Conclusions and Recommendations
The Committee on Watershed Management began this study with the hypothesis that a watershed perspective is the best framework for integrating social, ecological, and economic aspects of water and water-related management issues. In this analysis, we found some cases where our hypothesis was true, and some where it was not. We also identified ways the watershed approach could be improved in its application. We confirmed that uncertainty associated with a watershed perspective was least at small scales and in relatively simple systems and greatest at large scales and in complex systems. Overall, the committee finds that the philosophy of watershed management is sound but there still is significant uncertainty associated with how to implement it, particularly in large watersheds. There is a real need to motivate changes in institutional behavior to make watershed approaches more effective, and for continued research targeted to fulfill the promise of watershed management.
This chapter summarizes the committee's analysis of how to improve the nation's implementation of watershed management, including some important general principles that place watershed management in a broad context, comments on reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, and recommendations for various agencies and others involved in watershed-related activities.
Successful Watershed Management
It is not possible, or necessarily desirable, to restore the nation's waters and watersheds to completely natural conditions to provide healthful water resources. But there is a need to stabilize, enhance, and restore to some degree our aquatic
and riparian ecosystems—that is, to achieve more ''normative" ecological conditions. Normative conditions occur where more natural discharge regimes predominate and where aquatic and riparian habitats are present in sufficient quantity, quality, and diversity to sustain food webs dominated by native species (Graf, 1996; Stanford, 1997; Stanford et al., 1996). Normative does not imply pristine conditions. Rather, the goal is to normalize key ecosystem attributes and processes to the extent that goals relating to water quality and quantity, fish production, biodiversity, and other watershed goods and services are met and sustained.
Successful watershed management strives for a better balance between ecosystem and watershed integrity and provision of human social and economic goals. Stanford (1997) discussed several general objectives that can be managed within a watershed context which can help the nation achieve more normative watershed conditions:
Reduce pollution sources by developing watershed water quality standards, such as using the concept of total maximum daily loads to control nonpoint source pollutants. Federal, state, and local laws provide water quality standards that safeguard drinking water, but they do not necessarily protect ecosystems or watershed integrity. One example is the drinking water standards for nitrate and nitrogen, which were designed to prevent methemoglobinemia in infants (blue baby syndrome), but which in many cases allow dissolved nitrogen levels high enough to cause excessive algae growths in streams and lakes.
Protect and enhance riparian zones with ecologically sound management practices such as buffer zones. The vegetation that grows along the edges of waterways, especially wetland vegetation and floodplain vegetation, provides critically important borders that buffer lakes and streams against upland pollution and streambank erosion. These riparian zones provide ecological functions, support native plants and animals, and can increase property values. Yet there are tremendous differences among the riparian protection requirements for different types of land use (NRC, 1996). Forested headwaters often receive far greater protection than urban or agricultural floodplain areas. Controls and incentives for riparian conservation practices are needed to prevent overgrazing, excessive logging, road building, invasions of exotic plants, and encroachment of urban and industrial development in important buffer areas.
Recognize in law and regulations that ground and surface waters interact . Connections between ground and surface waters are poorly appreciated, especially in legal frameworks. Yet many aquifers are constantly exchanging water with streams and rivers. In floodplains and riparian zones, ground water that upwells from alluvial aquifers can produce a diverse array of habitat types.
Recognize in land management activities that rivers need room to roam, and their floodplains are inherently subject to flooding. Floodplains act as storage sites for floodwaters, and the ability of floodplains to store and moderate high flows is strongly influenced by the width of the floodplain, the development of an
overflow channel system, and the condition of riparian vegetation. Lateral change in the channel—meandering—is an essential feature of streams in alluvial valleys, yet we have systematically attempted to straighten and confine rivers in an attempt to increase water conveyance, confine flows, and protect property. Recent large floods, however, serve to remind us that dams and levees have limits and cannot contain increasingly large floods that occur at least in part as a result of watershed and floodplain alterations.
Recognize that dams change rivers and their ecosystems, but some of the negative consequences of dams can be mitigated through operational strategies that create more normative discharge and temperature regimes. Dams can alter seasonal availability and temperature of water extensively, reducing stream productivity and diversity. Large, erratic base flows create a dead zone along the river margin where plants and animals are either washed away or desiccated and reduce near-shore shallow water habitat that is crucial for juvenile fishes and emerging insects. Simply establishing minimum flows as mitigation for lost habitat or extirpated species is insufficient to maintain the physical and biological integrity of rivers. Periodic flushing flows are needed to scour river bottoms, build gravel bars, replenish woody debris, and also minimize proliferation of nonnative biota. It is also important to reduce the erratic nature of base flows associated with daily hydropower operations and irrigation withdrawals. Restoration of more natural discharge regimes in regulated rivers and lakes is one of the most pressing needs in maintaining normative watershed conditions.
