The following completed projects are an important part of NHI’s history. They represent some, but not all, of NHI’s important contributions to water management and environmental restoration in California and the US. They also represent the breadth of NHI’s expertise.
Within NHI’s project portfolio, conjunctive management is a common strategy that is employed to augment water supply. In the eleven regulated tributaries of the Central Valley of California, NHI developed a system-wide roadmap to show how reoperating existing reservoirs in conjunction with storing a larger fraction of peak flows in groundwater banks can generate surplus water to restore more natural flow patterns in this immense and complicated water system. Conjunctive management technique can substantially improve the capacity of existing infrastructure to control flood events. It provides water for ecosystem restoration while also satisfying growing demand from agricultural and urban users.
In the Sacramento Valley NHI worked in collaboration with the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District, the Northern California Water Authority and local water managers to explore options for linking the largest federal Central Valley Project reservoir (Lake Shasta) and the State Water Project reservoir (Lake Oroville) with the local groundwater system to produce additional firm water supplies. In this case, conjunctive management held the promise of improving supply reliability, eliminating risk factors associated with increasing groundwater use, restoring aquatic habitats in the Sacramento and Feather River basins, and buffering effects of climate change. The project was funded by the United States Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources. Also in California, NHI investigated legal interventions to extend the administration of the water rights system to encompass tributary groundwater.
In Rio Grande-Rio Bravo Basin, the University of Texas at Austin, NHI, the United States Geological Survey, WWF-Mexico, Universidad Autonoma de Ciudad Juarez, and Instituto Mexicano de Tecnologica del Agua examined the hydro-physical opportunities for expanding beneficial uses of the fixed and highly variable water supply in the Rio Grande Basin to better address an array of possible water management objectives, including satisfying currently unmet consumptive and environmental water needs. The river is one of the most environmentally degraded rivers in North America, described by former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt as a “water system in crisis.” The project was designed to be a comprehensive, outcome-neutral, model-based planning exercise that will illuminate the potential for reducing future conflicts over water throughout the entire basin.
Conjunctive management is also the foundation for many of NHI’s prospective international water management projects, including the Chao Praya in Southeast Asia, the Yellow River in China and the Hadejia Nguru in Nigeria.
Bay Delta Water System Reforms
Once encompassing over 350,000 acres of freshwater tidal marsh and hosting a vast array of endemic species, California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is one of the most transformed landscapes in the world. Today it is a mosaic of islands fringed by urban sprawl, tenuously protected by a network of fragile levees. Despite its wholesale transformation, the delta still provides critical habitat for endangered and declining species. It is also the water conveyance system for 23 million Californians and a billion-dollar agricultural economy. Urbanization behind the delta’s levees and the risk of their permanent and catastrophic failure during an earthquake or flood threatens delicate ecosystems and the water supply.
Since 1989, NHI has undertaken several initiatives in partnership with other environmental organizations, water districts, and government agencies to restore stability and sustainability to the delta, including:
- Acted as a leading environmental advocate through eight years of administrative trials leading to the current water quality control plan that limits water exports from the delta to protect its fish and wildlife;
- Successfully petitioned for listing of endangered fish species under the Endangered Species Act;
- Negotiated the “delta accords” that produced the CalFed Bay Delta Program;
- Staffed and infused the CalFed program with some of its core concepts including the Environmental Water Account, conjunctive management of surface and groundwater, and restoration as a way to reduce seismic risk, through the promulgation of the Environmentally Optimal Alternative: A Response to the CalFed Bay Delta Program;
- Environmental Water Account – NHI originated the concept of a “water district for the environment” which has been implemented in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water system as the “Environmental Water Account” (EWA). The EWA is now the largest purchaser of water in California. Through prudent use of its property rights in water and its storage and delivery infrastructure, the EWA can dictate water diversion patterns to benefit aquatic species and improve flow conditions. It provides an adaptive strategy that allows for complex and unpredictable interactions between biological
- Negotiated the Vernalis Adaptive Management Program, a water quality compliance alternative for that part of the system, with the San Joaquin water districts, the U.S, Bureau of Reclamation, and other federal and state agencies;
- As a member of the BDCP Steering Committee, NHI actively negotiated a Habitat Conservation Plan and Natural Communities Conservation Plan for the Bay Delta with water exporters and the fish and wildlife agencies; and
- In partnership with the Contra Costa Water District and several state and other local agencies, NHI worked on the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Restoration Project to restore tidal marsh and associated wetland and terrestrial habitats on 1,166 acres near Oakley in eastern Contra Costa County. Another goal of was to provide habitat for endangered winter-run Chinook salmon, threatened spring-run Chinook salmon, Sacramento splittail, other native aquatic species, as well as terrestrial species such as western pond turtle, black rail, and waterfowl.
