Collaboration, sustainability, and planning: empty words or meaningful actions?

I started out the morning thinking that I would replace the usual blog entry this week with a “fishy” version of “The Night Before Christmas”—you know, “Twas the night before Christmas, in the river, throughout, not a creature was stirring, not even a trout. The stockingfoot waders had been hung with care, but many with holes were in need of repair…” 

But, our clever colleagues at Friends of the Teton River (FTR) over in Driggs beat me to it; I opened their Christmas email greeting this morning to read “Twas the night before fish-mas and alongside the stream, Santa landed his sleigh and his whole reindeer team…” But after thinking about this for a few minutes, my initial reaction of “they beat me to it” was soon replaced by “great minds think alike,” which is one aspect of collaboration as we experience it in our daily work. Sometimes the result of collaboration is a new and fresh idea brought forth by a colleague (more brains = more ideas), and sometimes the result of collaboration is that many different minds analyzing the same problem each reach the same conclusion.

We witnessed this latter phenomenon last week at the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council’s annual watershed conference. Twenty years ago, when we were just getting the Council off the ground, there was very little shared understanding of water-management challenges facing various stakeholders and almost no shared vision of how to address these challenges.  Last week, I was amazed at just how much common understanding there is, and even more amazed at how much shared vision there is for the future, among interests as disparate as cities in the Magic Valley, surface-water irrigators in the Henry’s Fork basin, and conservation groups like Trout Unlimited. That’s not to say that we agree on all of the details, but we generally agree on what the problems are and how to approach their solutions. I attribute this convergence in understanding in large part to collaboration.   

Most people and organizations working in natural resources management these days talk about collaboration—many of us have been talking about it for two decades. But is it all talk and no action?  Have we used the word so much that it has no meaning anymore? The same could be said of a couple of other buzzwords we natural-resource professionals use all the time and that were used numerous times by different speakers at last week’s conference: “sustainability” and “planning.” Do these words actually mean anything? 

I’ll address this question—one word at a time—as relevant to HFF and its work.

Collaboration

Webster provides three definitions of “collaborate,” essentially: 1) to work jointly with others, 2) to cooperate with an enemy of one’s country, and 3) to cooperate with an agency with which one is not immediately connected. In HFF’s case, we certainly work jointly with others and with agencies that have no formal connection to our own. As for the second definition, there are still some people who would consider, for example, hydroelectric utilities and irrigation districts as “enemies” of organizations interested in fisheries conservation. In that sense, HFF’s collaboration with power companies and irrigators could be considered as “cooperation with enemies”.

Given that we do not own land, do not own water rights, and do not have any authority to manage or regulate either water or fish, we must work jointly with other people and agencies to accomplish our mission. We collaborate with numerous state and federal agencies that do have management or regulatory authority, and we work with water users such as hydroelectric power companies and irrigators, who have rights to use water. In all of these collaborative relationships, HFF provides scientific support and on-the-ground work to assist our partners in meeting their respective missions and responsibilities; in turn, the partners provide us with access to physical facilities, funding for some of our work, and opportunities to participate in decision-making.

A good example is provided by a meeting this week involving HFF, Fall River Rural Electric Cooperative, Northwest Power Services, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Fremont-Madison Irrigation District, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This meeting addressed operations and monitoring at the Chester hydroelectric facility. In this case, Fremont-Madison owns the dam, Fall River Electric holds the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) license, Northwest Power Services operates the facility, and the rest of us are parties identified in various aspects of the FERC license as having interest in fish and wildlife resources that could be affected by the power plant. Fall River allows HFF access to the power plant facilities for the purposes of monitoring use of the fish ladder, which in turn, helps Fall River meet conditions of the FERC license and associated settlement agreement.

One particular issue we addressed at Tuesday’s meeting was how to avoid future flow disruptions, like the one that occurred back in October, when operational needs require deflating and inflating the rubber dam that controls water level in the backwater. HFF provided technical analysis of the October flow disruption, as well as a proposed solution. The group then decided on some wording changes needed in the plant’s operations plan that would meet conditions of the FERC license. More importantly, we agreed on what constitutes the definition of “run-of-river operation”, which is a requirement of the FERC license but is never quantified in the license. We agreed that inflation operations will be carried out over a long enough duration that river flow at the St. Anthony gage will not be reduced by more than 10%. HFF will calculate the duration of the inflation operation necessary to achieve this at any given river flow and inflation height. We will then enter these durations into a look-up table that the power plant operator can use to determine the duration of the operation under any given set of flow and backwater level conditions.

Without collaboration, and more importantly, without the trust fostered by long-term relationships, this solution would never have been attained. There is no question that taking an adversarial and non-collaborative approach would have never resulted in a simple but effective solution agreeable to all involved. We express our sincere thanks to Fall River Electric and Northwest Power Services for their understanding of our concerns and willingness to implement operational procedures that protect wild trout downstream (and thanks to Fall River for lunch afterwards!).

