Déjà vu Shed: Ten Watershed Management Lessons Learned

Clay Brandow (aka ColorfulClay)

Burney Falls

“We don’t make many mistakes; we just make the same ones over and over again.” noted hydrologist Dave Rosgen is fond of saying. I couldn’t agree more. Ever get a sinking feeling that working in watershed management, in the immortal words of baseball great Yogi Berra, “is like déjà vu all over again?” Here is a lighthearted look at the top ten situations that give me that sinking feeling. My gift to you, the hydrologist or the curious reader, based on my thirty years experience.

In my early days as a forest hydrologist I suffered lots of doubt, including self-doubt. Doubt is a good thing in science. It leads to questioning assumptions. Self-doubt, on the other hand, can lead to be being pushed around by self-assured managers who want you to design, rationalize or otherwise go along with projects and programs that violate first principles. Projects and programs that violate first principles almost inevitably lead to failures. Failures that become more and more familiar with each experience, until persistent feelings of “I’ve been in this situation before and the outcome wasn’t good,” start to ware you down.

Fortunately, I had a mentor, one of the grand daddies of practical forest hydrology, Earl Ruby. He taught me about first principles and how the practicing watershed scientist can use first principles to avoid getting talked into going along something stupid when he or she gets that feeling of déjà vu, just before heading down the wrong path.

Here are my top ten watershed déjà vu situations, each captured in a short quote, followed by a short explanation of what they mean and some advice on how to handle them based on first principles. When in your practice of forest hydrology you hear any one of these phrases, run, don’t walk, to nearest applicable first principles.

1.) “We want you to come up with a creative solution.”

MEANING: Don’t be bound by common sense or your knowledge past failures, as long as your solution is photogenic and lasts long enough for the publicity photo with the requisite number dignitaries.

ADVICE: Don’t worry about the photo op. Go with solutions that are as self-sustaining as possible and will continue to improve the situation over time with a minimum of maintenance. If your solution: a) addresses the problem, b) is self-sustaining, and c) blends into the landscape so well that you can’t take a good picture, then you have implemented the perfect solution.

2.) “We must have bare mineral soil and lots of it to grow trees.”

MEANING: Young trees in plantations can’t compete with other vegetation. Don’t worry about the erosion-causing consequences of removing all the groundcover.

ADVICE: Save as much soil protecting groundcover as possible. Bare soils in large blocks on forest slopes tend to erode, reducing soil fertility on the slopes where you are trying to grow trees and water quality in nearby streams where fish are trying to breathe, breed and feed. Little trees just need little opportunity spots. They’ll thrive and the covered soil will stay put to support them as they grow into giants.

3.) “Relax, someday we’ll have enough money to properly repair and maintain the existing forest road system.”

MEANING: We can keep all the forest roads we have now and perhaps build more, despite the fact we don’t have the budget to maintain those roads we have to prevent water quality problems. (Note: The USDA Forest Service has an astounding 300,000 miles of existing roads on National Forest Lands – enough mileage to go around the world 12 times at the equator.)

ADVICE: Don’t be swayed. Be firm. Roads need maintenance to prevent water quality problems. Road systems should be sized to the maintenance dollars that are available now and not is some imaginary halcyon future. Insist on down-sizing the road system until it fits the available road maintenance budget.

4.) “We must act fast to remove log-jam barriers to salmon and steelhead migration.”

MEANING: At one time and not too long ago, we thought that salmon couldn’t cope with logs in the stream. So we launched programs to pull them out of the coastal streams. How wrong we were. We acted on a big-scale before we understood unanticipated consequences of our actions on a small-scale. If only we had waited for our knowledge of how aquatic habitat is formed for salmon, to catch up with our zeal to do something good. Large woody debris (LWD), particularly in coastal streams with few boulders, create the turbulence that dig the pools and sorts gravels, creating critical aquatic habitat features for salmon and trout.

ADVICE: If you don’t know what you are doing is beneficial or harmful to aquatic habitat, slowdown and figure it out with a few small scale, practical experiments applicable to your local situation.

5.) “You are wasting resources by putting water back into that creek.”

MEANING: The habitat in that de-watered stream or lake is permanently damaged or destroyed beyond repair. It’s kaput. It’s never coming back. Besides we need all water we’ve diverted historically for power production, irrigation and/or urban use. Any agreement to take some water and leave some water would do significant economic harm and would not restore the damaged or destroyed aquatic habitat.

ADVICE: Sometimes all an ailing creek needs to recover is water in the form of minimum flows and occasional floods that create and maintain habitat. See the essay “Milagro means Miracle, Water means Power” by Clay Brandow and “Snow is Next year’s Trout” by Mary Stuever at http://colorfulclay.worpress.com for a couple of examples. There are many others. Re-introducing water to naturally or artificially desiccated aquatic habitat will bring it back in most cases. I have seen it many times. It is a miracle (aka milagro) to behold

6.) “We don’t need to understand natural processes; we can just engineer a solution.”

MEANING: We can force nature to do what we want in the long-run if our designs are just massive enough.

ADVICE: Engineering solutions that ignore natural processes won’t last when Mother Nature decides it is time to have the last word. In the long run, Mother Nature’s extreme events always trump engineering. The best engineering solution gets a degraded stream from the condition it is now to the condition it was in before it was degraded, despite the fact that all structures built by man eventually fail. Use your understating of natural processes to work structural failure into your long-term stream recovery plan.

7.) “California streams have never been in worse shape than they are today.”

MEANING: California streams were in better shape in the “good old days” than they are today. Generally they are in decline.