Conserve and promote native species by creating native biota reserves, restoring and reconnecting critical habitats, and minimizing conditions that favor invasions of nonnative species. Native biota can serve as sentinels of ecological change and reductions in the abundance of native species can indicate degradation. Watershed planning can incorporate steps to protect and even restore habitat, including designating reserves for remaining intact assemblages of native plants and animals (Moyle and Yoshiyama, 1994; Sedell et al., 1994) and is especially suited for mobile organisms that require a network of interconnected habitats.
Promote best management practices for upland and riparian land uses as a means of controlling pollution, but recognize that the best practices for one watershed in one region of the country may differ from other watersheds in other regions. Many agencies and organizations, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have implemented a variety of forestry, grazing, and agricultural initiatives to limit water pollution and loss of biodiversity. Rigorous scientific evaluation of best management practices is required, however, before they are widely accepted in place of legal standards (Bisson et al., 1992).
Reauthorization of the Clean Water Act
Implementation of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA) has had profound impacts on state and federal regulatory programs related to water quality and on
funding for construction of treatment plants, planning, research, and training. After more than 25 years of activities under the Act, the nation's most polluted waters have experienced substantial improvements in quality. But legislation that was appropriate more than two decades ago does not necessarily address today's needs. In spite of attempts within the CWA framework to address nonpoint pollution concerns, much less progress has been made in controlling nonpoint pollution than in controlling point sources and it is widely agreed that nonpoint sources now account for the great majority of degraded surface waters (Patrick, 1992; Brezonik and Cooper, 1994; Postel et al., 1996). And although the CWA has done much to stem the trend of declining conditions in the nation's surface waters, much remains to be done to restore their quality and integrity.
When the CWA was first passed, the driving issues were related primarily to human health and human use of surface waters, thus explaining the goal to make all waters "fishable and swimmable," and the pollutants of concern were those typically found in municipal and industrial wastewater (organic matter, suspended solids, microbial pathogens, nutrients). In contrast, the driving forces today are broader—ecosystem health, integrated management of water quality—and the pollutants of concern have expanded to include synthetic organic compounds and selected heavy metals which may be toxic to aquatic organisms as well as people. The primary sources of the contaminants have changed, with more impacts now from urban and agricultural runoff and atmospheric transport (Brezonik and Cooper, 1994). Congress and the President are faced with the difficult task of reauthorizing the Clean Water Act so it better meets today's needs. The reauthorization process provides an important opportunity to address the nation's need for improved water management.
There appears to be a developing consensus that many problems caused by the past fragmented approach to water resource management might be better addressed from a watershed perspective. For instance, a revised CWA might help solve some problems caused by the fragmented approach of water managers dealing independently, and under separate legal authorities, with surface water, ground water, wastewater, and drinking water, with too little recognition of the interrelationships. For instance, under the precepts of Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act, states must identify pollution-impaired streams and develop plans to reduce pollutant loads. This approach relies on setting total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for individual water bodies that account for both point and nonpoint sources of pollutants. When a waterbody exceeds its TMDL, however, water managers have traditionally targeted point sources for pollutant reduction because of the ease with which these sources can be monitored and manipulated. Nonpoint sources, on the other hand, are dispersed and diffuse and so are more challenging to manage.
Fragmented consideration of ecological, economic, and social concerns in water resource management has not served the nation well in either science or management. Research sometimes is focused on single issues or disciplines when
a broader context might led to very different conclusions. This causes managers who rely on the science to address problems piecemeal. Too often, decisionmakers see themselves forced to make "either/or" trade-offs between economic vitality and environmental quality rather than striking a balance. Lack of integrated thinking produces single-problem solutions where a balance of objectives might have been pursued.
The shortcomings of the existing Clean Water Act, and the advantages offered by a watershed approach to achieve some water related goals, should be addressed during the reauthorization of the Act. This committee, and many other people in the scientific and management communities, believes that the Clean Water Act should explicitly recognize that:
- Components of the landscape are connected, and that surface water, ground water, and drinking water are directly related resources that must be managed together rather than separately. Water is most effectively managed using an integrated approach, including consolidation of authority in watersheds where possible.
