This blog is a short introduction to a lesser known federal bill that is one of the most significant pieces of fish and wildlife legislation in decades. In Spring of 2021, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act. During July 2021, a separate adaptation of the act was also introduced in the Senate (S.2372) by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) and Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO). At its core, the bipartisan bill seeks to provide $1.39B in annual funding for state and tribal fish and wildlife agencies to protect and conserve declining species.
Of course, Californians are keenly aware of the jeopardy facing native biodiversity. 83% of our highly endemic fish fauna is declining. Many native fishes not currently listed under the US Endangered Species Act will be listed in the future as populations continue to collapse. A bevy of plant and animal communities are also struggling, which provided motivation for California’s Biodiversity Initiative and the 30×30 Partnership. Outside the existential threat to biodiversity, species declines create a regulatory environment filled with uncertainty – this is bad for businesses of all stripes. Conservation solutions with tangible benefits for ecosystems, species, and people provide win-win opportunities that will be increasingly needed in the future.
Insufficient funds for conservation have plagued the vast majority of declining species. For example, State Wildlife Action Plans or SWAPs are a common mechanism for state fish and wildlife agencies to prioritize species conservation needs. Sometimes, these funds are used for grants to assist with such work – often termed ‘state wildlife grants’ or SWGs. Yet in most states funds allocated for SWAPs and SWGs are minuscule compared to need. Thus most actions just don’t get done. That may seem odd to many in the public because they see lots of other things happening at the agencies.
How are most state fish and wildlife agencies funded?
For better or for worse, most state wildlife agencies operate under a “customer-driven” funding model. The bulk of funding for conservation is from purchases of hunting and fishing licenses. A smaller fraction of agency budgets is from federal excise taxes. On the fisheries side, the Dingell Johnson Act (AKA Sportfish Restoration) is a federal excise tax on recreational fishing and boating expenditures, and also a portion of boat gas. On the wildlife side, Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (or ‘PR’ funds) derives funding from a federal excise tax on firearms and ammunition. But even these funds are held in trust by the USFWS and redistributed back to state agencies using an algorithm partly based on license sale statistics. Combined, license sale revenues and excise tax funds have been the primary engines for growth in American fisheries and wildlife management over the last ~80 years. It therefore also means that hunters and anglers have traditionally paid for most fish and wildlife conservation programs. And because they paid the bill, they more or less drove policy conversations during this time. One result of this system is that a lot of outstanding science and management actually got done, it’s just that it focused disproportionately on ‘game species’. Meanwhile, there was little funding and work for countless other native fishes that weren’t valued by the majority customer block (Rypel et al. 2021). Redressing inequities and funding biases requires dealing with this funding issue in a straightforward way.
Another major problem with the customer-driven funding model is that sometimes customer blocks shrink and disappear. Fishing and hunting license sales have actually been declining for some time (Fig. 2). The many potential reasons for such trends warrant their own blog, but their effects on conservation budgets are tangible. In California, the decline has been blunted by a growing human population over this time frame. Yet as the state’s population recently plateaued near 40M, participation rates have continued to decline and we are starting to see the downstream funding impacts. For almost 30 years (1958-1988), roughly 10% of California’s population would buy a fishing license annually, peaking in 1988 (Fig. 2, right). Today, only ~4% buy a license. So funds for traditional fish conservation programs have taken a major hit. Some of this budgetary gap has likely been made up by bond measures (e.g., Prop 1). Yet, many species have life cycles that rely on essential habitats not targeted by bonds. Further, most funding for fish work in California is concentrated on threatened and endangered species. Thus a stunning diversity of species can fall through these conservation funding cracks. In the fisheries realm, I think of species like golden trout (our state fish) or coastal cutthroat trout. It gets worse for fishes like California roach, California hitch, California speckled dace or even Sacramento perch.
California has a recent State Wildlife Action plan with a wide range of priorities that would benefit from funding. It is estimated that the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would provide funding to implement 75% of every state’s action plan. I went through the CA SWAP document this week and was impressed at the detail and comprehensive nature of California’s current SWAP. Here are some goals from the SWAP I found personally interesting/admirable on what could get done if the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act were to pass. This list is not exhaustive or ordered in any specific way but provides insight into the type of work that could be done in California should the act pass:
In North Coast and Klamath Province, by 2025, miles of streams with target amphibian population are increased by at least 5% from 2015 miles.
In Bay Delta and Central Coast lagoons, by 2025, acres/miles with desired channel pattern (connected floodplains) are increased by at least 5% from 2015 acres/miles.
In the San Joaquin River, by 2025, miles of river where native species are dominant are increased by at least 5% from 2015 miles.
In the Deserts, by 2025, acres/miles with desired inches of groundwater are increased by at least 5% from 2015 acres/miles.
By 2025, population of Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout is increased by at least 5% from the 2015 population size.
In the South Coast, translocate species to increase current distribution; specifically, translocate Santa Ana sucker, Santa Ana speckled dace, and UTS into suitable habitat in the Big Tujunga, San Gabriel, and Santa Clara watersheds.
Develop or update and implement grazing BMPs in the Sierra Nevada.
Remove introduced brook trout in the context of recovery of listed Lahontan cutthroat trout.
By 2025, acres of wet mountain meadow habitat increased by at least 5% from 2015 acres.
Evaluate current condition and estuarine needs for coho salmon, eulachon, Pacific lamprey, and longfin smelt in key estuaries (i.e., Smith, Klamath, and Eel rivers and Humboldt Bay).
Current Status of Recovering America’s Wildlife Act
After years of working its way through Congress. The Recovering America’s Wildlife Act has now been approved by both chambers of Congress, meaning it can receive floor votes soon. The bill is notable for its bipartisan support, especially in such hyper-polarized times. The Senate bill received 32 cosponsors – including 16 Republicans. Many leading conservation organizations support the act, including The American Fisheries Society and The Wildlife Society.
The act still faces obstacles in both chambers though. There remains debate over how to pay for it and what features in the draft act will be included in the final act. As it stands, the act would:
Provide ~$1.39B in funding annually to state fish and wildlife agencies to implement their SWAPs.
Almost $100M in funding annually to assist tribal agencies in recovery with declining species.
10% of the funds would become available for an annual grants competition program to enhance multi-state cooperation on conservation.
Other benefits of implementing the act include leveraging existing funds with other agencies and institutions, providing greater regulatory certainty to industry, and empowering fisheries and wildlife professionals to successfully conserve natural resources for future generations.
Passage of the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act would be a major milestone in the management of America’s natural resources. It would signal a shift away from the entrenched customer-based model of conservation, to a degree. And it is a much needed example for how conservation activities can occur in a bipartisan way. Even if folks can’t agree on everything, sometimes, they can agree on something – why not conservation of our fragile biodiversity?
Andrew L. Rypel is a professor of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.
This is another dry year. How do California’s engineers see a partially-full water glass? Mostly the same as they did in the original 2012 version of this post, but we’ve added a few more perspectives.
by Jay R. Lund
Depending on your outlook, the proverbial glass of water is either half full or half empty. Not so for engineers in California.
Civil engineer (and George Carlin): The glass is twice as big as it needs to be.
Flood control engineer: The glass should be 50 percent bigger.
Army Corps levee engineer: The glass should be 50 percent thicker.
Mexicali Valley water engineer: Your leaky glass is my water supply.
Delta levee engineer: Why is water rising on the outside of my glass?
Dutch levee engineer: This water should be kept in a pitcher.
Southern California water engineer: Can we get another pitcher?
Northern California water engineer: Who took half my water?
Lower Colorado River water engineer (outside of California): California took half my water.
Lower Colorado River water engineer (inside California): Sorry for shortages in other states.
Tulare Basin water engineer: I’m saving that empty storage to capture floods for recharge.
California Water Commission engineer: Would a bigger glass provide public benefits?
USBR CVP or NOAA engineer: Is that water cold?
Consulting engineer: How much water would you like?
Environmental engineer: I wouldn’t drink that.
Water reuse engineer: Someone else drank from this glass.
by Francheska Torres, Miranda Tilcock, Alexandra Chu, and Sarah Yarnell
The Yolo Bypass is one of two large flood bypasses in California’s Central Valley that are examples of multi-benefit floodplain projects (Figure 1; Serra-Llobet et al., 2022). Originally constructed in the early 20th century for flood control, up to 75% of the Sacramento River’s flood flow can be diverted through a system of weirs into the Yolo Bypass and away from nearby communities (Figure 2; Salcido, 2012; Sommer et al., 2001). During the dry season, floodplain soils in the bypass support farming of seasonal crops (mostly rice). Today, the bypass is also widely recognized for its ecological benefits. In 1994, much of the bypass was designated as a Wildlife Area by the Fish and Game Commission, with the goal of reestablishing wetland habitat for waterbirds along with other wildlife (Yolo Bypass Wildlife Land Management Plan, 2008). The Yolo Bypass is one potential representation of harmony that can be achieved between floods, farming, fish, and feathers (Salcido, 2012).
