California Headwaters Returning to Health with ACWA Member Support

  • by Dave Eggerton
  • Oct 18, 2019
  • Voices on Water

ACWA member leadership takes many forms in securing a sustainable water future, and one of the most exciting is within the quiet shadows between pines in parts of the Sierra Nevada. It’s open space, and in some cases a sight unseen for generations. However, the hard work behind restoring the health of this forest will make generational impacts.

Protecting water at its source depends on healthy headwaters and watersheds, one of ACWA’s  guiding priorities. But more frequent and severe catastrophic wildfires have left behind barren hillsides, with rainstorms washing ash and debris into creeks and rivers. It turns the fires into double hits though degraded water quality that requires more intensive treatment. That’s not to mention an often irretrievable forest environment already under stress through climate change. To gain some perspective on headwaters health, I urge you to visit and download for free filmmaker and producer Jim Thebaut’s latest documentary, Beyond the Brink: California’s Watershed. You can also learn more about the documentary on page 5.

By now, everyone recognizes one of the ironies behind the recent and unimaginably horrific fires: They stem from decades of well-intentioned fire suppression that extinguished the natural role of fire within the forest ecosystem, inviting years of overgrown underbrush ready to go off like a bomb with a single spark. 

But over the last few years, a number of ACWA member agencies have joined forces with a healthy variety of stakeholders to return the forest to its original state, as the pioneers found it when they could drive wagons between the trees. There was that much space, and now those more natural conditions are returning acre by acre in places such as the watersheds supporting the Yuba and American rivers, and ultimately the Sacramento River. It’s hard work on a seemingly impossible scale, but it is progressing through work crews, careful use of prescribed fire and heavy equipment such as masticators. 

Equally exciting for members of the ACWA community, where collaboration is the word of almost every day, is the size and scope of the stakeholder partnerships. The members of these partnerships that include ACWA member agencies can range from the U.S. Forest Service to conservation groups and NGOs willing to find common ground with water agencies to achieve a greater good.  For example, ACWA is a member of the California Forest Watershed Alliance (CAFWA). This alliance of diverse interests, including organizations that represent water, environment, local government, timber, and agricultural interests is dedicated to finding a solution to California’s forest-health and fire-risk issues.  

More details about ACWA member agency activity behind forest restoration is the subject of this edition’s Spotlight feature on pages 10 and 11. 

ACWA and every member plays a role in restoring the health of our headwaters, if not directly then through support for our state and federal advocacy, where there is so much at stake. ACWA advocated for and is pleased by last year’s comprehensive fire funding fix which should help ensure that federal agencies have sufficient funding to fight fires and implement fire prevention programs. As I write, Dave Reynolds and his team at ACWA East continue outreach on west wide legislation that could potentially devote millions in federal monies toward drought resiliency work, which includes watershed health. More pending legislation would introduce more flexibility into the permitting process, allowing forest restoration projects to move more easily from planning to implementation. 

Back here in Sacramento, headwaters health also played a key role in our recommendations delivered to the Newsom Administration regarding its Water Resilience Portfolio. Our recommendations include a review of state agency policies to identify regulatory obstacles. ACWA is also recommending that one public member of the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection possess water resources management experience when appointed.

Also, ACWA’s Headwaters Task Force is completing an update of our 2015 Headwaters Framework Policy Principles as well as ACWA’s Recommended Actions. We will be presenting that update to the Board in November and making it available online.

Once again, ACWA members have a lot to be proud of by helping lead the way in caring for watershed health. These at-risk landscapes will remain a central concern the further we advance through the 21st Century, and ACWA will play a leading role in restoring their health.

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