- Clean water is a function not only of natural processes, but also of responsible social behavior by citizens and integrated and coordinated management by government agencies. Management of waters and closely related resources requires understanding that the human dimension, including economic and social processes, are components of the overall system that should be accounted for in research, planning, and management.
There is considerable support for making a watershed approach a critical aspect of the Clean Water Act, as evidenced, for instance, by many policies and guidance documents already in place under the Environmental Protection Agency, such as the Administration's recent Clean Water Action Plan (1998). A reauthorized Clean Water Act should provide for partnerships between federal agencies with water and watershed management responsibilities and the National Science Foundation in developing priorities and funding scientific research related to watersheds, especially research emphasizing the integration of ecological, economic, and social concerns. One goal of the Clean Water Act should be to encourage ecological restoration: the Act should be a visionary statement that gives national emphasis to the conservation and enhancement of watersheds because of the many important functions and values they provide, and it should give authority to the relevant agencies for implementing that goal.
In addition to the previous suggestions to guide reauthorization of the Clean Water Act, the Committee on Watershed Management offers the following conclusions concerning other mechanisms to steer the nation toward improved strat-
egies for watershed management. These conclusions address basic guiding philosophy (1 and 2), management processes (3 to 8), research (9 to 12), and support functions (13 to 15).
- Watersheds as geographic areas are optimal organizing units for dealing with the management of water and closely related resources, but the natural boundaries of watersheds rarely coincide with political jurisdictions and thus they are less useful for political, institutional, and funding purposes. Initiatives and organizations directed at watershed management should be flexible to reflect the reality of these situations. (For more information, see Chapters 2, 6, and 8.)
- Specific watershed problems must be approached in distinctive ways, and determining the appropriate scale for the resolution of any problem is an essential first step. Both the structure of watershed management organizations and the nature of the activities undertaken should be matched to the scale of the watershed. The range of stakeholders varies with scale and must be clearly defined so that the costs and benefits associated with any plan are fully taken into account. Watershed approaches are easiest to implement at the local level; they can be most difficult to implement at large scales where the political, institutional, and funding decisionmaking grows especially complex. (For more information, see Chapters 2, 6, and 8.)
- Risk and uncertainty are parts of the natural as well as institutional settings for watershed management, and they can limit the effectiveness of applying the watershed approach. One important need for advancing watershed management is to develop practical procedures for considering risk and uncertainty in real world decisionmaking. Scientists and managers should strive to educate the public by specifically outlining potential uncertainty so that expectations of research and decisionmaking are reasonable. (For more information, see Chapter 5.)
- Watershed management plans should be viewed as the starting point and not the end product of a management cycle. The cycle should include formulation of a problem statement, identification of an agreed-upon set of goals, identification of the scope of activities appropriate to the issue in question, negotiated action steps, implementation, feedback, evaluation, and appropriate adjustments made as a result of lessons learned (i.e., adaptive management). (For more information, see Chapter 8.)
- Scientific and technical peer review of watershed improvement activities conducted by qualified independent professionals can provide objective evaluations of their impact. Scientific or technical review groups can help design and evaluate monitoring programs and help prioritize locations for intensive study. Such groups also can inform policymakers about the relative uncertainty associ-
- ated with implementing management alternatives. (For more information, see Chapter 8.)
- For too long, agencies have viewed their polices and projects in isolation. In their normal course of work, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Environmental Protection Agency should examine the watershed-wide implications of their policies, programs, rules, and permitting processes to take into account the regional and downstream ecological, social, and economic consequences of their actions, rather than using a limited project-by-project approach. (For more information, see Chapter 8.)
- The Committee was impressed with the information-gathering aspects of the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission. This kind of regionally based analysis of watershed resources provides a comprehensive evaluation of the current management of American watersheds and guidance for the future, and should be duplicated for other regions as a means of gathering information and evaluating the potential of the watershed approach. (For more information, see Chapter 8.)
- Watershed management seeks to develop careful, long-term solutions to problems and provide sustainable access to resources and thus it benefits the nation. The President and Congress should consider establishing some stable mechanism to fund the federal contribution to watershed management partnerships, such as a revenue sharing strategy or trust fund. This funding should be available to state, regional, and local organizations for research, planning, implementation, and ongoing peer evaluation of watershed initiatives. (For more information, see Chapter 7.)