The Yolo Bypass supports a range of broad multi-benefits to ecosystems and society:
During winter when high runoff fills rivers, the bypass provides space for floodwaters to spread and travel downstream to the Delta without damaging homes or communities. During high precipitation events, excess water enters the Yolo Bypass at Fremont Weir when Sacramento River flows exceed ~55,000 cubic feet per second (Sommer et al., 2001). When the Sacramento River reaches 27.5 feet at Sacramento’s I Street Bridge, the Sacramento Weir can be opened manually for additional water to drain into the Yolo Bypass, and eventually into the bypass’ Toe Drain near Rio Vista. During storms, you can check if flows over-top the Fremont Weir, using the California Data Exchange Center (CDEC) at https://cdec.water.ca.gov/guidance_plots/FRE_gp.html
In dry months (late spring and summer), the Yolo Bypass supports farming of seasonal crops including rice, safflower, processing tomatoes, corn, and sunflower. Wild rice has a tolerance to colder weather and is one of the types of rice grown in the bypass (Sommer et al., 2011). In winter (Dec-Mar), the existing field infrastructure can extend the duration of water inundation to facilitate development of invertebrate biomass (Corline et al., 2017), growing food to help struggling fish populations. Leftover crop residue from harvested lands supports fish and wildlife as a foraging area.
During winter when flooding occurs, the Yolo Bypass becomes a food-rich habitat for many fish species, including Chinook Salmon. Floodplains are important nursery habitats for juvenile salmon in California, providing growth opportunities from a highly productive food web (Jeffres et al., 2020). Juvenile salmon rearing on the floodplain can grow up to 1mm a day (Corline et al., 2017; Katz et al., 2017; Rypel et al., 2022)! For small salmon, growth rates provide huge benefits for their journey to the ocean and later survival.
The Yolo Bypass is part of the Pacific Flyway, one of four primary migration routes through North America for birds, particularly waterfowl (Bird et al., 2000; Eadie et al., 2008; Sommer et al., 2011). Each year, many bird species migrate through the Yolo Bypass or use this area for nesting. The Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area (YBWA), in particular, is a success story for shorebird habitat and productive waterfowl (Salcido, 2012). The Swainson’s hawk, a threatened species, frequents YBWA, with up to 70 individuals observed foraging on the floodplain at once (Sommer et al., 2011). YBWA also provides recreational (bird watching and hunting) and educational opportunities.
Floodwaters spread across the bypass, seep into the subsurface recharging groundwater, and fill local shallow aquifers. Nitrogen and phosphorus are also delivered and infiltrate floodplain soils subsequently assisting plant growth. Groundwater provides a key water source during dry summers and times of drought, with roughly 85% of Californians relying on groundwater as a source of drinking water (Harter, 2008). In California approximately 40% of water demand is met by groundwater (Figure 3).
Management goals for the Yolo Bypass have expanded from flood management and agriculture to include habitat management and restoration for birds and fishes (Serra-Llobet et al., 2022). This current, multipurpose, version of the Yolo Bypass is a model of an increasingly well-managed multi-benefit social-ecological system with public-private partnerships that allows wildlife, flood risk reduction, and agriculture to co-exist adjacent to a major urban region. Its potential to provide greater inundated floodplain habitat with more natural patterns of inundation is widely recognized, with expanding benefits for nature and humans. Documentation of the remarkable ecological value of the inundated bypass has helped to shepherd a new emphasis on floodplain restoration throughout the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley (Johnson, 2017).
Franceska Torres is a Junior Specialist at the Center for Watershed Sciences studying otoliths and what they can tell us about salmon migration, their age and their growth. She got her bachelor’s degree in Marine and Coastal Science with an emphasis in Marine Ecology and Organismal Biology from the University of California, Davis.Miranda Bell Tilcock is an Assistant Specialist at the Center for Watershed Sciences. Alexandra Chu is a Junior Specialist at the Center for Watershed Science. She works on the Eyes and Ears Project, peeling eye lenses from Chinook Salmon for stable isotope analysis to reconstruct their life history and identify critical rearing habitats.Sarah Yarnell is an Associate Professional Researcher at the Center for Watershed Sciences. Her studies focus on integrating the traditional fields of hydrology, ecology and geomorphology in the river environment.
Corline, N. J., Sommer, T., Jeffres, C. A., & Katz, J. (2017). Zooplankton ecology and trophic resources for rearing native fish on an agricultural floodplain in the Yolo Bypass California, USA. Wetlands Ecology and Management, 25(5), 533–545. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11273-017-9534-2
Eadie, J. M., Elphick, C. S., Reinecke, K. J., & Miller, M. R. (2008). Wildlife values of North American ricelands. In S. W. Manley (Ed.), Conservation in ricelands of North America (pp. 7–90). The Rice Foundation. http://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/5211451
Jeffres, C. A., Holmes, E. J., Sommer, T. R., & Katz, J. V. E. (2020). Detrital food web contributes to aquatic ecosystem productivity and rapid salmon growth in a managed floodplain. PLOS ONE, 15(9), e0216019. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216019.
Katz, J. V. E., Jeffres, C., Conrad, J. L., Sommer, T. R., Martinez, J., Brumbaugh, S., Corline, N., & Moyle, P. B. (2017). Floodplain farm fields provide novel rearing habitat for Chinook salmon. PLOS ONE, 12(6), e0177409. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0177409
Salcido, R. E. (2012). The success and continued challenges of the Yolo bypass wildlife area: A grassroots restoration. In Ecology Law Quarterly (Vol. 39, Issue 4). https://doi.org/10.15779/Z38B541
Serra-Llobet, A., Jähnig, S. C., Geist, J., Kondolf, G. M., Damm, C., Scholz, M., Lund, J., Opperman, J. J., Yarnell, S. M., Pawley, A., Shader, E., Cain, J., Zingraff-Hamed, A., Grantham, T. E., Eisenstein, W., & Schmitt, R. (2022). Restoring Rivers and Floodplains for Habitat and Flood Risk Reduction: Experiences in Multi-Benefit Floodplain Management From California and Germany. Frontiers in Environmental Science, 9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2021.778568
Sommer, T.R., Harrell, B., Nobriga, M., Brown, R., Moyle, P., Kimmerer, W., & Schemel, L. (2011). California’s Yolo Bypass: Evidence that flood control Can Be compatible with fisheries, wetlands, wildlife, and agriculture. Fisheries, 26(8), 6–16. https://doi.org/10.1577/1548-8446(2001)026<0006:cyb>2.0.co;2
Sommer, T. R., Nobriga, M. L., Harrell, W. C., Batham, W., & Kimmerer, W. J. (2001). Floodplain rearing of juvenile chinook salmon: Evidence of enhanced growth and survival. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 58(2), 325–333. https://doi.org/10.1139/f00-245
By Erik Porse, Maureen Kerner, Brian Currier, David Babchanik, Danielle Salt, and Julie Mansisidor
Stormwater infrastructure in cities is highly visible and serves to mitigate flooding and reduce pollution that reaches local waterbodies. Being so visible, it might be reasonable to assume that stormwater is adequately funded both in infrastructure and water quality management. Yet, stormwater infrastructure and water quality improvement are notoriously difficult to fund. Paying for stormwater quality improvements in California has been a multi-decade challenge due to the industry’s relatively recent emergence during a time of fiscal constraints on local governments.
US funding needs for stormwater grew significantly after 1987. Amendments to the Clean Water Act (CWA) required municipalities to reduce pollutants such as sediment, oil and greases, and bacteria in stormwater. Through the CWA, regulatory agencies develop targets for pollution reductions, which municipalities must meet to obtain a discharge permit through the National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) administered by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state agencies. This new duty required localities to reconsider stormwater systems as more than just pipes and gutters to manage flooding.
Responsibility for most stormwater management, including funding, lies with city and county governments. This creates challenges in funding stormwater programs and projects. Municipal stormwater programs were established more recently than other water sector programs and often lack dedicated funding sources. In California, many stormwater programs were developed in recent decades when local taxation powers were already constrained by proposition ballot measures.[i] Without dedicated funding streams, municipal stormwater programs compete against other essential municipal services.
