A four-year-old pilot project intended to improve the quality of water flowing into the southern end of San Francisco Bay continues to move forward. Interests ranging from builders to environmentalists to regulators are participating in the Santa Clara Basin Watershed Management Initiative (WMI), and a detailed watersheds characteristics report — an important baseline document — is due out this month. Although the broad-based approach to dealing with entire watersheds is happening in an urban area, most of the creeks are fairly healthy and no single problem has reached a crisis level. Some people say these conditions improve the WMI's chances of succeeding. However, some environmentalists are questioning the effectiveness of the WMI, and participants agree that implementing major cleanups or changes in land-use strategy could become difficult. "It's got the best and the worst," said Ted Smith, Executive Director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. "The best is that everybody is involved and the worst is that everybody is involved." Two regulatory agencies — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board — initiated two pilot projects. One focuses on the Napa River, where an extensive flood-control and river restoration project is underway. The other is the Santa Clara Basin WMI, which is less focused. About 30 public agencies, business associations, and environmental and civic groups are "signatories" of the WMI. Every signatory has one voting representative, and thus far all decisions have been made by consensus. Funding has come from signatories, with the entity that stands to benefit most from a particular project providing the bulk of funding for that effort, according to Mary Ellen Dick, WMI chair and a City of San Jose administrative officer. State agencies and CalFed also provide money, The biggest accomplishment to date is getting all of the parties in one room, she said. "People are really talking to each other about what we are trying to accomplish. That has spilled over into how we coordinate projects," Dick said. Other people agreed that agencies are working more closely with one another because of the WMI. Dan Cloak, of Eisenberg Olivieri and Associates and an engineer for the Santa Clara Valley Urban Runoff Pollution Prevention Program, pointed to three significant factors regarding the WMI. First, most watershed management approaches have been undertaken in rural areas with few landowners, he said. In urban areas, regulatory agencies often cannot even agree on basic watershed characteristics. But WMI signatories have reached consensus on fundamentals pretty easily, he said. Second, the Santa Clara Basin has several examples of "smart growth," such as urban limit lines in San Jose and Milpitas, San Jose's downtown and midtown redevelopment, and The Crossroads transit-oriented development in Mountain View, he said. The watershed approach fits with these smart growth intentions. Third, many area creeks do not run through culverts or even in channels, and many still support native fish, Cloak said. Dams are rare and surface water is generally clean. These conditions provide an better base from which to work than, for example, in Los Angeles, where concrete lines so many waterways. Still, implementing plans for healthy watersheds — such as leaving room for creeks to meander and, on occasion, flood — will be difficult, Cloak said. This will require buying land, gaining easements and working with landowners to be stewards. Stanley Williams, general manager of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, noted that conflicting goals also make implementation difficult. His own agency is supposed to enhance and restore streams, at the same time it is supposed to prevent floods and control erosion. Another WMI goal, simplifying regulatory compliance, a favorite of the building industry, could potentially conflict with the goal of protecting natural resources, which is the bottom line for environmentalists. Smith, whose toxics coalition is a WMI signatory, sees "a fair amount of inertia" at the WMI. For example, the WMI established total maximum daily loads (TMDLs) for copper and nickel in the South Bay. Copper and nickel do not present the worst pollution problem, although they are high-profile contaminants. But the TMDL process has not been easy, and establishing related oversight and monitoring of San Jose's wastewater treatment plant, which discharges the metals, has proven even more difficult, he said. "It always gets down to who is going to pay for it. And no one is eager to do so," Smith said. Smith also pointed to the Guadalupe River, which runs through San Jose. The Guadalupe has one of the worst mercury contamination problems in the country because of runoff from the defunct Quicksilver Mine in the hills south of town. "Yet no one is willing to step up to the plate on that one," he said. Smith said for the WMI to be more effective, the EPA and Regional Water Quality Control Board need to apply pressure, the WMI must establish more efficient processes, and effected agencies should commit more funding. Still, the WMI continues to move forward, and the Guadalupe River is in the WMI's sites. Dick noted that while the watershed approach has been tried elsewhere in the country, in most of those cases everyone could agree on the foremost issue. In Napa, for example, the flooding threat is obvious and bring everyone together. The Santa Clara Basin, however, lacks such a well-defined problem, she noted. So there is no real model for the WMI to follow as it goes about its business, she said. A mercury TMDL for the Guadalupe River, funded primarily by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, is underway, Dick said. Also, the signatories recently agreed to a framework for assessing watersheds, and experts are now beginning to use the framework to study three watersheds — the Guadalupe River, San Francisquito Creek (which forms the boundary between Santa Clara and San Mateo counties) and Upper Penitencia Creek (on the basin's east side). Those three watersheds are representative of the basin, said Alice Ringer, WMI project coordinator. The draft assessment reports will be ready in about a year. From there, WMI members can design alternative resource management strategies, which will be evaluated for cost and effectiveness. Eventually, all of this will get compiled into a Watershed Management Plan. "That becomes something that various groups and agencies can adopt as something they are willing to undertake," Ringer said. The WMI is really the first phase of a much larger — and undefined — project, Dick said. Eventually, the WMI likely will become institutionalized in the form of a joint powers authority or a new government agency, she said. Contacts: Mary Ellen Dick, WMI chair, (408) 277-5520. Alice Ringer, WMI program manager, (408) 945-3024. Ted Smith, Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition executive director, (408) 287-6707. Dan Cloak, EOA, Inc., (408) 720-8811. WMI website: www.ci.san-jose.ca.us/esd/wmi.htm