Posts Tagged: salmon
California’s delta: On the front lines of the state’s water issues
California water: Few natural resources are as impressive, or as imperiled. Whether it's supplying 40 million domestic users, cooling the server farms of Silicon Valley, or irrigating the actual farms that supply half of the nation's produce, the importance of the state's aquifers and headwaters cannot be overstated. (Lake Tahoe, Yosemite Falls, and white-water rafting on the Kern and American Rivers feel like an embarrassment of riches.) While the potential for a multi-decade drought has grabbed headlines, however, California's water supply faces assault from a host of lesser-known factors including infrastructure failure, pollution, habitat loss, and plain old political chaos. This issue is strongly interdisciplinary, so it's only natural that UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources professors and students have been at the forefront of analyzing the problems and beginning the search for solutions. Several Berkeley professors have even served on the Delta Independent Science Board (DISB), a group of experts appointed by the state to oversee the quality of scientific research on California's contentious delta water issues.
Supply vs. demand
“Issue number one, one, and one is that a substantial portion of the acreage in agriculture is supported through groundwater overdraft, even in normal-rainfall years,” he says.
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, California's cities, factories, and farms soak up about 38 billion gallons every day. And while most people think of water in terms of rivers, lakes, and rain, over a third of the state's supply comes from aquifers deep underground. Only one in six Californians relies on groundwater alone to supply their domestic needs.
“We've been mining water to expand use beyond surface-water allocations,” says Norgaard. “Groundwater is close to gone, and agriculture is saying, ‘Where's our water, where's our water, where's our water?'”
Given that much of California is a desert — and that decades-long droughts are not impossible — intelligently managing California's limited supply is crucial. Gov. Jerry Brown recently ordered municipalities to cut home water usage by a whopping 25 percent, and California residents gave themselves a well-deserved pat on the back when usage for July 2015 surpassed that target by 6 percent. But there's one problem: Domestic use accounts for only 10 percent of California's total water consumption. Agricultural use, on the other hand, accounts for closer to 40 percent.
At first glance, that doesn't seem entirely inappropriate. Fruits, vegetables, and nuts, not to mention Northern California's incomparable wine and cheese — why shouldn't the farmers who feed half of the nation take half of the water that the state has to offer?
“Do you know what percent of the state's economy is agriculture?” asks Vincent Resh, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM) and another DISB member. “Less than 2 percent.” It's a very vocal 2 percent, though, and there are volumes of case law — and a good amount of political muscle — dedicated to maintaining the status quo. “I'm very sympathetic toward the plight of farmers in the delta,” Resh continues. And farmworkers are the poorest of California's poor, with seasonal unemployment rates reaching upwards of 60 percent. “It's the human side of the story that I've become extremely sensitive about.”
Nonetheless, Resh recalls being on a delta tour that was packed with people who identified themselves as delta farmers.
“They were all talking about how this has been their family heritage for generations, but they were working as lawyers and bankers," Resh said. "They were really talking about a way of life that was long gone for them personally, but a memory that they were holding on to. Actually, this ‘way of life' idea is true of many of the contentious water issues in California. The controversies over who gets the water in the Klamath River in Northern California and Oregon are as much about way of life as they are about water for agriculture and salmon.”
A fragile water system
Nobody is suggesting an outright end to farming in California, but it's becoming increasingly clear that change is coming. One looming problem is the fragility of the levee system. Drive around Sacramento's rural environs and you'll realize that a lot of farmers actually do their work below sea level, with nothing but a hodgepodge system of peat dams and concrete rubble to restrain the brackish delta waters. Overactive beavers, like the one on the Jones Tract, are the least of the problem.
Like everyone else in California, the engineers who watch over the delta's levee system are at the mercy of probability, breathing a sigh of relief every day that goes by without the catastrophic shaking of the Big One.
“In any given year, there's not a large chance of a huge earthquake,” says David Sunding, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension specialist and chair of the UC Berkeley Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics. “But those risks accumulate over time. And by the time you look two decades into the future, there's a two-thirds chance of a very large quake that will affect the delta's water system.”
Even an apparent bounty — consecutive years of high rainfall — poses risks. River flows would rise along with reservoir levels, placing added stress on levees so that even a minor structural failure could set off a chain reaction, flooding fields and devastating crops.