System reoperation in the context of water resources means changing existing operation and management procedures for a water resources system consisting of supply and conveyance facilities and end user demands, with the goal of increasing desired benefits from the system. System reoperation may seek to improve existing water facilities to meet existing system needs more efficiently and reliably, or it may seek to prioritize one system need over another.
In 2008, the California legislature (through Senate Bill X2 1) instructed the Department of Water Resources to investigate the potential for more optimal management of existing infrastructure to provide three types of benefits:
- Improved water supply reliability,
- Flood risk reduction, and
- Ecosystem restoration.
As this mandate was inspired largely by work that NHI has been doing on system optimization in the Central Valley, NHI was engaged to play a leading role in formulating the reoperation scenarios.
The question posed by the legislature was simply, how far is it possible to go in the direction of these three objectives through more integrated management arrangements, and what are the incremental infrastructure improvements that would be necessary to actualize that potential? The logic of this project is that while conventional water storage solutions, such as more dams, have limited potential in California, there is large potential for unconventional storage approaches, such as reoperating reservoirs in conjunction with the groundwater systems and utilizing historic floodplains to store and convey controlled flood events.
Environmental Flow Restoration
In connection to NHI’s work of California, NHI carried out projects to restore damaged aquatic ecosystems to achieve a flow and sediment regime that resembles natural conditions to the greatest extent possible. Restoring aquatic ecosystems provides a way for people to breathe new life into the rivers and estuaries that we rely upon but have unintentionally damaged. Restoration offers promise: not to turn back the clock and restore a state of unblemished nature, but to create a new future where robust economies thrive alongside healthy ecosystems.
Estimating Ecologically Based Flow Targets for the Sacramento and Feather Rivers was part of NHI’s conjunctive management project with the Glenn Colusa Irrigation District. The purpose of this study was to:
- Test the feasibility of reoperating terminal reservoirs in the Sacramento River Basin without diverting additional water away from agriculture,
- Develop a comprehensive hypothesis regarding the range of flows that may be necessary to restore ecological processes to the Sacramento River, and
- Use the environmental flow targets to inform and guide conjunctive use scenarios.
The development of environmental flow regimes is as much an art as a science, but we attempted, to the extent possible, to use established methods to develop a transparent and replicable approach for identifying and environmental flow regime. A holistic approach was applied to identify an environmental flow regime. It consisted of the following 6-step process:
- Identify specific environmental objectives (i.e., target species, aquatic and riparian communities, and desired ecological conditions that are flow dependent).
- Approximate the timing, magnitude, frequency, and duration (TMDF) of flows necessary to support target species, communities and desired ecological processes.
- Compare existing vs. historical hydrology to understand natural hydrologic patterns and how they have been altered.
- Identify obvious gaps between objective flow requirements and existing flows.
- Develop an environmental flow hydrograph to achieve ecological objectives based upon a clear understanding of historical and existing hydrologic patterns, and identify key hypotheses and uncertainties regarding the relationship between flow patterns and environmental objectives.
- Design an adaptive management program to further test and refine environmental flows.
The study focused on the magnitude and timing of flows necessary to replicate key ecological and geomorphic processes, and considered the flows necessary to provide suitable conditions for various life stages of Chinook salmon and steelhead. We relied on field data, modeling results, and studies, particularly The Nature Conservancy Study of the Sacramento River, to identify the minimum flows and critical thresholds to achieve each of our objectives. We then analyzed historical and existing hydrology to understand how the objectives may have been achieved under pre-dam conditions and to evaluate how existing hydrology may fall short of meeting those objectives.
The San Joaquin Basin Ecological Flow Analysis evaluated the feasibility of restoring ecological and geomorphic flows on the rivers of the San Joaquin Basin without reducing water supply deliveries to existing water users. NHI’s thesis was that reservoirs operated today for a limited set of water supply and flood control objectives could be reoperated to achieve newly defined ecological objectives without compromising existing objectives. NHI developed and identified a hypothetical flow regime to:
- Test the feasibility of reoperating the terminal reservoirs in the San Joaquin Basin without diverting additional water away from agriculture, and
- Develop a comprehensive hypothesis regarding the range of flows that may be necessary to restore ecological processes to the rivers of the San Joaquin Basin.
We conducted over 1,150 “runs” encompassing 16 combinations of strategies and conditions on all four tributaries for a 16-20 year time span. The study concluded, among other things, that Creating or augmenting existing high flows to increase the frequency of meeting geomorphic and riparian flow targets was possible without reducing deliveries to existing water users. Although reoperation of reservoirs does increase the risk that existing users will face a shortage under certain conditions, groundwater banking is a promising strategy for reducing risk associated with reoperating reservoirs more aggressively to achieve instream flow objectives. Lastly, it will not be practical or feasible to achieve some important ecological objectives without expanding floodway capacity and changing existing flood rules.
