Better Information Can Help the Environment

by Henry McCann and Alvar Escriva-Bou

This blog was originally posted on the Public Policy Institute’s Viewpoints blog.

Salmon swimming near Lake Tahoe. Image courtesy of PPIC.

We know that California’s aquatic species are at risk from a host of stressors and that drought pushes them closer to the brink. Yet there are significant gaps in our understanding of key factors affecting ecosystem health that make it difficult to effectively manage water for the natural environment. Good practices from other dry places offer lessons for protecting our struggling species and improving conditions in troubled ecosystems.

Water accounting―tracking how much is there, who has claims to it, and what is actually being “spent”―can provide a clearer picture of how and when to allocate water for the environment. Other states have improved their water information systems and reduced environmental problems.

For example, the Colorado Water Conservation Board has a network of high-tech stream gages to monitor freshwater ecosystems. These gages send text or email alerts to state environmental water managers within minutes of approaching low-flow conditions. Staff can respond quickly by requesting an evaluation of priority water needs among local water users and, where possible, shifting water to meet environmental needs.

By comparison, California lacks stream gages on half of the rivers and streams that support critical habitats. This makes active management of environmental water during droughts very difficult, if not impossible, in many parts of the state.

Better accounting can also help us prepare for drought, rather than just respond to it. Making better use of water during average and wet years can stabilize or enhance at-risk ecosystems. This increases their resilience to drought.

For example, drought-prone Victoria, Australia, uses sophisticated water accounting tools to coordinate environmental flows for all types of water years. Victoria also collects and organizes information on a number of critical ecological indicators for thousands of miles of streams and wetlands. This inventory informs Victoria’s short- and long-term decision making about where and when water will be most beneficial to ecosystems and thus helps build drought resilience.

California has a significant body of research on freshwater ecological indicators, but the information isn’t organized in ways that make it readily useful to environmental water managers.

Managing water for the environment is more than a technical challenge. It’s a social process that relies on complex decisions made by water users, regulators, and other stakeholders. Examples from other arid regions suggest that this social process is improved by having access to accurate and timely information. Strengthening water accounting in California is key to improving our ability to manage water for the environment and building the social license necessary to act. Before the next drought pushes more freshwater species to the brink, we would be wise to follow the lead of other semi-arid regions and invest in accounting systems that improve our understanding and management of our rivers and streams.


Henry H. McCann is a research associate at the PPIC Water Policy Center, where he works on data collection, analysis, mapping, and legislative tracking. Alvar Escriva-Bou is a research fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center.

Further reading

Read the report Accounting for California’s Water (July 2016)
Read “Three Lessons on Water Accounting for California” (PPIC Blog, August 8, 2016)

This entry was posted in California Water, Conservation, Planning and Management, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Better Information Can Help the Environment

  1. has most information, but not by water flow to the sea for real management of water. PPIC stated that 71% of water released into Delta is to hold back SALT water, to the best solution would be to block the south 1/2 of the strait at Benicia with a shipping lock and tidally controlled lovers. This would result in 50% to 85% reduction in SALT into Sac. DelTa, making the Delta a Fresh water area again while using less water. Great for Environment and people too.

  2. Jai Rho says:

    Too bad we don’t have enough information to predict the next drought.

    Water management can be no better than a sincere, but inadequate effort, if it is not based on precise information and comprehensive analysis. As the Trump administration pursues a path of intentional ignorance and proposes $8.7 billion in budget cuts to federal agencies having jurisdiction over water (Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior and the Bureau of Reclamation), it is incumbent upon the states to step up and raise their own resources (such as private enterprise partnerships as well as taxes and fess) to meet their own interests. If California fails to take lead responsibility for water management, and continues to rely on previously available federal resources, it need look no further than its own borders to find a “dry place.”

  3. StarBimaging says:

    Thanks for this! You might like this take on why water is special and how we might better prepare water users to care about and engage in those “complex decisions” in a more meaningful way

  4. Is the reason for the poor stream gauging lack of political will/funding? Or is it more complicated?

    • fissekis says:

      Funding is a big part. It costs a lot of money to maintain stream gages, re-rate them, manage the data, etc. Many stations already exist, but aren’t operational due to lack of funding.

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