A Water Right for the Environment

by Brian Gray, Leon Szeptycki, and Barton “Buzz” Thompson

Waterways meander throughout farmlands in the Delta. (Photo: CA Dept. of Water Resources, shot 3/24/2008)

California’s management of water for is not working for anyone. Environmental advocates argue that state and federal regulators have set water quality and flow standards that do not adequately protect fish and wildlife, and have not enforced these requirements when they are most needed. Farm and urban interests claim that these regulations have been ineffective and cause unnecessary economic harm. These water users may incur additional cutbacks in their water supplies if regulators conclude that more water is needed to support struggling fish populations, making planning for producers difficult. Amidst this tension, native fish populations in the state have continued to plummet.

This ironic situation—in which both sides believe they bear a disproportionate burden of water shortages and regulatory uncertainty—cries out for reform. We should start by granting the environment a water right, as detailed in a new report we helped write for the Public Policy Institute of California.

* * *

California’s native fish species have long struggled against the cumulative effects of land and water resources development for agricultural, business, and residential purposes. Dams have blocked access to spawning grounds, reservoir operations have altered river flows, land development has degraded essential habitat, and diversions for water supply have severely reduced the volume of water in many California rivers.

Stressors on fishes are especially pronounced when precipitation and runoff are diminished. During the 2012–16 drought, for example, a parasite known as “ich,” which thrives in low water conditions, infected adult Chinook salmon returning to spawn in the Klamath and Trinity Rivers . The State lost two consecutive wild cohorts of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon when waters warmed on the Sacramento River below Shasta Dam. And the populations of several species that inhabit the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta declined to historically low levels as flows and water quality diminished throughout the estuary.

Although many have tried to address the drought’s challenges creatively and cooperatively, two opposing viewpoints have dominated the political debate. Water users—especially San Joaquin Valley farmers—complain that the water quality and endangered species requirements compounded the severity of the drought and deprived them of valuable water. Signs along Interstate 5 to “Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl” are manifestations of this resentment.

In contrast, environmental and fishing advocates argue that native fish are in peril because state and federal regulators too often compromise on enforcement of these standards, especially during drought. They point to operational and regulatory decisions that diverted water from Trinity River reservoirs until salmon actually began to die, kept too little water in Lake Shasta to provide cold water releases for juvenile salmon, and loosened Delta salinity standards to facilitate water exports for farms and cities. Their claims are backed up by evidence of plummeting populations of key aquatic species.

* * *

These unfortunate events show that the existing regulatory structure is not working for any party. We recommend that California move away from the long-standing policy of protecting water quality and instream flows by restricting the exercise of water rights, and instead foster a new policy that integrates environmental uses into the water rights system. This reform will increase the efficiency and flexibility of environmental water management and enhance certainty for all water right holders.

The centerpiece of our proposal is the creation of Ecosystem Water Budgets (EWBs) for the state’s principal watersheds. An EWB is a defined quantity of water that would be flexibly allocated to meet ecosystem management objectives. This concept includes several key features:

  • Watershed-based planning. Local water managers, water users, and environmental and fishing groups would draft “watershed ecosystem plans” that would determine the volume of water needed to ensure the ecological integrity of each river system. These plans also would designate priorities for the use of the EWB under varying hydrologic conditions.

For example, during periods of relative water abundance, the EWB could be directed to aquatic habitat improvements (such as refreshing spawning gravels) and floodplain and wetlands enhancement for fish and terrestrial wildlife. During drought, when water supplies are scarce for all uses, the EWB would be devoted to critical ecosystem needs—such as cold-water refugia for salmon or wetlands for waterbirds. Planning for ecosystem needs in dry years would perform the dual function of allowing water users to know drought water availability in advance and prepare accordingly.

As with the existing environmental regulatory standards, the ecosystem water assigned to each EWB would carry the highest priority within each watershed. Because the EWBs would largely implement the environmental regulatory standards, the State Water Resources Control Board would review and approve both the watershed ecosystem plans and the EWBs. This priority would be needed to comply with existing laws, and would also implement a key aspect of California water law:  that “public trust” purposes, such as watershed health, must be incorporated into the water rights system.

  • Functional flows and integrated objectives. The quantity of water assigned to each EWB would be based on a “functional flows” assessment of the most effective flow regime for the ecosystem as a whole. This would stand in marked contrast to the current regulatory approach to environmental protection, which focuses on the needs of individual species by regulating individual stressors such as water diversions and discharges of pollutants.

Integrated ecological planning is more realistic because it recognizes that multiple species are adapted to the same flow regime within a single aquatic ecosystem. It is also more efficient because it minimizes the risk of overlapping, and sometimes conflicting, regulatory water requirements.

  • Independent and flexible administration. An independent trustee for the watershed would administer each EWB. The trustee would manage the ecosystem water as an environmental water right with the same prerogatives as other water right holders. The trustee’s primary responsibility would be to deploy the ecosystem water to fulfill the objectives of the watershed ecosystem plan and annual watering plans that define the specific goals of ecosystem water management in light of current and projected hydrologic conditions and water availability.

As with other water right holders, the trustee should have authority to acquire and lease water. Water leases would be limited to circumstances in which there is excess water within the EWB in light of annual ecosystem goals. The proceeds of these short-term sales could then be used to purchase additional ecosystem water during droughts, to fund habitat improvements, and to acquire land and water rights. Moreover, because storage is an essential feature of efficient water management, the trustee should be able to store water—both in surface reservoirs and in underground aquifers—and to enter into surface and groundwater exchange agreements with other users.

The volumes of water assigned to each EWB would not necessarily be the same as those dedicated to ecological purposes under the current regulatory system. The EWB could be greater in watersheds where the existing regulations have proved inadequate to meet the goals of healthy and sustainable fisheries and ecosystems. But it also could require less water—or change the timing and uses of that water—because the EWB would be based on an integrated determination of the needs of the whole ecosystem, rather than fragmented regulatory assessments of individual species requirements. Moreover, each trustee could deploy this water flexibly in light of current hydrologic conditions to achieve targeted biological and ecological benefits. This approach would enable the trustees to use available ecosystem water more efficiently than is possible under existing law. Combined with other improvements in California water management, including improved water accounting and increased groundwater recharge during wet years, the EWB approach has the potential to stem the loss of aquatic species and allow environmental protections to work in better harmony with irrigation and urban water use.

* * *

There are precedents for this form of environmental water management. Several western states and Australia have developed programs akin to ecosystem water budgets, and California has taken small steps toward this approach. For example, water users, environmentalists, and community groups have negotiated agreements on Putah Creek and the Yuba River that provide integrated ecological planning and flexible administration of water for fish and wildlife.

