3.1A – Planning and Design – Watershed and Groundwater Protection

Management Measure

Develop a watershed protection program to:

  1. Avoid conversion, to the extent practicable, of areas that are particularly susceptible to erosion and sediment loss;
  2. Preserve areas that provide important water quality benefits (e.g. wetlands) and/or are necessary to maintain riparian and aquatic biota;
  3. Protect to the extent practicable the natural integrity of water bodies and natural drainage systems (e.g. seeps and springs) associated with site development; and
  4. Identify priority local and/or regional watershed pollutant reduction opportunities (e.g., improve existing urban runoff control structures).

The intent of this management measure is to encourage land use and development planning on a watershed scale that takes into consideration sensitive areas that, by being protected, will maintain or improve water quality. Each element of the management measure addresses key issues that result in water quality degradation. Progress can be made when these issues are addressed holistically in a watershed-wide plan.

Management Practices

  • Development sites should be evaluated to identify areas that are less suitable for development (i.e., steep slopes, erodible soils, wetlands, land within the 100-year floodplain, and historically or culturally significant areas. Building footprints and infrastructure should be located away from these areas where feasible. Local governments can enact ordinances to protect specific resources such as wetlands or riparian areas, and landowners can be encouraged to voluntarily practice conservation of ecologically significant areas.
  • Areas particularly susceptible to erosion and sediment loss, specifically areas with highly erodible soils or steep slopes, should be avoided when sitting new developments. Arendt (1996) developed a process by which a development envelope could be defined based on factors such as soil type, slope, ecological significance, floodplain delineations, existing vegetation, and cultural/historical significance. On a larger scale, undeveloped areas can be ranked by overlaying data sets in a geographic information system (GIS) that describes factors such as those listed above to guide decisions regarding zoning classification.
  • Protect areas that provide water quality benefits, including wetlands, riparian vegetation and wildlife. Wetlands and riparian areas can be protected by local governments through the implementation of buffer ordinances. In addition, landowners can chose to implement buffers and setbacks on their property and to protect wetlands and other ecologically sensitive areas from development. To formalize this process of protecting water resources, a variety of conservation mechanisms can be used, such as easements, deed restrictions, and covenants. Developers should be encouraged to protect water resources as a selling point (aesthetic and ecological amenity).
  • Protect the integrity of water resources from the effects of site development and infrastructure. This can be accomplished by establishing setbacks from natural drainage areas; including seeps, springs, and groundwater recharge zones. Protect or promote vegetated buffers around natural drainage areas to provide additional protection. In addition, culverts and crossings can be designed to minimize impacts on riparian areas and to enhance natural drainage rather than impede or overwhelm it. Finally, grading plans can be designed to minimize the adverse hydrologic impacts of clearing and the creation of impervious areas by dispersing drainage to multiple outlets so as not to overwhelm a single drainage feature.
  • Once applicable management practices are identified, areas within each watershed can be prioritized for implementation based on site characteristics such as location, ownership, drainage area, soils, and other conditions that may be applicable to specific management practices. These site assessments are conducted using existing data, such as aerial photographs, zoning maps and GIS data, and field surveys.


  • Clean Water Program, C.3. Stormwater Technical Guidance, August 31, 2006.
  • California Department of Conservation, Division of Land Resource Protection, provides to landowners information on grants and financial assistance, mapping, and technical resources for protecting natural resources.
  • California Department of Fish and Wildlife may regulate a project through the Streambed Alteration Agreement process. DFG issues Streambed Alteration Agreements when project activities have the potential to impact intermittent and perennial streams, rivers, or lakes.
  • Contra Costa County (CCC), Clean Water Program (CCCWP) is composed of nineteen incorporated cities within CCC and the Contra Costa Flood Control & Water Conservation District. The CCCWP strives to eliminate stormwater pollution through public education, inspection and enforcement activities and industrial outreach.
  • California Watershed Council was established on August 28, 2003 to serve as the public advisory process required by AB 2534. It is designed to recommend priorities and funding allocation needs for the new program, and also to advise the Secretaries on watershed programs and related issues such as funding opportunities, program effectiveness and efficiencies, regional partnership needs, technical assistance and capacity building for watershed groups and citizen volunteers, information exchange, and implementation of the California Watershed Strategic Plan.
  • CERES, California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance is required (if the project is not found to be exempt based on the current CEQA Guidelines), a local or State agency must act as the lead CEQA agency.
  • Green Highway Partnership (GHP) is a voluntary, public/private initiative that is revolutionizing our nation's transportation infrastructure. Through concepts such as integrated planning, regulatory flexibility, and market-based rewards, GHP seeks to incorporate environmental streamlining and stewardship into all aspects of the highway lifecycle.
  • SWRCB & RWQCBs, Clean Water Act (CWA) section 401 Certification and Wetlands Program, RWQCBs review projects that require a federal permit under CWA section 404 or that involve dredge or fill activities that may result in a discharge to waters of the United States. This is to ensure that the State’s interests are protected on any federally permitted activity occurring in or adjacent to waters of the State.

