Watershed Misanthrope

The rant gets specific.

What Kind of Unstable Misanthropic Ideologue Doesn’t Like Watershed Restoration? 122111  A Fringe Elucidation


Your Fringe Editor has been identified as a foe to watersheds.  This identification has been made by professionals; that is bureaucrats who make their living off watersheds.  An accusation like that begs an explanation from the alleged watershed hater. 


To be clear, I certainly do not hate watersheds.  Like any other son of the Sierra and high plateau, I am drawn to water, in lakes and in ephemeral streams, cradled in wooded hills and struggling between sage and rabbit brush.  I have a deeply personal relationship with several “watersheds”.  I don’t need preachers to tell me about my relationship with God, and I don’t need watershed bureaucrats to define my relationship with the real earth.  My problem is not with watersheds, it’s with human manipulation of watersheds.  The objections focus on two issues: the objectives and intentions of those pushing watershed restoration and those impacted by it, including the watershed itself.


The greatest objections stem from who is doing what in the watersheds. 

Most often, the term “watershed” is poorly defined.  Real watersheds terminate, either in the ocean, an inland sea or lake, or a sink or salt pan.  Currently, the term watershed is being used to talk about small mountain streams; it isn’t a misuse, but for this discussion a watershed terminates, and all the little streams and the mountains about them are constituents.  Watersheds are “complex” entities, meaning that, though we like to make linear measurements of them, like “stream flow”, in truth watersheds and their end components of wetlands, meadows and lakes, are iterative, meaning they “form” through repeated events which fall into a broad and unpredictable but still constrained function; they are also reflexive, meaning that when one element or subsystem changes there are unpredictable, occasionally distant responses.  Put another way, a meadow and the stream which creates it go through a number of different manifestations, all of which are natural, and all of which will eventually change.  In its simplest form, we can say “dam a stream make a lake; make a lake make a wetland; make a wetland make a meadow.”  In its most complex form, it becomes clear that watersheds create and destroy streams, lakes, wetlands and meadows, continuously.  That’s nature, though, and we’re talking humans, primarily.  The shape of a meadow or wetland in a complex combination of soil substrate, slope, the type and timing of rain and snow, sunshine, particle size and shape, and all the plants and animals that might or might not appear in the watershed.  Increase the number of coyotes and the beavers are set back, and the process of wetland and meadow creation changes. 

Often the term “watershed” is used to focus one’s attention on wet places, lovely green meadows, verdant wetlands rich in birds and insects, cascading streams.  Those components comprise a very small part of the total watershed.  Those lovely snatches of paradise are the gravy, the real work of the watershed takes place in the mountains, who catch the rain and snow, tumble it until it’s oxygenated, run it through gravel to purify it, or send it tumbling through organic soil to freight silt to the lowlands to make meadows.  The state of the hills and mountains around the watershed will have a strong and direct bearing on the amount, quality, and flow rates of water in the watershed.  Burned, charred hills send nutrients downstream, often in tremendous quantities as the lack of vegetation allows the top soil to be stripped from the hills.  The silt plugs up streams, muddies waters, leaves hillsides vulnerable to drying and freezing and makes it difficult for conifers to return rapidly.  From the standpoint of humans, these are all bad things, but humans are remarkably short sighted and self-centric beings, even deep ecologists.  In reality, the stark example of wildfire is simply one natural process by which lakes and then meadows are made.

Indeed, the evaluation given to watersheds are exclusively anthropocentric.  Beautiful green wetlands are good; charred burned hillsides are bad.  Nature, actually, doesn’t give a crap either way, after all in another hundred or thousand or ten thousand years it will be different anyway.  Only we care.  Ranchers, timber harvesters, fishermen, the Municipal Water Authority, ecofreakos, we all care, and we do it from our own perspective.   

Nature creates the lush portions of watersheds, as we noted, with an unpredictable but still constrained mixture of elements.  Included are bacteria and molds, burrowing insects and animals, hooved animals, and especially beavers.  Currently there are a couple of methodologies by which humans “restore” those wetlands, meadows and streams, and they usually involve lots and lots of technocrat time on studies and permits, and lots of dollars for excavators and front loaders.  Dollars power watershed restoration.

Not always, but often the point of restoration in the Sierra is to “undo” the effects of humans.  Watersheds have been scarred by people directing water for agriculture, by people building roads and railroads, by people dragging logs, by people digging mines or dredging rivers, by people creating lakes and ponds, and by people doing meadow restoration.  Mostly, though, the watersheds have been tortured, constrained, degraded by people taking water for urban projects and large agribusiness properties.  Dollars power watershed degradation.

Plug and pond is currently a popular method of slowing water, raising the water table in a meadow and or wetland.  It is believed to be a quick way to obtain the desired results of cleaner, more evenly regulated down stream flows. 

It could easily be argued, however, that it is not the best thing for the watershed.

I’m privileged to have as a friend a person who has been a professional biologist for over 25 years.  In conversation, he’s pointed out the downside of plug and pond, or most rapid restoration projects. 

Some specific problems include whirling disease in fish, which seems to occur more in plug and pond systems.  Others include sudden changes in soil constituents, which might mean bacteria or acidity. 