We expect that parties in other river systems will be interested in following these examples. Indeed, the State Water Resources Control Board has proposed designating blocks of water to support ecological uses in the principal tributaries of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers, although currently without the management flexibilities we recommend. This process could be a catalyst for negotiation of EWBs on one or more of these rivers. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing of hydroelectric dams on several of California’s other important rivers also may serve as a forum for interested parties to pursue more creative and flexible means of managing environmental water. Moreover, because groundwater storage and conjunctive use are components of our proposal, EWBs also may be useful to the parties who are now negotiating groundwater sustainability plans under the recently enacted Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

* * *

Although negotiated solutions are often the best means of resolving water resources controversies, the Legislature could facilitate the adoption of EWBs by recognizing instream environmental uses as valid water rights or by authorizing the trustees to administer ecosystem water with the same flexibility as other water rights. Legislation to outline the essential features of watershed-based ecological stewardship also would be useful. These include establishing criteria for the assignment of water to ecosystem uses, describing the management powers and responsibilities of the trustees, and defining the relationships of the EWBs to the existing laws and regulations that govern water quality and fisheries.

These changes would promote efficiency and certainty for all water users. Assigning water to the EWBs based on an integrated functional flows approach would direct the available water to the most valuable ecological services within each watershed. And the quantity of ecosystem water would be fixed, providing assurances to other water users in the watershed. The trustees would have to fulfill their stewardship responsibilities within the assigned budget or acquire additional water from other users. Conversely, the assigned ecosystem water would be off-limits to other water users unless they purchase surplus water from the trustees or acquire it through voluntary exchanges.

California’s aquatic ecosystems are fragile and ill-prepared for future droughts and a warming climate. We have a window of opportunity before the next drought strikes to adopt policies that encourage more creative and effective management of water assigned to essential ecological functions.

Brian Gray is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and professor emeritus at UC Hastings. Leon Szeptycki is director of Water in the West and professor of the practice at Stanford University. Barton “Buzz” Thompson is the Robert E. Paradise Professor in Natural Resources Law at Stanford Law School.

Additional Reading:

Jeffrey Mount, Brian Gray, Caitrin Chappelle, Greg Gartrell, Ted Grantham, Peter Moyle, Nathaniel Seavy, Leon Szeptycki, and Barton “Buzz” Thompson, Managing California’s Freshwater Ecosystems: Lessons from the 2012–16 Drought (PPIC 2017).

Jeffrey Mount, Brian Gray, Caitrin Chappelle, Greg Gartrell, Ted Grantham, Peter Moyle, Nathaniel Seavy, Leon Szeptycki, and Barton “Buzz” Thompson, Eight Case Studies of Environmental Management During the 2012–16 Drought (PPIC 2017).

Jeffrey Mount, Brian Gray, Caitrin Chappelle, Jane Doolan, Ted Grantham, and Nat Seavy, Managing Water for the Environment During Drought: Lessons from Victoria, Australia (PPIC 2016).

Leon F. Szeptycki, Julia Forgie, Elizabeth Hook, Kori Lorick, and Philip Womble, Environmental Water Rights Transfers: A Review of State Laws (Stanford 2015).

Posted in California Water, Planning and Management, Uncategorized | Tagged | 9 Comments

A Tale of Two Fires: How Wildfires Can Both Help and Harm Our Water Supply

by Gabrielle Boisramé

Lupines blooming in an area that has been burned by multiple natural wildfires.

Now that summer is over and rain has returned to California, it appears that the dramatic 2017 fire season is finally behind us. The effects of fire season can linger, however, with the possibilities of erosion and polluted runoff from burned areas. Napa County has even issued suggestions for how to protect waterways in burned landscapes.

Not all news is bad when it comes to the interactions between fire and water, however. These two seemingly opposite elements can actually work in tandem under the right circumstances, to the benefit of people as well as the environment.

While the North Bay fires were filling the headlines in October, another fire 200 miles away was quietly entering its third month of burning in the Sierra Nevada wilderness. This other fire, known as the Empire Fire, was ignited by lightning. By allowing this fire to slowly burn, the park service allowed natural processes to remove fuels that could otherwise build up and lead to more dangerous fires in the future.

Smoke from the Empire Fire in Yosemite in early October 2017. (Photo: G. Boisrame)

The Empire fire burned through an area in Yosemite where fires have been allowed to burn for over 40 years, the longest period managed with such a strategy anywhere in California. Research in Yosemite and other areas shows that allowing these wilderness fires to burn can increase the amount of water stored in the soil or flowing downstream. In the winter, forest clearings opened up by fires often store deeper snow that melts later than in densely forested areas, meaning more water is released slowly in the spring and summer rather than all rushing out as floods in the winter.

In March 2016, an area with dense canopy cover has almost no snow (left) while only a few hundred feet away an area with burned trees still has snow (right). These photos are from the Illilouette Creek Basin in Yosemite. (Photo: G. Boisrame)

Fires can also open up meadow areas that have been overgrown by forest. Although wet meadows cover only a small percentage of California’s landscape, they provide important benefits to the water supply. Meadows reduce the size of floods by storing water during high runoff periods. They also help to store water for the dry summer months by holding that water like sponges and slowly releasing it.

The biggest news about fire and water, unfortunately, is usually about how burned landscapes contribute to erosion, which then pollutes streams and clogs reservoirs. When fires burn homes, pollution risks can be especially high due to the presence of hazardous chemicals. Fires can also lead to larger floods since there is less vegetation to slow water’s path from rainfall to stream runoff.

These negative effects, however, usually happen because a large portion of a watershed has been completely stripped of vegetation, and plants have not been able to re-grow in time to stabilize the soil. These kinds of fires are usually caused by a combination of dense fuels and extreme weather. When fires burn under less extreme conditions (lower fuel loads, high humidity, low temperatures, and/or low wind speeds), they can clear out dead fuels and remove a small number of trees while leaving most large trees intact. After the fire, the remaining trees (as well as new growth of understory plants) often enjoy wetter soils and less competition. This increases the ability of plants to survive drought conditions.

Wildfire has always been a part of California – especially northern California and the Sierra Nevada – for as long as it has had lush vegetation and dry summers. Native Californian plants have adapted to this process. Some species, like redwoods, even depend on fire for regeneration. Native Californian people historically used fire as a tool to promote the growth of desired plants.

In the early 1900s, however, those in charge came to what seemed to be a very logical decision: to protect our homes and forests from fire, we should put out all fires as quickly as possible. Although this policy was initially very successful, a century later we have flammable forests with heavy fuel loads, as well as densely packed trees that send large amounts of water into the air through their leaves rather than allowing it to flow downstream or remain underground to be used during droughts.

Large public land managers such as the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have lately been shifting away from the strategy of suppressing every single fire. Instead, lightning-ignited fires that are burning under acceptable conditions (not too windy, not too close to infrastructure, etc.) are allowed to burn and perform their natural functions of clearing fuels and thinning forests to sustainable tree densities. Prescribed fires and mechanical thinning are also used in situations where greater control is required to reduce risk.

