Drought Journal: Hope springs eternal

Peter Moyle

UC Davis fish biologist Peter Moyle logs data on fish and stream conditions earlier this month on Martis Creek, near Truckee. Studies show such small, spring-fed streams can be important refuges for native fishes during drought. Photo: UC Davis

Is the drought hastening the decline of California’s native fish? Will they be able to recolonize once normal conditions return?

To help find out, a team of researchers with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences took the pulse of about 70 streams and rivers across northern and central California this summer, examining habitat conditions and recording the composition and density of fish communities. The selected streams all have data from earlier fish surveys for comparison. Here, the scientists leading the effort report on some of the more obscure streams fed mainly by springs rather than snowmelt and rain runoff.

Peter Moyle and Rebecca M. Quiñones

In a severe drought, a cold, free-flowing stream is a marvel. This past summer, we traveled around Northern California looking for such streams. Our guide was field notes from UC Davis fish-sampling trips 10 to 30 years ago, which tell us where the best places should be.

We were often discouraged, finding dry stream beds or just a few stagnant pools. But we also found a few streams that persisted no matter the drought. These are spring-fed streams, and it was stunning to see them in the dry landscapes we visited. Many clearly are refuges for native fishes.

We are not referring to the large and famous spring streams, such as Hat Creek and the Fall and McCloud rivers, but much smaller streams that are often neglected. We visited six such streams in recent weeks. Here are some observations:

Parson Springs and Mill creeks, Modoc County. These two cold headwater streams did not appear to have changed much since the 1980s. Protected by the U.S. Forest Service, Parson Springs Creek is a small, classic meadow stream abundant with small trout. Mill Creek is similar except heavily grazed, with little riparian vegetation. Both streams ultimately irrigate farms in Jess Valley, leaving little water to support the South Fork Pit River, which is now dry.

Sagehen Creek, Placer and Nevada counties. Sagehen is one of the most studied streams in California, with fish surveys dating to the 1950s. Although there have been shifts in the creek’s trout species, summer flows have been remarkably constant over the years. Fish, especially sculpins, have remained abundant in the upper watershed. Flows were not exceptionally low in this drought year. However, recent studies indicate that the flows are from snowfall two years earlier. Thus, the drought may not strongly affect the creek until next year.

Willow Ck

Members of the UC Davis drought research team check conditions in Willow Creek, Lassen County. Photo: UC Davis

Willow Creek, Lassen County. This tributary of the lower Susan River starts as a series of cold springs in a chain of meadows. The meadows and streamside are heavily grazed. Riparian vegetation is sparse. The creek nevertheless seems to maintain much of its integrity and flows. We found that it continues to support large populations of native fishes such as speckled dace, Lahontan redside and Tahoe sucker. Trout, however, were rare.

Pine Creek, Lassen County. This is the only major tributary to Eagle Lake, which is perhaps the only natural lake in California free of non-native fishes. Drought has reduced Eagle to remarkably low levels. We found most of Pine Creek to be dry, eliminating stream populations of two native fishes (both found in the lake, fortunately). There is a concentrated effort to restore Pine Creek as the spawning stream for endemic Eagle Lake rainbow trout. The biggest obstacle are the abundant brook trout in the headwater springs (Carmona-Catot et al. 2012). In the 2 to 3 miles of creek still flowing with spring water, we found mainly brook trout and a few speckled dace. In years past, the two species had been equally abundant.

Martis Ck 2Martis Creek, Placer County. We visited the lower 3 miles of Martis, near Truckee, where fish ecology studies have been conducted for the past 30 years (Kiernan et al. 2012). The fish populations have a complex relationship with high-flow events. The reach below Martis Creek Dam (a flood control structure that maintains flows in the lower creek, like a spring) has been dominated most years by four to five native fishes that can tolerate fairly warm water. In contrast, the lowermost reach has consistently been dominated by non-native rainbow and brown trout, in part because springs enhance flows and decrease temperatures. The same pattern was found this summer, with native species being exceptionally abundant just below the dam.

Our studies show that small spring streams can be important refuges for native and other desirable fishes during drought.

It is increasingly evident that all spring streams in California need to be identified and need additional protections, such as fencing off cattle to preserve streamside vegetation. We need to understand what governs flows from springs and how much each stream is isolated from others as the result of human changes to the landscape.

In long droughts, even spring streams may dry up, especially in poorly managed watersheds with limited infiltration of rain and snowmelt. Managing small spring streams should be an important part of a statewide strategy for protecting our native aquatic biota.

The need for a statewide conservation strategy for our streams and their biota is even more apparent in the new book by Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, “The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts and other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow.” The book makes the case for regarding present conditions as being rather benign. Much worse droughts, followed by massive floods, have occurred regularly in the past 1,000 or more years.

This reality is hard to grasp as we splash around in cold streams. But do the fish in even these seemingly permanent streams have a future under our present management? Read the book and think about it.