ADVICE: Don’t despair, the doom and gloomers are wrong when it comes to the condition of most of California’s streams. Generally, California streams are in recovery from the extreme indignities they suffered a century ago or more ago, during the Gold Rush, the Ag rush, and industrial/urbanization rush, when many of the state’s waterbodies reached their environmental nadir. This is an important point when planning stream restoration projects. You don’t want your restoration to interrupt natural recovery, and you don’t want natural recovery to bury, wash-away or otherwise devour your restoration efforts. Plan accordingly.

8.) “We’re just monitoring. We don’t need a testable hypothesis or even a clear objective.”

MEANING: Don’t waste time thinking about or documenting the purpose of your monitoring, just get out to the field and measure stuff. We’ll figure out the numbers mean later, in the off-season.

ADVICE: If you just collect monitoring data without any idea what you are going to do with it or the question(s) your want to answer, at the end of the day you end up with files full useless data and lists questions that occurred to you later that you can’t answer with the data you collected. Establish the question(s) first, and always be asking yourself “Will the data I’m collecting, allow me to answer the question(s) I’ve asked?”

9.) “Fire is always bad.”

MEANING: We got to put try and put all wildfires out by 10 A.M. the next morning.

ADVICE: Accept that fire is critical to the health of fire adapted systems. Not all fire is bad, some fire is good. Learn to tell the difference and manage for it.

10.) “Fire is always good.”

MEANING: We can’t suppress any fires even when lives and property are at risk.

ADVICE: We can’t escape the fact that by living in the landscape we alter it. Some fires kill and injure people and destroy property. Some are so large and burn so hot, they cook soils and create conditions that produce excessive debris flows and flooding. Where lives and property are at risk, we need to fight fire aggressively but safely, and we need to take advantage of opportunities to reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire.

11.) “We don’t need to be brief. We’ve got to put everything in this EIS/EIR, Land Management Plan, Watershed Analysis…”

MEANING: (Yes I know, I promised ten situations and this is number eleven of ten. Enjoy the irony.) The point is the more extraneous stuff you put in an environmental document the less likely the most important information in the document will improve outcomes.

ADVICE: Keep environmental documents and management plans short and to the point. Remember the guy operating the yellow metal probably won’t read your document. But if you make sure at least one effective person on-site has a punch list of what needs to be done and hazards that need to be avoided, your project is much more likely to get implemented according to plan.

While it’s true in many cases that “the solution to pollution is dilution.” The dilution of the solution with extraneous stuff, makes implementation of the solution less likely to happen.

So with that I’ll take my own advice and end this guided missive here. Go forth and do good watershed work guided by first principles. Celebrate your successes, and most importantly learn from your mistakes and those who have made mistakes before you.

About colorfulclay

Hydrologist Clay Brandow has water on his mind most of the time, but now is seeking other diversions. Dear reader I'd love to hear from you. Please leave me a comment or two. It's easy.
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4 Responses to Déjà vu Shed: Ten Watershed Management Lessons Learned

  1. JG says:

    Love it! And it resonates that the fast fix and the quick techno solution will be bested by Ms. Nature when she decides. But, I fear this year’s water shed is not going to shed any water to speak of.

  2. Doug Elliott says:

    Clay, with regard to Lesson #3, the part that says,
    “Roads need maintenance to prevent water quality problems. Road systems should be sized to the maintenance dollars that are available now and not is some imaginary halcyon future. Insist on down-sizing the road system until it fits the available road maintenance budget.”
    –I have reservations with this one, only because I have seen what looked like excessive down-sizing to me. I think that NOT all road surfaces need maintenance. I have seen little spur roads (sometimes recreational, sometimes old logging roads) that were used for as much as 70 years with no apparent maintenance, and that caused no apparent water quality or other problems, obliterated because of “resource damage.” When the planner, et al, were asked, “what resource damage?,” their reply was “resource damage.” End of conversation. These roads were ripped and re-contoured, or water-barred every few feet in order to close them as permanently as possible. Huge impacts on recreation were denied (and the consequent loss of user connection to the area, the loss of their potential understanding of it, ignored or not recognized, or just not valued).

    I realize that there are lots of valid reasons to close roads, but if those surfaces don’t collect overland flow or otherwise create erosion, and the human use of those roads doesn’t degrade other important aspects of that area (cultural or ecological), I think that some roads can be left unmaintained, or with only minimal maintenance covered by their user groups. Monitoring of road condition, or some maintenance by volunteers may need to be included as part of the road maintenance budget, since budget should be about available resources, and not just about top-down funds. I am not saying you are wrong about down-sizing the road system to fit the budget, but rather that the down-sizing sometimes needs to be better justified, and the budget options expanded.

  3. colorfulclay says:

    Excellent comment, Doug. Thanks for making those points.

    Roads are different in setting, construction and level of use. Some roads require a lot of maintenance to protect water quality and some require little or none. As you point out there is a perverse incentive to maximize the number of miles of road “put to bed,” without regard to reducing the number of miles causing resource damage due to insufficient maintenance of problematic roads. You are right on the mark.

    The key phrase is “causing resource damage.” We need to reduce the number of miles causing resource damage, not just run up the number of miles taken out of the system for the sake of meeting a target.

    Management by the numbers when the incentives are perverse makes us do dumb things. This reminds me of an Earl Ruby-ism on resisting perverse incentives: “We are not compelled to do something stupid here.”

    • Doug Elliott says:

      Thanks, Clay. Earl’s aphorism represents a point of view that’s often left out of team planning. When it is not naturally present, it is not welcome and is considered an affront to the planners, who as professionals could not possibly have included something stupid as an option. I think your mention of perverse incentives offers a graceful way to present such a problem to a potentially hostile audience, a way that is more likely to be perceived as an incisive and useful observation of the problem, rather than a confrontation between individuals who must be either right or wrong. So this finesse is useful and good, but is a bit colorless, and leaves out the wry humor offered by Earl’s bluntness. I will remember the quote.

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