NHI’s Sierra Meadows project aimed to understand important water management functions and developed a suite of integrated water quality, quantity and habitat restoration strategies that protect and restore the functions of Sierra meadow wetlands. These wetlands are prevalent throughout the headwaters of the Sierra watersheds and make up a critical but often overlooked part of Northern Sierra Nevada watershed system, which forms an immense natural and engineered water supply that provides approximately 60 percent of California’s water. In addition, this planning effort considered the role of Sierra meadows in terms of attenuating flood flows and promoting water quality under a range of climate change scenarios. It involved a robust stakeholder process combined with a team of multidisciplinary professionals from a range of organizations with experience in the area.
Habitat Improvement for Native Fish in the Yolo Bypass examined the feasibility of managing a portion of the Yolo Bypass to improve habitat for aquatic species, particularly native fishes such as Chinook salmon and splittail. The project’s primary objective was to recommend a specific demonstration-scale managed floodplain inundation program in the Yolo Bypass that could be implemented over one to two years. However, this study also proposed possibilities for larger-scale, collaborative efforts that better address major habitat issues over the long term. It is envisioned that early results from the demonstration-scale project will inform these longer-term efforts. The analysis was completed by a project team consisting of Natural Heritage Institute (NHI), California Department of Water Resources (DWR), California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), and Yolo Basin Foundation, with assistance from consultants Northwest Hydraulic Consultants (NHC), Gus Yates (consulting hydrologist), Peter Kiel (legal analyst), and Jones and Stokes. The U.S. Army Corp.
Urban Streams – Marsh Creek Watershed Assessment & Restoration
Through the Urban Streams Program, NHI worked closely with municipalities, water districts, irrigation districts, flood control districts, regulators, creek groups, schools, and other stakeholders to identify opportunities to improve the management of urban streams for ecological benefits. NHI brought technical, cultural, and project management expertise to these collaborations. Urban streams and watersheds present particular challenges for aquatic ecosystem restoration projects. Complicating factors include non-point source pollution, streambed channelization, flood regulation facilities control, the large number of stakeholders and the dense infrastructure of the city. Yet even within these highly-constrained systems, successful restoration measures can be devised to benefit fisheries, aquatic species, and urban inhabitants who enjoy improved water quality and the recreation and educational opportunities that clean, green spaces provide.
NHI shepherded projects from assessment and problem identification through project implementation and adaptive management in many locations in the greater Bay-Area of California, including the Marsh Creek Watershed, the North Richmond Shoreline, Guadalupe River and Coyote and Stevens Creeks. The Marsh Creek watershed drains 128 square miles of rangeland, farmland, and urban land on the north side of Mt. Diablo and includes the cities of Oakley, Brentwood, and part of Antioch in eastern Contra Costa County, California. NHI worked with local stakeholders in all aspects of watershed planning in the Marsh Creek watershed, including efforts to restore Marsh Creek and its tributaries, improve water quality, benefit salmon fisheries (e.g. a fish passage project), and helped found a community organization, Friends of Marsh Creek Watershed to local citizens in restoration activities.
Hydropower Relicensing – Klamath River Basin Restoration
Starting in 1989, the Natural Heritage Institute served as counsel to conservation groups and state and local agencies in the relicensing of non-federal hydropower projects throughout the U.S., including:
- Pacific Northwest – Klamath River Basin Restoration
Negotiating relicenses provides an opportunity for dam operations to be altered to protect and restore fisheries, water quality, recreation and other beneficial uses of the affected rivers in a manner consistent with effective power generation. Hydropower is a source of renewable energy, but dams alter flows of water and sediment, and block or impair the passage of anadromous and riverine fish, often cutting them off from crucial spawning grounds. NHI’s hydropower program helped restore flows, biodiversity, and recreation in more than 2,000 river miles throughout the U.S. These settlements also require more than $2 billion in improvements of project facilities such as fish ladders, boating and hiking facilities, and parks.
NHI served as counsel to American Rivers and California Trout and functioned as a lead drafter of the Klamath River Basin settlements. The Restoration Agreement and the Hydropower Settlement were signed on February 18, 2010 by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, along with Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, PacifiCorp Chief Executive Officer Greg Abel and the chairmen of the Klamath, Yurok and Karuk Tribes. The Restoration Agreement will improve water management throughout the Basin through 2060. Under the Hydropower Settlement, PacifiCorp agrees to decommission its four dams on the Klamath. This undertaking represents the largest dam removal project ever proposed, and will open the upper basin to anadromous fisheries for the first time since 1918. Given the quality and scale of habitat in this basin (mostly now blocked by the hydropower project), we expect that, soon after 2020, the anadromous fisheries will again be among the largest on the entire West Coast.