Fire damage is seen from the air in the Coffey Park neighborhood on October 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, California
(Photo: ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

In this way, letting some fires burn today can prevent catastrophic fires from burning through dense fuel in the future. Preventing such catastrophic fires removes their threat to the water supply – as well as the potentially devastating human losses, as we saw from the Atlas, Tubbs, Nuns, and other fires this year. Increased streamflow, snowpack, and drought resistance in burned watersheds all add to this increased water security. The water benefits of more natural forests are receiving increased attention lately, with some companies even working to set up markets for downstream water users to pay for upstream forest care.

We cannot prevent all wildfires in California. However, by understanding their role in our natural systems and incorporating them into our land management, we can benefit from them.

Gabrielle Boisramé has a PhD in environmental engineering from U.C. Berkeley, where she studied the effects of wildfire on water balance in the Sierra Nevada with Prof. Sally Thompson. She continued this work as a post-doctoral scholar with Prof. Scott Stephens, also at U.C. Berkeley.

Further reading

Boisramé, Gabrielle, S. Thompson, B. Collins, and S. Stephens.  “Managed wildfire effects on forest resilience and water in the Sierra Nevada.”

Lundquist, J. D., S. E. Dickerson-Lange, J. A. Lutz, and N. C. Cristea. Lower forest density enhances snow retention in regions with warmer winters: A global framework developed from plot-scale observations and modeling.

Neary, D., K. C. Ryan, and L. F. DeBano. Wildland fire in ecosystems: Effects of fire on soil and water.

van Wagtendonk, J. W. The history and evolution of wildland fire use.

Posted in Planning and Management | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Duel Conveyance: Delta Tunnel Dilemmas

by Jay Lund

A new option has entered public discussion of Delta water supplies, having only one cross-Delta tunnel instead of two. The official State WaterFix proposal is for two tunnels (totaling 9,000 cfs capacity) under-crossing the Delta for 35 miles to allow up to 60% of Delta water exports to be directly from the Sacramento River for a variety of water supply, water quality, and Delta fish benefits.  Implementing such a major project requires extraordinary political and financial support.  For more than a decade, the group of Delta export water users involved in WaterFix has often lacked internal consensus on the project and its funding.  This is clear today, as cities and water user groups vote differently on WaterFix financing.  Apparent awkwardness of federal water contractor support for WaterFix and the recent Santa Clara Valley Water District vote have again raised the idea of a single smaller Delta tunnel.

In the mid-2000s a single Delta tunnel of 2,500 cfs was proposed to serve urban water agencies.  And in 2013, a group of environmental and urban agencies suggested a single 3,000 cfs tunnel combined with a portfolio of other actions, which was bruskly rejected by the state.  The WaterFix effort’s EIR in 2013 also included a single 3,000 cfs tunnel which was not recommended.  A Public Policy Institute of California op-ed last year suggested one tunnel as a promising alternative, as has a recent Los Angeles Times editorial.  Some suggestion is made that a single tunnel might make additional tunnels in the future easier, if needed.

California needs a viable Delta water supply strategy, given worsening endangered species conditions, the coming end of supplies from groundwater overdraft, sea level rise, continued land subsidence, and the Delta’s inherent structural fragility.  Any Delta water supply solution will be expensive and will need to be paid for.  Many regard the two tunnel proposal as too expensive for its benefits.  Here are some dilemmas for Delta conveyance capacity.

One 3-5,000 cfs tunnel is enough capacity to provide Bay Area and southern California cities with higher water supply reliability and better water quality.  This option has clear water supply and financial benefits for cities and reduces construction and other impacts within the Delta.  If the current state-led effort collapses, a consortium of urban agencies could conceivably embark on their own tunnel project, essentially a peripheral garden hose for urban users.

But one tunnel is not enough capacity to greatly improve water reliability and quality for agricultural water users in the southern Central Valley.  It is also not large enough to greatly reduce unnatural reverse river flows in the central and southern Delta that harm native fish unless accompanied by great reductions in agricultural water use in the southern Central Valley.

The coming end of groundwater overdraft under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act will likely lead to substantial land fallowing and increased agricultural pressure to maintain or expand Delta exports, commensurate with current attention to recharging aquifers with floodwaters.  Even if federal arrangements continue to disrupt CVP contractors’ ability to financially support WaterFix through the CVP, some more prosperous contractors and groundwater-dependent San Joaquin Valley farmers might see financial benefits from improved Delta export reliability as new State Water Project contractors, sub-contractors, or water or conveyance capacity purchasers.

Another aspect is that many Delta land owners depend on water project pumping from the southern Delta to bring fresher Sacramento River water to the central and southern Delta.  (The Delta has two major salinity sources, seawater to the west and drainage from the San Joaquin River.)  State subsidies for Delta levees are easier if the state has an interest in these levees for maintaining through-Delta water exports.  Larger tunnels could reduce outside water and financial subsidies for in-Delta water quality and levees.

Would solving Delta water supply problems for cities reduce their involvement in finding solutions for the environment, Central Valley agriculture, and Delta levees and make solving overall Delta problems harder?

The state needs effective Delta policies in three areas – water supply for urban, agricultural, and in-Delta users, environmental management for declining native species, and levee protection or retreat for subsided islands which are uneconomical for landowners.  These policies often interact for good and ill.  State agencies continue to work on these strategies fitfully, across many agencies and programs, with more focused attention than in past decades.  Levee conditions have been improving, but environmental and water supply conditions continue to deteriorate.

It is good to see middle ground alternatives come forward, but there will be no perfect solutions for the Delta’s problems.  Imperfections will be seen differently by different interests.  We remain largely in a game of chicken, where each interest refrains from public compromise (or maintains that it has already compromised enough) to avoid weakening its negotiating position.  But time is passing, and fish conditions worsen.  Sustained State leadership is needed to craft imperfect but workable solutions among conflicting interests.

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Further readings

BDCP (2010), “Analysis of Tunnel Sizing, BDCP Steering Committee, New Conveyance Sizing,” powerpoint presentation July 1, 2010, http://baydeltaconservationplan.com/Libraries/Dynamic_Document_Library_-_Archived/7_1_10_BDCP_Sizing_Presentation.sflb.ashx

CCWD (2008), Comment letter on ‘Notice of Intent (April 15, 2008) and Notice of Preparation (March 17, 2008) of the Environmental Impact Report/Environmental Impact Statement (EIR/EIS) for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP)’, May 30, 2008, Contra Costa Water District, CA.  http://www.ccwater.com/DocumentCenter/Home/View/1972

CCWD (2009), Comment letter on December 17,2008 Draft of ‘An Overview of the Draft Conservation Strategy for the Bay-Delta Conservation Plan’, July 2, 2009, Contra Costa Water District, CA. http://www.ccwater.com/DocumentCenter/Home/View/1976

Green, E., “Sorry, my fellow environmentalists, we have to build the delta tunnels,” Los Angeles Times, op-ed, 9 October 2017.

Lund, J., “Delta “chicken” – A tragedy, CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, 15 February 2011

Lund, J., E. Hanak, W. Fleenor, R. Howitt, J. Mount, and P. Moyle, Envisioning Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 300 pp., February 2007.

Lund, J., E. Hanak, W. Fleenor, W. Bennett, R. Howitt, J. Mount, and P. Moyle, Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, February 2010.

