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Framework of the
San Francisquito Creek Project

Statement of Problem and Objective

Thousands of communities in small watersheds across the nation are or will be facing issues of flooding, water supply, habitat restoration, aging dams, and stream impairment by sediment and pollutants from non-point sources. There is an immediate need to develop a decision support system based on sound science that incorporates community values that will help to provide for informed decisions on these issues. These issues are vexing decisionmakers in the San Francisquito Creek watershed, California.


The San Francisquito Creek watershed encompasses 45 mi2 and includes a wide diversity of natural habitats and land use types. San Francisquito Creek is the last riparian free-flowing urban creek on the southern Peninsula of San Francisco Bay. It begins as overflow from the Searsville Lake dam built in 1892 in Stanford University's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve. The creek flows for 14 miles from its source to its terminus in San Francisco Bay. Rural areas and open space characterize the upper watershed. In its lower reaches the creek courses through densely populated cities.

San Francisquito Creek is the boundary between Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties and flows through parts of five municipalities-Menlo Park, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Portola Valley, and Woodside. It empties into San Francisco Bay at the city of East Palo Alto. The towns and cities in the watershed vary greatly in wealth from tremendous affluence to significant poverty.

The reservoir behind the dam, Searsville Lake, is projected to fill completely with sediment in 15 to 40 years depending upon future weather patterns. The consequences of the reservoir filling on riparian habitat and flooding are unknown. In 1998, San Francisquito Creek flooded along its downstream reaches, causing $28 million in damage. The creek is the last remaining run of steelhead trout (a federally listed threatened species) in the southern part of the San Francisco Bay. It has been listed under section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act as impaired with regard to Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), which refers to the amount of sediment in the stream. These four issues-flooding, aquatic habitat restoration, dam removal, and TMDL impairment-are of concern to the communities in the San Francisquito Creek watershed. A committee, composed of a subgroup of citizens from the San Francisquito Watershed Council and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) scientists, decided that a sediment budget needed to be established for the watershed to aid in decisions concerning the four issues.

Specific Research Questions

The following questions must be answered to evaluate the impact of sediment and to make informed choices about the management of the creek.

  • What has been the effect of land use change in contributing sediment to the reservoir and on landscape change?
  • Is the watershed impaired with regard to sediment?
  • What impact will this sediment have on the carrying capacity of the creek and aquatic habitat?
  • How can the multiple uses of an urbanized watershed be managed to minimize impact to the ecological habitat?

Overarching Framework: scientific research in a social and political context

During the last five years, more and more decisionmakers are recognizing that the traditional ways of resolving environmental policy issues are insufficient in that they suffer from a lack of community acceptance. Consequently, new democratic and participatory strategies to decisionmaking are emerging. For example, the central theme of the 2000 Society for Human Ecology conference was Democracy and Participation, a recent seminar series sponsored by Massasschusetts Insitute of Technology's (MIT) Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government was entitled "Civic Environmentalism: Democratic Pathways to Sustainability," and the first priority of the President's Government Reform Initiative is to make government citizen-centered for the purpose of empowering citizens to make decisions.

In an endeavor to increase integration of diverse disciplines and build upon traditional and ongoing USGS efforts to work with constituent groups, the USGS launched an experimental activity called INCLUDE (Integrated-science and Community-based Values in Land Use Decisionmaking) in late 1998. Since January 1999, INCLUDE has been headquartered at the Western Geographic Science Center as a core element of an interdivisional research agenda. INCLUDE engages citizens as partners with discipline experts in a collaborative problem-solving process. The cornerstone of the INCLUDE effort is (1) to identify the regional scientific issues of concern through a dialogue with the communities of place and publics of interest, (2) to design the scientific investigations to address these concerns with the active participation of citizens, and (3) to effectively communicate the scientific concepts and findings to stakeholders. This cornerstone is laid upon a foundation of taking a problem-focused, rather than a discipline-focused, approach to contributing scientific information toward the resolution of environmental and land use issues.

The San Francisquito Creek Project is a case study to help design and implement the INCLUDE approach. The approach, conceptualized three years ago, is at the vanguard of sustainability science, an emerging field that explores the interactions between nature and society (Kates et al., 2001). INCLUDE offers a way to implement an idea embraced by the proponents of sustainability science, that "…participatory procedures involving scientists, stakeholders, advocates, active citizens, and users of knowledge are critically needed" (Kates and others, 2001, p. 641) to achieve wise and durable solutions to vexing environmental problems. It must be noted that "participatory" is distinguished from "involvement" of the public, which typically means consultation and not active and meaningful inclusion in the design and implementation of projects.

Universal framework research questions

Overarching questions to be addressed include the following:

  • How do we connect people and science so that science becomes an integral part of decisions? How can the scientific findings be effectively communicated to decisionmakers?
  • How can the competing interests be examined and reconciled to achieve balanced solutions to land use and environmental policy?
  • How can today's relatively independent activities of research planning, monitoring, assessment, and decision support be better integrated into systems for adaptive management and societal learning (Kates and others, 2001)?

Two critical questions asked by the recent MIT and Harvard seminar on "Civic Environmentalism: Democratic Pathways to Sustainability" are key questions being asked by INCLUDE and the San Francisquito Creek Project.

  • How are new democratic, participatory strategies different from past "grassroots" environmental movements?
  • What are real on-the-ground outcomes of civic environmental experiments?

Two key hypotheses that we intend to test are the following:

  • The more you involve the people affected by a policy decision in the design of the supporting scientific inquiry, the greater the chance that they will use (and value) the results in the decisions that get made.
  • It ought to be possible, as research proceeds, to review preliminary findings and leave open the possibility of refining the study design with input from the public. In short, it should be possible to take an adaptive-management approach.

Approach and Plan

The San Francisquito Creek Project was designed by a group of citizens in dialogue with scientists. Four citizens and two scientists comprise the project steering committee. To address the questions and hypotheses above and the full range of issues defined by the community, the project takes a problem-focused, in contrast to discipline-focused, approach. The project began in fall of 2000. The San Francisquito Creek Project consists of three major components:

  • Biophysical and Geographic Science Studies
  • Social Dynamics Studies
  • Communication and Learning Activities

A multidisciplinary team, of scientists, educators, practitioners and theorists of consensus building and environmental negotiation, urban and land use planners, and local community leaders and decisionmakers, has been assembled to accomplish the project objectives.

The purpose of the project is more than to help solve specific issues in the San Francisquito Creek watershed. An overarching goal of the entire team is to explore the role of science, scientists, and scientific analysis in negotiations regarding the management of environmental resources. As part of this goal, an educational component will focus on working with school groups to test, evaluate, and learn from communities' experiences with using science in collaborative processes to resolve environmental issues.

Reference Cited

Kates, R.W. and others, 2001, Sustainability Science: Science, v. 282, p. 641-642.

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