Amid fiscal challenges for local governments, diverse and integrated approaches to stormwater infrastructure design have emerged. Traditional stormwater designs relied on centralized “grey” infrastructure such as pipes, channels, and gutters, which conveyed water quickly from urban streets. In recent years, distributed designs, sometimes called green infrastructure or low-impact development (LID), have grown increasingly popular. These approaches offer opportunities to connect stormwater management goals with other planning sectors. Well-designed distributed green infrastructure can support urban and water planning needs such as street beautification, multi-modal transit, water conservation, and groundwater recharge. In California, green infrastructure typically includes native and drought-tolerant vegetation. Cities view these opportunities as “win-wins” that offer cost savings and support holistic approaches to broader community goals.
While cities recognize the benefits of these planning innovations, the adequacy of local stormwater spending in California has been a contentious policy issue for decades. In the early 2000s, state regulators developing municipal NPDES permits contended with claims of high costs for permit compliance. Local governments lacked standardized rubrics for tracking comparable spending. In 2018, similar issues arose as the California State Auditor reviewed local watershed studies in Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Central Valley, which identified large stormwater investment needs. Today across California, stormwater funding efforts are growing, but they require years of planning. More cities and counties are developing funding through popular ballot measures such as Measure W in Los Angeles County that funded its regional Safe, Clean Water Program. SB 231 in 2017 resolved a long legal debate by clarifying that stormwater systems were not subject to Proposition 218 requirements, but many localities continue to seek popular approval for new or updated local stormwater fees. Examples exist for both successful and unsuccessful public measures.
During this time, very few state or national studies estimated what communities actually spend on stormwater. America’s Infrastructure Report Card, a national benchmark of infrastructure spending, addressed stormwater for the first time in 2019 and estimated a national funding gap of at least $7.5 billion (ASCE 2021). In California, a 2005 study by the Office of Water Programs (OWP) at Sacramento State surveyed six municipalities to estimate costs for compliance with permit requirements, finding that communities spent between $18 and $46 per household on permit compliance activities (Currier et al. 2005). In 2014, the Public Policy Institute of California estimated statewide annual stormwater funding needs in the range of $1 to $1.5 billion across the state, while current funding was only $500 to $800 million based on extrapolations from a few communities (Hanak et al. 2014).
In the context of the continued policy debates and local funding challenges for stormwater, in 2018, OWP sought to quantify existing stormwater funding and update its 2005 study (Babchanik et al 2022, Currier et al 2005). We explored if questions of municipal stormwater spending could be answered with data that already existed, but was only available in static, disaggregated, and difficult-to-use sources. This occurs in many sectors of water management in California.
After surveying possible sources, we identified spending and budget data for stormwater management in over 160 local governments in California through publicly available annual reports (discoverable through public sources). We extracted the data and developed standardized rubrics for classifying costs. The level of detail varied widely, with some localities reporting many years of data in a report, broken down by categories, and others only reporting a single year’s aggregated totals. Activities identified in NPDES permits provided a template for categorizing costs, including public education, pollution prevention, and illicit discharge detection and elimination. We standardized all data to 2018-dollar values.
Once categorized and standardized, we aggregated the totals and examined trends. Stormwater duties are dispersed across cities, counties, and flood control districts. The publicly-available reporting identified over $700 million in annual spending on stormwater management. However, this is an underestimate, as it only covered about half of the state’s urban and suburban populations. The availability of data varied across regions and depended on local municipal or regional board practices regarding publication of annual reports. Some local governments also posted annual reports on their websites. The composite database is available for future use.
Spending varied widely across the state. Annual expenditures for cities ranged from $48,000 to $88 million (median=$890,000), while annual county expenditures ranged from $400,000 to $51 million (median=$13 million). Counties and flood control districts budgeted on average more per entity than cities ($18 million/year vs. $3 million/year), but in aggregate, cities spent more than counties ($520 million/year vs. $170 million/year).
We also examined trends in per capita spending by cities. Reported data indicates that 50% of cities spent $14/person or less annually on stormwater management. A few small- or medium-sized cities had large reported per capita spending on stormwater (over $300/person-year). Average and median per capita spending values were $35/person-year and $14/person-year, respectively. Quantifying per capita spending was possible for cities but not counties, because county programs do not have identifiable populations. Many regions have overlapping city and county stormwater programs, with counties taking on some region-wide duties that make it difficult to compare values across regions.
We also examined spending trends by categories of activities. Many municipalities categorized costs based on broad categories from federal Phase 2 NPDES permits. The lumped category of “Pollution Prevention” had the most spending, followed by “Operations and Maintenance” and “Capital Costs.” While these categories offer an easy rubric for standardizing costs, they provide limited insight into the outcomes of spending. Some municipalities reported more detailed data with activities such as “Street Sweeping”, “Pesticide and Fertilizer Management”, and “Hazardous Household Waste Collection”. In developing standardized cost-reporting requirements, both regulatory agencies and local governments would benefit from a coherent list of detailed activities. This would enhance opportunities to evaluate the beneficial outcomes of local stormwater management investments.
Overall, the analysis validated the approach of estimating stormwater spending trends by collecting and standardizing annual budget and expenditure reporting from municipalities. The analysis also demonstrated that aggregating such data can address difficult and long-standing policy questions. However, the available data was not formatted for easy analysis and was only available for some of the state.
California regulators and municipalities will continue efforts to fund stormwater management and quantify funding gaps in future years. In California’s federated system of government that spans local and state agencies, quantifying trends can be challenging. Yet, data often already exists to answer some large policy questions. If the data become available in better formats for analysis, the information can help localities and state agencies develop funding plans to address California’s integrated sustainability and resilience goals. Stormwater management programs have the potential to help achieve diverse climate and equity goals, from groundwater recharge to urban beautification to sanitation and housing. Addressing these critical challenges will require a renewed understanding of the value of well-funded public services and infrastructure, including stormwater.
Erik Porse is a Research Engineer at OWP at Sacramento State, and an Assistant Adjunct Professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. Maureen Kerner is a Research Engineer at OWP at Sacramento State and Associate Director of the Environmental Finance Center at Sacramento State. Brian Currier is a Research Engineer at OWP at Sacramento State. David Babchanik is a Civil Engineering student at Sacramento State and lead author of the associated research study. Danielle Salt is a Research Engineer at OWP at Sacramento State. Julie Mansisidor is the Publications Manager at OWP at Sacramento State.
Currier, B., Jones, J.M., and Moeller, G. (2005) NPDES Stormwater Cost Survey: Final Report. Office of Water Programs at Sacramento State. Prepared for the California State Water Resources Control Board, Sacramento, CA
Hanak, E., Gray, B., Lund, J., et al. (2014) Paying for Water in California. Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA.
Kea, K., Dymond, R., and Campbell, W. (2016). An Analysis of Patterns and Trends in United States Stormwater Utility Systems. JAWRA Journal of the American Water Resources Association, 52(6), 1433–1449. https://doi.org/10.1111/1752-1688.12462
By Alex Rabidoux, Max Stevenson, Peter B. Moyle, Mackenzie C. Miner, Lauren G. Hitt, Dennis E. Cocherell, Nann A. Fangue, and Andrew L. Rypel
Putah Creek is a small stream located in the Central Valley that has been extensively modified to suit urban and agricultural water needs. Following ratification of the Putah Creek Accord in 2000, however, the creek has also been proactively managed for restoration of native fishes, including fall-run Chinook salmon. The Accord stipulates that pulse flows be supplied to the lower creek during fall and spring to mimic a natural flow regime. A result from these environmental flows has been salmon spawning in the creek since 2003 (Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area Land Management Plan, 2008). Unfortunately, the future of Putah Creek salmon is not yet secure.
In November 2021, salmon entering Putah Creek were part of a large fish kill in the lower creek. The event took everyone familiar with the creek by surprise and prevented successful migration of the creek’s fall salmon. Only 4 or 5 adult Chinook salmon made it upstream to suitable spawning habitat. The result was particularly tragic as it followed on the heels of the restoration of a salmon run in the creek, as well as habitat for other fishes. Salmon spawning in the creek has produced 10s of thousands of out-migrating juveniles. The return of salmon is an important, highly visible symbol for why Putah Creek is often regarded as a role model for effective water management and environmental stewardship (Davis Enterprise, 5/24/2020).
In this blog, we describe the conditions that led to the fish kill in lower Putah Creek and the response to the kill by scientists and others monitoring the creek. Although the kill was a disaster for salmon and other fishes in the creek, it also demonstrated how representatives of diverse agencies could work together, without finger pointing, to find out what happened in order to prevent it from happening again. The response showed how the Putah Creek Accord is still working. The authors of this blog combined their collective experiences to conduct an autopsy, and in doing so, paint a detailed picture here of what happened.
