Amy CampbellProject Director at The Nature Conservancy, California

Amy Campbell

This interview was conducted by Carly Schmidt on April 15, 2024. Press play to listen, or find the full audio transcript below the audio player.

Carly Schmidt: I wonder if you could just start out with an introduction. Who you are, what your role is at the Nature Conservancy, and what you’ve been working on these days?

Amy Campbell: Sure! I’m Amy Campbell. I’m a project director for the Nature Conservancy located in California, and I work in our water program. I’ve worked for the Conservancy now for almost 14 years, and lately I’ve been wearing 2 main hats, if you will. I co-facilitate a California environmental water network across the State with my colleague Nicole. I also lead an acquisition strategy in the Klamath Basin for the Nature Conservancy, where we are working to acquire land with water rights in order to enhance stream flows in 2 key tributaries to the Klamath River, the Scott River and the Shasta River.

Carly Schmidt: Wonderful. Thank you for that. It sounds like you’re co-facilitating a water network, a lot of what River Network is trying to do in the space as well.

Amy Campbell: Very, very similar. And I’ve conducted similar interviews, so it’s nice to be on the receiving end. The opposite side of the microphone!

Carly Schmidt: That’s great. Good. Glad to facilitate that change for you. I’m also curious what brought you to water work in the first place, and what  projects, or partnerships or trends, are keeping you energized in your work right now?

Amy Campbell: I feel like I landed in the world of water by accident, but I’m really glad I did. I’d say about 20 years ago I accepted a job with the local resource conservation district in Northern California (some people call it Soil Conservation Districts). At the time, I didn’t really have a good sense of what our CD’s, or Soil Conservation Service Districts, do. In that position and in that job, I was able to really learn a lot about the intricacies and the give and take of water work when it comes to irrigation in the West. So, I really learned a ton from the agricultural community that I was working with. I learned a bunch about management, grant management, grant writing, restoration projects, fish screens, dam removals, pipelines – just the whole world of permitting and implementing a job. And then I fell into and started really geeking out about water rights and learning about water rights, in California in particular, and became really fascinated and mystified by the world of water, and how Western States manage their water, and how we, as flow practitioners, try to navigate within the confines of water law, and try to find solutions with water rate holders and agricultural producers that strike a balance between nature and economic industries that rely on on water across the West. So, I accidentally fell into it, but I love it. I’m identifying myself as a water wonk! And it’s really fun when I get to meet other fellow environmental water transaction practitioners because I think we’re a very unique breed and there’s a small niche of us out there. But it’s definitely something that just fascinates me and keeps me wanting to learn. I consider water projects like this somewhat like a puzzle where you’re trying to put the pieces together and really try to understand how to get to a solution. But it’s complex and there’s a lot of different factors you have to navigate along the way. So, to me, it’s been a really fascinating career pathway that I come down.

Carly Schmidt: It is really fascinating and having gone to school in the West myself, I know how unique Western water rights are. I wonder if you could speak a little bit to  the uniqueness of water rights in California and in the West.

Amy Campbell: Yeah, I mean, I have family on the East Coast, and when I visit my East Coast family, I’m just amazed that they don’t irrigate or water their lawns. You just don’t see the level of irrigation that you just see across the West. So I think there’s just a very different mentality in the West and a very big disconnect between folks working in streams and rivers in the East versus streams and rivers in the West. Because without water rights and water diversions, we wouldn’t be irrigating or having any agricultural commodities in the West; whereas I feel like more in the Eastern United States, there’s just less need for irrigation. In the West, the right is: the first in line is the first in time. So, the folks that showed up at the courthouse saying, “I’ve planted my shovel on this ground, and this is how much water I can use,” got the water rights first. As more and more people populated the Western United States, water became more and more scarce. Those water right holders who were first in line have the more senior water rights in the West, and those water rate holders who came along a little bit later have more junior water rights. That means that, in times of scarcity and drought, which we are now experiencing regularly out here in the West, there’s a discrepancy between water right holders. Those who are first in line and are most senior have more reliable water to be able to continue to divert, and those that are more junior have less reliability. As an environmental flow practitioner, it’s really important to be able to understand the laws that govern water rights in a given state, the priority system, how water is being used, and where it’s being delivered, and the reliability of that water in order to plan a particular project or start thinking through a given strategy to start putting some of that water back in streams and rivers for the environment.

