A Community Related by Water


bioregion (bīˈō-rēˌjən)

  • n.  A natural ecological community with characteristic flora, fauna, and environmental conditions and bounded by natural rather than artificial borders.

bioregionalism (bīˌō-rēˈjə-nə-lĭzˌəm)

  • n. An approach to social organization and environmental policies based on the bioregion rather than by political or economic boundaries.

The concepts inherent in bioregionalism were developed by Peter Berg and Ray Dasmann in the 1970s, with one of the central organizing features of the bioregion being the watershed, an area of land where surface water converges to a single point at a lower elevation, such as a river, lake, or ocean.

The picture above is of the San Lorenzo River watershed, the central feature of our local bioregion in Santa Cruz County. Just by happenstance, our county lines stick pretty close to the boundaries of this watershed.

Recent concerns about water availability in Santa Cruz and the unincorporated County during this most recent drought have thrown considerations of the health of our watershed into sharp relief.

Water for most of the residents of Santa Cruz comes from the San Lorenzo River watershed, a couple of smaller streams up the coast, and the Pajaro River watershed to the east. None of our water is derived from snow pack; we depend on seasonal rains, which in “normal” years come in late fall to early spring. We get almost no rain from May through September.

In times of drought, such as the past two to three years, San Lorenzo River runoff has diminished severely, to the point that human withdrawal of water has threatened the viability of endangered fish species that spawn in its watershed. Concern for the future of the water supply spawned an eighteen month long process of study and deliberation to devise a plan to optimize our water supply system to provide dependable water for human residents without depriving necessary river flow from the non-human species that also depend on it.

From an initial push by the Santa Cruz City Water Department to build an ocean water desalination plant to provide more water for County residents and to free up water for fish species, the City’s Water Supply Advisory Committee (WSAC) developed a plan that uses a combination of conservation, aquifer recharge, and repair and maintenance of the existing water transportation system to more efficiently manage water from the San Lorenzo River during periods of maximum availability, so as to have a more reliable water supply available during the yearly dry months, especially in times of drought.

As a result of education efforts in support of water rationing and strict conservation measures, Santa Cruz residents have become intimately aware of their source of water. As a result, Santa Cruz water customers exceeded water rationing and conservation goals during the past two years of water rationing. The extent of local response to this drought bodes well for the future success of the WSAC plans for future watershed management efforts.

Santa Cruz is not the only place that is learning a bioregional approach to water management. of the Irish Times writes about the Irish Environmental Protection Agency’s approach to watershed (catchment) management that views watersheds as communities that include the people who live within them:

“Integrated catchment management connects land, water and people from the mountains to the sea,” Donal Daly told a workshop in Dundalk last month. Source: Why rivers are crucial to our relationship with the environment

The Irish EPA’s report, Public Engagement in Integrated Catchment Management, engages the public in a process of learning from their bioregion about how to live cooperatively with all life in the watershed, while maintaining the quality of life for its human residents as well.

Engaging the people in learning about the amazing biological diversity in their bioregion and the crucial role played by the watershed in the lives of all its inhabitants, made them enthusiastic participants in maintaining their own health as part of the overall health of their watershed.

“We found we could hardly get the children away from the river,” said Bernie O’Flaherty, who works with communities on water-quality issues for Monaghan County Council.

The Irish EPA’s report begins with a quote that applies to all of us in our watersheds and bioregions around the world:

‘A family is a community related by blood; a business is a community
related by ink; and a catchment is a community related by water.’

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