A Window into Upper Watershed Collaboration in the Sierra Nevada

The Sierra Nevada region of California is famed for its extraordinary natural features, but less so for its central role in the state’s water system. The area includes the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S. states (Mount Whitney), the first territory ever set aside by Congress for public use and preservation (Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias), and the largest living tree on earth (General Sherman). The region is also the source of 60% of the state’s developed water supply, providing all or part of the drinking water for 23 million people.1 Water is central to the economic and environmental health of the region, yet many systemic challenges threaten the quantity and quality of this natural resource.2

Motivated by these challenges, thirteen Integrated Regional Water Management Planning (IRWMP) groups from across the Sierra Nevadas came together in 2009 to form the Sierra Water Workgroup (SWWG) to develop collaborative approaches to protecting and enhancing California’s primary watershed. Formalized with the adoption of a charter in 2011, this multi-stakeholder forum became the first entity to represent and advocate for water interests in the 22 counties making up the Sierra Nevada region as defined by the State Legislature in its formation of the Sierra Nevada Conservancy. Since its inception, the SWWG has held four conferences to discuss and educate multiple IRWMP stakeholders on water issues specific to this region, with the most recent occurring on August 10, 2015.3

The August event tackled three critical headwater issues: groundwater, protecting in-stream flows, and disadvantaged regions and communities. The beginning half of the day featured local and state-level perspectives on these issues through info-shares by IRWMP groups, and by water law and policy experts. Afterwards, participants split into three groups to explore the challenges and opportunities of each issue more deeply, and to identify solutions with applicability to the Sierra Nevada. The group reconvened to share some of their ideas, which included five potential pathways for collective action:

  1. Headwater caucus – A state legislative caucus was viewed as a potentially useful tool in educating California legislators and building consensus around specific issues and bills affecting the headwater regions of the state. Social networks are inherent in politics, so issues raised in a headwater specific caucus – ideally one spanning beyond just the Sierra Nevada region – could result in political action in another forum by a member legislator who might also serve on the State Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, for instance. This idea got support from the state agency representatives in attendance.
  2. Water Bond money for ecosystem storage – Members of this group have an integrated view on water retention, as described by a participant: “I used to think water came from streams; now I know it comes from trees.” Thus, in contrast to the dominant perspective that new or expanded dams are the primary water storage solution, SWWG members could jointly advocate for an ecosystem-centered storage strategy which directs resources toward improved management of forests and mountain meadows, and protection of source waters and groundwater recharge areas. While Proposition 1 provides $810 million for regional projects included in plans developed by local communities, there was a resounding concern that only $13 million was allocated to the Mountain Counties of the Sierras – the smallest regional allocation in the state. This kind of creative approach to rethinking water storage funding allocation could maximize Water Bond benefits to the Sierra Nevada region as well as natural resource protection.
  3. Education campaign – A consistent theme throughout the event: Californians don’t know where their water comes from. Not only is public education on the state’s water system lacking, but the way that we define features of the system is sometimes misleading. For instance, “‘source water’ to someone in the Central Valley might mean groundwater.” This definition ignores the hydrologic link between precipitation in the mountains that supplies the groundwater basin, yet they are one and the same water. There was discussion about the possibility of developing or supporting education campaigns to promote a more connected view of the water system. Different ideas were floated, for instance, simple forest-to-faucet educational messages integrated into the “Please save our planet – reuse your towel” signs one finds in nearly every hotel.4 Or learning tours bringing downstream water users into the upper watershed to experience headwater issues firsthand.5 Whatever the approach, it was suggested that the group learn from the most successful examples in the state, such as the Los Angeles River revitalization effort.
  4. IRWMP collaboration strategies – There are opportunities for improved collaboration among IRWMP groups, and between these groups and other entities. Resources are limited, and for the Mountain Counties this seems to be the case even more so. Multi-IRWMP projects can improve the chances for at least some grant money addressing local needs, and increased coordination and collaboration can result in whole watershed benefits. Each IRWMP group can also effect change by reaching out beyond its current membership, and in particular, by better engaging with federal agencies. Today, 63% of the land area in the Sierra Nevada region is managed by three federal agencies, and 64% of that land is managed by the US Forest Service. Achieving the goal of healthy headwaters requires closer coordination between local, state, and federal agencies on forest issues.
  5. Disadvantaged communities (DACs) definition – How “disadvantaged community” is defined has huge implications on how state dollars get distributed. In particular, the CalEnviroScreen screening methodology will be used to define DACs for the purposes of distributing money from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. In fact, 25% of this Fund must go to projects that provide a benefit to DACs, as identified by 19 indicators of socioeconomic, public health and environmental risk. It was suggested that as currently defined, this methodology tends to identify communities with higher population densities and greater risks of exposure to vehicle and industry emissions. The most vulnerable and pollution-burdened (primarily from catastrophic forest fires)  Sierra communities tend not to get adequately captured. Without minimizing the real poverty and pollution challenges in the Central Valley and other areas of the state, members of the group support a science-based methodology like CalEnviroScreen, but recommend some potential changes to the current methodology.

In its most recent report, the California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply made a number of recommendations which align with the perspectives of SWWG members, including improved connectivity between upper and lower watershed resource management strategies, and increased alignment of governance structures and tools across levels of government.6 We at Ag Innovations are very excited to participate in the SWWG, and we commit to exploring synergies between the upper and lower watershed efforts.

Photo: Desired condition of a pine forest in the Kings Basin upper watershed after two prescribed fire treatments. Source: US Forest Service.


  1. Water Education Foundation. 2011. Looking to the Source: Watersheds of the Sierra Nevada.
  2. California Department of Water Resources. 2013. California Water Plan Update 2013: Mountain Counties Area.
  3. Sierra Water Workgroup. 2015. Background on SWWG.
  4. Smithsonian Magazine. 2014. Reusing Hotel Towels Actually Does Make a Difference.
  5. The Sierra Fund. 2015. Tours.
  6. California Roundtable on Water and Food Supply. 2015. Applying the Connectivity Approach: Groundwater Management in California’s Kings Basin.