Moyle, P. and J. Hobbs, “California WaterFix and Delta Smelt,” CaliforniaWaterBlog.com, August 13, 2017

Nelson, T., H. Chou, P. Zikalala, J. Lund, R. Hui, and J. Medellin-Azuara, “Economic and Water Supply Effects of Ending Groundwater Overdraft in California’s Central Valley,” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, Volume 14, Issue 1, 2016.

NRDC, “Portfolio-Based Conceptual Alternative for the Bay-Delta, Overview,” Natural Resources Defense Council, January 16, 2013  https://www.nrdc.org/resources/portfolio-based-conceptual-alternative-bay-delta

Weisser, M. (2017), “Could a Simpler Delta Tunnel Solve Years of California Water Conflict?”, Water Deeply, 31 October 2017.

Posted in California Water, Delta, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta | 1 Comment

Moving Salmon over Dams with Two-Way Trap and Haul

by Peter Moyle and Robert Lusardi

Image source: Fisheries 42(9)

Removing Shasta Dam is the single best action we can take to save California’s wild salmon.  Not possible, you say?

Then there are two alternatives.

One is to provide plenty of cold water and diverse, highly managed habitat below dams. The other is to transport fish to now-inaccessible habitat above dams.

(A third option might be improved management of hatcheries; however, to avoid the pitfalls of domestication that come with hatchery production, our focus is on wild, naturally spawning fish.)

The focus of management today involves regulating dam releases to manage flow and temperature, as well as creating new habitat for spawning and rearing, such as floodplains.  Central Valley salmon are so far not doing well under this option.

The second option is being proposed by fisheries agencies (mainly NMFS), moving fish above the dams. Seventy percent of all salmon habitat is now above impassible dams.  Given that it is nearly impossible to construct fish ladders over California’s large dams, current management proposals involve what we call “two-way trap and haul”.

Basically, adult fish are trapped below dams, then trucked and released in rivers above dams.  If the transported fish spawn successfully, juveniles are then trapped as they move downstream to lower sections of river or into a reservoir.  After trapping, juveniles are trucked for release below dams, allowing them to migrate to sea.

Sound good?  Well, there are some problems to overcome.

First, many adult fish die after being transported, due to stress and other factors. This issue has largely been resolved, however, and there are many success stories of transporting adult salmon over barriers.

Second, habitat conditions above dams are different from historical conditions. In California, most of these upstream rivers have been without salmon, and the influx of ocean nutrients they provide, for 60-70 years.  Besides water quality, other changes to upstream habitat can include stream flow, temperature, channel morphology, and  potentially competing resident fishes (including introduced species such as brown trout).

Third is the difficulty of capturing out-migrating juveniles before they reach the reservoir. Juvenile traps must work under a wide range of reservoir surface elevations and during sudden high flow events, when most juveniles move downstream.  Juvenile capture is among the most difficult hurdles to overcome and capture rates are low. The current favored proposal for the McCloud River is a trap at the mouth of the McCloud River.  To keep the water cool enough for salmon, a temperature curtain is proposed, based on modeling, which will prevent cool water from sinking until it is past the collector.

Fourth is the problem of releasing captured juvenile salmon after transport and expecting them to survive in the river after the stress of capture and transport.  These fish also must face all the below-dam problems that non-transported fish face during outmigration, including passage through the Delta, degraded water quality, and predation.

Overcoming these problems is essential to making two-way trap and haul work.  NMFS proposes this technique to establish above-dam populations of Central Valley steelhead, spring-run Chinook salmon, and winter-run Chinook salmon, all listed under state and federal endangered species acts (ESAs).

Steelhead should not be included in this list because they do not need the protection of the ESAs for complex reasons.  Also, most reservoirs support steelhead-like rainbow trout that live in the reservoirs and migrate up tributaries to spawn, likely making it more difficult for introduced steelhead to establish.  Some reservoirs also have land-locked populations of Chinook salmon.

Spring-run and winter-run Chinook need additional protection at all life history stages, including the need to have multiple populations across the landscape. Thus, two-way trap and haul seems to have potential to aid that aspect of recovery.  The requirements of the two runs are somewhat different, so we focus on winter-run Chinook salmon because it is also the main focus of NMFS efforts.

The urgency of developing new approaches for winter-run conservation increased during the 2012-2015 drought, when low flows, combined with mismanagement of the coldwater pool in Shasta Reservoir, resulted in the near-extirpation of naturally spawned fish in the Sacramento River.  The run was saved mainly by a hatchery program at the Livingston Stone facility below Shasta Dam.

Of all the Chinook salmon runs in California, Sacramento winter-run is the most distinctive by genetics and habitat requirements.  Here is a salmon that lives at the southern end of the range of the species, yet it incubates its eggs, the most temperature-sensitive life stage, during the hot days of summer. Originally, it accomplished this amazing feat by spawning in the McCloud River. Historically, the McCloud was a good-sized, cascading river, fed by giant cold-water (7-8°C) springs  all year around. Winter-run spawned in the McCloud so their young would hatch during late summer when there would be little competition from the young from other salmon runs.  Eventually they would migrate downstream to the productive Pit River, which in turn flowed into the Sacramento River.  Small juveniles likely reached the Sacramento Valley in time to catch the annual flooding of riparian lands and forests, where food and cover were abundant so fish could grow fast and fat.  As floods receded, winter-run moved off the floodplains, down the river, and out to sea.

Of course, winter-run Chinook were not alone. The McCloud River in the 19th Century was regarded as the most productive salmon stream in California and was the site of the first fish hatchery in the state.   All four runs of Chinook salmon spawned there, as did steelhead.  There was almost a continuous influx of spawners, with juveniles of many ages and sizes rearing and then moving out as conditions permitted.  One indication of the unique nature of the McCloud is that it was the only river (as far as we know) to support bull trout, a cold-water loving trout that preyed upon abundant juvenile salmon.  It is now extirpated from the river and the state.

The McCloud River, July 2014 (Photo credit: Peter Moyle)

But the historic McCloud River is no more.  Over 80% of the cold spring water flowing into McCloud Reservoir is diverted for hydropower production, making the river below the dam smaller and the water somewhat warmer. Below-dam tributaries increase flows in the main river and create a more natural river flow regime, including flood events.  Shasta Reservoir covers the lowest and presumably once-most productive reaches.  The Pit River is a staircase of hydropower dams.  Winter-run Chinook have survived by establishing a population in non-historical habitat immediately below Shasta Dam, where cold water releases from the reservoir are managed for their continued existence.

Today, winter-run Chinook depend on these flows and on gravel dumped in the river below Keswick Dam and Red Bluff to improve spawning. As a backup, a few are reared through their entire life cycle at the Livingston Stone Hatchery at the base of the dam; the hatchery has chillers to keep the water cold.

Winter run Chinook are in a desperate situation; they are on the brink of extinction, especially as wild fish.   Hence, they are NMFS’ prime candidates for two-way trap and haul, between the Sacramento and McCloud rivers. Presumably, the operation will be conducted initially as an experiment, to see if a back-up population can be established that can persist through years of severe drought.  This will not be easy.