Peter Moyle is a distinguished professor of fish biology and Rebecca M. Quiñones is a post-doctoral researcher with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further reading

Carmona-Catot, G., P. B. Moyle, and R. E. Simmons. 2012. Long-term captive breeding does not necessarily prevent reestablishment: lessons learned from Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 22:325-342

Ingram, L.B., and F. Malamud-Roam. 2014. “The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts and other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow.” University of California Press.

Kiernan, J. D., and P. B. Moyle. 2012. Flows, droughts, and aliens: factors affecting the fish assemblage in a Sierra Nevada, California, stream. Ecological Applications 22:1146-1161

Manfree, Amber. Drought Journal: Search for Sierra fish goes from bad to worse. California WaterBlog, Aug. 18, 2014

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Hike Tuolumne Meadows — without breaking a sweat


Source: UC Davis center for Watershed Sciences
Opening scene of the Tuolumne Meadows Virtual Hike. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, Google Maps.

By Sarah Yarnell

To enjoy the full sweep of Yosemite’s lush and lovely Tuolumne Meadows, as shown above, you need to head for the high country on the national park’s north side and hike a 3-mile trail that climbs 900 feet to the top of the granitic Lembert Dome. There, at elevation 9,500 feet, you can take in the majesty of this broad, glacially sculpted valley and the wildly serpentine Tuolumne River.

Of course, not everyone has the time and means to go climb this rock and hike about the alpine meadow. Digital technology, however, makes it possible to see and hear the place almost as though you were there.


This screenshot from the Tuolumne Meadows Virtual Hike shows the Tuolumne River with a map below of the location and field of view.  The 3.4-mile hike has 44 stops (yellow dots). Stops 10 to 24 feature brief videos about the meadows and the park’s history, played by clicking on the purple camera icon (center). Photo: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

A team of researchers and students at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences recently produced such a virtual hike of Tuolumne Meadows in the interest of time and education. The meadows are an ideal laboratory for students of our spring fieldwork course in river science. But the university’s 10-week quarter system does not allow the travel and field time needed to fully explore the watershed.

The virtual hike provides a more immersive experience than the traditional slide-show lecture. It is self-directed and students can view it at their convenience. Using navigation tools similar to those for traveling Google Earth, they can point and zoom from any angle on features of interest to them. While Google Earth limits ground-level views to well-populated streets, the meadows tour has remarkably crisp resolution throughout.

Nick Santos

Nick Santos, technical director of the Center for Watershed Sciences’ virtual tours, captured the panorama of Tuolumne Meadows from the top of Lembert Dome using this GigaPan equipment. Photo: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences 

To capture the panorama from Lembert Dome, we used GigaPan photography equipment — a high quality digital camera on a robotically swiveling tripod mount — that combines thousands of photos into a single gigapixel image, which is more than 100 times the information captured by the latest iPhone camera.

In the meadows, we mounted the camera with a fisheye lens on a panoramic tripod head, or panohead, for accurate alignment of images in producing panoramic views — 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically. We used the panoramic software PTGui to stitch together the images and Panotour to create the navigation and embed instructor’s mini-lectures on river channel formation, watershed processes and such.

Molly Ogaz

Student Molly Ogaz records narrator of Yosemite National Park sign at the historic Parsons Memorial Lodge on the Tuolumne Meadows interpretive trail. Photo: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

The public version shown at the top dispenses with the technical lectures and instead features vignettes on the meadows and park history — the same information posted along the Tuolumne Meadows interpretive trail. We simply assembled video-recorded images and clips relevant to the National Park Service signs and narrated the text.

This virtual hike begins atop Lembert Dome for the overview. From there you can jump down for a stroll through the meadow. The virtual 3.4-mile hike is longer and closer to the river than the 0.8 mile interpretive trail. The stretch featuring videos of the interpretive trail signs are between stops 10 and 24. The hike may take several minutes to load depending on your internet connection.

Of course, nothing virtual can surpass the enjoyment of actually being there. We’re hoping the on-screen hike will entice viewers to visit Tuolumne Meadows and venture beyond the interpretive trail for a more intimate Tuolumne River experience.

Sarah Yarnell teaches the rivers science course, Ecogeomorphology, at UC Davis. She is a senior researcher with the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences.

Source: Google Maps

The virtual 3.4-mile hike (yellow) and the actual 0.8-mile interpretive trail (red) in Tuolumne Meadows. Source: Google Maps

Further reading

Case, Elizabeth. Virtual hike transports students to Tuolumne Meadows, The Davis Enterprise, Aug. 14, 2014

High resolution panoramas of Tuolumne and Clavey rivers, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Ecogeomorphology course, 2014, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Student videos of Tuolumne River, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, 2013

Yarnell, Sarah. Students rise to the storytelling challenge, California WaterBlog, Sept. 30, 2013




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Groundwater reform more important than water bond

Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

Delivery point of the Coachella Valley Water District’s groundwater replenishment facility. Imported Colorado River percolates into the valley’s aquifer, replenishing 40,000 acre-feet of water annually. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

By Jay Lund and Thomas Harter

California lawmakers recently found extraordinary consensus in approving a $7.5 billion water bond for the November election ballot. If the measure wins, however, future generations will not necessarily reap many of the promised water supply benefits without additional actions.