Information Resources

Data for Watershed Evaluations and Determination of Site Characteristics

  • Center for Watershed Protection is a nonprofit organization that has produced several publications and other technical resources to help planners implement better site design techniques to reduce storm water from impervious surfaces. Specifically, the Rapid Watershed Planning Handbook, published in 1998, describes techniques that communities can use to more effectively protect and restore water resources.
  • California Office of Historic Preservation can provide guidance on identifying and conserving cultural or historical resources and meeting the requirements of CEQA, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) regulations.
  • California Watershed Assessment Manual provides a variety of tools to guide the process of watershed assessment. Included on this Website are summaries of key topics related to watershed assessment, details on how to conduct a watershed assessment, and links to other resources.
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service Soil Maps can be used to identify areas with highly erodible soils, and topographic maps and data can be purchased from the U.S. Geological Survey and used to identify steep slopes.
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fisheries: Critical Habitat Areas for endangered species can be identified with the assistance of the Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific Region Field Offices in Yreka, Arcata, Red Bluff, Sacramento, Barstow, and Ventura. For more information, contact Ecological Services.
  • USEPA, Handbook for Developing Watershed Plans to Restore and Protect Our Waters is designed to help anyone undertaking a watershed planning effort, but should be particularly useful to persons working with impaired or threatened waters. It contains in-depth guidance on quantifying existing pollutant loads, developing estimates of the load reductions required to meet water quality standards, developing effective management measures, and tracking progress once the plan is implemented. New materials were added to the handbook including ways to protect important elements of the landscape and aquatic habitats within a watershed.

Land and Water Resource Conservation Options

  • Green Infrastructure supports native species, maintains natural ecological processes, sustains air and water resources, and contributes to health and quality of life.
  • Growing Greener: Putting Conservation into Local Codes is a statewide community planning initiative designed to help communities use the development regulation process to their advantage to protect interconnected networks of greenways and permanent open space. The booklet can be downloaded as a PDF file at the Website listed above.
  • Institutional Aspects of Urban Runoff Management: A Guide for Program Development and Implementation this manual was developed to assist individuals responsible for developing and implementing urban erosion, sediment control, and storm water management programs. The document presents a comprehensive review of the institutional frameworks of successful urban runoff management programs, including summaries of state, regional, county, and municipal urban runoff programs.
  • Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO) offers guidance, research studies, data, and land use planning tools to help local officials make land use decisions that will protect natural resources.
  • Nonprofit conservation organizations: Information about land and water resource conservation for landowners is available from several nonprofit organizations, including the Land Trust Alliance, The Conservation Fund, and the Natural Lands Trust.
  • Stormwater Manager’s Resource Center provides resources for those involved in local storm water management. These resources include a monitoring/assessment section that details environmental indicators, methods, factors to consider in an assessment, and assessment tools and models. The Website also has articles about land conservation, open space ordinances, and a fact sheet on conservation easements.
  • USEPA, Growing Toward More Efficient Water Use: Linking Development, Infrastructure, and Drinking Water Policies this publication focuses on the relationship between development patterns, water use, and the cost of water delivery. It reviews literature that shows how large-lot, dispersed development patterns cost more to serve because of the length of pipe required, pumping costs, and other factors. The literature also shows that large-lot, dispersed development uses more water. The document includes policy options for states, localities, and utilities that directly reduce the cost and demand for water, while indirectly promoting smart growth.
  • USEPA, Handbook for Developing Watershed Plans to Restore and Protect Our Waters is intended to assist watershed planners and others on nearly all aspects of the watershed planning process. The focus of the Handbook is on the nonpoint source water quality aspects of watersheds, but it is designed to take the user through each step of the watershed planning process, including watershed monitoring and assessment, community outreach, selection and application of available models, BMP effectiveness databases, implementation, feedback and plan adjustment, and more.
  • USEPA, Protecting Water Resources with Higher-Density Development this report is intended to help clarify the role of high-density development in protection of water resources and green space. The report includes a discussion of the impacts of development, a description of critical land use components for the protection water quality, a critique of the conventional wisdom that low-density development best protects water resources, and a presentation of the alternative view that compact development can minimize water quality impacts on a regional scale. The report also features the results of an exercise to model 3 development scenarios at different scales and different time-series build-out scenarios.
  • USEPA, Using Smart Growth Techniques as Stormwater Best Management Practices this report reviews nine common smart growth techniques (regional planning, infill development, redevelopment policies, special development districts (e.g., transit oriented development and brownfields redevelopment), tree and canopy programs, parking policies to reduce the number of spaces needed or the footprint of the lot, "fix it first" infrastructure policies, smart growth street designs, and stormwater utilities) and examines how they can be used to prevent or manage stormwater runoff. The document provides an overview of the relationship between land development patterns and water quality and quantity, and it provides sections for resources and a case study from New Jersey.
  • USEPA, National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Urban Areas, Chapter 3 of this guidance manual from USEPA has a review of the various options available for land and water resource conservation.
  • USEPA, Urban and Economic Development Division, Smart Growth Network is a partnership with a diverse network of organizations to encourage development that better serves the economic, environmental, and social needs of communities. The network provides a forum for information-sharing, education, tool development and application, and collaboration on smart growth issues. Smart growth approaches focus on flexible zoning, preventive planning, intelligent management of natural resources and water quality, and implementation of treatment and control technologies at multiple scales from development sites to watershed planning.

Buffer Resources


Arendt, R. 1996. Conservation Design for Subdivisions. Island Press, Washington, DC.

USEPA, 2005. National Management Measures to Control Nonpoint Source Pollution from Urban Areas. EPA 841-B-05-004. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC.

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