Here are a few of the problems that must be dealt with in tandem:

  • The McCloud of today is a smaller, shorter river than the original river and it has not been fertilized by salmon for 70 years.
  • The McCloud River supports substantial populations of potentially competing rainbow and brown trout.
  • Capture of out-migrating juveniles will require a trap in or just above the reservoir that can work during rapid reservoir fluctuations and during all flows, including high flows.
  • The release program for captured juveniles must result in survival rates as high or higher than naturally spawned fish in the Sacramento River.
  • The trap and haul program should not take funds and effort away from improving habitats for rearing and migration in the Sacramento River corridor.

Despite these problems, it is likely that a two-way trap and haul program for winter-run Chinook salmon will be established soon.   A pilot study is a top priority action for NMFS in California. We recommend that such a program not be tried on other runs of salmon until it can be demonstrated that the winter-run Chinook program works successfully.  Success should be clearly defined and measured against objective and quantifiable pre-determined criteria.   Ultimately, the recovery of winter run Chinook, and other fishes, will depend on improved/expanded riverine and floodplain habitats, such as proposed in the salmon resiliency strategy of the California Natural Resources Agency.  The alternative is either extinction or maintaining winter-run Chinook salmon as a domesticated oddity.

Peter B. Moyle is a UC Davis Professor Emeritus of fish biology and an associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. Robert A. Lusardi is a researcher at the Center for Watershed Sciences and is the CaliforniaTrout-UC Davis Wild and Coldwater Fish Scientist.

Further reading

Lusardi, R. A and P. B. Moyle 2017. Two-way trap and haul as a conservation strategy for anadromous salmonids.

Baumsteiger, J. and P.B. Moyle 2017. Assessing extinction.

California Natural Resources Agency. 2017.  Sacramento Valley Salmon Resiliency Strategy, June 2017.

Clancey, K., L. Saito, K. Hellmann, C. Svoboda, J. Hannon and R. Beckwith 2017. Evaluating head-of-reservoir water temperature for juvenile Chinook salmon and Steelhead at Shasta Lake with modeled temperature curtains.

Moyle, P., R. Lusardi, P. Samuel, and J. Katz. 2017. State of the Salmonids: Status of California’s Emblematic Fishes 2017.

Opperman, J.J, P.B. Moyle, E.W. Larsen, J.L. Florsheim, and A.D. Manfree. 2017 Floodplains: Processes, Ecosystems, and Services in Temperate Regions.

Perales, K.M., J. Rowan, and P.B. Moyle. 2015. Evidence of landlocked Chinook Salmon populations in California.

Posted in Conservation, Fish, Planning and Management, Salmon, Stressors, Sustainability | Tagged , | 9 Comments

The Spawning Dead: Why Zombie Fish are the Anti-Apocalypse

by Mollie Ogaz

The undead, honing back to its natal stream. (Photo credit: Ken Davis)


Imagine you are on the bank of a river or stream in California’s Central Valley. It is just past sunset, leaves rustle overhead, and you feel a tingling along your spine. Suddenly a zombie fish leaps past you, patches of decomposed flesh visible as it streaks by. It’s a thing of nightmares; just a figment of the imagination brought on by the spooky atmosphere, right?


It is a Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.), making its upstream migration to natal spawning grounds. This arduous journey to reach the stream in which they were born is attempted by each Pacific salmon that manages to survive to adulthood in the ocean. Only 1 in 2,000 will complete this journey. Unlike their Atlantic relatives, Pacific salmon are semelparous, meaning they reproduce only once in their lifetime, so the stakes of failure are high.

These spawning dead remind us about the unlikely success of this species, and why dwindling populations recover over decades, not single seasons. By understanding the challenges these fish face throughout their life cycle, we can appreciate how our natural resource management decisions are really about laying the groundwork for future generations, rather than enacting short-term fixes for ourselves.

The life cycle of a Pacific salmon begins and ends in the same freshwater stream – if everything goes well. Fertilized eggs buried in the gravel hatch into alevin, which derive energy from the attached yolk sac as they gain strength. After leaving the gravel, the small salmon, called fry, rise to the water’s surface to fill their swim bladders and begin to feed.

Depending on the species, fry can spend anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years in freshwater. As they approach the ocean, juvenile salmon undergo smoltification, a physiological transformation that allows them to live in saltwater, where they spend the majority of their lives feeding in the highly productive marine environment. Entering the ocean marks the end of the first major migration Pacific salmon make in their lifetime, one they will have to complete in reverse in order to reproduce.

Life cycle of Pacific salmon.

Lucky adults that have managed to avoid anglers, disease, predators, and many other dangers make their way back toward their natal stream, initiated by cues that are poorly understood, but likely have to do with reproductive maturation and environmental changes. Once a salmon reaches freshwater, it stops feeding entirely and relies on energy stores accumulated during years in the ocean to support its homeward migration. This natal homing, or ability to navigate upstream to the very waters in which they were born, is one of the most amazing feats in the animal kingdom. To do this, young salmon imprint on the unique smells of their natal stream, which they use as a sort of map to successfully navigate their return.

Here is when things get spooky. Since the salmon have stopped feeding and are putting all of their energy into reaching their spawning grounds and subsequent reproduction, their bodies begin to shut down. The normal energy balance that is kept between growth, survival, reproduction, and body maintenance shifts to solely focus on reproduction. It’s spawn or bust for these salmon; there are no second chances.

The decrepit carcass of an adult salmon. (Photo credit: Ken Davis)

Robust, silvery fish turn into living zombies, flesh decomposing and falling off their battered bodies as they struggle against the current and over obstacles toward spawning grounds. The journey is long and tough, but ultimately worth it if they successfully reproduce.

Upon reaching their natal streams, females build a redd, or nest, in the gravel where they deposit their eggs that are then fertilized by competing males. Shortly thereafter the adults die, although females may guard the nest for a week or two first. The carcasses become a source of nutrients for the aquatic and riparian communities of the stream, including the offspring that will soon hatch. It is a rare cycling of nutrients from the marine environment to freshwater streams, and only possible due to the salmon’s anadromous lifestyle.


Video shows Chinook salmon spawning in Lower Putah Creek, Yolo County, in fall 2014. No sooner does a female lay her eggs than she is flanked by two males, mouths agape as they release clouds of sperm. The female attempts to bury her eggs as several rainbow trout attempt to eat them. Poor girl even hits her head on a rock while covering the eggs. Video by Ken Davis/Wildlife Survey & Photo Service

This Halloween you can add a spooky stop to your list and head to Putah Creek in Winters to see some zombie fish for yourself, where record numbers of spawning Chinook salmon have been observed over the last few years. Last fall there were an estimated 1,000 to 1,600 spawners, a truly remarkable number for a creek that had a high of about 70 returned salmon a little over a decade ago! This rebound shows that changes in management with long-term vision can succeed in returning salmon to local streams. Next up: achieving major management changes in larger, dammed rivers with high political controversy.

