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Save water or save wildlife? Water use and conservation in the central Sierran foothill oak woodlands of California, USA

Lynn Huntsinger, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley
Tracy V. Hruska, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley
Jose L. Oviedo, Institute of Public Goods and Policies (IPP), Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC), Madrid
Matthew W. K. Shapero, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley
Glenn A. Nader, University of California Cooperative Extension
Roger S. Ingram, University of California Cooperative Extension
Steven R. Beissinger, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, University of California, Berkeley


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More frequent drought is projected for California. As water supplies constrict, and urban growth and out-migration spread to rural areas, trade-offs in water use for agriculture, biodiversity conservation, fire hazard reduction, residential development, and quality of life will be exacerbated. The California Black Rail (Laterallus jamaicensis coturniculus), state listed as “Threatened,” depends on leaks from antiquated irrigation district irrigation systems for much of its remnant small wetland habitat in the north central Sierra Nevada foothills. Residents of the 1295 km² foothill habitat distribution of the Black Rail were surveyed about water use. Results show that the most Black Rail habitat is owned by those purchasing water to irrigate pasture, a use that commonly creates wetlands from leaks and tailwater. Promoting wildlife, agricultural production, and preventing wildfire are common resident goals that call for abundant and inexpensive water; social and economic pressures encourage reduction in water use and the repair of leaks that benefit wildlife and greenery. Broad inflexible state interventions to curtail water use are likely to create a multitude of unintended consequences, including loss of biodiversity and environmental quality, and alienation of residents as valued ecosystem services literally dry up. Adaptive and proactive policies are needed that consider the linkages in the social-ecological system, are sensitive to local conditions, prevent landscape dewatering, and recognize the beneficial use of water to support ecosystem services such as wildlife habitat. Much Black Rail habitat is anthropogenic, created at the nexus of local governance, plentiful water, agricultural practices, historical events, and changing land uses. This history should be recognized and leveraged rather than ignored in a rush to “save” water by unraveling the social-ecological system that created the landscape. Policy and governance needs to identify and prioritize habitat areas to maintain during drought.

Key words

agroforestry; conservation trade-offs; ecosystem services; endangered species; irrigation; social-ecological systems; water systems; wetlands

Copyright © 2017 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087