Carly Schmidt: Well, thank you very much for that context. I think that’ll be helpful for just  ground setting before we dive in. You’ve recently, very recently, just last week, attended the Environmental Flows Workshop that River Network hosted. I did not have the privilege of attending this year, but if you could speak to that experience: What was it like to come together this year and connect with folks? And commiserate, but also share ideas and solutions together?

Amy Campbell: Yeah, I absolutely love these workshops. I think this was the seventh workshop that River Network has hosted and I find these workshops as an opportunity for me to get my head out from my own little watershed or my own projects, and be able to talk and learn about how other people are doing this work across the West. It always reminds me that, while I may be in a very unique place, a unique river, a unique watershed, a unique state, many of my other water practitioner colleagues, and someone else is struggling with the same issues. It can provide a feeling that you’re not alone and that the struggles are real. But people have found really creative solutions to get around some of the barriers that we encounter. These types of workshops and getting together for a solid 3 days in a given location allows us to really start learning about what tools and solutions folks have found in their places that might have a lot of relevancy for me in the place that I work. So, I also find it amazing to go see a place like the Walker River Watershed, and to visit with the Walker Base and Conservancy, and see the tremendous amount of work that they’ve done over the last 15 years. It gives me hope. It says, “Wow, they’re kicking butt right now.” I’m just really inspired by their work, and it just recharges the batteries, because this water work is super slow and can be super painful and frustrating at times, but when you see these success stories  bubble up through the work on the ground, it helps you recharge and reminds me every day the importance of partnerships and developing relationships across the State and down on the ground with the community that you’re working in the importance of building trust, the importance of being really clear around expectations as a way to build trust. It’s just really nice to see how that plays out in the different landscapes across the West. So, I had a blast. I’m really looking forward to the next one and super grateful River Network has taken this on and the Walton Foundation for supporting that work because it’s just super important.

Carly Schmidt: Yeah, thank you for all of that. I’m curious about what these tools or solutions look like, or any stories, really! What stood out to you in particular? Is there  one story that you heard from an organization, or from your own experience, too, where you just felt so inspired by that work and re-energized?

Amy Campbell: I mean, I think the Walker Basin Conservancy shared with us that they’re halfway to their goal of increasing flows in Walker Lake over a 15-year period. That they’re halfway there, which is amazing. Fifteen years to some folks may seem like a long time, but when you’re dealing with water rights and transitioning irrigated land over to dry land, and you’re working in a very conservative part of the State with agricultural partners, the fact that they’ve been able to accomplish so much in what I feel like is a short period of time is just pretty amazing. What I took away from their work, and is something that I’m really having to think a lot about in the work that I’m doing in the Klamath Basin, is really recognizing that, as I stated before, the rivers in the West are way over allocated. There are too many water rights, too much water extraction, happening. Across the West, and especially here in California, we’re having to deal with the fact that there’s just too much land and under production and that we do need to reduce our agricultural footprint, but to do that in a way that is strategic and is in partnership with the local community so the local partners can continue to have economic industries to support their communities. But we do it in a way that restores flows. Here in California, especially in the Klamath, can restore and reintroduce salmon back into our streams and rivers. So, the importance of partnerships and the importance of really trying to figure out a way where we can balance the need to reduce consumption of water across the west in order to get water and stream is what we in California here are thinking about. And it’s not an easy topic for people to talk about. It’s super scary. It’s uncomfortable for me, too. But I think we have to have these real conversations to be able to get to a meaningful solution that works for everybody.