Mollie Ogaz is an assistant specialist at the Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further reading

Alvarez, F. 2016. “Record numbers of salmon are spawning in Putah Creek”. The Davis Enterprise. December 28, 2016

California Trout. 2017. “SOS II: Fish in Hot Water”

Cooke S.J., Crossin G.T., and Hinch S.G. (2011) Pacific Salmon Migration: Completing the Cycle. In: Farrell A.P., (ed.), Encyclopedia of Fish Physiology: From Genome to Environment, volume 3, pp. 1945–1952. San Diego: Academic Press.

Moyle, P.B. 2015. “Salmon finding a home in my backyard – Could it be?”. California WaterBlog. March 11, 2015

Tilcock, M. 2016. “The Horror of a Salmon’s Wheel of Misfortune”. California WaterBlog. Oct. 30, 2016

Posted in Biology, Fish, Halloween, Salmon, Wild and Wacky | Tagged | 1 Comment

Facing Rollbacks, California Must Protect Drinking Water, Wetlands

by Richard Frank

This article originally appeared on Water Deeply. You can find the original here.

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Californians strongly support action by state and federal agencies to ensure that the water in our streams and the water we drink are free of dangerous contaminants, and that our precious wetlands are preserved. Unfortunately, the Trump administration and Congress propose to weaken federal Clean Water Act protections for those essential resources.

But California regulatory agencies needn’t and shouldn’t wait for this federal rollback. They should instead take action proactively to use state law to ensure clean water and wetlands protections for all Californians.

The target of this rollback is a long-contested rule called the Clean Water Rule, also known as the “Waters of the U.S.” rule. The rule was adopted by the Obama administration in 2015, an overdue response to a pair of Supreme Court rulings in 2001 and 2006 that created a great deal of uncertainty about just what waters the Clean Water Act actually protects.

The Clean Water Rule is critical, as it specifies what waters are protected by the federal Clean Water Act. If federal agencies find that a particular wetland or stream is covered by the law, then stringent federal protections kick in to ensure that streams and wetlands remain clean, that fish and wildlife are protected and that our drinking water supplies aren’t tainted. But if federal agencies find that a particular wetland or stream isn’t protected under the Clean Water Act, then those federal protections don’t apply.

For California, there’s a great deal at stake. In the water-rich eastern U.S., defining a wetland or a stream is relatively easy. Where the rains fall year-round, wetlands are almost always wet. That’s not true in California, where our Mediterranean climate means that some of our wetlands and streams regularly go half a year or more without rainfall.

California’s seasonal streams and wetlands, however, are still critically important. For example, that seasonal rainfall pattern is one reason why millions of waterbirds migrate north from Central Valley and Bay Area wetlands. Over millennia, these and many other species have adapted to the seasonal nature of our wetlands.

Additionally, if industrial operations are allowed to dump into wetlands and streams that may be dry for the summer months, then contaminants will simply flow downstream when the rains return.

Finally, filling seasonal wetlands means more than contaminated water supplies and lost wildlife habitat. California wetlands absorb flood waters during extreme rain and coastal flooding events. We need look no farther than Houston to see the folly of developing our wetlands. Federal Clean Water Act requirements that encourage development elsewhere can help protect lives by keeping development out of flood-prone wetlands.

If the federal Clean Water Rule rollback isn’t stopped, the wildlife, water supply and flood-control benefits from thousands of acres of California wetlands and thousands of miles of California streams could be in jeopardy.

Fortunately, California has a strong set of tools to step in and protect wetlands and streams. The California legislature passed the Porter-Cologne Act in 1969, giving the State Water Resources Control Board broad authority to protect the “waters of the state.” No less important, the current State Water Resources Control Board, with members appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown, is the most far-sighted and competent board in four decades. Our state laws and agencies must respond to the federal challenge and act in the face of pending federal Clean Water Act rollbacks.

As a first step, the state should adopt its own wetlands definition and more clearly develop protections under state law. The board recently released a draft wetland policy that it plans to finalize before the end of the year. It’s a reasonable draft that can and should be strengthened. For example, the board should clarify that all applicants will be required to study alternatives to ensure that they avoid filling existing wetlands whenever possible.

The board should also clearly state that developers who fill wetlands will be required to restore at least one acre of habitat for each acre lost. After all, California has already lost more than 90 percent of our wetlands – which led former Gov. Pete Wilson to adopt a “no-net-loss” of wetlands policy in 1993. Clearly, two key steps to achieving this policy are ensuring that we avoid filling wetlands wherever we can and that wetlands that are filled are fully offset.

California has the ability to respond promptly to the looming threats to the federal clean water program. The Golden State has strong environmental protection laws and strong institutions charged with implementing them. The debate over protections for wetlands and streams is an important milestone. The State Water Board’s overdue efforts to adopt a strong wetlands policy will be among the first tests of California’s ability to stand up to the grave assault on the environment and public health taking place in our nation’s capital.

The board has been working on this “wetland policy” for over a decade, in response to the same Supreme Court rulings that led to the federal Clean Water Rule. However, now that federal protections are threatened, the board should feel a new urgency to act.

This article originally appeared on Water Deeply. You can find the original here. For important news about water issues and the American West, you can sign up to the Water Deeply email listThe views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

Richard Frank is is professor of environmental practice at the University of California, Davis School of Law, where he also directs the law school’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center, and is an affiliate of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Previously, Frank served as an attorney with the California Department of Justice, most recently as the department’s chief deputy for legal affairs.

Posted in California Water, Drinking water, Water Supply and Wastewater | Tagged | Leave a comment

Meet Dr. Andrew Rypel, our new fish squeezer

Andrew, 5 years old, with a bass.

This year, we have the pleasure of welcoming Dr. Andrew Rypel to UC Davis and the Center for Watershed Sciences to his appointment as the new Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Endowed Chair in Coldwater Fishes. Dr. Rypel shares some of this thoughts about fish, science, and his new position:

1. How does it feel to be the new Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Endowed Chair in Coldwater Fishes?

Incredible and unbelievable – a great stroke of fortune – the opportunity of lifetime! What else can one say? When I first started out in fish science, my primary goal was to just have a cool job where I got to work with fishes. Over time, that has evolved; for example, I have developed other aspirations and interests, like using science to move the needle on conservation issues that matter. However, to have reached a point and be honored like this…wow.

It feels especially surreal to follow in the footsteps of Peter Moyle. As I have gotten to know Peter over the last year, it’s clear we share much in common. We’re both Midwesterners! We also see eye-to-eye on many of the fish conservation issues of today and the type of thinking that will be required to come up with solutions that work for fishes – and people. I’m really looking forward to collaborating with Peter and his many former students in the coming years.