A general, underlying concern, though is that the process simply isn’t natural.  Bulldozers might be how lakes are built, but not meadows.

In addition, meadow restoration itself often ignores the main problems in watersheds: there are too many trees.  Forest fire suppression, it turns out, is one of the things humans did to harm watersheds.  It denied them the nutrients in ash and silt, it denied them the open canopy and the brush, deciduous trees and quakies that flourish when the conifers are pushed back, and it allows conifers to encroach on meadows.  Most of all, it left tens of thousands of pumps on the landscape, pulling water from the soil.  Some trees are critical to a watershed and the streams, wetlands and meadows they produce, but too many detract from what we humans want in the watershed.

This myopia among some watershed restoration projects, the inability to see the watershed as a larger picture across not only space but time, helps us understand watershed restoration projects as hardly different from any other human endeavor to bend the watershed to the will of man.


Discover Magazine December Cover (link): Water Wars.  We are experiencing water wars now, there’s just no shooting.


But, what is the motivation?

Dollars power restoration, and those dollars are often tied to development, agribusiness and politics.

For the Yuba and Feather rivers that lie in our county, the focus of our water restoration, management schemes, and fish re-introduction projects is the terminus of the watershed, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the water hogs, politicos and ecofreakos that that thrive there.  If fish folk hadn’t sued the water hogs over the delta smelt and other critters, we would have another couple of decades before the water wars were brought to our doorstep.  Forcing the water hogs to consider the health of the Delta was a sound idea; why should fish have to pay so cities can grow?  Even John Muir was against that.  But putting pressure on water hogs also put pressure on us, and why should we have to pay so cities can grow?

There are other, slower, more natural ways to bring a watershed to the wetland state, but the people paying for the work want the benefits right away.


The presumed benefits for water users are cleaner water, and most especially, water later in the year.  Meadows and wetlands hold water, filtering it through roots and gravel and slowing its descent down the mountain.  In theory, the wetlands and meadows hold and release more water than the increased vegetation uses.  Most of all, it releases it later in the year, boosting low flows in the Sacramento which make the water too low, slow and warm for the fish that thrived there a century and a half ago.  It also means more water for water users in the months when water is most used.



Sacramento River flow rates.  From Wiki  The Sacramento provides water to over half of California’s water drinkers, and powers agribusiness in the Central Valley.

The assumed features of creating essentially artificial steady state wetlands and meadows are cleaner, more plentiful, and more steady water downstream.  Hence the name of the act that is supposed to pay for it, the Clean, Safe, and Reliable Water Supply Act of 2012, also known as the Water Company Supply Guarantee Act of 2012.


Curbing the greed of downstream users and occasionally thwarting the working people of the watershed, the fish folk are strong player.  The fish folk include those who make a living from saving and “acting on behalf” of the fish, but it also includes those for whom restoring Eden is a kind of religion or personal salvation.  It doesn’t make them bad, and indeed, we all owe something to fish folk, because in general they have a very beneficial effect on our world.  When their dogma runs afoul of our land use needs, we curse them, but the big exploiters in this world are the cities, and fish folk and their ilk have been remarkably effective at preventing wholesale destruction of the woods for consumer use.  This has also made the forests better for those of us who need to live in the hills for our mental health.

Indeed, the Fringe Editor views it as every landowner’s responsibility to consider how their use impacts the watershed.  Landowners should be encouraged to do modest, long term watershed projects, to responsibly thin the forests on the hillsides, to clear the conifers back from the meadows and wetlands, to break the bank and employ shallow worm ditches so water can escape the stream, to encourage beavers and to make low natural dams to slow water and encourage critters that swim, fly, burrow and run.  There is technology available for private landowners to do this kind of micro-scale, non-invasive, local benefit watershed work; contact the National Resource Conservation Service office near you.

Even so, the religious fervor of some can get out of hand.  Increasingly, those who really do become devout fish folks qualify as a class of anti-evolutionists, who want to revert our lands to something they used to be, but aren’t anymore, and can’t be again for many reasons, not the least of which is global climate change.  Really like quaking aspen?  If so, you’ll want to bring back the ice age, which is when the quakies thrived.  They’ve been slowly receding since, and the years ahead won’t be kind to them.  We can take modest steps to help quakies, though, and we should. 

Likewise, we should help the fish when possible, but not to the extent of bringing back the ice age, or of driving rural people off the land.

It’s money that powers watershed restoration, and it’s money rural people should get.  Our home hills do the work of gathering and cleaning the water downstream users need.  There are billions made on water in California every year.  More of that money needs to trickle up the Sacramento River to us.

In the Fringe view, the water companies and users below need to pony up.  Dollars are what power our participation.  Pay us to harvest the excess timber, to turn it into lumber but also energy.  Pay us to keep the watersheds pristine.  Pay us for the legal problems threatened and endangered species cause landowners.  Pay us to modify ranching and agriculture so the Feather River stays clean enough to drink.  You downstream users, you watershed coordinators and holy-roller fish folk, you all benefit from our mountains, pay us to take care of them. 

Otherwise, why should we help the water hogs, or even the fish, at a cost to us?




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