Thinking Like a Region, No Walk in the Park

Thinking Like a Region, No Walk in the Park

Joe Eaton

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Download: Estuary News, October 2013 PDF

Creeks and rivers are the living veins of the Estuary. A hundred-plus streams flow into San Francisco Bay proper. Together with the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and their tributaries, they drain 40 percent of the state. These waterways provide habitat for river otters and mergansers, passage for salmon and steelhead, and sediment to build the Bay’s mudflats. Flowing through cities and farmlands, they also pick up less welcome ingredients: mercury from nineteenth-century mine tailings, copper from worn brake pads, and a toxic brew of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. These compromise the health of the Estuary and all its inhabitants. Converting natural landscape to hardscape not only adds to the pollutant load; it changes natural flows. With higher flows, streams cut deeper, banks erode, habitat is lost; with lower flows, groundwater doesn’t get recharged.

Oakland skyline. Photo: Robert Marshak

The damage, for the most part, is unintentional. For all those “Flows to Bay” signs on city sidewalks, many people don’t realize that what they do on land eventually gets into waterways and affects everything downstream. With land use regulation still the third rail of California environmental policy, we continue to build in floodplains and on creek banks—with unfortunate results for both human residents and aquatic ecosystems.

In general, land use actions suggested in the CCMP include broad concepts, such as not building in sensitive habitats or on floodplains, and planning growth with the watershed in mind. Or they include more targeted actions like setbacks to discourage creek side construction, Bay-friendly landscaping practices, or keeping cows out of streams. All of these measures are easier said than done.

The group that met in 1993 to develop CCMP objectives for land use and watershed management stepped gingerly out into a regulatory minefield. “We were trying to address environmental issues that went beyond the purview of existing government entities, and affected stakeholders at opposite ends of the spectrum, from builders’ trade groups to creek advocates,” says Steve McAdam, then with BCDC. Land use decisions had always been made at the local level, and with watershed, stream and Bay protection taking a back seat to more pressing development issues. Even after CCMP participants took regional limits on land uses impacting waterways off the table for political reasons, the group struggled to reach consensus.

McAdam says the hope was that local governments would adopt co-management of watersheds that ran through multiple jurisdictions. The CCMP attempted to suggest how that might happen. When stakeholders met again in 2007 to update the CCMP’s land use management objectives, their new approach encouraged local watershed management plans and stewardship councils. Alongside those were broader objectives: regional policies to protect and restore natural floodplains, promote compact contiguous development, and—a departure from 1993—develop consistent policies for coping with climate change.

Compared to other arenas of change proposed in the CCMP, watershed management was a hard nut to crack, according to Harry Seraydarian, who once chaired the CCMP management committee and now runs the North Bay Watershed Association. Six years later, local initiatives abound, but regional-scale and interagency coordination remains elusive. “We’re still doing a poor job of collaborating on land use decisions that impact water resources,” Seraydarian contends.

Drilling Down on Watersheds

From the outset, one of the biggest obstacles to coherent watershed management has been coordinating across multiple jurisdictions. Much is happening at the local level, but quantifying just how much isn’t easy. No central regulatory authority or informational clearinghouse for watershed management plans exists in the Bay Area. Nor does a standard template for drafting such plans.

To get a better handle on the level of watershed planning across the region, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership distributed a survey to 101 Bay Area cities and all 9 counties in 2012. They received responses from 52 cities and 8 counties. Based on those responses, ten cities had watershed plans. A few others, including San Francisco, had plans under review. On the county level, Marin, Contra Costa, Alameda, and Napa reported that they had watershed plans. Over half the responding cities had also enacted creek setback ordinances. Some cities have folded watershed management into their general plans: “Watershed planning objectives are being met in a variety of ways at the local level,” says the Partnership’s Caitlin Sweeney.

On a parallel track, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board has been promoting watershed management slowly but steadily since the early 1990s. It has been requiring cities and counties to have stormwater management plans, the logic being that where stormwater drains, so drains the watershed. The Board also requires on-site stormwater treatment or retention in new and redevelopment building projects involving over 10,000 square feet of impervious surface, and even lowers that limit to 5,000 square feet for uses such as gas stations and uncovered parking lots.

Many Bay Area cities have embraced the stormwater management approaches pioneered in Portland and Seattle, and put low-impact design standards for municipal buildings in place. Berkeley, which took on a pilot study for two of its eleven watersheds—the “ghost creeks” once known as Potter/Derby as well as largely natural Codornices Creek—may be representative. Josh Bradt, now with the Partnership, helped develop the plan.

“The core component was combining green infrastructure approaches with needed upgrades to the existing drainage infrastructure to achieve water quality improvements, flood reductions, community beautification, and habitat improvement,” he explains. The process included a consultant’s analysis of the two watersheds and back-and-forth with city public works staff to ensure the plan accounted for increased maintenance workloads. Berkeley’s city council adopted the plan in 2012 and made it part of a capital improvement bond measure, which voters approved.

Beyond the official plans, the attempt to promote watershed-based stewardship groups, an action item added to the CCMP in 2007, is a clear success. “You’ve got a ‘Friends of’ group on almost every significant tributary,” says Seraydarian. But the effectiveness of such groups varies. Beyond hands-on creek cleanups and replanting, some are doing serious restoration. Surveying the North Bay watershed scene, Seraydarian calls out the Sonoma Ecology Center—“a mini-San Francisco Estuary Institute, with technical people doing technical work”—for its achievements on Sonoma Creek. In Marin County, Friends of Corte Madera Creek is also addressing the flood control/habitat nexus. The North Bay group, he says, is “trying to push more integrated concepts to get healthier watersheds. The fundamental difference between the North Bay and the rest of the Bay Area is population density. The North Bay’s tributaries are less impacted, and there’s more opportunity to protect them.”