Another draw to this opportunity for me was the potential to partner with a dynamic and forward-thinking organization like CalTrout. Working with people and organizations that are passionate, organized, and driven by science – that is what has always been needed to do conservation science right, but increasingly so as global environmental change effects take further grip on our fishes and ecosystems. It is telling that the slogan for CalTrout is “Fish-Water-People,” which is similar to what you see in any Fisheries Management textbook describing a proper fisheries management system – the interaction of fish, habitat and people. CalTrout is full of dedicated folks that have staked much to make my position available in its current form. I recognize this and am energized and inspired by it.

Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Collectively, we are poised to do some special things in the coming years, and I am thrilled to be a part of that science and the partnerships that will support that!

2. What are you looking forward to most in this new position?

A few things. Number one on the list is teaching and mentoring students. Over the past several years the importance of leaving a legacy for future generations has crystallized for me. That legacy can be physical, like healthy and resilient fish populations, but it can also be values-based. It is hard to conserve something if people don’t care about it.

Teaching and mentoring students on the diversity and mysteries of fishes is something I am already relishing – fish biology class here at UCD is already in full swing! The moments when a student first holds or touches a fish, perhaps one they might have never held or touched before, is special. I’ve seen it change people – I really have! And it doesn’t even have to be with fish, although I would prefer that. Connecting with salamanders, ducks, plants, even insects can be transformative for people. It’s a particularly special experience though when that experience (E.O. Wilson might refer to it as biophilia) dovetails together with the scientific method and the collection of data towards some larger question or public good.

Andrew Rypel, and the results of a day “sampling.”

There are nerdy fish things I am looking forward to working on in California. Places to study others have not, or not much. Interesting things to think about, new species to work with. California is like no other place I have been, and the fishes, freshwater fauna, and environmental issues are unlike every other place I have worked. It appears to be a place ripe for those with a creative approach to science and conservation, and I am excited to join the conversation and start conducting science. The Center for Watershed Sciences is emblematic of this type of interdisciplinary approach – a place where scientists of disparate interests and backgrounds can gather to collaborate collectively on problems that matter.

Finally, I am excited to work with various agency partners and CalTrout on applied conservation issues. What most people find surprising about successful conservation and natural resource management work is that it often involves a heavy dose of working with people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most scientists are not trained to actually work with people. This is unfortunate because so many of the potential solutions to the environmental problems that plague us are fundamentally people problems as they are linked to policy and governance structures.

I am a firm believer that scientists do need to escape the “ivory tower.” There was a hashtag going around on Twitter recently (#actuallivingscientist) that I found to be a rather sad and ironic commentary. As in “nobody knows an actual living scientist.” And as much as I hate to admit this, this is probably our fault. As human beings, we naturally gravitate to and align ourselves with people similar to us, which only reinforces group-think and confirmation bias. Gathering, harvesting and adapting new and different ideas is what is most exciting to me. And these ideas can come from anywhere, including from people you might not agree with on every single issue. I of course have many ideas and experiences from my past work that I am excited to share. Yet I am also anxious to learn more about the ideas of others, perhaps especially those of non-scientists. It’s more fun to meet, interact and work with a diversity of people anyways!

3. What will this position allow you to do that you weren’t able to do before?

I’ll focus on one particularly important thing that came with this job for me. Tenure. Some people don’t realize, but tenure is under attack in the US. In some ways, this is understandable as in other job sectors, job security is not the norm. However, erosion in tenure protections is unfortunate for science. It is one of the basic protections for academics in pursuing truth, as we are mandated to do, e.g., via the scientific method. It also frees up scientists to pursue ideas that might challenge the status quo or otherwise be unprofitable.

I have the hard-won experience now to have worked in places where scientists were not afforded such protections, and it fundamentally changes the way scientists behave and work. Researchers quickly learn the consequences when they produce data or research that is at odds with those in power. The effect is large and chilling. I am grateful for having received tenure at UC Davis, and hope to use it. Not to intentionally “rock the boat” or go after controversial ideas, but to do science – real science that we think is important. That science can be risky, can have economic implications but not necessarily, and to do it with students within the support system or tenure – that is huge.

I am increasingly convinced tenure is an essential element to a free and democratic society. People might be surprised, but without tenure protections, ideas and data that challenge and diversify our thinking and that of our students are lost, and we can often behave like scared sheep.

3. What will you research and how will it benefit the world?

Honest answer: I don’t know. I have so many ideas and topics I am personally interested in, but I also want to do research that connects with people and has the potential to move the needle on priority conservation issues. So…I am all ears! Once I finish teaching this fall, I would like to get in a car and drive around the state – learn the people and what the priority and consensus science needs might be. It is a big state and there are so many people to meet, agencies and non-profits to engage, fishes to see! All this is to say – if you have an idea or would like to work with me, or have an idea, come find me, I would love to hear your ideas and find ways to align my research here with things people care about!

4. What sparked your interest in research or science in general?

Andrew and his father, after a good day.

Well, I am one of those people that grew up fishing. I got it from my Dad, who started taking us at a very young age. I was raised in Wisconsin and would spend summers exploring every inch of the lakes, rivers, streams and wetlands in Wisconsin (mostly northwestern WI). Anything me and my Dad could wedge a canoe or a pair of waders into. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to work with fishes, I just never thought it would be possible.

When I was in college, I majored in the closest thing I could find to something involving fishes – Environmental Science. However, I had never really “done” science. It wasn’t until I was 23 or so and finishing up my MS at Auburn University that I figured out I might have a talent at science. My MS project was related to studying sexual differences in PCB pollution in fishes from a reservoir. On the side though, I wound up getting interested in the ecology of freshwater drum (Aplodinotus grunniens).

Drum (or Sheepshead as they are sometimes called) are a curious and intriguing species – they have the largest latitudinal range of any freshwater species in North America. And individuals can be ultra long-lived (>70 years old!). They occur in both lakes and rivers, and in some of the larger rivers, can dominate fish biomass. Nobody was doing on work on them, and I found that odd.

I wound up writing a small grant to do a statewide survey of some of freshwater drum populations in Alabama, and I got the funding. It was exhilarating to get funding and really go after a science idea, travel all over the state to do the field work, do the lab science and stats and then write and publish a series of papers on it. That was it – I was hooked – and it was clear to me that I loved science (and fish) and had a talent at it. The rest is history!

5. What is an interesting fact about yourself or something you want people to know about you?

I play guitar and have played in several bands, and solo. I have a recorded version of Amazing Grace that is archived in the Library of Congress. Before the freshwater drum project hit, I was seriously considering moving from Auburn to Nashville to be a singer – songwriter. Good thing science worked out! I still love to play – only now mostly for our two young boys.

I do believe though that science has a creativity component. There is a good book called Thinking Fast and Slow that makes a solid brain science case for this – our minds are sharpened by using both the slow (science and reasoning are slow processes) and fast (creative) parts. There is also a case for the SciArt movement in there. People can’t do science all the time, the brain isn’t built like that. Art, music and other creative endeavors are a chance to use the other parts of our brain, and that probably enhances our overall ability to think. It’s also a chance to connect with our parallel scholars of the humanities with whom we rarely interact.

