Legislative Analyst's Office

Analysis of the 2000-01 Budget Bill
Watershed Assessment Initiative

A Good Idea, But Will Not Achieve Goals

The budget requests $6.9 million and 56 personnel-years (PYs) for various resources departments to conduct an assessment of watersheds on the North Coast. We believe a watershed assessment could provide valuable information necessary for the improvement of regulatory and habitat restoration efforts in the region. However, our review shows that the proposal will not achieve the goals of an effective watershed assessment because the data collection design is flawed and the proposal is inadequately linked to improvements in the regulation and the restoration of degraded habitat. We withhold recommendation on the request pending receipt from the Resources Secretary of a report on
(1) how data collection efforts will be coordinated and how the resulting data will be disseminated, and (2) how the watershed assessment will be used to improve the regulation and restoration efforts on the North Coast.

Background. Salmon and steelhead species continue to decline on the North Coast. As a result, the protection of their habitat remains a pressing concern. In order to protect the species and their habitat, the state currently relies on a combination of regulatory measures, such as the regulation of timber harvesting activities, and restoration efforts such as removing barriers to fish passage. To be effective, both regulatory and restoration efforts ought to be based on scientific data and analysis. The objective of watershed assessment is to help improve regulatory and restoration efforts by using analysis of scientific data to guide regulatory policies and restoration decisions.

Components of an Effective Watershed Assessment

The purpose of a watershed assessment is to compare historical and current habitat conditions and evaluate the extent to which changing habitat conditions have affected the population of particular species. For a watershed assessment to be most effective in achieving regulatory and restoration goals it should include three components:

Data Collection. A watershed assessment is based upon two broad categories of data: (1) aquatic habitat conditions and the presence or absence of fish and (2) conditions on land such as landslides and vegetation. In order for the assessment to be credible, both need to be collected using consistent, scientifically sound methodologies.

Data Analysis. Data on the watershed should be analyzed in order to draw conclusions about its condition, how the condition has changed over time, and how those changes affected the population of particular species.

Applications to Regulatory and Restoration Efforts. The analysis of watershed data should result in specific recommendations for land use activities as well as provide specific information needed for restoration efforts.

A watershed assessment can be effectively conducted by various entities as long as a consistent methodology is used for the assessment effort. To the extent the state conducts the assessment of a number of watersheds, we think that developing recommendations for land use activities and restoration efforts is an appropriate role for the state. This is because the state can ensure that recommendations are developed in a consistent manner across watersheds.

Budget Proposes Multiyear North Coast Watershed Assessment

The budget requests a total of $6.9 million and 56 PYs for various resources departments to do watershed assessment on state and private lands on the North Coast. The budget proposes to compile existing data and collect a limited amount of new data on North Coast watersheds on a variety of factors, including geological conditions, aquatic habitat, land use, and vegetation. The data will be compiled by the various departments, and maps, geographic information systems, and reports will be produced for each watershed. A CD rom for each basin or major subbasin will also be developed which will capture a variety of information gathered for each watershed. These data will be available for landowners and other entities to use in the preparation of timber harvesting plans or in deciding what habitat restoration projects to undertake. However, the proposal indicates that the data analysis will not result in specific recommendations for land use activities such as timber harvesting or for restoration efforts.

According to the proposal, it will take six to seven years to complete all of the assessments. The administration has identified specific watersheds to be assessed for the first three years and plans to assess approximately 900,000 acres a year.

Responsibilities will be divided among the Departments of Conservation, Fish and Game (DFG), Forestry and Fire Protection, Water Resources, and the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). Figure 1 lists the responsibilities of the various departments.
Figure 1
Watershed Assessment Initiative

Departmental Responsibilities

Department of Conservation: $2.6 million and 21 personnel-years (PYs)

  • Collect data related to landslides, slope stability, and instream sediment.
Department of Fish and Game: $2 million and 21 PYS
  • Collect, compile and analyze data related to fish habitat.
  • Develop a web-based database.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: $1.3 million and 7 PYS
  • Compile vegetation, timber harvest, and land-use data.
  • Produce a CD Rom-based information system to cover each watershed.
State Water Resources Control Board: $581,00 and 6 PYs
  • Gather existing water quality data, primarily from timber harvest plans.
  • Interpret relevance of data for the watershed assessment use.
Department of Water Resources: $337,000 and 2 PYs
  • Install five gauges to collect stream flow data related to sediment.

Proposal Will Not Achieve Goals of Watershed Assessment

We find that an effective watershed assessment approach has the potential of improving regulatory and habitat restoration efforts in the North Coast region. Our review shows that the Governor's proposal will provide a compilation of data that would be available to landowners and other entities to use. However, the proposal lacks the components of an effective watershed assessment, as discussed above. Specifically, we do not think the proposal will achieve the goals of improving regulatory and restoration efforts for two reasons: (1) the data collection design is flawed and (2) the finished assessments are inadequately linked to regulatory and restoration efforts.

Concerns With Data Collection Approach

There are three reasons that lead us to believe that the data collection efforts will not result in adequate information for watershed assessments.