To significantly improve its resilience to drought, California must quickly get a grip on the runaway depletion of its dwindling groundwater resources.

In this year’s drought alone, California farms and cities are expected to pump more than 20 million acre-feet from aquifers. That is more than all the surface water diverted from the state’s rivers and streams. And it is far more water than could physically be delivered from all the additional reservoir capacity proposed for bond funding.

Groundwater is and always will be California’s primary buffer against droughts. Yet many parts of the state have been drawing on aquifers as if they were bottomless savings accounts.

The pump-as-you-please practice threatens the sustainability of the state’s most profitable agriculture, particularly permanent crops such as vineyards and orchards. Continued overdraft furthers land subsidence and seawater intrusion, worsens water quality and diminishes fish and wildlife habitat dependent on groundwater. As water tables drop, the annual costs of pumping and drilling more and deeper wells quickly exceed those of financing the proposed water bond – about $500 million in state general funds a year, for 30 years.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Agriculture and rural residents will initially bear the brunt of increased pumping costs and diminished reliability of groundwater during droughts. In the longer term, pumping as usual means groundwater simply will not be an available alternative to many Californians who lose access to surface water during droughts.

The current drought poses a historical opportunity to bridge a major gap in California water regulation that other western states remedied almost a century ago.

While the water bond contains many useful elements, the Legislature has before it much more important legislation for ensuring California’s resilience in droughts. Two proposals, Senate Bill 1168 carried by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County), and Assembly Bill 1739 authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would require local agencies to manage groundwater sustainably.

Sustaining a prosperous civilization in California’s dry climate requires firm accounting of all major water resources, including groundwater. When management of a resource as valuable as groundwater is lacking, overdraft and litigation fill the void. Investments that depend on groundwater then become riskier, leading water users to pursue more secure, but more expensive and environmentally damaging water supply sources such as deeper wells and new reservoirs. The added risk of unreliable groundwater also can increase the cost of credit for agriculture and rural development.

Increasing the security and enforceability of groundwater and surface-water rights is the most effective action the Legislature can take to help this dry state weather droughts and reduce water costs to cities and farms.

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Thomas Harter, a groundwater specialist, are with the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. 

Further reading

Lund, J.R., Medellin-Azuara, J., Harter, T. (2014). Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater management. California WaterBlog. May 26, 2014

Lund, J.R., et al. Taking agriculture conservation seriously. California WaterBlog. March 15, 2011

Grabert, V.K., Harter, T., Parker, T. (2014). Modernizing California’s groundwater management. California WaterBlog. June 22, 2014

Howitt, R.E., Medellin-Azuara, J., MacEwan, D., Lund, J.R. and Sumner, D.A. (2014). Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis, Calif. 20p

Nirappil, Fenit (2014). California Water Bond Won’t Be a Drought-Buster. Associated Press, Aug. 16 , 2014

Williams, Juliet (2014). California water bond signals historic compromise . Associated Press, Aug. 14, 2014

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California water rights: You can’t manage what you don’t measure

Photo by Joshua Viers/UC Merced

An irrigation ditch supplies Merced County farms. State regulators are increasingly seeking to know how much water is being used throughout the state, and by whom. Photo by Joshua Viers/UC Merced, April  23, 2014

By Ted Grantham and Joshua Viers

California water experts have long known the amount of surface water granted by water rights far exceeds the state’s average supplies. Historically, the over-allocation has not raised much concern; in most years, there has been enough runoff of rain and snowmelt to go around.

But circumstances are changing. California is suffering the third driest year in a century and demands for water are at an all-time high. The huge gap between allocations and natural flows — coupled with great uncertainty over water-rights holders’ actual usage — is increasingly creating conflicts between water users and confusion for water managers trying to figure out whose supplies should be curtailed during a drought.

To understand where and to what degree California rivers have been claimed, we mapped all appropriative water rights recorded by the State Water Resources Control Board. We quantified the total “face value”, or maximum annual diversion volume, of water rights for all rivers and streams and compared this data with estimates of water supply.

Source: UC Davis center for Watershed Sciences

Cumulative water-right allocations relative to mean annual runoff, excluding water rights for hydropower generation. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

We found that water rights exceed average supplies in more than half of the state’s large river basins, including the Salinas River, where water-rights claims amount to three times the average flow, and the San Joaquin River, where water rights exceed flows by as much as eightfold. (For details see Table: Water Rights Allocation Volumes for Major California River Basins)

Not only are many rivers over-allocated but the amount of water actually used by water-rights holders is poorly understood. Comparisons of allocations with water use suggest that in most of California, only a fraction of claimed water is being used. Statewide, appropriative water-rights claims for consumptive uses are about five times greater than average surface-water withdrawals.

The Associated Press recently reported that the state water board is unable to track the water usage tied to many of California’s oldest and largest water rights (Dearen & Burke 2014). The state system primarily relies on self-reported water use records, which are riddled with errors, even for the some of the state’s largest water users.