Sustainability

Webster offers the following for “sustainable”: 1) capable of being sustained (as in to supply with sustenance, nourish, prolong) and 2) a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted. Both of these definitions apply to our daily work. HFF is committed to sustainability of our wild trout fisheries, which means providing “sustenance” for these fisheries in the form of favorable streamflows, good water quality, and appropriate habitat. Catch-and-release and other wild-trout fishing regulations limit mortality due to angling, while fish screens and fish passage facilities allow high rates of survival and movement in the “working river” environment (see previous blog on this topic). By ensuring this sustenance, we ensure that natural reproduction in the stream will provide wild trout, which support socially and economically valuable recreational angling while also filling an important role in an ecological system that supports numerous wildlife species.

Because of the basic need wild trout have for streamflows and good water quality, sustaining wild trout fisheries also means sustaining water resources, a goal HFF shares with all users and managers of water in the Snake River basin. Again, while we may still disagree on some of the details, we all share the goal of sustainability of water resources, which means, literally, “using the resource so that it is not depleted.”

Nearly every speaker at last week’s watershed conference mentioned the goal of sustainability. Gary Spackman, Director of Idaho Department of Water Resources, started the meeting by describing the Sustainability Initiative that his agency, with leadership and direction from the Idaho Water Resource Board (IWRB), has prepared at the request of Governor Otter. The initiative is based on the clear understanding that the economy of Idaho depends nearly completely on water—from the recreational fishing industry to agriculture to the ability of Mountain Home Air Force Base to continue operating. Director Spackman stated that sustainability of water resources includes more than just meeting existing water rights and providing water for new growth—it also means ensuring water in Idaho’s free-flowing streams.

Following Director Spackman, Jeff Raybould presented the Sustainability Initiative from the perspective of the Idaho Water Resource Board, of which he is a member. Jeff is also Chair of Fremont-Madison Irrigation District’s Board of Directors, but he spoke at the Council on behalf of the IWRB. The IWRB is charged with developing the State Water Plan, the goal of which is sustainability of Idaho’s Water Resources. Jeff acknowledged that although water for all uses is not available in all years, actions such as groundwater recharge—especially during wet years—will retain more water within the Snake River basin over long time scales, thereby increasing the amount available for use at any given time. In his presentation, Jeff emphasized the need for planning.  “We need to continue to plan to ensure sufficient water supplies to satisfy future water needs,” he said.

Planning

Webster’s definition here is clear and directly applicable: “the establishment of goals, policies, and procedures for a social or economic unit.” In the IWRB’s case, the “unit” is the entire State; for the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council, it is the Henry’s Fork watershed, although as I have pointed out in previous blogs, water management decisions made at the level of the entire Snake River basin affect the Henry’s Fork and vice versa.  

At HFF, we plan both internally and externally, at several temporal scales. We have a strategic plan, which guides our work on time frames of 5-10 years, and we have an annual operating plan that guides us year-to-year. When deciding how or even whether to engage in a given activity, I find myself frequently consulting HFF’s strategic plan to guide my actions. This usually boils down to the question: “Does this relate to wild trout in the Henry’s Fork, and if so, how?” If the answer to the first part is “yes”, then we act accordingly. Having this plan is critical to spending our time—and our donors’ and collaborators’ resources—efficiently and effectively. Without a plan, our work would be disjointed and inefficient, and it may not even be relevant to our mission to sustain wild trout.

Externally, we participate in appropriate planning activities that are led by others. As I mentioned last week, HFF was an active participant in the development of the Henry’s Fork Basin Plan, which was passed by the IWRB in 1992 and has guided management and protection of the Henry’s Fork and its water resources since then. We continue to be involved in these types of activities, which have recently included the Henry’s Fork Basin Study, completed earlier this year by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Even very specific actions, such as development of the procedure for operating the rubber dam at Chester to minimize flow disruptions, constitute planning. In that case, we developed a plan for preventing future large fluctuations in flow when the rubber dam is inflated. Collaboration was required to develop this plan, which helps lead to sustainability of the wild trout fishery in the St. Anthony reach of the river. Get it?

It should be pretty clear by now that the three words that are the subject of this blog are not empty; they are meaningful, alive, and well at HFF, as we work to maintain wild trout and their habitat in the Henry’s Fork. It is also clear that collaboration, sustainability, and planning are alive and well in water management in the state of Idaho, giving me a great deal of optimism that the collective “we” will find solutions to Idaho’s water-management problems and ensure adequate water supplies for agriculture, cities, and free-flowing streams for generations to come.