Salmon in the creek
The fall of 2021 started well for the creek, as the creek was prepared to receive its annual salmon run. In early October, the Solano County Water Agency (SCWA) and soon to retire Putah Creek Streamkeeper, Rich Marovich, celebrated the removal of a longstanding low dam that caused formation of undesirable habitat upstream in what might otherwise have been spawning grounds for salmon. After years of failed negotiation and lack of regulatory enforcement, a unique relationship was formed with the help of UC Davis’s Dr. Peter Moyle, Water Audit, and SCWA that resulted in removal of the debris dam in the cool-water region of Putah Creek (Figure 1). This allowed for subsequent restoration activity to revitalize the stream bed in the area for salmon spawning. Similar restoration activities have been performed throughout the creek since 2016.
In early October, UC Davis researchers were gearing up for the annual sampling of fall-run Chinook salmon carcasses in the creek. As part of this effort, crews from UC Davis and SCWA canoed and inspected all 26-miles of Lower Putah Creek. The survey examined possible impediments to fish passage that could prevent upstream movement of adult salmon. This routine sampling has been in place since 2016 and salmon have been observed returning to spawn successfully in Putah Creek every year over this time frame.
The success of spawning is most evident in the spring when their juvenile salmon (smolts) begin out-migrating in droves, headed for the ocean. In 2018, over 30,000 juvenile salmon were captured and released from a rotary screw trap, highlighting the productive capacity and potential of the system. Researchers and agency staff alike had high expectations that 2021 would bring another large return of salmon. 2021 might also mark one of the first years in which natal-origin Putah Creek salmon (some of those 30,000 juveniles from 2018) could return to spawn in Putah Creek. With salmon populations struggling throughout the Central Valley, Putah Creek represents one of few locations where numbers are on the rise (California Water Blog, 5/13/2018).
In the months leading up to the annual adult salmon migration, SCWA worked closely with a multitude of regional partners including the Putah Creek Council, UC Davis, California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW), and Los Rios Farms on timing of fall pulse flows and removal of the check dam at the base of the creek. The fall pulse flows have the intended purpose of attracting salmon to Putah Creek, but timing of the pulse is a balancing act of salmon migration patterns, flooding of waterfowl habitat, mosquito risks and water availability in the Yolo Bypass. Therefore, after close coordination with the regional partners, the fall pulse flow was scheduled to begin on November 2.
Atmospheric river rain event
On October 24, one-week before the scheduled pulse flow, a large atmospheric river event dropped 6-8 inches of rain on the Putah Creek and Cache Creek watersheds. The event was atypically early, providing 25-30% of the region’s annual average rainfall in just 24 hours. The large rainfall, in conjunction with the burn scar from the 2020 LNU Fire (which burnt over 90% of the Interdam Reach of Putah Creek), prevented most of the rainwater from soaking into the ground, and instead inundated Putah Creek with nutrient rich runoff. The rain event was so large, >1,500-cfs of creek water was released through the Putah Creek Diversion Dam for several hours during evening and early morning hours after the storm event. While the event was a natural pulse flow for salmon, several fish passage barriers were still in place, preventing salmon from migrating into Putah Creek on the coattails of the rain-driven pulse. These barriers include an earthen road crossing (Rd 106A, Figure 2, left picture) and an agricultural impoundment dam (the Los Rios check dam, Figure 2, middle and right pictures). In a typical year, both structures are removed to permit upstream passage of adult salmon and timed to coincide with the pulse flow.
The fish kill
Following the storm, on November 1, the two remaining fish passage barriers, the road 106A crossing and the Los Rios check dam, were removed. At Los Rios Check Dam, several salmon were observed swimming upstream after the flashboards were removed. Presumably, salmon had moved up the Toe Drain and into the very lowest reaches of Putah Creek following the pulse from the storm. SCWA’s consulting wildlife biologist, Ken Davis, noticed a total of 6 moribund salmon, a prelude of what was to come.
On November 2, the scheduled salmon attraction flows began (November 3rd through the 8th ). At that time, UC Davis researchers observed a large-scale fish kill in Putah Creek near the Los Rios check dam. The kill included not only salmon, but Sacramento sucker, a variety of sunfishes, striped bass, largemouth bass, common carp, and mosquitofish; these fishes represented a wide range of sizes and diverse ecological niches. All dead fish were found within one mile of the check dam.
During the field investigation, UC Davis researchers observed black, nutrient-rich water, entering Putah Creek just upstream of the Los Rios check dam. The researchers then noted that water with low dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations was being pumped from the Toe Drain into the CDFW Wildlife Refuge. They also noted and that water draining from the refuge ponds was re-entering Putah Creek, causing a DO sag near the check dam. UC Davis researchers notified SCWA, CDFW, and DWR of their findings, and asphyxiation was noted as the cause of death of fish in Lower Putah Creek.
Despite being tolerant of low oxygen for short periods of time, adult Chinook salmon are very large fish, which have greater oxygen requirements than smaller fish, so adult salmon were likely among the first individuals to perish. But also killed, were much smaller fish, such as sunfish and mosquitofish, which are more capable of surviving low-oxygen conditions. Unfortunately, dissolved oxygen concentrations as low as 1-2 mg/L were reported in the Toe Drain, the typical threshold for sufficiently oxygenated water for salmon is approximately 7mg/L. The sag in dissolved oxygen observed in late October through early November is the largest dissolved oxygen dip recorded in the past several years. All female salmon examined perished before spawning, as indicated by presence of fully-developed eggs still in their ovaries (Figure 3).
UC Davis researchers continued to conduct weekly surveys of Putah Creek through January, to monitor any upstream movement of salmon. Based upon their initial findings, SCWA began to work closely with the CDFW Wildlife Refuge to identify specific fields and drains impacting Putah Creek. In short order, CDFW and their operating partners from Los Rios Farms, were able to eliminate any further tailwater leakage into Putah Creek by modifying a single culvert. SCWA staff then began periodic water quality sampling of lower Putah Creek within the Yolo Bypass, as well as the confluence with the Toe Drain. Water quality sampling was extended to encompass over 17-miles of the Toe Drain from northern Liberty Island in the Delta, down to the Sacramento Weir just north of Interstate 80. Results of sampling, as well as data from the Department of Water Resources’ (DWR) real-time water quality stations, showed over 13-miles of water with critically low DO in the Toe Drain both upstream and downstream of the Putah Creek confluence. SCWA staff quickly realized that the DO issue and corresponding fish-kill were far beyond the capability of SCWA to monitor alone. And Putah Creek alone was not the only part of the system at risk. Additional partners and creative solutions would be needed to resolve extent and cause of the poor water quality.
On December 8, 2021, reports from UC Davis and SCWA were shared with key stakeholders in the Yolo Bypass, including DWR, CDFW, State Water Contractors, Reclamation District (RD) 108, and the Northern California Water Association. In subsequent discussions with RD 108 and DWR, there appeared to be a novel capacity to convey either agricultural drainage water from the Colusa Basin Drain or Sacramento River water from the Knights Landing Outfall Gates to potentially flush the Yolo Bypass Toe Drain and push out remaining low DO water in favor of replenishing it with less affected water.
Based on water quality and fish concerns by CDFW and DWR staff, SCWA staff removed debris that had accumulated north of the I-80 in the Yolo Bypass to further facilitate fish passage and water conveyance. SCWA also continued water quality monitoring in the Colusa Basin Drain. One week later the region again received a series of atmospheric storm events that subsequently flushed the Toe Drain and restored DO to more suitable levels. Unfortunately, the low DO conditions had persisted for too long, and no additional salmon were observed migrating into Putah Creek. In total, UC Davis researchers identified 81 Chinook salmon carcasses within the last 2.25 kilometers of Lower Putah Creek, and 1 live salmon in the upstream reaches of Putah Creek, although a few (4-5) additional salmon apparently made it up to the Diversion Dam (observations of staff). Recent snorkeling surveys below diversion dam detected juvenile salmon, indicating successful spawning by the survivors of the fish kill (T. Salamunovich, April 2022).
While the event was tragic, it provided several key lessons for the Lower Putah Creek and Yolo Bypass community:
Organic matter and low DO are on-going problems. Initial findings by the USGS (Stumpner, 12/15/2021) and others, indicate that the large DO sag in the Toe Drain and associated parts of the Delta was largely due to a rapid increase in flow (precipitation and run off) following the large rain event at the end of October. This flow pushed out accumulated organic matter in the creek and ditches, presumably from deposition of dead aquatic vegetation. In the Yolo Bypass, the Toe Drain, and related water conveyance canals, invasive aquatic vegetation is pervasive. The last 2-miles of Putah Creek (within the Yolo Bypass and DFW Wildlife Refuge) also support an abundance of aquatic vegetation throughout the main channel. When widespread in such quantities, decaying aquatic vegetation can lead to diminished dissolved oxygen concentrations.