In a well-functioning water-rights system where allocations are closely tracked and verified, over-allocation is not necessarily a problem. During water shortages, the state would order holders of junior appropriation rights to curtail use. When water is abundant, most water-rights holders should be able to fully exercise their claims.

Inaccurate accounting, however, threatens the security of water rights — particularly when water is scarce. Earlier in this drought year, for example, the water board sought to protect fish in some watersheds by threatening curtailments of water rights held by all users within those drainages. More targeted cutbacks might have been sufficient if the agency had accurate water-use information.

Photo By Joshua Viers/UC Merced, April 22. 2014

California grants an average of more than five times as much than is available in its rivers and streams. Photo by Joshua Viers/UC Merced, April 22, 2014

The lax water accounting has intensified conflicts between users during the drought. Operators of the state and federal water projects recently asked the water board to investigate diversion practices by farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. As the Sacramento Bee recently reported, the water agencies suspect farmers are taking water released from upstream dams that is intended for consumers elsewhere. The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, a group often allied with Delta landowners, has countered with a formal complaint to the board alleging that the agencies are illegally diverting water from rivers that flow into the Delta. (Weiser 2014).

Innovative approaches to California’s water management challenges also are dependent on accurate water-rights accounting (Hanak et al. 2011). For example, water markets rely on transparent and accurate quantification of water transfers. Uncertainty in water rights may also discourage conjunctive management of surface and groundwater to improve water supply reliability (Draper et al. 2003).

In over-prescribed systems, water needed to meet new and evolving demands will likely require curtailment of water rights. This is not as daunting or threatening as it may seem.

Impacts to private water rights will likely be minimal because public agencies control the bulk of the state’s water supply. Tightening the water accounting would have a much greater effect on state and federal water project operators, water utilities and irrigation districts that collectively hold rights to 80 percent of the allotted water — compared with less than 1 percent held by individuals.


(a) Water rights and (b) face value allocation volumes issued to public and private entities since 1915, based on appropriative water-rights records. Volumetric allocations to water rights held by individuals in (b) is negligible. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Major policy changes may not be necessary to improve California’s water rights system. California law already allows re-allocation of water rights to address evolving societal needs and changing environmental conditions (Littleworth and Garner 2007). For example, the public trust doctrine establishes that the government has an ongoing duty to safeguard natural resources (Frank 2012). California’s Fish and Game Code 5937 is an expression of that doctrine, requiring dam owners to provide enough flows below impoundments to maintain fish in good condition.

The state water board, however, will need legislative authority and funding to improve the recordkeeping and effectively enforce water rights. According to board staff, the agency does not have the resources to systematically verify water usage or check even the most obvious mistakes in the records. Yet the board still relies on these inaccurate data in deciding how and where to grant water-rights permits (Dearan and Burke 2014).

Improving the water-rights system, of course, will not alone solve California’s myriad water management challenges (Hanak et al. 2011). But without better quantification and regulation of water rights, prospects of reconciling competing water demands in a drought-stricken state will remain bleak.

The tools and technology to quantify water supplies and accurately track usage are at our disposal. All that is lacking is political will.

Ted Grantham, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, analyzed the state water-rights database as a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Joshua Viers is director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) at UC Merced. Their study of the California water rights system was published Aug. 19, 2014

Time lapse of California water rights allocations, 1915-2012


Further reading

Börk K S, Krovoza J F, Katz J V and Moyle P B. 2012. The Rebirth of California Fish & Game Code Section 5937: Water for Fish. UC Davis Law Review. 45 809–913

Dearen J and Burke G. 2014. California’s flawed water system can’t track usage. Associated Press, May 27, 2014.

Draper A, Jenkins M, Kirby K, Lund J, Howitt R. 2003. Economic-Engineering Optimization for California Water Management. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 129: 155-164

Frank R M. 2012. The Public Trust Doctrine: Assessing Its Recent Past & Charting Its Future. UC Davis Law Review. 45 665–92

Grantham T and Viers J. 2014. 100 years of California’s water rights system: patterns, trends and uncertainty, Environmental Resource Letters. 9 084012

Hanak E, Lund J, Dinar A, Gray B, Howitt R, Mount J, Moyle P and Thompson B B. 2011. Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, Calif.

Little Hoover Commission. 2010. Managing for Change: Modernizing California’s Water Governance. Sacramento, Calif.

Littleworth A L and Garner E L. 2007. California Water II. Solano Press Books, Point Arena, Calif.

Weiser, Matt. 2014. Water agencies: Delta farmers may be taking water meant for other regions. The Sacramento Bee, Aug. 18, 2014

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Drought journal: Search for Sierra fish goes from bad to worse


UC Davis student Scott Perry measures water quality in an isolated pool on Hatch Creek near Don Pedro Reservoir. Photo by Andy Bell, UC Davis

UC Davis student Scott Perry measures water quality in an isolated pool on Hatch Creek near Don Pedro Reservoir. Photo by Andy Bell, UC Davis, Aug. 11, 2014

Is the drought hastening the decline of California’s native fish? Will they be able to recolonize once normal conditions return?

