Shared solutions to protect shared values

  • Bowling Ball Beach in Northern California. Credit: Matt McIntosh / NOAA ONMS.

California's North-Central Coast and the Russian River Watershed

Partners in California's North-Central Coast and the Russian River watershed are working to provide data and tools to enhance resiliency to climate and extreme events. NOAA, USGS, and Point Blue Conservation Science have developed a sea level rise/storm model and an interactive web-based tool which provides sea level rise scenarios to be used by local, state, and federal partners. This data helps to identify low lying and potentially vulnerable communities and resources within Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, including the Russian River Estuary. This data is being used for multiple purposes including development of California's first comprehensive, prioritized adaptation implementation plan for the coast and ocean within the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS).

Figure 4. Russian River in Northern California. Credit: Sonoma County Water Agency.
Figure 4. Russian River in Northern California. Credit: Sonoma County Water Agency.

The Climate-Smart Adaptation project for the North-central coast of California, led by GFNMS, was driven in large part by the work of the Sanctuary Advisory Council, which has been the primary agent for collaborating across agencies and organizations to reach the Sanctuary's RLW outcomes. The Sanctuary Advisory Council formed a working group composed of representatives from 20 different agencies and organizations to provide management recommendations for vulnerable habitats along the coast. GFNMS used additional input from the 2016 Ocean Climate Summit, staff, modeling results on flooding and inundation from the USGS Coastal Storms Modeling (COSMOS) effort, and the web-based tool Our Coast Our Future (OCOF) from partners at Point Blue Conservation Science, to select priority areas for implementing the Council's recommendations. A similar process was used for the Russian River estuary in that data from the COSMOS model and OCOF tool were presented to local stakeholders and the public for feedback into the use and practice of identifying key areas and climate-smart strategies as they advance with their Local Coastal Plan updates. As part of the outcomes from the planning process, water conservation demonstration strategies were applied in the middle reaches of the watershed.

Westminster Woods, a year-round camp, outdoor school, and retreat center located in Occidental, California, along Dutch Bill Creek, is an important stream for coho and steelhead. This site was identified as a priority due to the presence of endangered species, willing landowners, and many partners that have been working on improving the habitat already. Westminster Woods had previously relied on Dutch Bill Creek to irrigate its playing fields during the summer. The resilience project, implemented in fall 2015, reduced overall irrigation demand and allowed the timing of water diversion to be shifted to the winter rainy season. Overall the project improved efficiency by reducing withdrawal from the creek from 600,000 to 1.4 million gallons (dependent on the year) down to 250,000 gallons; then provided them with storage tanks which will replace the withdrawal of 250,000 gallons from the creek. This project was led by Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District and Trout Unlimited and supported and partially funded by NOAA's Habitat Blueprint.

Lastly, the Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO) is making progress. FIRO is an effort that is evaluating whether data from watershed monitoring and improved weather and water forecasting, particularly for intense events related to Atmospheric Rivers (ARs), can be useful to help water managers selectively retain or release water from reservoirs (as appropriate and consistent with authorized project purposes and water control manuals that govern reservoir operations). FIRO is being developed and tested as a collaborative effort focused on Lake Mendocino that engages experts in civil engineering, hydrology, meteorology, biology, economics and climate from several federal, state and local agencies, universities and others. The preliminary viability assessment work plan recently completed describes an approach for testing whether detailed modeling and improved weather forecasting tools could benefit operations at Lake Mendocino. This proof-of-concept FIRO viability assessment uses Lake Mendocino as a model. If successful, the lessons learned here could have applicability to other water reservoirs in California.

Next Step

The Storymap of priority areas for conservation will be presented to the appropriate entities in the region (federal, state, tribal, and local government staffs as well as private landowners). Presentations will illustrate the most vulnerable areas and potential solutions, and engage partners in selecting 2-3 pilot projects along the coast for implementation. After securing the appropriate partnerships, project staff will convene site teams for each pilot project to develop conceptual implementation plans including conceptual design components and steps, goals and objectives of the adaptation project, roles and responsibilities, schedule, and communication strategies.