Climate change requires building more resilent systems. Large atypical storms, such as the one that occurred on October 24 may become more common, and will require planning outside of previous bounds of environmental variability, in order to build management systems capable of adapting to changing conditions quickly.
Regional partnerships are increasingly important. The event emphasized the importance of regional partners, including resource agencies (CDFW, DWR), local public agencies (SCWA, RD 108), scientific experts (UC Davis), and local landowners. Most of the lands in Yolo Bypass and along lower Putah Creek watershed are privately owned, so cooperation among landowners is truly essential.
Scientific support is essential. Ongoing long-term research conducted by UC Davis continues to provide pivotal and timely data helping to protect and restore Putah Creek. Without the observations of UC Davis scientists in November, the Water Agency and other stakeholders would not have been aware of the magnitude and causation of the fish kill on Putah Creek, until much later. Scientists are also collaborating directly with managers in near real time to improve conservation; thus Putah Creek represents a critical example of real time resource management in California and the Delta.
Fish passage barriers need to be modified or removed. Modification of existing fish passage barriers in Putah Creek and in the Yolo Bypass, including the Road 106A Crossing, Los Rios Check Dam and the Lisbon Weir, should be high priority for resource agencies. DWR and CDFW oversee most of these facilities.
Alex Rabidoux is a Principal Water Resources Engineer with Solano County Water Agency. Max Stevenson is a Streamkeeper with Solano County Water Agency. Peter B. Moyle is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis and is Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. Mackenzie C. Miner is a MS student at the University of California, Davis. Lauren G. Hitt is a PhD student at the University of California, Davis. Dennis E. Cocherell is a Lab Manager and Staff Research Associate in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology at the University of California, Davis. Nann Fangue is a professor and Chair of the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology at University of California, Davis. Andrew L. Rypel is a professor of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.
Several years ago on this site, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Center for Watershed Sciences—what we termed a “really good idea.” That blog described the founding principles of the Center that live on today. A few years after starting the Center, we had a second really good idea—a course called Ecogeomorphology.
For us, the most rewarding aspect of the Center was the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from different disciplines to try and address complex water management problems. We worked with very creative people willing to share their expertise toward some common goals. All while meeting our most basic standard—playing well with others. These collaborations with thought leaders in different disciplines and institutions — like Jay Lund, Richard Howitt, Ellen Hanak, Buzz Thompson, Brian Gray and others—was both fun and productive.
We asked ourselves a basic question: how do you capture this collaborative magic in the classroom and pass it along to students? We came up with Ecogeomorphology. This is the 20th anniversary of that second really good idea, and it started with an epic Alaskan river adventure.
The philosophy of the class was simple, but its logistics were very complex. We would recruit 12 students—usually four graduate students and eight undergraduates—from an array of disciplines. Every student was assigned to become an expert in something and then sharing that expertise with the other members in the class. We remember well some of the hysterically funny interactions between engineers and ecologists as they tried to find a common language and understand each other’s approach to problem solving. It was the same training we were getting in our research collaborations at the Center.
Once we had assembled a team and assigned expertise, we chose a big question that would be the theme of the class. We would study this question for 10 weeks followed by weeks of field study on a chosen river.
We are both field people at heart, so there had to be a lot data gathering in the field, a whole bunch of puzzling over problems while standing knee deep in a river, and some amount of adventure to lock in the learning. One of us (Jeff) had been running whitewater raft-based field trips in his home department for many years, simultaneously thrilling—and occasionally scaring—students while teaching them about rivers.
Fortunately for us, in the early years we had Dennis Johnson, the Director of Outdoor Adventures UC Davis. He bought into this idea of adventure education—indeed, he recommended most of the rivers we studied—and took care of all the complicated logistics. In later years, Jordy Margid took over for Dennis and carried on the tradition.
We also had the good fortune of funding. The costs of the course for the students were paid for by the Roy Shlemon Chair in Applied Geosciences (then held by Jeff) and the Presidential Chair in Undergraduate Education (co-held by Jeff and Peter). And, we had the Center as the home base to run the course.
Our first big trip in 2002 was an adventure. Peter raised a simple question. Alaskan rivers are highly productive when it comes to salmon, but why? They are very cold and turbid, so they don’t seem ideal for the growth of juveniles as they make their way to sea from their natal streams and lakes. And many juvenile fish—particularly sockeye and Chinook—travel many hundreds of miles in these cold, turbid, and presumably unproductive waters. We were heavily involved in the early research on the role of floodplains feeding native fish in the Central Valley. Where was the equivalent in these cold, glacier-fed Alaskan rivers?
We organized our class to ask Peter’s question. After extensive literature research, we headed to the Copper River watershed in Alaska to test some ideas through field observations. This trip set the benchmark for all others to follow.
We started our trip at the base of the Kennicott Glacier. Water pouring out of the glacier was just above freezing, and such water behaves strangely due to its density and viscosity, especially with its high glacial silt load. But there was Peter with students in the water seining to see if there were any fish (there were none).
We moved down to the confluence between the Kennicott River and the Nizina River where the first inkling of an answer was revealed. It was a great learning experience for the students to watch their professors staring at this confluence with its giant cobble bars deposited by spring ice break up floods. After much head-scratching, the possible answer hit all of us simultaneously. There, throughout this cobble bar, were patches of clear, relatively warm water filling old scour channels. Water was flowing through the cobbles—decanting their silt load—and slowly emerging into these side channels where the water would warm before gently flowing back into the river. Algae in the water was being fed by willows and other plants sprouting along the edges. And all of this was feeding a food web, with juvenile salmon taking advantage of it. It was a warm, productive oasis in the middle of a raging, ice cold glacial river.
Clear, warm backwaters at the confluence of the Kennicott River and Nizina River fed by flow through the confluence bar, with abundant juvenile salmon taking advantage of the productive food web.
That discovery dictated the work of the next few weeks as we moved down the Nizina, to the Chitna River, then to the Copper River, and eventually into the Copper River Delta—a 270 mile adventure, while living out of whitewater rafts in some of the most spectacular, raw, and rugged scenery in North America. Our field studies confirmed this observation that backwater settings, wetlands connected to the river, and clear tributary creeks were crucial habitat for juvenile salmon.
Floating by massive glacial terraces on the Chitna River.
There were some memorable days. Along with daily, eye-popping discoveries, the students were exposed to the challenges of field work, where you hope Plan B works, because Plan A almost never does, and you better have a Plan C and D in mind. And we had suitably epic weather. We had hurricane force winds on one day that blew our rafts upstream despite more than 100,000 cfs passing beneath us. We had a mile-high loess dust storm roar up the canyon. We had the constant concern over ice-dam break outs (jökulhlaups) and the occasional grizzly bear. And epically, we experienced the anxiety-rich passage of our rafts beneath the face of Childs Glacier as it was actively calving into the river.
All of the students and the wonderful people who helped make this trip happen (especially Dennis Johnson, Deb Desrocher, Paul Butler, and Sarah Roeske) will never forget it. There is nothing like the joy of scientific discovery in a magnificent setting like Alaska’s Copper River: nature’s perfect classroom.
We took lessons learned from that first trip and built a terrific class. In subsequent years we went to the Skeena River in British Columbia to record how habitat complexity in a river drives biodiversity. We went to the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam to document how river ecosystems recover with distance downstream of a dam. We made several trips down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon to evaluate efforts underway to improve physical habitat. We often used the Wild and Scenic stretch of the Tuolumne River and its main tributary, the Clavey River, as a study site to compare dammed and undammed rivers. The 2009 Tuolumne class spearheaded the creation of the short book Confluence: A Natural and Human History of the Tuolumne River Watershed, which has been used in multiple classes since. And on the Kobuk River in Alaska, we studied how changing climate is altering the ecology and geomorphology of rivers north of the Arctic Circle, while wolves howled and yipped in the background (this was our new definition of a howling success).
In all the years we ran this course, we brought all the students back in reasonably good condition, with no major injuries. This is a credit to our handlers, Dennis Johnson and Jordy Margid, who built a culture of safety. Our only significant injury was to Peter, who ironically hit his head on the first aid kit and got a helicopter ride out of the Grand Canyon.
This class was a really good idea, and we are both proud of the effort. Mostly we feel very lucky that that we had the opportunity to conduct this grand experiment in mixing adventure and education. And we are especially pleased with the product of the class: the students. Most students who took this course over the years have gone on to successful careers in resource management, usually involving water and rivers.
