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Coordinating a Watershed by OVLC’s Ventura River Watershed Coordinator, Lorraine Walter

By on January 16, 2012 in News

Blank stares. That’s what I get when I tell people I’m a watershed coordinator. The job title even stumped staff at the California Regional Water Quality Control Board this week when I called. The staff person interrogated me for several minutes about what a watershed coordinator does, and then his final question was, “Why?”

It’s a fair question. There are two mysteries involved: watershed being one; coordinator the other. Let’s start with watershed. It is an unfortunate term, that is, until you realize the next best term is catchment basin. I’d rather not have to describe myself as a catchment basin coordinator—too many syllables, so we’ll have to get along with watershed.

What is a watershed? Well, it is a water catchment basin. It is an area wherein all the water that falls is inclined to drain towards a central water body—in our case, the Ventura River and then on towards the Pacific Ocean. Your bathtub is a small watershed, bordered by an enamel rim. The Ventura River Watershed is a large watershed, bordered by high mountains which include Nordhoff Ridge and White Ledge Peak.


We have a term for watersheds because the systems within them are interrelated in basic and important ways. Changes or impacts to one part of a watershed ripple through and affect other parts.

The Matilija Dam offers a good illustration of this interconnectedness. A dam erected to address a water supply concern had the unintended consequence of starving local beaches of sand and eroding beach property. We’ve learned a lot about how important natural sediment transport is, not just to beaches but to the ecology of the river, to the shape of the river’s channel, and to the river’s response to floods.

The watershed view is one that pulls back and looks at the whole water system. It is a view that acknowledges how critical water is to our lives, how powerfully it can affect our lives, and thus how careful we must be with alterations to water systems.

When we established our city boundaries, however, and our water district boundaries, and when we wrote our regulations for flood control, stormwater management, water conservation, clean water protection, habitat protection, and especially land use, we did not have this watershed view in mind.

Here’s an example: Paving over pervious soil, say with a large parking lot, results in less recharge of groundwater aquifers, increases storm flows, and increases contaminants in runoff; less groundwater recharge means more surface water (Lake Casitas) withdrawals, making us more vulnerable to water shortfalls, especially in droughts; increased storm flows can increase streambank erosion and cause flood damage; more contaminants in water threatens the quality of water we use for drinking or irrigating our crops. All of these potential impacts to water systems can result from pavement, yet the regulations that dictate where and how much pavement exists in a community are not in the water code; they are in the land use and transportation codes.

continued on page 2… This brings us to the second mystery of my job title: coordinator. While we have evolved a watershed view, we must somehow figure out how to apply that view to existing jurisdictional boundaries and disjointed regulations, and so watershed coordination was born.

Watershed coordination is about different agencies, organizations, and community members working collaboratively, across their traditional boundaries or service areas or areas of interest, to acknowledge the larger system that connects them—the watershed. Together these entities identify areas of overlap and opportunities to work together toward common goals, and nudge existing organizational structures towards a more holistic watershed view.

Fortunately, state regulators are beginning to acknowledge the importance of watershed-level coordination. In recent years, “integrated, regional watershed management plans” have been adopted by groups up and down the state because the California Department of Water Resources made it a requirement for access to voter-approved water bond funding. Any project seeking funds from Proposition 50 or 84 must already be included in such a plan.

In Ventura County, our three largest watersheds—Santa Clara River, Calleguas Creek, and Ventura River—are included in the county’s Integrated Regional Watershed Management Plan (IRWMP). The Watersheds Coalition of Ventura County (WCVC) is the group that wrote Ventura County’s plan.

The Ventura River Watershed Council was formed to work on the Ventura River Watershed’s contribution to that regional plan, and has been meeting monthly since 2006. The group is composed of local, state and federal agencies, water and sanitation districts, nonprofit organizations, and individuals—anyone with an interest that intersects with water. While the original impetus to get the group together was the obligatory coordination to qualify for grants, the tremendous value of the coordination now keeps participants at the table.

At this October’s meeting, for example, Lynn Rodriguez, program manager for the WCVC, reported that she needs to add a climate change component to the update of the county’s IRWMP; Lynn learned from Norma Camacho, director of the county’s Watershed Protection District, that the district is working on an ArkStorm model that will simulate extreme (think Noah’s Ark) storm events. Extreme weather events are predicted from climate change, so this was useful information.

At the same meeting Rob Orth, executive director of Project Understanding, reported that his organization is pursuing strategies that will help clean up the lower river where so many homeless people live without sanitary facilities. One strategy he is looking into is employing some of the homeless themselves to do river clean-up, with payment offered in food and housing vouchers. Those participants also working on the homeless and related water quality issues, were eager to hear this news.

The state staffer who asked me “Why?” did so because he knew that regulatory jurisdictions are not watershed wide; nobody is “in charge” of a watershed. Despite this, we now understand that the parts of a watershed make up an integrated, connected system. Acknowledging this fact is just smart, and certainly a more efficient and effective use of limited resources. This is “why” we coordinate.

Coordination has been so valuable to the participants of the Ventura River Watershed Council that funding for full-time staff was pursued. The Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, an active member of the council, took the lead in this and recently secured a three-year grant to fund a watershed coordinator. I started as the coordinator in late September.

Writing a detailed watershed management plan for the Ventura River Watershed is one of my primary goals. The plan will outline current conditions, identify areas of concern, and prioritize projects to address those concerns. While the final watershed plan will have great value, perhaps of equal value will come from the process of developing it. This is where we learn who is doing what in the watershed, where we identify synergies, where we gain from shared data, where we form partnerships and leverage resources.

The monthly watershed council meetings will be the forum for input into the plan. These meetings are open to all, and every third meeting will be held in the evening to accomodate different schedules.

If you are interested in attending the council meetings, or in lending your expertise or skills (we could use a web designer, GIS technician, graphic designer, and researchers) to our process, we welcome you. Contact me at or 805/649-6852 x4, and look for our website


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