Potential partners that have already expressed an interest in working with the project teams within the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary include: Marin County Planning Department, San Mateo County, Federated Tribes of Graton Rancheria, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Bureau of Land Management. During this time, overlapping and complementary efforts will be identified throughout the region to leverage partnerships and resources. Using the Storymap as an outreach tool, funding will be sought for the development of conceptual implementation plans. Initial conceptual review will be conducted by a living shorelines expert and project engineer.

Figure 5. California's North-Central Coast and Russian River Watershed Partnership map.
Figure 5. California's North-Central Coast and Russian River Watershed Partnership map.

For work conducted in the Russian River Watershed, efforts like the NOAA Habitat Blueprint and other complementary initiatives will pursue identifying priority areas for coastal resiliency, water conservation and will realize the FIRO work.


The California North-central Coast and Russian River Watershed Resilient Landscape has multiple products to help build and maintain an ecologically connected network of terrestrial, coastal, and marine conservation areas. The products are linked and described through a Storymap. The Storymap describes the landscape, the priority issues, vulnerable species and species of concern, identifies priority areas for climate adaptation, and describes milestones accomplished. With the Storymap, users can access the Our Coast Our Future (OCOF) online sea level rise decision support tool to map vulnerable areas and areas of concern for coastal storms and sea level rise in communities as well as access adaptation strategies proposed and implemented in the landscape.

The most notable success of the RLW partnership was the increased communication and collaboration across various planning efforts and projects. Many common interests and needs, as well as opportunities for leveraging expertise and resources, came to the fore that we might not have taken advantage of if not for the impetus provided by having this new platform for partnerships. For example, to create the story map of priority locations for implementing selected adaptation strategies, NOAA has worked closely with our local agency partners (Sonoma, Marin and San Mateo counties, Sonoma County Water Agency), federal partners (BLM, USGS, CA LCC, Army Corps of Engineers) and local NGOs (Point Blue Conservation Science, BAECCC, Greater Farallones Association, Trout Unlimited, Resource Conservation Districts). We also had success in leveraging the 4th Ocean Climate Summit, held in San Francisco in May 2016, to inform the selection of priority sites and identification of appropriate management responses.

In addition, products like the FIRO viability assessment required multiple agencies at state and federal levels to begin the discussions over weather, climate and water needs and how best to maximize conservation without increasing flooding risks.


The main challenge was bringing all necessary entities into the fold and keeping on top of all relevant efforts in the region. This landscape deals with two very different areas from watershed to coastal/open ocean. Both areas in some cases had the same partners and in others they were very different. The partners are also dealing with a variety of climate related issues at different time scales. For coastal issues, some of the solutions may be years to decades out. Within the watershed, some immediate benefits through water storage are occurring today.

Lessons Learned

Figure 6. Black Oystercatcher, the species identified as most vulnerable to climate change impacts through climate vulnerability assessments. Credit: Steve Lonhart, NOAA MBNMS.
Figure 6. Black Oystercatcher, the species identified as most vulnerable to climate change impacts through climate vulnerability assessments. Credit: Steve Lonhart, NOAA MBNMS.

Involve as many relevant partners as is feasible from the start of any adaptation planning process to ensure common understanding and buy-in; ensure sufficient staff and expertise in order to provide the necessary resources for planning decisions to be made and to facilitate communication and cooperation among multiple partners. Additionally:

  • Developing a GIS tool, such as a story map or layered PDF, allows all the partners to visualize areas of highest risk, assists in determining priority areas, and combines all partner projects for a given geographical area
  • This type of mapping tool works best when multiple partners are involved in a discrete geographical area.
  • Communication between partners, sharing information, ideas, and lessons learned is critical. Bring the community together to speak about their concerns and how federal, state and local entities can pull in the adaptation strategies and solutions.