it serves primarily as an internal facilitator and instigator of these types of projects, but its role can be expanded as well.  The state has also embedded the multi-benefit concept in high-level policy documents – the governor’s Water Resilience Portfolio calls out multi-benefit projects of various kinds. These are really good signals. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that stronger policy change may be necessary to overcome the types of cultural inertia that might exist in engineering-based organizations that have long focused on concrete and steel.

I’m arguing for a paradigm shift which flips the baseline expectation, such that multi-benefit becomes the assumption rather than the other way around,” he said. “Some steps include embedding multi-benefit processes, outcomes, and concepts in the funding selection criteria for projects.  More importantly, can the state develop more concrete agency-level policy directives that explicitly direct agency staff to consider multi-benefit natural infrastructure as the norm and as the go-to option and ones that are crafted for long-term predictability so as to transcend, for example, political turnover?


Assistant Executive Officer Laura Jensen noted that at times in conversations, sometimes it feels like if you call everything multi-benefit, are we losing the ability to really emphasize these important co-governed co-developed projects?  Green infrastructure – is that different than multi-benefit? It’s using our natural systems rather than thinking of it as just an engineering problem, and it can have built-in ecosystem benefits.

Dr. Kiparsky:  “My kids like The Incredibles, the Pixar movie.  ‘If everyone’s special, then no one is.’  And I think you’re capturing that notion. That’s a lot of what drives these remarks.  This is a hard question for me to answer succinctly because you have to ask what green infrastructure is and at what scale are you doing it? Green infrastructure can take a lot of forms, and it can be done in single benefit ways.  An example might be urban green infrastructure that really is put in place to control stormwater for very specific regulatory reasons. And it’s done as an alternative to gray infrastructure that may have essentially the same suite of benefits. So green infrastructure, in and of itself, doesn’t necessarily guarantee multi-benefit-ness.”

That said, what I’d like to see is a recognition of the potential for natural infrastructure, which may be the preferred term for green infrastructure here, because green infrastructure often refers to stormwater projects in particular, but natural infrastructure does have much more potential to have a broader suite of benefits naturally. … yes, I think natural infrastructure is more amenable to the multi-benefit concept, as I’m thinking about it.  The reason is that our landscapes are so heavily used, and so limited in the availability of new sites, that essentially handicapping the potential to check multiple boxes is something that will happen more often with concrete structures than with natural structures.”

Another comparison between natural infrastructure and gray infrastructure is that natural infrastructure at scale often has larger capital costs than gray infrastructure. However, it matures over time rather than degrading over time. It’s an appreciating asset in some cases when designed well because natural infrastructure can harness natural processes.  The benefits of those functioning natural processes can accrue over time as they mature, plants grow, and so forth. So there are these distinctions in how one thinks about it economically. But absolutely, the notion of natural infrastructure is more congruent with this multi-benefit nature. That’s a paradigm shift; I would love it if this Commission could start thinking about in its activities to make recommendations, particularly funding recommendations.”

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