Carly Schmidt: What’s making these conversations so uncomfortable? Is it change? Is it the idea of reducing agriculture production?

Amy Campbell: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think some of it is a fear of change. Here in California, we have a regulatory environment where conditions have gotten to a certain point. In the rivers where I work, we have our regulatory agencies coming in and starting to regulate water, which means, shutting off water rights if they don’t meet a certain flow threshold, and that’s really scary to producers. And we also have the fact that our endangered species listed fish are blinking out, and we need to be able to take some immediate action in order to keep any of the remaining fish we have surviving. It’s all just really uncomfortable for everybody. It’s uncomfortable for me as an NGO working in this community. It’s uncomfortable for our tribal partners who are seeing the fisheries that they sustain go downhill. It’s really uncomfortable for our agricultural partners who are having to deal with the fact that things have to change. We’re all  uncomfortable and just need to be open and prepared to get comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.

Carly Schmidt: Yeah, you said something earlier about reducing our agricultural footprint, which I just wrote down immediately, which is an issue for so many folks working in water, so many organizations. I mean, these goals are lofty, and I think they’re getting loftier, too. I’m curious if you have any blueprints or case studies for this  work that tends to take a long time. Also, speaking of work that takes a really long time to accomplish, it’s wonderful to  hear these stories of folks who have  succeeded in similar ways. I wonder how you’re approaching such a complex problem?

Amy Campbell: About a year and a half ago, the Nature Conservancy launched this water and land acquisition program in the Klamath Basin. Given climate change and given regulatory influences and the status of our endangered species fish, we decided to launch this acquisition program as a way where we could provide the acquisition toolkit to some of the approaches that other partners in the Shasta and Scott River basins were taking. So, we have really close partnerships with other nonprofits and special districts and agencies in the in the watershed that are doing really important work around restoration, and voluntary  transactions. And so, we thought, can we bring in the Nature Conservancy’s acquisition toolkit to complement these efforts? Through a variety of different planning efforts, we’ve identified some key areas in both watersheds that we feel like if a property or a water right to come up for sale, we would go ahead and purchase. Right now, we’re in the process of purchasing a property that has some important water rights on it. Our goal is really to acquire these key properties with water rights, many of which also need some habitat restoration work. So, partnering with a local watershed council or an NGO on the ground to help lead the restoration work, then we figure out the best use of that water that is tied with that property and depending on the property, we’re either, going to go through our process here with State of California to legally leave that water in stream permanently, forever and always; or, in other cases, there might be properties where we want to have a balance or a dual use where we reduce the amount of irrigation that’s happening out there. But we want to continue to have agriculture there. This need to reduce irrigated footprint is a very hot and contentious regulatory environment, but we’re really working closely with partners on the ground to get the habitat restoration piece going as well.

Carly Schmidt: Absolutely. I’m trying to figure out how to frame this question. But bear with me for a second, but there’s something coming up for me, a question about the relationship between partnership building and trust building, and water transactions. That trust building piece is pretty major, and I’m curious how water transactions factor into all of this. So, how do you navigate this? How do you approach a new relationship? It seems really, really delicate.

Amy Campbell: Yeah, it is delicate. And the acquisitions that we’re doing at this point have been pretty market-based where properties have come on the market, and we have been competitive as a as a willing buyer to negotiate something with a willing seller. So, there’s definitely that piece of things. But our vision is to be able to expand this acquisition program to include conservation easements over property that would continue to be owned and managed by the local agricultural community. We have some ideas on how to do that. We’ve had some initial conversations with local landowners around what this might look like. So, I really feel like the conservation easement tool is our next step in this acquisition program where we can really work in tandem with an of an owner of a property to figure out how we can put an easement over that property that would reduce water use, and this land owner would fairly be fairly compensated for the reduction of that water use, and then also enable restoration rights to the property. I see the conservation easement tool as a strategy that that we’re moving toward and we hope to, in the next year or two, really work with willing landowners and continue to develop solid relationships with the agricultural community to figure out what the best approach might be to  solve this bigger water issue for both them and for fish and for nature. The water transaction tool to me is very broad. It ranges from permanent acquisitions all the way down to short term leases, and I think there’s a role for all sorts of transactions in this metaphorical toolbox –the hammers and the wrenches and the screwdrivers – to be able to figure out the best approach in a given situation.

