Improving Watershed Health and Water Conservation in California


Water is one of the most significant resources shaping the future of California.

The health of our watersheds, including lakes, streams, reservoirs, wetlands and all the underlying ground water, is integrally connected to the health of human communities, wildlife habitats, agricultural lands, and ecosystems throughout the state. Many Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) have program areas that focus on improving watershed health, and their work can include stream flow restoration, habitat restoration for fish species and other organisms, water quality assessments, and working with producers to improve water conservation, among many others projects.

This month we explored two RCD projects centered around watershed health. On California’s North Coast, Humboldt County RCD is the primary agency working on the renowned Salt River Ecosystem Restoration Project. In Southern California, Coachella Valley RCD works directly with producers in underserved communities to increase irrigation efficiency.

The Salt River Ecosystem Restoration Project

The Humboldt County Resource Conservation District (HCRCD) is the lead agency on Salt River Ecosystem Restoration Project, a multi-year, multi-agency, landowner-driven project that takes a holistic, watershed-wide approach to address sediment, fish passage, flooding, and drainage issues.

The Salt River Basin underwent significant changes and modifications after Euro-American settlement of the Eel River Delta in the 1850’s, with unforeseen cumulative ecological and hydrological impacts. The restoration project was initiated after the watershed, encompassing approximately 47 square miles (30,425 acres), was deemed hydrologically dysfunctional, serving few ecosystem benefits, and creating numerous socio-economic problems. Increasingly frequent flooding, reduced drainage capacity, and sediment deposition had been negatively impacting water quality and the ability of local landowners to effectively utilize their lands for agricultural purposes.

The Salt River Ecosystem Restoration Project is a community-driven restoration effort to restore this agricultural watershed. This ecosystem-scale project led by HCRCD includes a large tidal wetland restoration component that will create a succession of biologically rich and diverse tidal wetland habitats, including transitional wetlands and adjacent uplands as part of a sustainable estuary system. The RCD’s work is wide-ranging and includes vegetation clearing, grubbing, excavation, sediment hauling, channel rock installation, placement of large wood habitat structures, placing a bridge, culverts and seed/mulch application.

In 2013, restoration of Riverside Ranch restored 330 acres of pasture land back to intertidal wetland habitat, while also preserving approximately 70 acres that will be agriculturally managed to provide short-grass habitat for Aleutian cackling geese and other wetland-associated birds. Three miles of internal slough networks were excavated to create additional habitat for salmonids, tidewater goby, and other fish and aquatic species, and provide areas for the natural recruitment of eelgrass. Two miles of setback berm were constructed to create a boundary between the tidal area and the retained agricultural area, and a gravel road was installed on top of the berm to provide access for monitoring and maintenance. This component of the project also widened and deepened approximately 2.5 miles of the tidally-influenced portion of the Salt River channel, thereby increasing tidal exchange and greatly improving fish passage and fish habitat in the lower Salt River channel.

Future restoration plans focus on “corridor restoration” where 4.5 miles of the Salt River channel and its adjacent floodplain will be excavated and re-vegetated with a diverse palette of native plants and fish passage will be restored to three watershed tributaries. Read more about the Salt River project on Humboldt  County RCD’s website.

Root Water: On-farm Irrigation Management Outreach

Root Water is a Coachella Valley Resource Conservation District (CVRCD) pilot project that is helping farmers from underserved communities in the Coachella Valley manage their use of water more efficiently and effectively. CVRCD staff help these farmers determine the most efficient irrigation management strategies for their specific crops on their specific soils. It is an on-farm extension project of shared investigation and of mutual teaching and learning between CVRCD, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and small-acreage Spanish speaking farmers in the Valley. The primary goal is to help participating farmers incorporate root water monitoring information in their decisions about irrigation frequency and duration.

Each farmer meets with a CVRCD irrigation outreach specialist on his or her farm a number of times during the one-year project duration. These on-farm visits are focused on a number of irrigation management issues including: identification and description of on-farm soil characteristics; investigation of water-soil-crop relationships; placement, maintenance and practical use of tensiometers; and interpretation of tensiometer data. All of these issues are examined as they practically apply to the specific circumstances that each farmer faces on his or her farm. Tensiometers readings–which measure soil moisture and plant available water–provide a springboard for discussion and mutual teaching and learning about the variables that impact crop water use and the strategies for efficient irrigation and nutrient management on each farm.

Root Water is a pilot project. An evaluation component is integrated in the project design with the goal of improving irrigation management support for underserved farmers in any future project expansion.

The Salt Water Ecosystem Restoration Project and the Root Water project are just two examples of how RCDs work to restore watersheds and conserve water. To learn more, please visit the RCD Project Tracker which lists projects from a select number of RCDs, or check out our RCD map to see what your RCD is doing to address watershed health and water conservation in your area.