Finally, it is very satisfying to see that the course lives on, 20 years and counting. Today Nicholas Pinter and Sarah Yarnell are rounding up students, teaching them how to collaborate, and taking them into the field for new, inspiring experiences. Like many college field classes however, funding for these inspirational and life-changing classes is difficult to come by. They rely almost exclusively on private donations and fundraising. You can help support the continuation of Ecogeomorphology here.
Jeff and Peter
2002 Copper River Trip participants:
Jeff Mount, Instructor
Peter Moyle, Instructor
Sarah Roeske, Instructor
Sarah Yarnell, Teaching Assistant
Angela Depaoli, Undergraduate student
Carson Jeffres, Undergraduate student
Chris Hammersmark, Graduate student
Dylan Ahearn, Graduate student
Joe Wheaton, Undergraduate student
Joel Passovoy, Undergraduate student
John Wooster, Graduate student
Kaylene Keller, Graduate student
Kristen Morgan, Undergraduate student
Martin Koenig, Undergraduate student
Mark Rains, Graduate student
Randy Bowersox, Graduate student
Steve Winter, Graduate student
Wendy Trowbridge, Graduate student
Dennis Johnson, Trip Leader
Debbie Desrochers, Guide
Paul Butler, Guide
Instructors, students, and guides in the 2002 Copper River Ecogeomorphology class.
American River, 1977. Source: California Department of Water Resources
by Jay Lund, Ellen Hanak, Barton “Buzz” Thompson, Brian Gray, Jeffrey Mount and Katrina Jessoe
This is a re-posting from 11 February 2014 (in the previous drought).
With California in a major drought, state and federal regulators will be under pressure to loosen environmental flow standards that protect native fish. This happened in the 1976-77 and 1987-92 droughts, and today’s drought could become much worse.
These standards demonstrate the high value society places on the survival of native fish and wildlife. In past droughts, we have given away some of these protections because of pressure to make more water available for other uses.
But this time, California can do better. We can create a special water market that better meets the state’s goals of both ensuring a reliable water supply and protecting the environment. In this market, growers and cities would pay for the additional water made available from relaxed environmental standards, and the revenues would help support fish and wildlife recovery.
Water trading can often greatly dampen the costs of drought. Farmers irrigating high-cash crops such as almond trees can buy some water from growers of alfalfa, rice and other crops that are less profitable per drop of water used.
Such trading can greatly reduce the overall economic and social costs of a drought and distribute these costs more broadly. Importantly, such market transactions ensure that those who use less water than their entitlement are compensated for the reduction. Because water buyers must pay for the added water, they also have an incentive to conserve.
Source: California Department of Water Resources
Although environmental uses generally do not have water rights, instream flow and water quality rules intended to protect endangered fish and other wildlife from extinction are similar to very secure water entitlements.
But in past droughts, state or federal decisions to relax environmental standards essentially became a gift to other water users. The shorted environmental uses were not compensated, and farmers and cities that benefited had less incentive to conserve water and be prepared for droughts – for instance by underinvesting in local storage or overinvesting in perennial crops that need more reliable water supplies than the system can provide.
A better approach would create a drought environmental water market, so that those who gain from relaxed standards help compensate the losers. When standards are loosened, fish threatened with extinction may require additional expensive actions such as restoration, habitat acquisition and “conservation hatcheries,” which help maintain endangered species outside their natural environment.
Unlike past environmental water markets, where agencies only bought water for fish and wildlife refuges, some environmental flows in this special drought market would be treated as senior water rights that could be sold. Fisheries agencies could sell some of these flows when they determine that the reduction will not jeopardize endangered species. The sale of this water would provide funds that help native species recover and lessen demands to relax environmental flows.
For example, a relaxation of environmental flow requirements that made available 100,000 acre-feet of water – perhaps worth $400 an acre-foot during a drought – would generate $40 million to help pay for compensating actions. Those actions might include buying water for environmental purposes elsewhere in the state or creating a reserve fund to aid native fish after the drought.
Making this new market work would require some new rules, and there are several options. Compensated relaxation of environmental flow standards could be done as:
Part of the Endangered Species Act regulatory program (biological opinions, incidental take permits or habitat conservation plans),
Negotiated agreements with water users, or
Fixed penalties for violating flow and water quality standards.
Dry lakebed, 1988. Source: California Department of Water Resources
The price could be set at the fair market value of the water made available, the cost of compensatory environmental actions, or a fixed or negotiated fee established by the regulatory agency.
Creating such a drought environmental water market would help limit the reductions in environmental river flows, while ensuring that such reductions receive some compensation.
For California, this would be an appropriate expression of the state’s co-equal environmental and economic goals for water management in times of hardship. If we can’t all get better together in a severe drought, at least we can reduce and share the pain fairly, in a way that provides some help to fish and other species that depend on our rivers for their survival.
Jay Lund is director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis; Ellen Hanak is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC); Barton “Buzz” Thompson is director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; Brian Gray is a professor at the UC Hastings College of the Law; Jeffrey Mount is a senior fellow at the PPIC; and Katrina Jessoe is an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis.
Juvenile Chinook Salmon lack rearing habitat in the Central Valley due to pervasive land use change and altered hydrology. Historically, juvenile salmon (or parr) had access to roughly four million acres of seasonal floodplain which provided ideal growth conditions before transitioning to the ocean. Managed wetlands and flooded off-season agricultural fields can provide surrogate habitat to mitigate some habitat losses. A pilot program by fishery agencies and the PGA has turned their attention to a previously untapped habitat by stocking immature salmon parr to golf course wetland ponds to increase habitat and population. The program, coined “Parr for the Course”, serves to increase the salmon population after their decline. This could be salmon conservationists’ mulligan for past failures.
Golf course ponds are ideal habitats for juvenile fish due to their higher than average food productivity, protection from predators, and overall comfort. Compared to the remaining habitat that has long endured pervasive land use change and altered hydrology, these ponds create a sort of oasis in the habitat desert, sheltering parr from their long history of abuse. While discussing new mitigation efforts for these threatened fish, biologists at the Center for Watershed Sciences realized the potential for using these areas for fish conservation, piloting the effort at a local golf course. The River Redwoods Golf Club in Sutter County was chosen for its location near migratory pathways for Feather River and Butte Creek, allowing fish easy access back to the river for outmigration. Fish were planted at the Golf Club in February, during the time of year when juvenile salmon would need to access historic floodplain habitat (photo 1). Over the next several weeks, the fish were monitored and growth rates were measured, comparing them to other rearing habitats in the area. Parr for the Course fish that had reared in these golf ponds grew at faster rates compared to fish planted in canals and rivers, growing at about 0.5g/day. This might not sound like a lot of weight, but for a juvenile salmon, this can make the difference between surviving the journey to the ocean or being consumed by a predator. A real hole in one for the fish!
Faster growth occurs in the ponds due to a highly productive detrital food webs. Jeffres et al., (2020) found that juvenile salmon in floodplain habitats are feeding primarily from a detrital based food web. In golf courses, grass clippings from the course’s constant upkeep are a source of nutrients in the pond to kickstart the detrital pathway. This supports a more productive environment, filled with zooplankton for the fish to consume. These detrital food webs also create a distinct isotopic fingerprint that can be permanently archived in tissues such as fish eye lenses. When fish return to spawn as adults, researchers can take the fish eye lens to see which fish used golf ponds and who didn’t (Tilcock et al. 2021). Knowing how many salmon from these golf ponds returned to spawn, allows researchers to quantitatively evaluate the success of Parr for the Course.
Fish planted in these ponds don’t need to worry when they hear “birdie”, because golf ponds also provide excellent predator refugia. Many perils exist in the wild for juvenile salmon as they migrate to the ocean, including predation by many different birds. Golfers swinging their clubs and yelling “Fore!” naturally prevents birds from wanting to land near the water, preventing predators from accessing the ponds. This decrease in bird activity also contributes to higher numbers of insects present in the ponds, establishing another important food source for these juvenile salmon and, again, contributing to the productivity of this environment. In addition to birds being removed from the ponds, these ponds lack other natural predators. This allows the fish to grow in a stress-free, rich environment, before being released into the river.
Along with being a predator-free habitat, the ponds have trees on their borders to shade growing salmon. Since the water in the ponds is not straight from the mountain snow melt, it is vital that the water remain cool for fish to survive, especially later in spring. Rain from the winter should be enough to keep the waters at an ideal condition.Underwater roots of trees also give fish safe havens from rogue golf balls.
In return for giving young salmon a better chance of survival, the fish assist by suppressing pests. Chinch Bug and Sod Webworms are among the most common pests for golf courses. They eat grass, leave tunnels under turf and lead to brown patches. These bugs will one way or another fly across the ponds and when they land on the water, they are snatched by hungry young salmon. This mutualistic relationship benefits both the ecology and economy.
