An Assessment of California’s Watershed Governance: A Perspective on Environmental Justice in Land Use Planning and Development by Valerie Escalante

Southern California faces unique challenges for land use and development.  With more than 50% of the state’s population and receiving less than 2% of the state’s rain fall per year,[1] water has become one of its main challenges.  Furthermore, as a result of Southern California’s varied demography and economic state, environmental justice[2] has emerged as a serious factor in its water challenges.  This note asserts that California’s system of watershed governance[3] in land use planning and development is essential to address these challenges.  This note considers California’s watershed governance scheme and assesses its efficacy as it relates to water concerns in land use planning and development for disadvantaged communities.  As a case study, this note focuses on the Inland Empire region of Southern California.[4] Currently, the existing dire state of the land, infrastructure, and water quality in many disadvantaged[5] Inland Empire cities casts doubt on the efficacy of California’s scheme for watershed governance, but poses a unique opportunity for improvement.

This study assesses California’s watershed governance infrastructure on both the state and local level and analyzes watershed governance’s implementation in planning and development with respect to the improvement of disadvantaged watershed communities.  It considers the state of the law for watershed governance and environmental justice, and considers specific watershed communities within the Inland Empire to assess what information has been made available to them and what legal resources, mandates, or guidance they have adopted.  A main component of this note’s analysis is the consideration of to what extent watershed governance has incorporated environmental justice and to what extent improvements can be made to maximize efficacious results.

Presently, at the state, local, and community level, momentum is generating to help the disadvantaged by utilizing watershed governance planning.  In the state’s most recent watershed guidance document, the 2009 Draft Statewide Watershed Plan, the drafters explicitly urged watershed planners, who work on various levels of government and in the community, to take into account the interests of the disadvantaged.[6] Additionally, it also appears that independent of the state’s recommendations, local stakeholders have begun to address the fundamental issue of environmental justice in their drafting of watershed regional plans.  While a variance exists among the pertinent regional and local level watershed documents[7] with respect to the extent of addressing environmental justice, this note recognized that overall, each document showed the growing drive to address environmental justice.  Moreover, in creating watershed plans, there is an increasing emphasis by local and regional watershed planners to consider the legal aspects and regulatory policies that affect the watershed.[8] Because currently there is no watershed law on both the state[9] and local level,[10] state guidance documents on watershed governance and regional and local watershed plans are the surest means to instruct the community on how to address their watershed concerns.  Therefore, recognizing not only environmental justice issues but also the legal aspects and regulatory policies in these guidance documents for watershed governance is a grand step toward comprehensively supporting these concerns with the force of law.  However, the next challenge and opportunity to comprehensively support these concerns is for cities to address them in their municipal codes.

California’s scheme for watershed governance is flexible and offers the versatility needed to address water concerns and environmental justice in land use planning and development.  However, given the apparent novelty of addressing environmental justice through watershed governance, more can be done on the state level to prompt local watershed planners to consider the issue.  Moreover, to comprehensively and fully utilize the flexibility of California’s scheme for watershed governance, local planners must draft their watershed plans with the requisite attention to the issue of and programs for environmental justice.  Moving forward, cities should also add an environmental justice component into their planning and/or development code.  As it stands, California’s scheme for watershed governance offers great promise for addressing environmental justice through land use and development now and in the years to come.

[1] South Coast Region: Urban Desert Page, (last visited Feb. 11, 2010).

[2] “Environmental Justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”  Environmental Justice Home Page, (last visited March 4, 2010).

[3] The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) characterizes a watershed approach as “a flexible framework for managing water resource quality and quantity within specified drainage areas, or watersheds . . . [including] stakeholder involvement and management actions supported by sound science and appropriate technology.”  United States Environmental Protection Agency Handbook for Developing Watershed Plans to Restore and Protect our Waters 2-2 (2008).  It discusses the watershed planning process as working “within this framework[,] by using a series of cooperative, iterative steps to characterize existing conditions, identify and prioritize problems, define management objectives, develop protection or remediation strategies, and implement and adapt selected actions as necessary.”  Id. Once documented, the results of the watershed planning process then become the watershed plan: “a strategy that provides assessment and management information for a geographically defined watershed, including the analyses, actions, participants, and resources related to developing and implementing the plan.”  Id.

[4] Inland Empire contains over 50 cities, including Riverside, San Bernardino, Ontario and Temecula’s Wine Country to the south. The Inland Empire also includes the San Bernardino Mountains to the north including Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead. Inland Empire Home page, (last visited April 13, 2010).

[5] Both major counties within the Inland Empire, as of 2006, had a significant proportion of its population impoverished; 14% of San Bernardino County’s population was impoverished, and the rate in Riverside County was 13%.  Southern California Association of Governments, The State of the Region 2007 41 (2007) [hereinafter State of the Region] available at  Of these impoverished populations, in San Bernardino, approximately 22% were African American and 16% were Hispanic, and in Riverside, 14% were African American and 17% Hispanic.  Id.

[6] California Department of Conservation, Program Framework (2009) (One of the Plan’s

guiding principles was to ensure inclusivity, by integrating social equity and environmental justice taking into account the underserved and disenfranchised communities), available at

[7] Compare Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board Region Eight Page, (link to the Region Eight Watershed Management Initiative) (last visited May 13, 2010), with San Bernardino Valley Water District Page on the Integrated Regional Watershed Plan, (last visited April 17, 2010), and Santa Ana River Watershed Integrated Regional Plan 1 (2009).

[8] See Santa Ana River Watershed Integrated Regional Plan 1 (2009).

[9] § 16100 of California’s Water Code codifies the prerogative of local government to create “a watershed improvement plan.”  Cal. Water Code §§ 16101.  Beyond this 2009 Act, California’s Water Code with respect to watershed governance only codifies watershed specific project funding.  See Cal. Water Code §§ 12645-12670.23; See Cal. Water Code §§ 79075-79088.

[10] Research in at least two disadvantaged or partially disadvantaged Inland Empire cities’ Code revealed no mention of watershed governance or watershed relevant regulations.  See Rancho Cucamonga, Cal., Code 17.06.030 (E); see also San Bernardino, Cal., Code.

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