Bren News
Puzzle Master

Guest blogger: Cora Kammeyer
(MESM 2017)

Cora standing in Dye Creek at the Dye Creek Preserve, the Nature Conservancy’s 40,000-acre preserve in Tehama County, CA.

My summer internship at The Nature Conservancy felt like a giant puzzle. A puzzle where all the pieces are strewn about the house, you can only call your friends for help during business hours, and you’re not even sure that all the pieces exist.  It took me hours of reading, Googling, interviewing, pestering, and calculating to find each puzzle piece.  And as I sit here in my cubicle in San Francisco, staring at my 25-page report summarizing what I’ve learned this summer, I am proud of the puzzle pieces I managed to fit together.

The objective of this puzzle was to evaluate how The Nature Conservancy could deliver water to the Central Valley to create habitat for threatened migratory birds. Many of these birds are dying from disease and starvation because they don’t have enough wetland habitat to rest on during their long migrations. While there are wildlife reserves throughout the valley designed to protect these birds, they are chronically short of water.

Now let’s add specifics: The Nature Conservancy owns water in Tehama County and the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in Glenn County needs water (see map). This seems simple enough. Just send water down the Sacramento River, right? But then, that wouldn’t make for a very fun puzzle. Turns out there’s a lot more to it. Here are some of the pieces I needed to find:

  • How much water are we talking? This involved digging up and reading through the original water contract, calculating how much water could be used in a given time frame (since birds need water for a specific few weeks in the Spring and Fall), and assessing how drought and reservoir storage played into the actual availability of the water.
  • How will the water physically get from point A to point B? While the water can indeed just travel downstream along the Sacramento River for a good portion of its journey, it ultimately has to be diverted from the river and conveyed to the wildlife refuge. Someone owns and operates that conveyance system, so I had to figure out who that was, whether they were willing to let others use their system, and at what price.
  • What regulatory approval is needed to make this happen? A transfer like this involves an alphabet soup of agencies – SWRCB, USBR, and USFW to name a few. Each agency has their own paperwork and process for approving the movement of water throughout the state.
  • Who at The Nature Conservancy can make this happen? This was all about internal decision-making and responsibility allocation. Who’s really in charge of this water? Asking this question took me down a breadcrumb trail of Conservancy employees who each provided me with new insights and information until I found the person who called the shots.

After one question was answered, another one would arise and I would still be left with several “orphan” puzzle pieces to contend with. Turning all of these puzzle pieces different directions in my head, I tried to see if I could make them fit together. And sometimes, I could! In a couple of exhilarating moments of clarity, I made a connection or uncovered an opportunity or sprouted an idea that took me one step closer to putting the pieces together. Those were the best moments of my internship.

Sometimes it felt like I was only reaching dead ends; sometimes I got lost in the frightening and never-ending maze of a government agency’s website in search of data I wasn’t even sure existed.  But that was worth it for the lightbulb moments, the moments when I got two pieces to fit together perfectly, the moments when I found the data I was searching for.

And what I ultimately learned this summer, largely through the aforementioned pestering and interviewing of over a dozen staff members at The Nature Conservancy, was that my experience was not atypical in the least. As environmentalists, this is what we do. We are puzzle masters. We pull a beautifully complex issue off the shelf, open the box, dump it out to examine the jumbled pieces that sit in a daunting pile in front of us, and we dig in.

Cora Kammeyer is a second-year MESM student and Sustainable Water Markets fellow. She is specializing in Economics and Politics of the Environment, with a focus in Communication. She is deeply fascinated by California water law, policy, and history, and hopes to have a career in California water management. She is especially interested in how creative market-based tools can be used to effectively allocate more water to the environment.