- Because water is a strategic national resource and sustainable use of water resources is a national priority, watershed management decisions must be based on the best possible science. More research is needed to provide the data, knowledge, and technology necessary to support effective watershed management, especially work focused on integrating social, economic, and ecological elements. There is a special need for research and monitoring that is long-term and integrated across scales and timeframes, as well as for specific problem-solving research and theory and model development One specific step to greatly improve scientific understanding of watersheds is for Congress to increase funding for the National Science Foundation in areas that can improve understanding of the human dimensions of watersheds. Moreover, new problems and challenges such as human alteration of watersheds, volatile world economies, and global climate change will require new and innovative centers of research excellence in watershed science and management, and more effective technology transfer and lead-
- ership, at scales ranging from local to regional. (For more information, see Chapters 4, 5, and 6.)
- Although our understanding of fundamental physical, biological, economic, and social processes needs improvement, an even greater need is improved understanding of how all these components operate together within watersheds. Watershed researchers should emphasize the integration of environmental, economic, and social perspectives, with more attention to the linkages and what they imply for management and overcoming barriers to implementation. Science and policy must function together for watershed management to be successful, so there also must be more attention to the role of politics in decisionmaking. (For more information, see Chapter 5.)
- Process-oriented research is research that extends beyond description and measurement; it addresses structure, function, and the how and why of the processes operating within a watershed. Process-oriented research is particularly valuable because it leads to enhanced predictive capabilities, better understanding of cause-effect relationships, and a firmer foundation for planning and management. The National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies involved in process-oriented watershed research should reorient their efforts to close critical information gaps that hamper effective implementation of watershed management. Important gaps include:
- linkages among watershed components (rivers, wetlands, ground water, atmosphere, floodplains, upland areas);
- integration across disciplines (especially biophysical and social sciences);
- feedback among processes operating at different spatial and temporal scales;
- inexpensive, useful indicators of watershed conditions and quantitative methods to evaluate land use and watershed management practices;
- advanced watershed simulation models (especially models that link natural and social attributes) that are useful to and can be operated by managers who are not scientific experts; and
- understanding of risk and uncertainty in the decisionmaking process. (For more information, see Chapter 4.)
- A solid scientific foundation of basic and applied research is needed to provide the data, information, and tools necessary for effective implementation of watershed management activities. Federal resource management agencies should form partnerships with the National Science Foundation in jointly funded research, with agencies identifying critical areas needing investigation and NSF ensuring high quality, peer reviewed work in both short-term and long-term
- projects. Agencies might include the Forest Service, Bureau of Reclamation, Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, U.S. Geological Survey, and Tennessee Valley Authority. Universities and nongovernmental organizations can be key partners in this process. (For more information, see Chapter 4.)
- The Federal Geographic Data Committee (FGDC), as the organization charged with primary responsibility for establishing the National Spatial Data Infrastructure (NSDI), should assume a leadership role in establishing a capability for collecting spatial data on watersheds by creating national data standards, designating a central clearinghouse, and maintaining a single national watershed database. Other federal agencies should be encouraged to coordinate efforts and electronically link related databases. In particular:
- The USGS should, in accordance with the NSDI initiative, continue to develop the Watershed Data Clearinghouse to provide a detailed catalog service of watershed data with support for links to databases on the Internet. The clearinghouse site can provide data searches by watershed and enable users to directly download the digital data sets. When necessary, the USGS should also act as a digital data repository of last resørt for watershed information that will no longer be stored and/or served by the original data owner.
- The FGDC should actively promote and coordinate a spatial data standard that defines the digital representation of watershed features, accuracy requirements, and the graphical representation of these features supported in a variety of system formats. Features to be defined include wildlife habitats, environmentally sensitive areas, and special use areas. The standard also should provide a convention for related data tables and define the minimum data to be kept about the feature.
- States should establish and maintain state-wide databases in a GIS format, available to local watershed managers through the Internet. These databases should contain ecological, social, and economic data with spatial attributes organized and presented according to watersheds of convenient size within each state. (For more information, see Chapter 4.)