Carly Schmidt: Speaking of one of many tools, I am curious about this water network that you’re co-facilitating. I would love to learn a little bit more about it, if you don’t mind sharing who is involved in this group and what you do in practice to bring these folks together?

Amy Campbell: Yeah, it’s a great question. TNC, in partnership with Trout Unlimited and California Trout, launched a coalition called the Salmon and Steelhead Coalition. We were really trying to figure out how, as a coalition, we could increase the pace and scale of environmental water transactions across the State. Back in 2018, we did a partnered with AMP Insights [CS2] to do us a report, which included interviewing water transaction practitioners around the West to figure out what’s working where you’re at? What barriers are you encountering? What are some of the issues and what’s keeping you from really scaling up your work across the West? What we heard pretty regularly from folks, whether they’re in California or in Idaho, was that there were 4 main barriers:

  1. The first one was that there’s just a lack of science for practitioners to really understand how much water is needed in stream. I mean, I get the I get that question all the time from ranchers. “Well, how much water do you want?” And a lot of the answer is, we don’t know, but we need some water. That answer doesn’t satisfy our partners. There’s just a lot of data that’s needed to be able to really answer, “How much water do you fish need?”  question. There’s a big gap in science.
  2. The second barrier is more on the legal side. Understanding and working in water law throughout the West is super intimidating. It’s intimidating to individuals, and it’s intimidating to organizations that maybe aren’t feeling comfortable about going. Take going out of their comfort zone and dabbling in the world of water rights. And that’s totally justifiable. There’s a need from a legal perspective to educate practitioners around how to navigate through your state’s water law.
  3.  The third piece is that the folks that are doing this work on the ground are slammed. Their heads are down. They’re doing some amazing work in their watershed and they have very little opportunity to poke their heads up out of the sand, look around, and learn what other people are doing. That’s why the environmental flows workshop that River Network hosts is so vital. But we also recognize that there California is a huge state. There are people in Northern California doing some amazing work in water that folks in Southern or Central California coast might be interested in and vice versa. There’s just very little opportunity for people to learn about others’ work.
  4. The last we already touched on is just around the fear of change and the paradigm shift that’s going to be required to do something pretty radical and something different out on the ground.

So, recognizing those 4 barriers, the Coalition decided to launch this environmental water network for the State of California, and we launched it in 2019. I think we have over 600 members now and we really invited anybody across the State that has any touch points in the world of stream flow in California. It’s really focused on  your practitioners, your watershed groups, your NGOs, your land trusts, your RCDs, whoever’s working on the ground in their communities, but recognizing in order to pull off a project. It takes State and Federal agency partners. It takes permitting agencies, attorneys, consultants, tribal partners, it takes everybody so anybody who has a little touches down in the world of getting an environmental water transaction project on the ground is welcome to join this network. It’s free. We host the opportunities to bring everybody together and start sharing about one another’s work. We host technical webinars typically on a monthly basis that are super water-wonky, but they talk about emerging stream flow science or water law code that is a mystery to some folks. It’s just an opportunity to build the technical knowledge of our community across the State. The last part of the network is really around targeting priority watersheds. The Nature Conservancy identified where there’s high biodiversity freshwater biodiversity in California – those small streams and rivers where their flow is really modified by multiple points of diversion, multiple water rights, where there was an active watershed group, and where there’s a listed species (because if there’s a listed, endangered species, that often drives funding to those watersheds). We designed the map of priority watersheds in California, and then we specifically went into those watersheds and started offering small capacity grants to organizations that were working in that watershed that wanted to explore how a stream flow program might look for them. We provide these annual grants to these organizations, and we really try to meet them where they’re at. So, depending on where the organization is in terms of building their program, we can help them with initial stream flow, scoping to planning, to helping fill in some of the data gaps and trying to figure out how much water they need where to grant writing to landowner outreach. Any of these pre-project activities that are needed to get a water transaction on the ground, or at least get to a point where you’re applying for a grant, because a lot of public funding agencies don’t fund the important work that needs to happen ahead of an implementation project. That’s what I’m most excited about: these small capacity grants. We provide financial assistance, but TNC also provides technical assistance. We’ll meet with our capacity grant recipients on a pretty regular basis. We’re part of the team, so we’re helping them think through issues they’re having or strategies on the ground. And if I can bring in someone from my science team to help them out, I’ll bring someone from science. If I can connect them with someone in legal, I can help them get there. It’s providing a technical resource in the form of my colleagues and myself.