To help find out, a team of researchers with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences are taking the pulse of about 70 streams and rivers across northern and central California this summer, examining habitat conditions and sampling by electrofishing to document the composition and density of fish communities. The selected streams all have data from earlier fish surveys for comparison.

Amber Manfree, a geographer with the center, happily volunteered to help the team last week —”What could beat four days of camping and sampling fish in the central Sierra?” She joined project leader Rebecca Quiñones, researcher Andy Bell and student assistants Scott Perry and Cameron Reyes as they examined about a dozen sites in the Tuolumne River Watershed. The group is midway through the summer-long project.

By Amber Manfree

Our minivan was packed to the gills with nets, electroshock backpacks, snorkels and camping gear for a fish survey that we expected to take four days.


Tuolumne River Watershed. Source: Wikipedia

We began Monday, August 11, on the Tuolumne River at the foot of the Sierra, between Modesto and Don Pedro Lake. Don Pedro is the largest of seven reservoirs, including Hetch Hetchy, that moderate Tuolumne River flows and ensure a steady supply to cities and farms even in severe droughts.

We examined three sites on the river before noon: Fox Grove Park near Modesto, River Park in Waterford and Tuolumne River Campground at Turlock Lake State Recreation Area. We found a mix of native and alien species: Sacramento Pikeminnow, Sacramento sucker, white crappie, smallmouth bass and mosquitofish

Little did we know that our fish finds from there on would be so sparse.

Farther uphill, near the western arm of Don Pedro, we searched the Red Hills for the highly imperiled Red Hills roach. Yet to be formally described, the minnow species lives only in the tiny alkaline streams of this otherworldly landscape of red dust, bluish forbs, ghostly gray pines and steep rocky hills. A fish would have to be special to get along in a place like this.

This stretch of Six-bit Gulch near Sonora, where Red Hills roach has dried up because of the drought. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

This stretch of Six-bit Gulch near Sonora, where Red Hills roach typically are found has dried up because of the drought. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

We soon realized that access to the main stream, Six-bit Gulch, was on private land; we would need permission to enter. Willows shrouded the streambed and from our vantage there was no way of telling whether it had any water. On the way out we debated the odds.

The next site was on the Middle Fork Tuolumne River along Highway 120 and just inside the perimeter of last summer’s Rim fire, the third largest wildfire in California history. The road was closed to the public because of potential landslides and falling trees. We asked a worker on his way out if we could get through to the river, but he advised against it. He told us the river was “a mess” — full of sediment — and that a recent storm had turned it the color of chocolate milk.

Having been turned away from the Middle Fork, we checked out the nearby Rainbow Pool swimming hole on the South Fork Tuolumne River as a potential sampling site. We spotted several trout from the banks, but electrofishing — passing electric currents in the water to stun and more easily capture fish for our sampling —was out the question with so many swimmers in the water.

Rainbow Pool swimming hole on the South Fork Tuolumne River. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis

Rainbow Pool swimming hole on the South Fork Tuolumne River. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis

Families lounged on the rocks and people jumped from the top of the falls. Picnic trash and beer cans were strewn about. A middle-aged swimmer urged us to take a dip: “I’ve been coming here for years and this is the warmest it’s ever been – warmest it’s ever been!” His words rang in my ears as I walked back to the van.

As we moved up the Tuolumne drainage and the creeks got smaller, the effects of drought became more evident. On Woods Creek at Harvard Mine Road near Jamestown, where previous surveys had found dozens of fish, we found only sun-baked bedrock strewn with dry leaves.

A few miles upstream at Wigwam Road we found a couple tepid pools crowded with California roach and inch-long Sacramento suckers waiting out the hot summer days. Substantial rains are likely still months away. Until they arrive, the pools will continue to shrink in the summer heat and fish will be increasingly hard-pressed to survive.

Almost as soon as we reached our home for the night, Fraser Flats campground on the South Fork Stanislaus River, thunder boomed and dark clouds gathered. Rain might be bothersome while pitching camp, but we hoped some might fall on those dwindling pools with their captive fish. Alas, the clouds soon moved on without shedding a drop.

A waterless stretch of Woods Creek near Jamestown. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis, Aug. 12, 2014

A waterless stretch of Woods Creek near Jamestown. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis, Aug. 12, 2014

Osprey dived for their dinner in the evening light and the team reflected on the day. We had covered a startling amount of ground, having visited a third of the sites on the four-day itinerary in just the first day.

In the Tuolumne River watershed, a convergence of factors endangering native fish was already apparent: invasive non-native fish, sediment-filled runoff following a massive wildfire and severe drought. Together, they can push our native fish to extirpation, one watershed at a time.

On the second day, we turned to even smaller creeks on ever more sinuous back roads. Signs urging citizens to conserve water appeared everywhere we went.

The old scientific field notes don’t include geographic coordinates, so locating previously surveyed sites was sometimes difficult. Once we oriented ourselves, we found five sites in short order. All were dry.