In 1992, NHI helped form the Hydropower Reform Coalition, the Low Impact Hydropower Institute in 2001. In addition, on behalf of the California Hydropower Reform Coalition (CHRC), NHI negotiated a settlement (2003) in the bankruptcy reorganization of Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E).
Mono Lake (Public Trust)
NHI used the public doctrine in a variety of cases in urban as well as rural ecosystems, and in circumstances where damage to aquatic ecosystems has complex causes. We sought enforceable plans for restoration, including accountability for actual results.
The public trust doctrine originated in ancient Roman and English laws as a legal promise that the sovereign would maintain the public use of rivers for navigation, commerce, and fishing. It became part of U.S. common law in 1792. In its modern form, the doctrine requires each U.S. State to protect public trust resources – navigable waters and their submerged lands – against unnecessary harm associated with development such as water diversions, docks or in-fills. It complements the statutory and regulatory laws that generally govern uses of natural resources
From 1941 until 1989, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) diverted most natural flows from the freshwater tributaries of Mono Lake, because the State of California (in granting the permits in 1940) believed that municipal water supply trumped all other uses. NHI represented California Trout in the remedy phase of the Mono Lake Cases, which applied the public trust doctrine for the first time in the history of California, to limit water diversions from the lake. NHI negotiated a settlement that commits LADWP to reduce its diversions by nearly 75% on a long-term basis. LADWP will release flows and undertake other physical measures to restore the trout fisheries and riparian forests of these creeks and raise the lake to a level which provides sustainable habitat for grebes, ducks, seagulls and other migratory waterfowl.
Agricultural Water Use Efficiency
NHI originated and directed work to field-test and document the results of a variety of economic incentives to improve agricultural water use efficiency. This work was performed in collaboration with several agricultural water districts, that receive irrigation water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project and agricultural economists and water engineers from the University of California Berkeley, Davis and Riverside campuses.
- Precision Technology in Agricultural Water Use Efficiency – This project investigated whether or not adoption of precision technology like drip and microsprinkler irrigation has agricultural yield benefits. Working with field-level data in Westlands Water District, NHI and project partners statistically estimated the relationship between technology choice and yield per acre. If it is true that precision technology increases the amount of farm output produced with a given amount of water, then surplus water can be reallocated from agriculture without appreciable impacts to farmers or rural communities (i.e. employment effects). A 5 or 10% reallocation from agriculture to the environment would solve many instream quality problems. Controlling for environmental conditions, the project estimated that processing tomato yields are 10-15% higher when drip irrigation is used than when furrow or sprinkler irrigation is used.
- San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Drainage Program – NHI was retained by the federal and state governments to study reforms in water management practices and institutions in the San Joaquin Valley to address toxic drainage due to intense irrigated agricultural. The resulting report (1100 pages in length) constituted one of the pillars for the enactment in 1992 of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.
- Environmental Water Account – NHI originated the concept of a “water district for the environment” which has been implemented in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water system as the “Environmental Water Account” (EWA). The EWA is now the largest purchaser of water in California. Through prudent use of its property rights in water and its storage and delivery infrastructure, the EWA can dictate water diversion patterns to benefit aquatic species and improve flow conditions. It provides an adaptive strategy that allows for complex and unpredictable interactions between biological health, the water delivery system, and heavily altered aquatic ecosystems.
- Electronic Water Market – In 1996, NHI and project partners introduced the WaterLink electronic marketing system in Westlands Water District to reduce market transaction costs. In 1998, WaterLink was expanded to include ten additional water districts in the San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Authority on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. WaterLink provides an online platform for farmers to sell/transfer or buy/order water.
- At the Arvin Edison Water Storage District located in California’s Central Valley, NHI and partners tested tiered pricing of surface water and volumetric pricing of groundwater. We investigated the technical feasibility of groundwater banking in the area.
The results of this work comprised the richest data set compiled at the time on how farmers’ water use decisions respond to changes in water price and to market opportunities for conserved water.
Our work revealed that farmers make water conservation decisions depending on factors such as magnitude and expected duration of water scarcity, environmental conditions, farmer characteristics, crops grown, and availability and quality of groundwater. Conservation responses include fallowing, adoption of conservation technology, crop shifting, and groundwater pumping. Economic incentives are more efficient than regulation in inducing larger investments in water-conserving technologies and techniques in Western agriculture.
However, other factors appear to influence technology choice more than water price. For instance, landscape characteristics (slope, soil permeability) and microclimate (number of frost-free days) appear to have more influence. Thus, we should not expect a uniform response to changes in water price. Rather, responses will vary by location.