Helping Property Owners Manage Their Streams

California Urban Streams Partnership shows Contra Costa County homeowners how to be stewards of their watersheds.

While many of California’s streams in urbanized areas have become concrete “flood control projects” or “storm drains,” many still remain in natural channels. Urbanization, through paving of the landscape, encroachment on floodplains, and narrowing and straightening of streams, instigates instability to these remaining natural creeks, which not only impacts habitat but can create flood and erosion hazards. Changes to established urban landscapes — such as additions of new buildings on an existing developed lot, newly paved yards, and changes in drainage patterns — can also initiate instabilities.

photo of a small stream
CUSP’s Streamside Management Program for Landowners has made it simple for homeowners to understand solutions, permitting requirements, and best ecological practices available to address issues with creeks on their property. Photo by Dejan Krsmanovid / Flickr.

When it rains, it is not uncommon for property owners to be taken by surprise not only by the power of water but also the confusing array of government agencies that may — or may not — be involved in addressing any issues caused by that power. Many property owners will never have heard of many of these agencies, or they may not realize how different local and state agencies divide up jurisdictions and responsibilities.

With this in mind, the California Urban Streams Partnership (CUSP) created a program — the Streamside Management Program for Landowners (SMPL) — to address stream-management needs in order to protect the environment on urban and rural private properties throughout the Bay Area’s Contra Costa Country. The program has made it simple for homeowners to understand solutions, permitting requirements, and best ecological practices available to address issues with creeks on their property.

Contra Costa County has a population of about one million people. While much of the county is preserved open space (itself a heroic tale of conservation leadership), the 60 percent in private ownership includes properties that were developed with agreements that placed responsibility for managing creeks with property owners. Many of these streams are habitat for anadromous fish and other species of concern, as well as corridors for wildlife and storm drainage. CUSP’s work helps residents understand how to be stewards of their watersheds, while solving conflicts arising from property and stream boundaries. In the three-and-a-half years that the program has been operating, CUSP has visited 85 properties.

CUSP’s stream technicians perform site assessments — essentially walking the creek with the property owner — to identify not only hazards, but also the stream and watershed processes, and the development disturbances that are contributing to the hazards. The stream technicians work closely with CUSP co-founder Dr. Ann L. Riley, who is an expert in urban stream restoration. They develop a site assessment report that includes simple landscape-based management options using planting and streambank soil bioengineering techniques to address most of the conditions encountered.

In addition to providing site assessments, CUSP, in partnership with the Contra Costa County Resource Conservation District, has provided on-site stream restoration assistance to property owners, teaching them how to install bioengineering systems. If CUSP believes the issues on the creek exceed natural solutions, the program will recommend restoration professionals with engineering and landscape architecture credentials to help resolve the flood hazards in the most environmentally friendly way. Additionally, we help participants understand stream-related regulations, as well as more about streams systems and watersheds.

This assistance is important for preserving the region’s streams. Legacy problems caused by past property owners are associated with the use of environmentally damaging riprap, concrete, gabions, and channelization — and many current property owners are familiar only with these damaging “solutions” as well. The education and technical support residents receive through our program has empowered many homeowners to install inexpensive remedies to address their property concerns and enhance their creeks, all while dispelling their fear and stress about stream environments.

The SMPL program also benefits the county. Our field visits sometimes uncover potential flood hazards before they cause actual damage that can further impact downstream culverts and channelized waterways. When residents implement our erosion-control strategies, water quality is improved, which also makes it easier for the county to comply with clean-water regulations. For this reason, regulatory environmental agencies such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board also appreciate the benefits our program provides to the public.

Learn more about this Earth Island project at: californiaurbanstreamspartnership.com.

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