- Data collection efforts provide baseline information for increased scientific understanding of watershed processes, for analyses and interpretation of problems and causes, for assessing the status of watershed resources and detecting and predicting trends, and for decisionmaking in watershed management. Stream gagging and monitoring network design should emphasize adequate temporal resolution, sampling of storm events, measurement of appropriate ancillary hydrological and biogeochemical data (e.g., meteorological data with hydrological data or biological surveys with water quality parameters), and should use the highest possible quality of sampling and analysis. It is increasingly expensive to
- maintain data collection and monitoring efforts. As the USGS, NOAA, and other federal and nonfederal organizations engaged in collecting watershed data evaluate their monitoring sites, they should prioritize the remaining sites to ensure continuation of sites that are most effective in helping managers understand water quality trends. Particular emphasis should go to maintaining sites with exceptionally long-term records. In some instances, monitoring sites should be retained to provide adequate geographic representation and geographic areas with dense coverage might lose some sites without loss of data. Sampling schemes should be designed to answer specific questions about the status and trends of watershed resources rather than simply collect broad-based data. (For more information, see Chapters 3 and 4.)
- Effective watershed management requires integration of theory, data, simulation models, and expert judgment to solve practical problems and provide a scientific basis for decisionmaking at the watershed scale. The engineering and scientific communities should develop better, more user-friendly decision support systems to help decisionmakers understand and evaluate alternative approaches. These improved approaches should help decisionmakers understand and convey the concepts of risk and uncertainty. A decision support system (DSS) is a suite of computer programs with components consisting of databases, simulation models, decision models, and user interfaces that assist a decisionmaker in evaluating the economic and environmental impacts of competing watershed management alternatives. The technical challenges in developing DSS technology for watershed management include linking models for all of the components of an extremely complex system to estimate the effect of management alternatives on all of the criteria of interest. (For more information, see Chapters 5 and 8.)
This report began with the hypothesis that watersheds are the most appropriate way to integrate ecological, economic, and social approaches to resource management. The hypothesis was confirmed in many cases, but with several important limitations.
- variability of the human and natural ecosystem prevents a single standardized approach,
- external connections expand watershed boundaries into problem-sheds,
- there is a local to national continuum of scales, each with a different behavior pattern,
- there are numerous social, economic, and political barriers to effective watershed management,
- science has provided inadequate support for and ineffective connection to policy,
- the effectiveness of management is rarely measured or evaluated,
- societal values continually change, changing the objectives of management, and
- financial considerations are a major limiting factor.
Differing levels of government have varying financial, technical, and political capabilities with respect to watershed management. The scale of the organizational capabilities and responsibilities must match the scale of the problem. Although some caution is necessary to avoid taking these observations too strictly, the committee offers the following thoughts about the relative roles of federal, state, local, and regional levels of decisionmaking in a watershed approach context:
- Local organizations are best positioned to take primary responsibility for staffing, planning, and implementing projects, and, in particular, for facilitating citizen involvement.
- State governments are best positioned to facilitate coordination, research, and technical assistance; to ensure application of standards and water use regulations; to conduct evaluation of projects; and in some cases to provide financial support to local governments, either with their own funds or funds dispensed to states by the federal government.
- The federal government and its agencies are best positioned to take primary responsibility for watershed management affecting the interstate scale, as well as for supporting research, providing technical assistance, and providing financial support to state and local entities. The federal role should include designing incentives to encourage state and local initiatives, conducting evaluations where appropriate, and representing national interests in watershed discussions.
Two recurrent themes appeared throughout the committee's deliberations. First, one overarching lesson from the nation's long history of interest in watershed management is that "one size does not fit all." Watersheds in the United States reflect tremendous diversity of climatic conditions, geology, soils, and other factors that influence water flow, flora, and fauna. There is equally great variation in historical experiences, cultural expression, institutional arrangements, laws, policies, and attitudes. No single model could fit with all the existing governmental arrangements found at the state and local levels, and it would be a mistake to impose a standard model from the federal level.
Second, fragmentation of responsibility and lack of clarity about how to resolve disputes caused by conflicting missions among federal agencies inhibits the success of the watershed approach. For example, during the course of this study the committee identified 22 federal agencies that deal with the hydrologic cycle, although often with dramatically different perspectives. To the public, these con-
fusing and sometimes conflicting approaches to water management are baffling. There is no one consistent voice for the water resource.
As an intellectual and organizational tool, watershed-scale management can be useful in many circumstances, especially for managing biological and geophysical resources and especially for local and some regional applications. The value of watershed management as a means for truly integrated efforts to achieve a balance of ecological, economic, and social goals remains a hypothesis that has not yet been completely proven. But flexible application of watershed principles can improve the joint efforts of researchers, managers, decisionmakers, and citizens in their search for a sustainable economy and a quality environment.
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