“The current proposals for achieving reliable water supply and ecosystem health may be controversial, but it's clear that something has to be done — we can't have the status quo.”
— Vincent Resh
Inherent in either of these scenarios is the threat to drinking water. The delta houses the State Water Project, two massive pumps that send water to Southern California. If the levees are overtopped, the salt water of the bay will infiltrate the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, rendering the supply undrinkable.
“The worst-case scenario is three months without water,” Resh said. “And that's from Fremont down. Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, everything.”
Not just a human problem
Of course, farmers and thirsty urbanites aren't the only ones who need water. According to Berkeley Environmental Science, Policy, and Management associate professor Stephanie Carlson, “many of California's native fishes are declining, and the causes are rooted in habitat loss and the introduction of non-native fishes into California's waterways.” She emphasizes that our current multiyear drought may be the “nail in the coffin” for those populations already facing extinction.
Carlson's research focuses on understanding where and why fish populations are persisting. She found that several native fish, including commercially harvested salmon, live in “intermittent streams” — waterways that flow continuously in the wintertime but break into isolated pools during periods of low rainfall. As drought or human usage reduces stream flow, water quality deteriorates, resulting in higher temperatures and less oxygen. In pools that dry up completely, all fish die, of course, but some “refuge” pools persist through the summer — and these habitats do support fish.
Carlson's team has found that “the survival of imperiled salmon and trout varies among summers, but is highest after wet winters.” Following wet winters, streams flow longer into the summer, more pools persist, and water quality is improved. But, interestingly, “almost regardless of winter rainfall, most fish mortality is concentrated in late summer,” meaning that early, abundant fall rains may be as important as the previous winter's storms.
Carlson believes that these findings should guide management. Urban development in the Bay Area is spreading from flatlands to the hills.
“We need to focus our conservation efforts in those upper headwater streams — many of which are intermittent,” she says. Carlson also stresses that native fish have adapted to the seasonal shift from flowing streams to standing pools, while non-native fish have not — thus intermittent headwater streams may be important refuges for native fishes.
While diverting less water from streams during summer might help juvenile salmon, managing outcomes in the ocean is far more difficult. In 2007 and 2008, the West Coast Chinook salmon population collapsed, with the Sacramento River fall run reduced by 90 percent. Fisheries closed at a cost of millions of dollars, and the federal government declared a disaster. While the crisis was attributed to low ocean productivity beyond human control, human degradation of freshwater salmon habitats worsened the impact of poor ocean conditions.
Most salmon-breeding habitats in the Central Valley lie upstream of dams. Today, most Central Valley salmon are born in hatcheries; many circumnavigate the delta in trucks and are released into the San Francisco Bay. Because these fish don't swim through their natal rivers and the delta, they have no way to retrace their paths as adults. So they go everywhere, mingling with the broader gene pool. This “straying” erodes genetic differences among populations and increases the risk of collapse. It's possible that a more vibrant, genetically diverse salmon population could have better resisted the environmental disturbances of the mid-2000s.
“It's like having a broad portfolio of financial investments, as we've been taught with our 401(k)s,” Carlson says. “Maintaining multiple distinct populations with diverse traits and dynamics provides insurance against environmental change.”
—Excerpted from an article in the winter 2016 issue of Breakthroughs Magazine. Read the complete article.
Coho salmon endangered by drought
“It's grim. It's going to be a rough year for the coho,” said Mariska Obedzinski, a fish biologist who coordinates the coho monitoring program. “They can't get where they need to go.”
Obedzinski is part of the UC Sea Grant program, based at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
Two coho spawning streams — Porter and Pena creeks — are already cut off from the river. If no more rain falls, other tributaries, including Green Valley, Dutch Bill and Mill creeks, will likely go dry in spots, Obedzinski said.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is already planning rescue operations to save the smolts and younger fish in disconnected streams.
Last year some streams disconnections took place in late May, toward the end of the salmon run. The drying being seen in mid April may be unprecedented. Obedzinski said it was possibly the worst year for the fish since stream monitoring began in 2005.
A multiagency effort to save the Russian River coho began in 2001, when the fish were on the verge of extinction. The effort includes California Fish and Wildlife, National Marine Fisheries, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and UC Sea Grant.
