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Open Access Publications from the University of California

A Fresh Perspective for Managing Water in California: Insights from Applying the European Water Framework Directive to the Russian River


Throughout the world there is increasing public awareness of the importance of sustainable water management to meet both growing human demands and ecosystem needs. Predictions of increased climate variability and indicators of ecological and water quality deterioration have made water management a salient political issue, particularly in arid climate regions such as western North America and the Iberian Peninsula. In recent years, substantial effort has been focused on adopting sustainable water use practices and mitigating the impacts to natural rivers and streams resulting from human activities. Yet the restoration of natural biological communities has been more difficult than anticipated. Our inability to effectively restore and protect rivers and groundwater sources are in part due to the scale of environmental damage inflicted upon them, but also are a consequence of the legal and institutional frameworks under which water is managed. Assessments of the current state of the world’s water resources suggest that conventional approaches to water management will be inadequate to sustainably balance human and ecosystem needs into the future. Furthermore, as nations around the world struggle with water management challenges, there has been little explicit attempt for one region to learn from the experience of another in approaching common problems.

The European Union’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) defines a new strategy for meeting human water demands while protecting environmental functions and values and may be helpful in informing water management practices and policies in other regions of the world. In the report we explore how the management approach described under the WFD compares to the legal and institutional system of a California river basin, managed under distinctly different principles and objectives. Through a theoretical application of the WFD, we highlight the critical water management challenges of northern California’s Russian River basin and use the Directive’s approach to develop strategic recommendations for water management reform.

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