By Paul Cereghino, NOAA Restoration Center
In our green coastal crescent, around a billion liters of water falls on every square kilometer of land. It would form a waist-deep lake to the horizon, if it didn’t run to the sea. In the mountains, the deluge would cover over our heads, but it is caught in snowfields, glaciers and forests, recharging over a dozen montane rivers that have given us salmon to eat since time before memory. The ocean gives us a lot to work with.
It used to be that almost all the rain went into the ground, bubbling up in springs, or pooling in wetlands and beaver ponds. But we’ve been altering this system by cutting forests and draining swamps for six or seven generations. Now our population is growing by 100,000 people every three to four years, surging with in-migration from other parts of the country. The fate of the landscape rests in a spaghetti pile of local, state, and federal authorities, rules, rights, and regulations that try to protect the stream habitats that produce salmon. We call the area of greatest influence on streams and rivers the “riparian zone,” which NRC defines as:
We seem obsessed with the line between “riparian” and “non-riparian.” Riparian zone boundaries can hinge on a single number, or spin endlessly around the legal definitions of words like “significant.” In reality, the upland influences on water bodies are not described by a line, and aquatic exchanges reach deeply into the watershed. The boundary between riparian management and watershed management is legitimately blurry (see Booth et al. 2004 or Allen 2004). Watershed conditions can overwhelm buffers to degrade streams. Outside the legalistic arena, “riparian zone management” as a holistic practice might include streamside reforestation, channel restoration, floodplain reconnection, and wetland enhancement-- as well as management of soils, irrigation, nutrients, and forests-- and depends on constraints and incentives to affect the extent and character of watershed development. It is likely that stewardship of the rain is not a legal product, but an emergent property of a culture.
Recent proliferation of high resolution topographic and land cover data presents the opportunity to curate precise maps of hydrologic landscapes, and their ecological and social context. We can identify not only mapped streams, but natural flow pathways based on topography and land cover. We can define watersheds by an infinite variety of assessment units and attributes. We can anticipate landscape change, and the potential services of each private parcel. This vast potential for analyses however, does not change on-the-ground conditions. Analysis must interact with field effort over time to remain relevant.
Actual riparian zone management requires knocking on doors, sending out fliers, hosting community meetings, developing and monitoring designs and contracts, procuring materials, and mobilizing and supporting crews, volunteers, and contractors. Everyone plays a role: local government and tribal programs, special districts, non-governmental organizations, state and federal workgroups, and perhaps most importantly, private landowners. Among all the legal, practical, ecological, social, and political aspects of riparian zone management, is a phenomenal opportunity for strategic incoherence-- where abundant good intentions add up to insufficient on-the-ground work.
Every good adventure book has a map under the front cover. How can digital geographic tools increase the strategic cohesion and social relevance of watershed management? NOAA Restoration Center and the Snohomish Sustainable Lands Strategy partners have been working to aggregate and develop high resolution renderings of lowland riparian landscape in the Stillaguamish and Snohomish basins. These efforts aim to provoke conversations among landowners, field practitioners, and policy partners about how we approach the culture, economy, and ecology of our rainforest landscape.
We would like to hear your stories of innovative water management, so we can better integrate planning and practice to enable ecosystem stewardship. I suspect we are not working towards another report, another assessment, or another prioritization. Our challenge is how to make our knowledge and technology part of a practical neighborhood culture. If we require a government contract or regulation to manage every part of the watershed, we will likely fail. It’s likely that stewardship must emerge from a deeper understanding and personal commitment to place. We will need different maps of our lands, our neighborhoods, and our watersheds that help us tend the rain.
Paul Cereghino (firstname.lastname@example.org) has managed grants and ecosystem projects in Puget Sound for NOAA Restoration Center since 2003 following a career in landscape construction. NOAA Restoration Center manages national programs that provides federal funds and technical assistance to restore the nation’s fisheries.
Allan, D.J. 2004. Landscapes and riverscales: the influence of land use on stream ecosystems. Annual Review of Ecological and Evolutionary Systems, vol. 35, 257-284.
Booth, D.B., J.R. Karr, S. Schauman, C.P. Konrad, S.A. Morley, M.G. Larson, and S.J. Burges. 2004. Reviving urban streams: land use, hydrology, biology, and human behavior. Journal of the American Water Resource Association, October 1351-1364.
National Research Council. 2002. Riparian Areas: Functions and Strategies for Management. By the Committee on Riparian Zone Functioning and Strategies for Management, Water Science and Technology Board, National Research Council. National Academies Press, 444 pp.
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