Conservation organization California Trout helps establish endowed chair at UC Davis
California once teemed with millions of native salmon, trout and steelhead. The state has 31 distinct types of these iconic, majestic fish. But decades of degradation to aquatic habitat has depleted their numbers in many areas of the state. According to a report by UC Davis fisheries professor Peter Moyle and colleagues, 20 of these fish species are in danger of extinction within the next century. They are important species not just for the recreational or commercial benefits they afford, but also because they are a direct reflection of the health of the environment.
“Large self-sustaining populations of native salmon and trout are found where streams are in reasonably good condition,” Moyle wrote in his 2008 report, “SOS: California's Native Fish Crisis.” This report was commissioned by the conservation organization California Trout (CalTrout), which exists to support conservation science, education, and advocacy efforts to protect California's water resources and fisheries.
Moyle, whose academic home is the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis, is no stranger to CalTrout. He is the foremost authority on California's native freshwater and anadromous (sea-run) fishes and has been a leader in research and conservation efforts. His research has provided the core science essential to statewide conservation planning for freshwater and estuarine native fishes, especially salmon and trout. Graduate students who studied with Moyle now occupy many top-level fish ecologist and management positions in state and federal agencies, as well as key nonprofits like CalTrout.
In May of this year CalTrout and UC Davis announced the formal creation of the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Endowed Chair in Cold Water Fishes. The endowment will provide crucial support for the chair holder's scholarly activities, teaching, and public service involving cold water fish and aquatic ecosystems. He or she will teach department courses, mentor graduate students, conduct research and outreach, and provide leadership in the conservation of cold water fishes and their ecosystems. The university recognizes that salmon, trout, and steelhead are the major drivers of many conservation efforts and will have the highest priority in the chair's program.
Most of the contributors to the endowment are CalTrout board members such as Nick Graves. He and his wife, Mary, explored many trails and trout waters in the Sierra Nevada over the years and have enjoyed larger rivers flowing from the Trinity Alps, Mt. Shasta, and the Siskiyou Mountains. “The opportunity to create a scientific chair whose research targets California waters, in perpetuity, is a comforting thought,” Graves said.
“I have worked with the organization since its earliest days and have always admired the dedication of its members to aquatic conservation,” Moyle said. “I am biased, of course, but I think CalTrout has made a very smart investment in the future by creating an endowed chair.”
Flood protection, agriculture, fish and wildlife coexist in the Yolo Bypass
From late fall through winter you can see thousands of ducks, geese and other waterfowl winging over the bypass’s flooded rice fields and the restored wetlands in the Vic Fazio Yolo Basin Wildlife Area.Learn more.
A recent article in The Sacramento Bee featured a research project at a rice farming area in the upper reaches of the bypass that is examining how flooded fields could be used to fatten up young salmon during a crucial time in their life cycle. One part of the study is examining how soil type influences the production of insects — an important source of food for growing salmon. Carson Jeffres, a fish ecologist with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, is quoted in the story: "There are hundreds, if not thousands, of insects that are coming out of each 9-by-6-inch block of earth." You can also watch a YouTube video to hear UC Davis doctoral student Jacob Katz describe the project and read more about why fish find this floodplain so attractive in a previous Green Blog post by writer and photographer Trina Wood.
Part of the wildlife area is accessible by automobile — when it’s not flooded! Consider taking a tour of this remarkable and easily accessible area, or take binoculars to view the many birds. UC Davis fisheries professor Peter Moyle prepared a guide that will help you make the most of your visit.
Wine and fish for dinner? Water management required
The competition between farmers and fish for precious water in California is intensifying in wine country, say biologists at the University of California, Berkeley.
The researchers found that juvenile steelhead trout are particularly at risk during the dry summer season typical of California’s Mediterranean climate. Of the juvenile steelhead trout present in June, on average only 30 percent survived to the late summer. In years with higher rainfall and in watersheds with less vineyard land use, the survival of juvenile trout over the summer was significantly higher.
The researchers pointed out that salmon and trout conservation efforts have not adequately addressed summer stream flow. Previous studies have highlighted other limiting factors such as habitat degradation and water quality, while this study documented the importance of water quantity for restoring threatened populations.
Grantham says he is not suggesting we get rid of vineyards. “But we do need to focus our attention on water management strategies that reduce summer water use. I believe we can protect flows for fish and still have our glass of wine.”