Most freshwater ecosystems in the United States are in a state of collapse. Existing management efforts take a piecemeal approach, addressing individual stressors, managing the systems for individual benefits, and protecting individual species. These disjointed efforts are doomed to fail. Both the legal literature and the scientific literature are rich with articles extolling the advantages of ecosystem-based management; that is, simultaneous management of water, land, and organisms to achieve a desired ecosystem condition benefiting both native biodiversity and human well-being. This approach has succeeded in other aquatic systems, particularly marine ecosystems, but the ecosystem-based management approach has struggled for adoption in the freshwater ecosystem context.

The primary challenge lies in implementation. Freshwater ecosystems face a complex web of local, state, and federal law, and those laws create a perceived legal barrier to adoption of ecosystem-based management. Nevertheless, the existing legal literature offers little practical guidance for developing the legal and governance framework to implement freshwater ecosystem-based management in practice.

Using the state of California as a case study, this article shows that the California Water Board is empowered and well-positioned to implement freshwater ecosystem-based management in California. By demonstrating that existing state and federal laws allow and even support ecosystem-based management, this article lays out a new state-level legal framework for better management of freshwater ecosystems. This approach, which does not require controversial changes to state and federal law, offers a reasonable and realistic way to improve the state of freshwater ecosystems.

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