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Maximizing Return on Investments in River Flow

If you want to know if taxpayer dollars are well spent on river restoration projects, it can be hard to tell. Sara Aminzadeh of California Coastkeeper Alliance and Konrad Fisher of Klamath Riverkeeper explain why.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A load of rocks are positioned during the construction of a temporary emergency barrier to block salt-water intrusion into the West False River in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta near Oakley, Calif., May 29, 2015. As less fresh water flows down the rivers, due to California’s historic drought, sea-salt water moves farther up the delta, which affects the water supply to communities and irrigation water for farmers.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

Drought, water diversions and other environmental pressures mean that many rivers and streams in California don’t always have enough water to support healthy fish populations and other wildlife.

Environmental water transactions (EWT), a voluntary, market-based system, is one item in the toolbox of agencies and other stakeholders, which they have been using to try to increase flows in rivers and streams. And these transactions may get a boost soon as millions of dollars from the 2014 Proposition 1 water bond are assigned to projects in coming years.

But how well does the strategy of using EWT work? And is it a good use of taxpayer dollars? A new report from Klamath Riverkeeper and California Coastkeeper Alliance, “Measuring Cost-Effectiveness of Environmental Water Transactions,” reported that right now, it’s hard to know if the projects are cost effective because it’s not a standard guideline for funding agencies.

The report helps to address that issue and offers guidelines on how to determine whether projects are cost effective as a baseline for beginning to get the maximum value out of projects aimed at helping to return flows to rivers and streams.

Water Deeply recently spoke with Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of California Coastkeeper Alliance, and Konrad Fisher, executive director of Klamath Riverkeeper, whose organizations commissioned the report from Ecosystem Economics.

A new report, Measuring Cost-Effectiveness of Environmental Water Transactions, offers tools to calculate the economic benefits of projects that aim to restore river flows. (Klamath Riverkeeper/ California Coastkeeper Alliance)

A new report, Measuring Cost-Effectiveness of Environmental Water Transactions, offers tools to calculate the economic benefits of projects that aim to restore river flows. (Klamath Riverkeeper/ California Coastkeeper Alliance)

Water Deeply: What prompted you to put together this report?

Sara Aminzadeh: Bond investments, although they are hundreds of millions of dollars and drastically impact our local community and environment, really have very few groups tracking them in a comprehensive manner and evaluating what their overall impact is.

Also the debate around flows in rivers and estuaries is extremely politicized and polarized. We felt like if we could look at how the state is investing in these stream-flow restoration projects from an economic perspective and how effective these investments of our taxpayer dollars are, we might be able to cut through the entrenched political debates around it and really have a conversation about whether we are using this funding effectively and, if not, how can we do better.

Water Deeply: Your report focuses on environmental water transactions. Is that the best way to increase flows in rivers?

Konrad Fisher: We have really good laws in this country, particularly in California, which, if enforced, would protect in-stream flows. But unfortunately these laws are not enforced.

Agencies and a lot of funders prefer voluntary, market-based transactions to restore flows. Given that market-based solutions have so much support, let’s at least get the most bang for the taxpayer buck and, more importantly, let’s be sure not to do projects that actually reduce stream flows – which can happen if you spend public money conserving water but the conserved water goes to increase off-stream use as opposed to in-stream for fish.

Water Deeply: So what’s going wrong in the process that you see?

Aminzadeh: To do the really good projects is a lot more difficult. More difficult politically and more challenging for all the stakeholders involved, so we tend to default to transactions that don’t actually result in more water in our streams and rivers. We’re going through the motions but we’re not getting anywhere.

Water Deeply: How do you measure how cost effective a stream restoration project is?

Fisher: This report, and the metrics created by Ecosystem Economics, is a first step toward what I think needs to be a more complex metric. At a base level it’s dollars and water measured in acre-feet. Even that level of analysis hasn’t been done. This is a basic metric. At the very least we ought to know how much water we’re getting for the dollars we invest.

If you go dig up a Prop 1 stream-flow enhancement document, you would have to dig to even figure out how much flow you would have gotten for the first round of funding. A more advanced metric I hope ultimately will be done that will incorporate relative ecological benefit for additional units of flow.

Aminzadeh: There is no real data being collected around these metrics currently; looking at what data do we need for cost effectiveness is an important first step we need to take.

Water Deeply: Who do you hope reads this report?

Aminzadeh: We’re looking at a hotter and drier future, so many of our rivers are sucked dry. We have very little time and very little money to spare and I really want that to be the message for agencies and hopefully for the public.

We want this accounting to become something the public is aware of and tracking and engaged in. There is a larger community of practitioners and NGOs partners that can use it, too.

Fisher: The main audience would be funding agencies and practitioners involved in environmental water transactions. The other audience would be thought leaders who are on the fence about flow restoration via the market as opposed to regulation. We have lots of money on the table to buy water for nature. Given that the money is on the table and the lack of enforcement [of existing laws], let’s do the most with the money on the table. At the base level, let’s at least not do harm with the money intended to restore flows by reducing them.

Water Deeply: What would be a good outcome at this point from the work you’ve done on this project?

Fisher: It’s my hope that by analyzing cost effectiveness we will start to think outside the box and try strategies that maybe have not yet been tried; for example, permanent retirement of water rights or merging land and water transactions together so that we might actually consider buying a ranch and retiring the water right so the fish benefit and the regulatory pressure on the farming community is decreased. Right now those things are taboo. There is too much political aversion to even trying.

Aminzadeh: Our purpose with this project is to try to identify some areas of agreement among the community. I think it’s a very polarized community at times. I hope it can prompt dialogue and collaboration among these groups because the situation for many of our rivers is extremely dire.

We think we can do better; let’s put our heads together and strategize.

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