We’re going through a growth stage. We’re in the process of thinking about what the next 3 years will bring. I’m really excited to think about what we’re going to be doing in the future.

Carly Schmidt: That’s amazing. I love what you’re describing about a capacity grant helping folks to build the infrastructure that they need to exist for them to get out and do the work. And not assuming that folks can jump right into  the end stage, but helping them to get there. That’s great to hear.

Amy Campbell: Usually these capacity grants can go for 2 or 3 years to a specific organization. And just the amount of progress and work that these organizations do with a relatively small amount of money is pretty tremendous. We’re seeing previous capacity grant recipients now, implementing projects and getting actual water in the rivers, which is super exciting. It’s still a young program, but I feel like it’s been really successful. The network was able to host 5 or 6 network members from California to come out and join River Network’s Environmental Flows Workshop last week, too, because our objective is to have them meet other stream flow practitioners from around the West and have those real ripe conversations about a project that they’re struggling with on the ground with someone from Colorado. They had such a rich experience last week that I’m really excited to see where they take those connections, and they are also looking forward to the next workshop.

Carly Schmidt: That’s awesome. It’s such a generative space. I feel like we’re on a tear of just talking about coming together, and how energizing that experience can be. I wonder if we can jump to the last question, which is looking ahead. What is knowing that these projects are – I mean, you don’t get a lot of immediate gratification with a lot of this work. It’s often a little bit imagination work right? You’re imagining this endpoint, this goal being achieved and what that looks like. But I’m curious what that looks like for you. What progress do you hope to see come from any of your programs? What are you hoping for in the future of your waterwork in California?

Amy Campbell: I think we’re at an exciting point in this work right now in California. We had a panel last week at the workshop that was called Carrots and Sticks. It was really talking about how we, as practitioners, maneuver and manage in a world where you’ve got your regulatory sticks coming down in a particular watershed. And how do we, as practitioners, try to balance the carrots with the regulatory sticks. So I see that coming into play all around California at this point, which I’m excited about because I feel like these voluntary water transactions can only go so far. You can only make so much progress but, if you don’t have that little regulatory stick out there, or the threat of a stick, it’s hard to motivate and create real change. That’s coming to bear in California and hopefully it continues to grow to other watersheds in California. That’s what, in addition to the fact that the Nature Conservancy, along with a bunch of partners, have been really thinking through the science to really inform how much flow is needed where and there’s some amazing tools and some modeling effort coming out in California, where it’s starting to answer some of those questions. If  no one was taking water, what would this river look like, naturally? But there will be, in the next year or two, some modeling that is going to model actual flows. We’re really talking about it as a functional flow approach. We want to get flows back to the river, so the rivers are functional again. We’re trying to get away from the minimum flows because we know minimum flows are just scraping the bottom of the barrel. We need to get our rivers back into functionality. There’s a bunch of emerging science that will be coming out and will continue to come out, which is really going to inform that question around how much water do our streams and rivers need and, when we go to talk to landowners with water rights, we can be better educated.