Andy Bell snapped photos and project leader Rebecca Quiñones noted streambed conditions. Cameron Reyes and Scott Perry scouted up and downstream, hoping to find an isolated pool or two, but they came back shaking their heads. Finally, we spotted water at a site matching a description in the 1986 field notes: “Pool below 20-foot falls in bedrock canyon with large boulders.”

An isolated pool in Woods Creek. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis, Aug. 12, 2014

An isolated pool in Woods Creek. Photo by Andy Bell/UC Davis, Aug. 12, 2014

A highway pullout on a grade afforded us a view 50 feet below of a murky green pool in full sun surrounded by heavily grazed oak woodlands. Not promising. Scrambling down the slope, Bell predicted a water temperature of 82°F.

On closer inspection we were surprised to find clear, cool water seeping out of a sheer rock face, feeding the pool steadily, if slowly, and supporting an aquatic microcosm of crayfish, dragon and damselflies. One wary fish darted for cover before it could be identified. The bed was lined with thin, fibrous, bright-green algae, but the water was crystal clear and registered 79°F. Several other pools just downstream supported a few dozen California roach, as well as bullfrogs and Pacific tree frogs.

For the rest of the day, however, we found nothing but dry and nearly dry streambeds. All of these sites had supported fish in the recent decades, as our predecessors noted in their field books.

The lack of water and fish left of with little to do. We completed our four-day itinerary by 6 p.m. the second day, save one site that is accessible only by a four-wheel drive vehicle. Eight of the 11 areas we visited were dry – no fish. The ride home was quiet.

Photos of the rare and highly localized Red Hills roach are hard to find. This is a preserved specimen of an adult, from UC Davis. Photo by Chris Bowman/UC Davis

Photos of the rare and highly localized Red Hills roach are hard to find. This is a preserved specimen of an adult, from UC Davis. Photo by Chris Bowman/UC Davis

“This is the worst week yet,” said Quiñones, whose team has been surveying streams across northern and central California since July 1. “This is going to get more common as we get further into summer. If we have extra time, we may revisit some of our early sites to see how they’re doing.”

And the Red Hills roach? It turns out that the private property we couldn’t access – 960 acres encompassing most of the roach habitat – is on sale for a cool $850,000. Quiñones got permission to enter and headed back out Thursday, Aug. 14, this time with Peter Moyle, two news reporters and equipment for transporting the rare fish to aquaria if the situation looked dire.

Wherever they could reach the gulch, its bed was dry. But they found a trickle of flowing water supporting some 200 roach in a tributary, Horton Creek – no rescue needed.

Peter Moyle reacts to finding some rare Red Hills roach on Horton Creek, a tributary of Six-bit Gulch. The UC Davis professor of fish biology feared the species had gone extinct because of the drought. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

Peter Moyle reacts to finding some rare Red Hills roach on Horton Creek, a tributary of Six-bit Gulch. The UC Davis fish biology professor feared the species had gone extinct because of the drought. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

“This was a total surprise to me,” Moyle told The Sacramento Bee. “Right now there seems to be plenty of water, and the fact that the spring is still working is amazing.”

But the future of the Red Hills roach is by no means secure. Its 4 miles of habitat have shrunk to about 330 feet of functioning stream.

Quiñones and her crew will be revisiting the site next month to make sure the fish are still holding steady. If none are found, it will be the first extinction of a species because of the drought and the first extinction of a fish in California since 1989, when the High Rock Springs tui chub disappeared.

Amber Manfree is a doctoral student of geography and a researcher with the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Further reading

Jeffres, C., Peek, R., Ogaz, M., Journey to the Bottom of the Rim Fire, California WaterBlog, Sept. 26, 2013

Ortiz, Edward, Fish feared extinct still hanging on in creek, The Sacramento Bee, Aug. 15, 2014

Mount JF, et al. 2010.  Confluence: A Natural and Human History of the Tuolumne River Watershed

Moyle PB, Kiernan JD, Crain PK, Quiñones RM (2013) Climate change vulnerability of native and alien freshwater fishes of California: A systematic assessment approach. PLoS ONE 8(5): e63883. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063883

Quinton, Amy, California’s drought pushes tiny fish toward extinction, Capital Public Radio, Aug. 15, 2014

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Getting through the dry times

A serpentine stretch of the California Aqueduct in Palmdale, along mile post 327.50 on February 7, 2014.

A serpentine stretch of the California Aqueduct in Palmdale. California’s extensive network of aqueducts, canals, pumping plants and reservoirs facilitate water trading. Photo by Florence Low/California Department of Water Resources, Feb. 7, 2014

California’s economy overall is weathering the worst drought in decades remarkably well, thanks in part to groundwater use and water market transfers. But as a recent UC Davis study noted, the resilience is tenuous because groundwater is treated like an unlimited savings account and water marketing is hobbled by red tape and lack of transparency.

Here, Ellen Hanak and Elizabeth Stryjewski with the Public Policy Institute of California chart the state’s progress on water marketing and groundwater banking and suggested ways to streamline their use. Their commentary, originally posted Nov. 30, 2012, is no less timely today.  

