Background on the OAEC WATER Institute

The WATER Institute promotes a holistic and multidisciplinary understanding of the importance of healthy watersheds. It was established in response to the current hydrological crisis in an era of diminishing water resources, threats to biodiversity, and ever-expanding human impacts. A primary goal of the Institute is to educate about and advocate for “Conservation Hydrology,” a field of study we are pioneering which is characterized by these key concepts:

•    Human development decisions must be grounded in the science of hydrology and mindful of the need to move from a “dehydration model” to a “rehydration model”. It is essential that all development agendas insure the health of watersheds and the availability of ample, high quality water.

•    Land use management strategies must thoroughly assess the impact of human activities on the functioning hydrologic cycle, and how these impacts affect species, communities, and ecosystem dynamics. This includes the consideration of “keystone species” such as endangered salmonids and “keystone processes” such as nutrient cycling as indicators of hydrologic health.

•    Healthy human systems and healthy hydrologic systems are inextricably interdependent. Democratic, regionally controlled decision-making processes are essential for the preservation and protection of diverse, vigorous, resilient ecosystems and hydrological systems.

Applying these concepts makes it possible to move from a perspective that views water issues as problems pitting human needs against ecological needs, to a “win-win” approach that benefits human development while honoring the vital and unique role of water for all species.


Why Organize Watershed Groups?

Fresh water has always limited and determined the survival of human civilizations, and California is no exception. Our watersheds have been dramatically degraded due to activities such as agriculture, logging, ranching, rural and urban development, to the point where access to abundant and clean water is threatened. Heightened public awareness of water issues has resulted in a demand for locally based creative solutions. Government agencies increasingly recognize that significant change can only occur with the involvement of private landowners and local citizens.

In addition to organizing our environmental efforts along political boundaries such as cities, counties, school districts, etc., we need to also be organizing within watersheds, demarkations based on ecological units of interconnectivity and reciprocity.

In 2000, OAEC began conducting Basins of Relations trainings with the goals of increasing the active engagement of communities in enhancing and protecting the health of their watersheds, and increasing the number of restoration projects occurring in Northern and Central California.

The OAEC Basins of Relations Program promoted and supported the creation of community-based groups organized within watershed boundaries. The program was designed to increase the level of awareness and familiarity that citizens have within their home watershed “basin of relations,” and to empower them to initiate local education, monitoring and restoration efforts. The main goal of this program, along with much of OAEC’s work, is to move beyond individual actions towards community-wide, regional, structural solutions.

Basins of Relations: Starting and Sustaining Community Watershed Groups Training

Between 2000-2009, the WATER Institute offered this four-day training 3 times per year and graduated over xxxxx groups and xxxx individuals.

Course content:  The training addressed the concepts, science, and organizing tools for protecting and restoring watersheds and featured guest presenters from various agencies, such as the California Department of Fish & Game, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, various Resource Conservation Districts, and several local restoration organizations. The elements of the training included:

  • Watershed Science Awareness — watershed concepts, processes, terminology; salmon ecology
  • Watershed Restoration Tools — water quality monitoring; uplands erosion control; road restoration; native habitat restoration
  • Community Organizing Strategies — group decision-making techniques; meeting facilitation
  • Strategic Plan Development — setting goals and objectives; funding

The text for this course was Basins of Relations – A Citizens Guide to Protecting and Restoring Our Watersheds (featured below.) During the training, each team developed a strategic plan to facilitate the development of a watershed group in their home watershed.

Following the training, OAEC provided each group with ongoing assistance by phone, site consultations when possible, and the dissemination of information about funding opportunities and other resources.

These trainings were subsidized by grants from the California Department of Fish and Game (Salmon and Steelhead Trout Restoration Account), the Coastal Commission, and Community Foundation Sonoma County.


Success Stories

Former program participants are currently:

  • Organizing annual county-wide Watershed Days
  • Developing educational programs and school watershed maps
  • Organizing a landowner education program
  • Monitoring water quality and identifying key pollutant sources
  • Hosting creek clean-up events
  • Planting trees to reduce erosion
  • Collaborating with federal, state, and local agencies on fish passage, road assessment, and in-stream enhancements
  • Participating actively in regional Watershed Network


Additional Workshops and Consultations

The Basins of Relations program also offered workshops and consultations to existing water organizations on Conservation Hydrology solutions to water problems related to human development. A critical role that the WATER Institute has played has been working with municipalities, developers and landowners on how to effectively implement and be in compliance with the storm water regulations inherent in the new Clean Water Act Phase II. Examples of presentations that we offered to organizations and agencies included:

•  Thinking Like a Watershed

•  In Our Own Backyard: Watershed & Creeks Workshop

•  Waterspread Restoration

•  Vineyards & Healthy Watersheds

•  Conservation Hydrology & Blue Building

•  Stormwater Management & On-Site Retention Strategies

•  Erosion Control & Water Management



Basins of Relations – A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting and Restoring Our Watersheds (2018)

A 24-page WATER Institute booklet for individuals and groups working to educate about the myriad issues facing our watersheds and the steps we can take to preserve them. (3rd Edition, 2018)

Free Download >