Because of the tee-rific success of this pilot year, these fishery agencies are committed to strike while the iron is hot to implement golf course habitats all across the Central Valley. This would provide opportunities for researchers from across the state and for diverse stakeholders to participate in conserving this important species. Parr for the Course has shown us a unique way research can be incorporated into everyday life and give hope for fish conservation.
Jeffres, C.A., Holmes, E.J., Sommer, T.R., & Katz, J.V.E. (2020). Detrital food web contributes to aquatic ecosystem productivity and rapid salmon growth in a managed floodplain. PLoS One, 15(9): e0216019. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216019
Holmes, E.J., Saffarinia, P., Rypel, A.L., Bell-Tilcock, M.N., Katz, J.V., et al. (2021) Reconciling fish and farms: Methods for managing California rice fields as salmon habitat. PLoS One, 16(2): e0237686. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0237686
Bell-Tilcock, M., Jeffres, C.A., Rypel, A.L., Willmes, M., Armstrong, R.A., et al. (2021) Biogeochemical processes create distinct isotopic fingerprints to track floodplain rearing of juvenile salmon. PLoS One16(10): e0257444. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0257444
Cordoleani, F., Holmes, E., Bell-Tilcock, M., Johnson, R.C., & Jeffres, C. (2022). Variability in foodscapes and fish growth across a habitat mosaic: Implications for management and Ecosystem Restoration. Ecological Indicators, 136, 108681. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2022.108681
Nan Frobish is the nom-de-blog, in this case, for the team of Miranda Bell Tilcock, Abigail Ward, Francheska Torres, Scott Smith, Alexandra Chu, Eric Holmes, and Carson Jeffres.
California’s water problems are intense; so much so they are often referred to as ‘wicked’ for their extraordinary depth of complexity and general unsolvability. Yet it recently occurred to me that some of the better and more creative solutions often derive from one particular source – nature itself. Indeed, studies of nature-based solutions or ‘NBS’ are rising rapidly (Davies and Lafortezza 2019; Nelson et al. 2020; Acreman et al. 2021), and are especially popular within the NGO and environmental communities. This blog is a brief exploration of the concept, examples of nature-based solutions, both for California water and also generally, and why they might matter to us. As a fish ecologist, most of my thoughts are, as usual, focused on the status and conservation of our native fishes. I would love to hear your favorite examples of NBS or general thoughts on this topic in any area of water management or otherwise in the comments sections below.
Methods of blending Indigenous knowledge systems and Western approaches are important and also increasing (Reid et al. 2020), but have distinct connections with nature-based solutions. For example, Western science-based approaches are perhaps sometimes less effective because of an overemphasis on certainty and extent to which nature is “controllable” (Charles 2001). Indeed, Townsend et al. 2020 specifically suggests Indigenous knowledge and engagement are vital to success of nature-based solutions, especially with regards to climate change. Indigneous frameworks have the potential to help us all learn, to build back trust, and to move towards peaceful plural existence (Reed et al. 2022).
Beavers are one important nature-based solution that just aren’t discussed enough! During the early 1800s, fashion trends played an unusual role in the decline of Pacific salmon populations. Though perhaps odd to us now, at that time, the classic beaver hat was considered high fashion. Further, the main source of beaver pelts was California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia. Because of territorialism (e.g., between various fur-trapping regions), beavers were purposefully and quickly deleted from many salmon-producing streams to discourage nearby trapper encroachment. The net effect was something referred to as the “fur desert” (Ott 2003). Yet as beaver populations dwindled, so too did occurrence of beaver dams along the West Coast. This was a problem for fishes because native salmon and trout populations are known to exploit beaver ponds as productive rearing habitats for their young (Talabere 2002; Pollock et al. 2004; Herbold et al. 2018). For those of us interested in improving native trout and salmonid habitats, beaver conservation and reintroduction must be part of the larger fix (Wathen et al. 2019; Pollock et al. 2019). Mountain meadow restoration in particular has been floated as an important element to climate resilience in California, and is part of the California Water Resilience Portfolio. The meadow collaborative is currently working to support restoration of these systems. But scaling any substantial increase in mountain meadow acreage will need more beavers.
There are other nature-based solutions we talk about frequently on this blog. I am personally deeply engaged with the salmon-rice project. Sacramento Valley Chinook salmon evolved within a landscape full of floodplains and wetlands (see artistic recreation by Laura Cunningham, above). Juvenile Chinook salmon, born to clear snowmelt streams of the Sierras out-migrated onto the valley floor where they reared, fed on the luxurious carbon and floodplain foods, and gained energy for the final leg of their arduous journey to the Pacific Ocean. Fast forward to present day, and 95% of the floodplain in the Central Valley is gone. However, there are roughly 500,000 acres of rice fields that might be used more smartly to assist struggling salmon populations (Katz et al. 2017; Holmes et al. 2020). Mimicking historical floodplains using rice fields is already a widely known and effective conservation practice for migratory birds of the Sacramento Valley (Bird et al. 2000, Eadie et. al. 2008). Thus, it follows that these same practices might work for native fishes. We just need to figure it out! Here is a recent podcast on the topic. There is also an indication that having fish on rice fields might help mitigate flux of methane (a greenhouse gas), a concept that connects with the regenerative agriculture movement described below.
Environmental flows are a nature-based solution that receives much attention from CWS and California scientists (e.g., Yarnell et al. 2020; Grantham et al. 2022; Yarnell et al. 2022). Perhaps “flows” are about more than just a minimum value of water needed in a river. The magnitude and frequency, timing, duration, and rate of change in flows all matter (Poff et al. 1997). Further, the quality of the water may also matter. There is rightfully much interest in this science, mainly because it aims to make the most of the water we do have, and it has also been shown to actually work (Kendy et al. 2017; Chen and Wu 2019; Tickner et al. 2020). There are interesting parallel frameworks afoot for describing natural thermal regimes of streams – see Willis et al. 2021. However, there is still much science needed to figure this all out in California, and because it involves water users and endangered species, it is bound to be controversial. Nonetheless, long-term hydrographs of natural rivers combined with ecological data on these same systems provide windows into the natural mechanics of river ecosystem function. Scientists unlocking these nature-based secrets should be in high demand by water professionals in California in the future.
‘Regenerative agriculture’ is a larger movement also worth examining within the context of NBS (Schulte et al. 2021). Agriculture is a modern miracle – we can feed many more people now on the same amount of arable land as in 1960. Nonetheless, such high productivity and land efficiency also comes at an environmental price. Effects of conventional row crop agriculture on soils (Arnhold et al. 2014; Fageria et al. 2004), insects (critical to soil health) (Wagner et al. 2021), water quality (Baker 1985), and wildlife (Brinkman et al. 2005) are well-documented (Rhodes et al. 2017). Although no legal or regulatory definition of ‘regenerative agriculture’ exists, a surge in academic research indicates the topic is gaining traction with scholars (Newton et al. 2020). Examples of regenerative agriculture include reductions in tillage, use of cover crops and crop rotations, increasing crop plant diversity, restoration of native plants and habitats, integration of free-range livestock, use of ecological or natural principals, organic methods, focus on smaller scale systems, holistic grazing, incorporation of local knowledge, and others (Newton et al. 2020). In Iowa corn and soybean fields, replacing just 10% of land with strips of restored prairie increased overall biodiversity and ecosystem services with almost no impacts to crop production (Schulte et al. 2017). In Indiana, winter cover crops decreased soil nitrate by >50% while soil N mineralization and nitrification rates increased (Christopher et al. 2021). The regenerative agriculture movement is clearly quite real and is generating innovation within the agricultural sector.
Elements of nature-based solutions are beginning to trickle into popular culture. For example, the “paleo diet” or “primal blueprint” are nouveau approaches to eating that emphasize consumption of unprocessed natural foods, similar to the way pre-industrial ancestors might have eaten. Many of the foods recommended in these diets connect back to sustainable and regenerative agricultural methods to promote consumption of nutrient-dense foods.
Ultimately, nature-based solutions are a linked aspect to management of reconciled, working landscapes. Yet while both concepts are closely related, they are also decidedly distinct. Reconciliation ecology emphasizes balance between human and environmental needs. It also emphasizes that humans are in charge, and must assume responsibility for decision making. In contrast, nature-based solutions are often viable solutions to human problems, but are likely especially desirable inside human-dominated environments such as working lands. Indeed, one of California’s major environmental policy initiatives currently touts nature-based solutions as a method for accelerating our region’s climate change goals. These innovations will likely underpin the emerging climate solutions sector of California’s economy.