By Ellen Hanak and Elizabeth Stryjewski

This week, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) released a new report that provides a checkup on California’s progress with two innovative water management tools: water marketing and groundwater banking. These tools are part of a modern approach that will enable California to manage its scarce water resources more flexibly and sustainably.

Water marketing involves the temporary, long-term, or permanent transfer of water rights in exchange for compensation. Such transfers can lessen the economic and environmental costs of drought and also help accommodate longer-term shifts in the patterns of water demand. Groundwater banking is another cost-effective tool: it involves the deliberate storage of surface water in aquifers during relatively wet years, for retrieval in dry years.

During the late 2000s, California experienced a multiyear drought—the perfect opportunity to see whether the past few decades of state and federal encouragement of these tools have paid off. We find some progress—but also some backsliding since the drought of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

That earlier drought jump-started California’s water market, thanks in large part to direct state actions. In the late 1980s, the Department of Water Resources (DWR) began purchasing water from a few irrigation districts to make it available to wildlife refuges and State Water Project contractors.

By 1991, when faced with the prospect of draconian across-the-board rationing, DWR launched the state’s first drought water bank, a large-scale brokering program that acquired water from numerous willing sellers and resold it to those facing high costs from shortages. When the rains returned, the water market continued to grow, as many local districts got comfortable trading with each other (Figure 1).

The graph shows volumes of water traded under short-term leases (yellow bars), estimated flows under long-term and permanent contracts (blue bars), and additional volumes committed under the long-term contracts that were not transferred in those years (orange bars).  Currently, about 2 million acre-feet of water trades are committed annually, with around 1.4 million acre-feet actually exchanging hands. PPIC, 2012.

Currently, about 2 million acre-feet of water trades are committed annually, with around 1.4 million acre-feet actually exchanging hands. Source: PPIC, 2012

Today, market trades account for roughly 5 percent of all water used annually by the state’s businesses and residents. Water agencies in most counties now participate in this market. Farmers—the largest water-using sector—continue to be the primary providers. Recipients include other farmers, cities, and environmental programs supporting wildlife reserves and river flows for fish. Long-term and permanent trades—especially valuable for supporting shifts in patterns of water demand—now make up well over half of the market.

However, the market did not perform so well during the latest drought, as the graph above shows. To mitigate the drought, overall sales would have been expected to increase considerably relative to the preceding non-drought years. But our study estimates that transfers provided a total of only 500,000 to 600,000 acre-feet in drought-oriented supplies between 2007 and 2010, above and beyond transfers that would likely have occurred anyway (Figure 2).

The slowing market was unable to provide much drought relief from 2007 to 2010 -- just 500,000 - 600,000 acre-feet. PPIC, 2012

The slowing market was unable to provide much drought relief from 2007 to 2010 — just 500,000 – 600,000 acre-feet. Source: PPIC, 2012

The market slowdown began in the early 2000s. This slowdown reflects a variety of infrastructure and institutional constraints, including more complicated approval procedures and pumping restrictions introduced in 2007 to protect endangered native fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a key water conveyance hub.

Groundwater banking did a better job mitigating the drought. For some time now, water agencies in several parts of the state have been recharging aquifers with surface water for local users. Our study focused on a new form of banking in which local groundwater managers store water for parties located elsewhere in the same county or in other regions.

From the mid-1990s to 2006, these water banks in Kern County and Southern California had built up reserves of nearly 3.4 million acre-feet. Between 2007 and 2010, they returned nearly 1.9 million acre-feet to their depositors, considerably more than the drought-related water market sales (Figure 3). Groundwater storage likely played an even greater role than these numbers suggest: DWR estimates that nearly 90 local agencies have been storing water in their local aquifers.

Figure 3. New groundwater banks were useful in the 2007-2010 drought. Withdrawals totaled 1.9 million acre-feet -- three times the volume that was traded in the dame period. PPIC

Figure 3. New groundwater banks were useful in the 2007-2010 drought. Withdrawals totaled 1.9 million acre-feet — three times the volume that was traded in the same period. Source: PPIC, 2012

What lessons can be drawn from this experience? Despite its good showing, groundwater banking still faces obstacles. More comprehensive local basin management—a common practice in Southern California and Silicon Valley—would prevent unsustainable pumping and long-term declines in groundwater levels. Outside pressure—with a credible threat that the state would step in if local agencies fail to do so—might be the best way to proceed, ideally accompanied by positive financial incentives.

To strengthen the water market, the state needs to clarify and simplify the institutional review process, while continuing to ensure that transfers do not harm the environment or other water users.

Both marketing and banking depend on addressing infrastructure weaknesses that restrict water conveyance through the Delta. Those constraints have already limited both the market’s ability to furnish water supplies in dry years and the availability of supplies to replenish groundwater banks in wet years. Because routinizing marketing and banking transactions will require risk-taking, high-level state and federal officials should be involved, perhaps through a coordinating committee to facilitate decisions.

Attending to these and other priorities described in the report will help ensure the success of two of the state’s most critical strategies for efficiently managing its water resources.

