Policy Study

Rivers Among Us

Local Watershed Preservation and Resource

Executive Summary

Watershed resource management initiatives are benefiting from a new perspective in state and local environmental management that emphasizes:

  • Problem solving as opposed to punishment;
  • Balancing competing interests and goals;
  • Compliance flexibility;
  • Private-sector incentives; and
  • Local, decentralized decision making.

One or more of these elements have contributed to the success of noteworthy watershed cases:

  • In California’s Feather River basin in 1985, a concerned history teacher named John Schramel gathered a coalition of anglers, business owners, government officials, and environmental activists around his dining room table. Schramel formed the Feather River Alliance (FRA) as a means of restoring some of the local creeks and watersheds.
  • In Idaho’s Henry’s Fork basin in the summer of 1993, a sediment spill from Island Park Reservoir threatened the health of the river’s famed trout. This spill motivated the Henry’s Fork Foundation and the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District to put aside their differences and pledge to work together to restore and enhance watershed resources where needed.
  • By the end of the 1980s, local organizations, concerned that the continuing development and subdivisions along Montana’s Blackfoot River threatened their rural way of life, formed the Blackfoot Challenge to discuss new approaches to management of the river.
  • In Montana’s Upper Clark Fork River basin, a neutral third party, the Northern Lights Institute, stepped in to coordinate a voluntary agreement allowing the basin’s water users and managers to develop a basin-management plan.

Several lessons can be gleaned from these watershed-management initiatives:

  • Local Priorities, Local Knowledge: Volunteer projects only work when the volunteers set the priorities. A “top-down” approach is likely to be inappropriate. The impetus for change must come from those directly affected by the watershed. Only local players will know local preferences, and these may differ from those promulgated in state capitals or in Washington, D.C.
  • Legalized Local Authority: A way of enabling local interests is through legislation. In the case of the Upper Clark Fork River, the environment for bringing groups together was created through legislative means. Rather than following a predetermined set of values imposed from above, the principle of balancing competing goals is set forth in state law.
  • Private Conservation Incentives: Where water law limits the use of water for environmental purposes, establishing instream flows as a “beneficial use” opens up opportunities for leasing or trading of water rights by current users.
  • Broad-based Involvement: The major actors involved in a watershed must all be included in any attempt to formulate a management plan. Round table discussions, town meetings, and public notices are an important way to spread the word and insure that all interested parties are represented. Repeated interactions help to diffuse distrust and allow groups with opposing interests to learn the other’s point of view.
  • Organization: Having a staff (or even just one person) whose sole task is to coordinate the players involved makes it easier to resolve conflict and initiate projects. Some level of formal organization also helps in procuring funding sources.
  • Funding Sources: Generating funding from within provides incentives for users to protect their investment, and makes it more difficult for an outside entity to encroach on local priorities. One such mechanism is through watershed user fees charged to adjacent landowners and other users. Other approaches suggested for financing these projects outside of grants include fees imposed on downstream users and imposition of per-acre-foot surcharges.
  • Avoiding Political Disputes: With so many disparate interests involved, there is bound to be friction over specific policies. Watershed groups should seek to unite, not divide over particular projects and problem-solving efforts. This does not suggest that debates should be stifled; rather, it suggests that watershed groups should remain publicly neutral on potentially divisive issues and be selective in the issues they do choose to tackle.
  • Incremental Success: Achieving initial small successes can be critical for the success of a watershed group. These successes build a foundation for further, more elaborate cooperation in the future.
  • Publicity: Once success is achieved (or even before), it’s important to get the word out, and let the community know what the group is up to and what improvements have been made. A newsletter, fact sheet, or even some form of membership can communicate these details.

While each of the initiatives explored in this study had logistic or political problems, by relying on a more decentralized system, taking advantage of local concerns, and utilizing incentives for involvement, these watershed initiatives represent a major step towards more cooperative, results-focused environmental policy that incorporates local values, local knowledge, and enhances private stewardship.