With the help of many partners, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership coordinates the Bay Area Watersheds Network, a regional forum where these groups can share information, ideas, and tools through workshops and an online “Collaboration Corner.” The Partnership has also championed initiatives for low impact development and green infrastructure, and a Small and Micro Grants Program for watershed health. Last year urban planner Adrien Baudrimont took on a Bay Area creek mouth assessment for the Partnership, cataloging details on site history, substrate quality, and vegetation conditions, and looking for restoration triggers like the presence of endangered species or steelhead spawning habitat. Governments and citizens will be able to access the resulting inventory.

Another project, Flood Control 2.0, has pilot sites on San Francisquito Creek near Palo Alto, Novato Creek in Marin County, and on Walnut Creek. “We’re taking advantage of a time in history where the flood control infrastructure around the Bay needs maintenance,” says the Partnership’s Sweeney. “We want to seize the opportunity to think more broadly and redesign flood control facilities to increase the resiliency of watersheds in the face of sea level rise. And we want to incorporate habitat benefits too.”

A third of the cities surveyed by the San Francisco Estuary Partnership had creek restoration projects or programs. Those principles are being applied on a larger scale in watersheds that cross city lines. “The cutting edge in restoration is the Napa River,” Seraydarian adds. “In the past, the Army Corps of Engineers’ solution to flood control was to channelize everything. Napa was the first to come up with the ‘living river’ concept, an alternative design that protected downtown Napa from flooding and enhanced habitat. That’s the project that changed things.”

In the South Bay, the Santa Clara Valley Water District created a Water Resources Protection Collaborative, which has promulgated standards for development along streams. The county adopted those standards, including slope stability triggers for construction setbacks, as did most of the county’s cities. The District also developed stewardship plans for four watersheds within its jurisdiction. Though not as proactive as Santa Clara, many other counties have taken similar steps at different levels to promote sound watershed stewardship and flood control along waterways.

Recent Milestones in Regional Planning

One step closer to the CCMP’s goal of regional coordination was the passage of Proposition 50 in 2002, which established the Integrated Regional Water Management Program, a nine-county effort to address water supply reliability, water quality, flood protection, and habitat. Seraydarian explains that IRWMP’s coverage doesn’t completely coincide with that of the CCMP, since it includes North Bay watersheds that don’t drain to San Francisco Bay yet excludes Delta counties. “But there’s been good constructive overlap between the two perspectives,” he adds. “When the CCMP looked at the health of the Estuary, they couldn’t ignore water supply diversions. When the state came up with IRWMP, they couldn’t ignore all the other aspects that are impacted by water supply reliability. Both reinforce the coequal goals.”

One of the most hopeful regional initiatives is Plan Bay Area, a joint venture of the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. The Plan, developed over the past four years and approved this June, encourages compact contiguous development with emphasis on urban infill, and the integration of new housing and transportation needs.

Although cities and counties retain local land use authority, areas that have identified themselves as welcoming denser development will get extra funding from MTC. That will spare small cities, single-family neighborhoods, and rural areas from inappropriate growth. “We’ve had a lot of plans over the decades,” says Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia, “but Plan Bay Area is different because it links development patterns to how we spend transportation money. It’s meant to encourage people to drive less and take more mass transit.”

Pursuant to the Delta Protection Act of 1992, the Delta Protection Commission has also adopted regionally significant policies. These protect the rural character of the Delta’s Primary Zone, directing new residential development toward existing unincorporated towns and encouraging clustered housing, buffers between farmland and residential or industrial development, plus setbacks from levees.

Some see hopeful signs of a new development paradigm. “There have been fundamental changes in the way we use land, our approach to urban growth, housing demand, and construction,” says consultant Barry Nelson. “Instead of building out into diked baylands over the last 20 years, we’ve revitalized our cities.”

The region has had to be forward-thinking, because so much valuable real estate and infrastructure is built on bay fill at sea level. To this end, local agencies recently launched a project called Adapting to Rising Tides (the ART Project), a collaborative planning effort to help San Francisco Bay Area communities be more resilient in the face of storm event flooding and rising seas.

Looking back, McAdam considers the CCMP a qualified success in the land use arena: “It was helpful in pointing out areas the region needs to address and having state agencies address them. It also succeeded in getting the EPA to be more active in a local land-use role and educating the Corps of Engineers about protection of seasonal wetlands. Since 1993, there’s more communication between local government entities on issues that pass out of their jurisdiction.”

Today’s harsh economic climate has made it harder for the government to acquire more open space, protect more watersheds, and curb greenhouse gas emissions. Some things can be done without funding, but not all things. “It’s a question of political will,” says McAdam. “Are we ready to take steps to regulate land use more strongly, even if it means saying no to developers and their promised tax revenues?”

However it happens, land use has to be addressed. Benicia’s mayor, Elizabeth Patterson, worked on developing the CCMP as a state water scientist. She calls land use management “the most cost effective, reliable and long-term beneficial strategy across the platform of subject areas of the CCMP. Maybe land use is not considered a science or is too politically challenging, but the failure to embrace land use makes it harder for other resource management strategies to adapt to climate change.”

Projects Implementing Land Use Goals 1993-2013: 175

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