Further reading

Governor’s Commission to Review California Water Rights Law. 1978. Final Report. Sacramento, CA.

Hanak, E. 2003.  Who Should Be Allowed to Sell Water in California?  Third-Party Issues and the Water Market. Public Policy Institute of California

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, B. Thompson. 2011. Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. Public Policy Institute of California

Phelps, C.E., N.Y. Moore, M.H. Graubard. 1978. Efficient Water Use in California:  Water Rights, Water Districts, and Water Transfers. R-2386-CSA/RF. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation (report to the California State Assembly)

Tanaka, S.K., T. Zhu, J.R. Lund, R.E. Howitt, M.W. Jenkins, M. Pulido-Velazquez, M. Tauber, R.S. Ritzema, I.C. Ferreira. 2006. Climate Warming and Water Management Adaptation for CaliforniaClimatic Change 76(3-4): 361-387.x

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Why utilities shy from mandatory water saving during a drought

Source: California department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

By Jay Lund

The State Water Board’s recent decision to outlaw some water-wasting activities under penalty of $500 fines helps alert urban residents and businesses to the seriousness of the drought. These water conservation actions, though, are fairly mild compared with the water rationing and other mandatory restrictions that Santa Cruz and a few other California communities have imposed this year.

Local water utilities have more leeway than the state in the severity of measures they can take to reduce consumption. But, so far, few of them have gone beyond voluntary calls for water conservation, and only in the face of serious and imminent water shortages.

Voluntary measures generally reduce urban water use by 5 percent to 15 percent. Economic conditions and other factors also can affect how much water people voluntarily save. Mandatory measures, however, can cut water use by 50 percent or more under dire conditions, as Bay Area cities learned in the severe 1976-77 drought.

If the current drought is so bad, why wouldn’t all water utilities mandate additional water conservation?

Here are some common reasons (which some may call excuses):

  •  Lost water sales revenue. Less water used is less water sold, is less revenue to the agency and, potentially, less funding available for a contingency reserve should the drought worsen.
  • Desire to reserve tougher conservation actions for more severe drought conditions. Imposing draconian restrictions early in a drought leaves a utility with little means to signal greater urgency if conditions worsen.

    outdoor exhibit featuring water-wise garden beds with drought-tolerant plants is on display in the Farm section at the 2014 California State Fair. Photo by Kelly M. Grow, California Department of Water Resources

    The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is exhibiting water-wise garden beds with drought-tolerant plants this summer at the California State Fair. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/DWR

  • Risks of “crying wolf.” A utility can lose face with the public if it imposes mandatory water conservation actions and severe drought conditions do not materialize locally. Lost credibility promotes opposition to new water rates and other utility actions and poses political risks to elected or appointed utility leaders.
  • Avoiding the expense of additional water conservation. Adding or strengthening water conservation actions often disrupts normal utility operations and adds expense. Enforcing mandatory becomes increasingly expensive.
  • Fear of losing long-term options. Continuing higher water use preserves options for water conservation in the future. Water for landscape irrigation, which accounts for half of urban water use, can be seen as a strategic reserve that can be tapped later for growth or used to offset supplies lost from water rights conflicts, climate change or stricter environmental rules. Water utilities are often conservative institutions, in part because they have little control over their long-term supplies and demands.
  • Taking advantage of good management (or good luck). The state has an interest in not punishing utilities that have managed their systems to reduce risks in a drought.
Lawn in California's Capitol Park, May 2014. Photo by John Chacon, California Department of Water Resources

Brown is the new green for lawns at the state Capitol, May 2014. Photo by John Chacon/DWR

Most large urban water utilities have detailed plans for stepping up conservation activities with worsening drought conditions. They begin with public education and voluntary conservation then gradually impose increasingly severe mandatory restrictions.

While many agricultural areas and a few communities face severe water shortages this year, many of California’s largest urban areas are in pretty good shape, thanks to smart water management and good luck.

In a water system as large and diverse as California’s, we should expect wide variability in utilities’ experiences and operations during a drought. However, mandatory restrictions for urban water users will become more widespread as the drought persists.

We often look for easy answers and villains in droughts and see water use by others as water wasted. Things are often more complicated.

Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Further reading

Lund, J., “California droughts precipitate innovation,” CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, Jan. 21, 2014

Lund, J., J. Mount and E. Hanak, “Challenging myth and mirage in California’s drought,” CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, July 10, 2014

Lund, J.R. and R.U. Reed, “Drought Water Rationing and Transferable Rations,” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, ASCE, Vol. 31, No. 6, pp. 429-437, November 1995

Lund, J.R., “Totally RAD Urban Drought Management from California,” in J. L. Anderson (ed.), Proceedings of the 18th National Water Resources Conference, ASCE, pp. 532-536, May 1991

Weiser, M., Reese, P., “The Public Eye: Voluntary water conservation not effective, data show,” The Sacramento Bee, July 28, 2014

Weiser, M., “California adopts $500 criminal penalty for water waste,” The Sacramento Bee, July 16, 2014


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