Stream and Wetland System Protection Policy

Here are some highlights from the public workshop at the San Francisco RWQCB, about the stream and wetland system protection policy that they and the North Coast RWQCB are developing.

The policy would extend the RWQCB’s reach upstream into wetlands, riparian areas, and watersheds. They say their current focus has not prevented the degradation of water quality, so they need to be able to regulate more of the sources of water quality problems. To that end they propose to add 2 new “beneficial uses” that will be legally protected (flood peak attenuation and storage, and water quality enhancement), and 6 new water quality objectives. The policy will get into riparian areas, wetlands, floodplains, stream habitat quality, and hydrological condition.

Most of the attendees were local government agencies, many worried about the burden of new regs. Also several environmental attendees, applauding the policy’s direction.

The Water Boards would probably prioritize grants, loans, and even permit fees toward local governments that adopt multi-benefit watershed plans, adopt the Ahwahnee Principles, adopt low-impact development rules, smart growth, or stream protection ordinances with riparian buffers. So they’re offering carrots, not just sticks.

At past workshops about this policy, I was surprised to hear exactly the same underdog position expressed by the RWQCB in relation to state level agricultural and development interests that local environmental interests feel in relation to local ag and development interests. But they seem to be going ahead. I think they feel confident that the science and the law is on their side.

They will define “riparian zone” and will define a setback. They are working with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and Sacramento County on this. It will not be one size fits all; sounds like it will be differently sized based on adjacent land use (urban vs rural) and location in the watershed (headwaters vs floodplain).

For the first time they mentioned climate change as a driver for developing this policy. They intend to address cumulative impacts, but they are not clear how. They say they want to actually improve water quality, not just maintain it, but where is the baseline?

A lawyer from the building industry said this should be done on a state level, that it is about land use and not water quality. The state director of Audubon said it is far overdue and necessary to protect the state’s water supply and quality of life. Fish & Game said that their millions spent on restoration have only been band-aids, and that it takes better regulation to protect quality of life and environment.

More at

Caitlin Cornwall
Assistant Director
Sonoma Ecology Center
(707) 996-0712 x 105