There are problems with the NBS movement too. The topic has been criticized for “green-washing” – that is, conflating and confusing public debate, wasting resources, and drawing attention away from more pressing needs (Giller et al. 2021). There are also critical questions. Where should the line be drawn as to what counts as a NBS? How should such practices be rewarded through payment programs and the like? As one example, I drove past an almond orchard the other day brightly advertising how they were ‘fighting climate change’ and ‘going to net zero’. Is this a NBS? Furthermore, there are probably cases when an engineered solution might be better. If I were living below sea level on a hurricane-prone coastline, I might prefer a really strong, well-engineered levee than a patch of mangroves. In the long-run, people and ecosystems need both nature and engineering, and there should be room for a portfolio of solutions. Further, a healthy dose of skepticism is required to properly vet any potential NBS. Fortunately, science is one of the most powerful tools ever developed to explore the efficacy of solutions – whether engineered, nature-based, or a combination.
California water has major problems, especially as we enter into another year of intense drought. We need solutions that will truly work over the long haul. Sometimes extensively engineered solutions are touted as “silver bullets” for what are actually highly complicated and long-running challenges exacerbated by hard-to-control factors like human population growth, climate change, and macroeconomics. In the case of our declining native fish fauna, it is clear that it took many years to get into this mess, and any real solution requires time to correct. Furthermore, I have the sense that we are just scratching the surface with the vast possibilities of nature-based solutions. Indigenous partnerships will be key to finding new solutions with the potential to heal both nature and our peoples. Sadly, in many cases, we don’t even know what the potential solutions might be because of shifting baselines and constant modification of the landscape. As we move forward, let’s collectively keep our eyes glued for creative nature-based solutions, listen to one another, maintain a critical eye, and collectively engage to make our landscape and water practices more sustainable for future generations.
Grantham, T. E., D. M. Carlisle, J. Howard, B. Lane, R. Lusardi, A. Obester, S. Sandoval-Solis, B. Stanford, E. D. Stein, and K. T. Taniguchi-Quan. 2022. Modeling functional flows in California’s rivers. Frontiers in Environmental Science 10:787473.
2022 is another drought year, although we won’t know exactly how dry for about another month. Precipitation and snowpack this year in California are below average. In addition, the prolonged dry and warm months of January through March of this year’s “wet” season will have evaporated more water from watersheds and reduced snowpack, reducing runoff and groundwater recharge from this year’s modest precipitation and likely lengthening this year’s wildfire season.
Some reservoirs did refill during the wetter-than usual December, but many of the largest reservoirs remain significantly lower than at this time last year, in the 2nd year of this drought. This dry year already has more precipitation than 2021, and hopefully more runoff, but we enter this year with less stored water.
Agricultural surface water deliveries are already scheduled to be significantly reduced, some urban areas will likely have mandatory water use reductions, and prospects for salmon and other native species are not promising. This now three-year drought could go on for still more years (something we won’t know for sure until March 2023).
What should we do for this third year of drought?
Overall, California is fairly well prepared for drought, but some sectors and regions are much more vulnerable than others and require special attention. We naturally and usefully focus on California’s drought weaknesses,
Urban areas are a small proportion of human water use in California, but about half of urban water use is for landscape irrigation. So urban areas have considerable potential to reduce their water use, in percentage terms, but even large percent reductions, though useful, usually do not provide large volumes of water for the environment.
Water conserved in urban areas can serve several purposes: a) saving water in storage for urban users to use in additional dry years, b) increasing water available for more junior agricultural water users, c) making more water available for the environment. Prudent urban water managers tend to maximize storage of water for additional dry years, with some of this stored water becoming available to others in future wet years. Remaining conserved water tends to mostly become available for the larger thirstier agricultural sector. Only sometimes does conserved urban water make large amounts of water available for struggling ecosystems.
Maintaining the financial sustainability of urban water systems is challenging with drought. Urban water supply costs are largely fixed (for infrastructure and people) and vary little with water delivery volumes. Indeed, drought raises costs as management effort increases (for increasing water conservation and using more expensive water sources). Urban water utilities already having special drought rate structures are better prepared for the financial problems of drought. But water utilities lacking special drought rate structures already are likely to see their financial reserves tested or risk having unpopular rate hike proceedings detract from simultaneous requests for additional water use reductions. Urban water utilities in California should all have pre-established drought water rate structures that can be called upon.
Agriculture is by far the largest organized water use in California. Overall, agriculture again will see much larger water supply reductions than urban areas, even after farmers pump additional groundwater to make up for reduced surface water supplies. In 2021, the drought cost agriculture about $1 billion, about a 2% reduction in crop revenues and several thousand jobs lost for lower-income communities. Last year, these impacts were disproportionately felt in the Sacramento and Tulare basins, and were also substantial elsewhere (Medellin et al 2021).
Drought impacts are especially severe for rural counties and lower-income workers there, where agriculture is often the major economic engine and employer. Overall, the state economy is well insulated and prepared for drought, and is in a position to redress some of these regional economic impacts. The growth of more profitable permanent crops has increased agriculture’s economic ability overall to endure droughts, so long as groundwater and more fallow-able annual crops also exist.
This and future drought impacts on agriculture will extend beyond the end of this dry period, as future cropping will need to be reduced to replenish the additional groundwater pumping during this drought to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and prepare for the next drought. Some large agricultural areas have begun assessing pumping fees exceeding $300/acre-foot to reduce long-term water use and fund groundwater replenishment. In the long run, ending groundwater overdraft and reducing agricultural drought impacts will require reducing irrigated acreage statewide by about 10-15%, mostly from less profitable crops grown on less productive soils.
Rural drinking water
Rural drinking water supplies from wells are again threatened and will be interrupted by falling groundwater tables from additional agricultural pumping during drought. These problems affect about one hundred small community water systems and thousands of rural household wells. Short-term water-hauling and long-term consolidation into bigger systems when possible, deeper wells, and ending groundwater overdraft are the only solutions. These are individually expensive solutions (some more than others) that often face local political difficulties. The state is getting better with organizing relief for some of these systems, but the state, counties, and local systems themselves have a long way to go.
Ecosystems are the water use sector hardest hit by recent droughts and the current drought. Wild spawning of winter-run salmon was reduced by 95% in 2021 and needed to be supplemented by emergency hatchery releases. The drought also reduced other salmon runs and populations of other native fishes and birds.
Despite valiant efforts to rescue several endangered species during drought, California is not nearly prepared or effectively organized for preparing habitats and other conditions for native ecosystems to be sustained through drought. The magnitude and ubiquity of native habitat destruction over 150 years has overwhelmed the naturally evolved substantial drought adaptations of California’s aquatic ecosystems. A bright spot and example of effective management is how Pacific Flyway bird species are being sustained by long-term development of permanent and seasonal wildlife refuges with additional operational support and management during droughts – involving close coordination among state and federal agencies as well as environmental organizations, hunters, and land owners.
Forests and wildfires are the areas most affected by drought. Drought increases stresses and deaths of forests, which increases the severity of wildfires extending years after dry years end. The $9 billion direct costs of the 2012-2016 drought were dwarfed by the many tens of billions of dollars in damages and many deaths from worsened wildfires in the following years. Indeed, the biggest urban impacts of the previous drought were undoubtedly from air quality economic and health impacts from the ensuing worsened wildfires.
California’s climate has always had frequent and sometimes prolonged droughts. Urban and agricultural water users have developed major infrastructure and water management to largely dampen the effects of such droughts. Changes in climate, especially higher temperatures, are making these droughts deeper and probably longer, which will require additional preparations.
The same infrastructure improvements that have insulated human water users from drought, have helped overwhelm the ability of native aquatic ecosystems to endure droughts. Similarly, the prolonged suppression of forest fires has made forests more vulnerable to large wildfires.
We do not know long much longer this drought will last beyond its third year. We can be sure that, if water is managed well, this drought will not soon be devastating to California, overall. Nevertheless, this drought will have major impacts to some regions and sectors, which should motivate improvements to water and ecosystem management for the long term.
California has become more resilient to drought with steady adaptation and improved preparation from each drought, particularly from better human organization of water management (Pinter 2019; Lund et al. 2018). Natural evolution also made California’s natural ecosystems relatively resilient to droughts until this resilience was overwhelmed by human land and water management. Today, these human and natural systems are mutually-dependent for their sustainability, and we must better organize these combined efforts for this and future more severe droughts.
Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California – Davis. He writes this after recently traveling across northern California’s watersheds, where reservoir levels are low and snowpack almost non-existent for mid-March, fire scars for several years of wildfire are prevalent, and more orchards are being planted than removed.