Watershed Characterization and Land Use Planning
Land use planning and permit decisions are usually made using site scale
information. It is rare that these decisions are adequately informed by an understanding of ecosystem processes or watershed conditions. We believe one of the keys to making mitigation work is to move away from the narrow view of site-by-site piecemeal solutions, and towards a broader ecosystem or watershed scale view to achieve a more functional and resilient natural system.
Watershed characterization is an approach for incorporating this understanding into the local government planning and permitting process.
- Sustain and restore aquatic resources.
- Establish a common approach to coordinate planning efforts.
- Involve the community in developing a green infrastructure plan.
- Promote the integration of the Growth Management Act (GMA) and Shoreline Management Act (SMA).
- Support Shoreline Management Plan (SMP) updates by:
- Establishing a framework for characterizing landscape processes and developing a restoration plan as required under the SMA.
- Promoting "no net loss" of shoreline and wetland function.
- Provides for the comprehensive long term protection of aquatic resources and maintenance of quality of life.
- Guides future development (e.g. “green infrastructure” ) to:
- Identify and avoid development patterns that cause problems difficult for a community to correct in the future.
- Provide background information necessary for completing SMP and comprehensive plan updates, including critical areas ordinances.
- Reduce total development costs.
- Streamlines permitting because it can:
- Provide a predictable permitting environment for developers.
- Reduce permit review, project implementation and enforcement time.
- Provide more local control and less state overview.
- Provides flexibility to meet the needs of the community.
In its most basic form, watershed characterization information can help identify areas that are:
- priorities for acquisition (or protection via conservation easements),
- more appropriate for restoration and/or mitigation/conservation banks,
- less likely damaged by development impacts to ecosystem or watershed processes.
Where watershed characterization reveals major conflicts between ideal and actual land uses, planners and permit writers should acknowledge these conflicts and learn from these situations to reduce future siting conflicts. Local governments can and should use characterization information to support the development of local shoreline master plans and critical area ordinances.
Guidance and Examples
These examples demonstrate various applications of watershed
characterization in land use planning, as well as Ecology’s guidance
as it evolved over time. The most current methods are listed first,
and earliest versions listed last.
Sound Characterization Project
This project developed a regional-scale tool that highlights
the most important areas to protect, and restore, and those most
suitable for development. It includes watershed assessments
that prioritize small watersheds, or habitat areas, relative to
one another for their protection and restoration value.
Puget Sound Characterization – Volume 1: The Water Resource
Assessments (Water Flow and Water Quality), April 2012.
Volume 1 briefly describes the overall conceptual framework for
the Puget Sound Characterization and describes details for the
assessment of water resources (water flow and water quality) using analyses of watershed
Puget Sound Characterization - Volume 2: A Coarse-scale
Assessment of the Relative Value of Small Drainage Areas and
Marine Shorelines for the Conservation of Fish and Wildlife
Habitats in Puget Sound Basin, December 2013. Volume 2
describes the Department of Fish and Wildlife's terrestrial,
freshwater, and marine shoreline habitats assessments.
- Puget Sound Watershed Characterization -
Introduction to the Water Flow Assessment for Puget Sound, July 2010
gives a general description of the water flow assessment, the information it
provides, who could use it, and what planning processes it can support. It
provides examples of how planners can use the information for planning
decisions and how it is currently being applied.
technical document for the Puget Sound Watershed
Characterization Project, March 2010
Ecology requested peer review of
a technical document that describes the approach taken to assess
one watershed process, the movement of water in the Puget Sound.
Subsequent assessments, including updates from this peer review,
a water quality model, and models for fish and wildlife habitat,
together offer a relatively
complete watershed characterization.
- Protecting Aquatic Ecosystems: A Guide for Puget Sound Planners to Understand Watershed Processes,
This document provides guidance for Puget Sound planners, resource managers, and consultants on how to better protect aquatic ecosystems, such as lakes, rivers, wetlands, and estuaries, by including information about watershed processes in resource management plans and regulatory actions.
Also see February 2010 presentation (PDF, 25MB) from a
Coastal Training Program class.
Guidance for Small Cities on Developing a Wetland Protection Program,
Guidance for small cities and towns that are in the process of
updating their critical areas ordinances (CAOs). This document
describes the important topics that should be addressed in the
wetlands section of a CAO. It includes recommendations for wetland
protection based on best available science (BAS). The guidance
includes an appendix that transcribes these recommendations into a
format that is similar to that found in many local CAOs.
Critical Areas Ordinance Code Examples: Off-site mitigation
language, March 2009 (PDF, 51KB)
Examples from critical areas ordinances statewide, allowing for
Upper Chehalis Basin
South Lewis County
- Presentation on A
Watershed Based Management Plan for Birch Bay, April 2009 (PDF, 3.2MB)
Birch Bay Characterization and Watershed Planning Pilot Study,
Birch Bay study was a collaborative effort by local, state, and federal agencies to create a comprehensive set of watershed management recommendations using integrated watershed characterization tools. The primary participants in the study were the Whatcom County Planning and Development Services Department, EPA, Ecology, WDFW, and the Partnership. The Birch Bay study provides preliminary recommendations for land use planning and resource management that will maintain—or preferably improve—the quality and condition of local wetland, stream, nearshore, and terrestrial resources in the Birch Bay watershed.
Snohomish Estuary Wetland Integration Plan
Salmon Overlay to the Snohomish Estuary Wetland Integration Plan, March 2001
The Salmon Overlay is a tool to aid jurisdictions in responding to ESA and developing an appropriate management plan for the estuary as a component of a basin wide
(Water Resource Inventory Area [WRIA] 7) management strategy for recovery of listed species. Products and outcomes of the Salmon Overlay include the following:
- A scientifically based Tidal Habitat Model that will characterize indicators of habitat functions within the study area specifically focusing on habitat for listed anadromous fish species.
- An inventory, based on the Tidal Habitat Model, of the quality of habitats now available to listed species in the study area.
- Identification of high-value habitats that should be preserved.
- A listing and ranking of projects and opportunities for restoration/enhancement of habitat within the planning area.
- A process for comparing potential development impacts within the urban growth areas (UGAs) of Everett, Marysville, and Mukilteo (part) with potential mitigation and
restoration opportunities in the SEWIP planning area.
- Recommended mitigation and restoration/enhancement policies for development.
Snohomish Estuary Wetland Integration Plan, April 1997
The Snohomish Estuary Wetland Integration Plan (SEWIP) is a proposal to integrate the wetland regulatory frameworks of federal, state and
local agencies into one process on the basis of an agreed-upon plan. The products and outcomes of this effort are a scientifically based
inventory of the functions and values of study area wetlands and a framework, agreed upon by all the regulatory agencies, for expediting
review of development proposals through the federal, state, and local permit processes. It is intended to provide an alternative which,
when applied, will provide substantial savings of time and costs associated with development in and around the estuary. It was adopted
by reference in the city's Shoreline Master Program (SMP). The plan is comprised of five basic elements:
- Inventory and assessment of wetland resource;
- Identification of areas where development can occur;
- Listing of enhancement and restoration sites and actions;
- Wetland compensation policies and replacement ratios; and
- Recommended management guidance.
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