The Proposal Will Not Provide Adequate Data on Aquatic Habitat and Fish to Guide Restoration Efforts. In the budget year, the state is proposing to spend about $20 million on salmon and steelhead restoration. In order to target these funds effectively, biologists need to determine where restoration efforts can yield the greatest benefit to salmon and steelhead. Biologists evaluate sites using information on a number of factors such as: the amount of large woody debris in a stream, the temperature and depth of the water, the existence of conditions which may impede fish passage, and the presence or absence of fish and their health.

Our review shows that the proposed watershed assessment effort will not result in sufficient data on fish and aquatic habitat to be used to guide restoration efforts. Specifically, the proposal calls for DFG to obtain aquatic habitat and fish data by relying mainly on existing data, doing some field checking, and conducting only a limited amount of new data collection. Discussions with field biologists suggest that for selected watersheds, there are gaps in the existing data while some data need to be updated due to changes in data collection practices and changes in habitat conditions. In addition, there are very little data for some of the watersheds scheduled to be completed in the first year.

Given these gaps in the data, it is not clear how the department can collect a sufficient amount of fish and aquatic habitat data on all of the proposed watersheds by doing only a limited amount of new data collection.

Value of Water Quality Data Is Questionable. The SWRCB's main role under the budget proposal is to compile water quality data gathered from its reviews of timber harvest plans (THPs) conducted over the last 20 years. The SWRCB will not do any field work to gather new water quality data.

We question the value of relying on past data for a number of reasons. First, SWRCB has not been staffed adequately in recent years to conduct thorough reviews of THPs. As a result, data compiled from prior THP reviews (1) may not provide all the pertinent information needed for a particular watershed and (2) will not be available for all areas that are part of the watershed assessment. Second, older data likely do not reflect current water quality conditions and requirements. Finally, because THPs focus only on timberlands, this data source will not provide any water quality information for nontimber lands.

Insufficient Interagency Coordination. The proposed assessment would involve the work of multiple departments and thus efforts among departments must be coordinated throughout the process. Specifically, protocols for data collection should take into consideration the needs of different data users. For example, in collecting water temperature data, SWCRB may only need to know the average daily temperature, whereas fish biologists at DFG may need to know the temperature at different times of the day. Additionally, coordination among departments is essential in order to ensure data are collected using a consistent methodology so that they can be aggregated and used to produce valid analyses and conclusions.

Based on our discussions with departments, however, we find little evidence that the roles of the departments are coordinated relative to
(1) collection of the data, (2) analysis of the data, and (3) distribution of the data to the public. Absent such coordination, we believe that the data collected would not enable rigorous analysis that would benefit regulatory and restoration decision-making.

Proposal Does Not Provide Strong Linkages Between Assessments and Regulatory or Restoration Efforts

As indicated earlier, to be effective, watershed assessment should provide specific recommendations for land use activities and habitat restoration efforts.

Specific Recommendations Based on Watershed Assessment Can Improve Regulatory Process. Developing specific recommendations for land use activities such as timber harvesting based on watershed assessments can help make the regulatory process more cost-efficient for landowners and provide better protection for habitat. Rather than relying on general rules governing timber practices that may not match the needs of a specific area, a watershed assessment can be used to provide specific recommendations based on the needs of a particular watershed. Examples include specific guidelines for the width of a stream protection zone and the density of trees retained in the stream protection zone.

In developing a timber harvest plan, a landowner could refer to the recommendations, including mitigation measures, and either adopt them or show why it was not necessary to do so. This would likely reduce the cost and time needed for the landowner to develop the THP. Similarly, regulatory agencies would be able to use the recommendations to more efficiently review the THP.

Specific Recommendations Can Improve Restoration Process. Watershed assessments can help to improve restoration efforts by providing information on where restoration work needs to be completed and by recommending which areas are the highest priority for restoration.

Lack of Specific Recommendations Limits Effectiveness of Watershed Assessment. The administration indicated that its watershed assessment efforts will not include specific recommendations for regulatory or habitat restoration policies. Rather, the efforts will only provide broad, general guidelines for land use and restoration efforts. In our view, the lack of specific recommendations for regulatory purposes limits the effective use of the watershed assessment. This is because without specific recommendations, land use decisions would be made based on varying interpretations of the information from the watershed assessments. Similarly, (1) without providing information on specific sites that need restoration work and (2) a clear plan on how information related to restoration would be made available to the public or used by the department for restoration, the effectiveness of watershed assessment in achieving the goal of improving habitat restoration efforts is limited.

Recommendation: Legislature Should Take Steps To Ensure Assessments Achieve Desired Results

Based on the findings discussed above, we believe the Governor's proposal does not adequately provide for the development of information necessary for protecting and improving wildlife habitat. To ensure that the watershed assessment would be used to improve regulatory and restoration efforts, we withhold recommendation on the request pending receipt of a report from the Resources Secretary to the Legislature prior to budget hearings on (1) how data collection efforts and dissemination will be coordinated, and (2) how the watershed analysis will be used to improve the regulation of land use within the affected watersheds and the restoration of degraded watersheds.

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