Andrew Rypel is a fish biologist and holds the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Endowed Chair in Coldwater Fishes at the University of California, Davis. He is also an affiliate of the Center for Watershed Sciences.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 3 Comments

Accounting for groundwater movement between subbasins under SGMA

by Christina Buck, Jim Blanke, Reza Namvar, and Thomas Harter

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) presents many new challenges and opportunities.  One challenge is accounting for ‘interbasin flow,’ or subsurface groundwater movement between subbasins, a piece of the overall water budget required in Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs).

Interbasin flow as part of the groundwater budget.

The Department of Water Resources is tasked with evaluating whether groundwater management in one subbasin will undermine an adjacent subbasin’s ability to reach sustainability.  Recognizing that subbasins throughout the Central Valley are interconnected, it’s much better to address this technical and management challenge up front rather than have each subbasin individually submit their GSP and hope for the best.

To tackle this issue, the Water Foundation funded a project administered by Butte County Department of Water and Resource Conservation that gathered a group of Technical Collaborators (TC) to discuss and provide recommendations on quantification of interbasin flow in GSPs.  Since interbasin flows cannot be measured directly, the project reviewed available groundwater models to investigate how they may or may not be suitable in estimating interbasin flows within the northern Sacramento Valley.

Technical collaborators providing recommendations and report content.

Groundwater models will be a part of our future

The complexity of processes affecting interbasin groundwater flows make groundwater models effective and typically necessary tools for quantifying these flows. SGMA does not legally require the use of a groundwater model. Yet, successfully avoiding the six Undesirable Results defined by SGMA will require accounting for a complete surface water and groundwater budget. Models also enable GSAs to estimate the effects of groundwater management practices that affect the water budget (e.g., decreased pumping or increased recharge) on groundwater conditions over time. Models will be key to leveraging diverse local data sets and knowledge into a consistent science-based framework to guide groundwater management.  Models that can evolve with the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) process are key to efficient and informed adaptive management, to guide monitoring and to inform practice decisions, and as a learning tool for stakeholders.

Existing tools and model selection

The northern Sacramento Valley area is covered by three regional models including two Central Valley-wide models: 1) C2VSim developed by the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and 2) CVHM developed by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).  These models are both undergoing significant updates.  Another regional, Sacramento Valley-wide model is currently being developed by DWR called SVSim.  In addition, local groundwater models also exist (e.g., Butte Basin Groundwater Model).  None of the existing regional or local groundwater models were specifically developed for SGMA.

Although the regional models are a valuable starting point and are based on a shared physical understanding of groundwater flow, they differ in their representation of aquifer geology and in their approach to simulating hydrological processes (“boundary conditions”) that drive groundwater flow and storage.  They also contain inputs developed from different data sources. These differences partly stem from the diversity of objectives for which these models were originally created, but also from conceptual and data uncertainty about appropriately representing, for example, pumping, agricultural recharge, or stream-groundwater interaction, among others.  The three models therefore yield somewhat different water budgets and differing results in simulating groundwater level conditions.

Given these differences, agencies should consider the following question when considering which groundwater model to use for GSP development: How well does the model match my current understanding of the land surface layer and groundwater budgets in my area? This question can be answered by considering the quality and amount of data, supply and demand, boundary conditions, water budget results, and calibration.

The Technical Collaborators concluded there is not an obvious choice of one of the regional models for the northern Sacramento Valley.  Therefore, each subbasin should compare the model inputs and results to locally available historical data, if possible. An existing surface layer model or other water budget datasets should be used only to assist in selecting the appropriate groundwater model. It is not appropriate to mix output from the groundwater model with other local water budget sources. Groundwater model results should be presented in full to keep the results internally consistent. In addition, simulated groundwater elevations near the boundaries have the most effect on quantifying interbasin groundwater flows. Therefore, evaluating a model’s representation of groundwater levels in comparison to historical data is important, particularly in the areas along subbasin boundaries.

Cooperation and uncertainty

The most critical factor to address interbasin conditions will not come from a pure technical remedy, but rather from cooperation. Early cooperation with neighboring subbasins to compare interbasin flow estimates is important. Although the exact values may be different, the estimated interbasin flow magnitude and direction should be similar. Differences should  be expected and – if the models are well constructed – reflect our uncertainty in the modeled systems.  Differences in model outcomes need not disrupt progress on sustainable groundwater management and may help guide both, monitoring efforts, and management decisions.  Modeling the groundwater system and working towards sustainability is an iterative process and agencies should utilize adaptive management practices.  The uncertainty inherent in models needs to be anticipated and accounted for when making decisions based on their results.  Estimates and representation of the system in models will improve over time with a long term investment in these tools.

Final report available

The final report includes recommendations for the northern Sacramento Valley region, for GSAs statewide, and for DWR and USGS who are developing and maintaining the regional models.  For more background and details on the outcomes and recommendations of the Technical Collaborators, the final report is available from the project website: https://www.buttecounty.net/waterresourceconservation/SpecialProjects/InterbasinGroundwaterFlowProject.

The project was made possible through the generous support of the Water Foundation, an initiative of the Resources Legacy Fund.   

Christina Buck is the Water Resources Scientist for Butte County Department of Water and Resources Conservation.  Jim Blanke is a Senior Hydrogeologist at RMC, A Woodard & Curran Company.  Reza Namvar is a Senior Water Resources Engineer at RMC, A Woodard & Curran Company.  Thomas Harter is a groundwater expert at the University of California, Davis and an Associate Director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Posted in California Water, Groundwater, Planning and Management, Sustainability | Tagged | 3 Comments

20 Years Ago a Pretty Good Idea: The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

by Jeffrey Mount

Our beloved home.

The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences turns 20 years old this month.  I am the first Director of the Center.  The current Director — Jay Lund — asked me to write an  account of the origins of the Center, including some reflection on any key lessons.

The Center was and remains an academic start-up.  Although the administration at the time was supportive, the intellectual venture capital to get it going came from the faculty. And it was really a handful of faculty, staff and students that made this program work.

In the late 1990’s, institutions around the country were coming to grips with consequences of the traditional research university structure.  Built around narrowly-defined, discipline-based colleges and departments, the 20th century university had made great strides in research and education.  But increasing specialization, while important for advancing basic understanding, was not up to the task of addressing society’s big challenges.  Solutions to complex, large-scale problems lie at the boundaries of disciplines.  This is especially pertinent to the many economic, social and environmental dimensions of managing water.

From left: Jay Lund, Peter Moyle, and Jeffrey Mount.

The Center came about when Peter Moyle and I – a fish biologist and a geologist – began comparing ideas and understandings of the effects of seasonal inundation on a local floodplain.  From this early partnership, the concept of the Center was born.  It was to be an academic home for water management problem solving — not fundamental research — that relied on collaboration between faculty and students from diverse fields. It was to be a bridge between academic silos and, most important, it was to be useful to California.

From this effort — and a lot of trial and error — we learned a few key lessons.

Timing is everything.  We got this Center going in fall of 1998. In the previous year, California had the great Central Valley flood, which followed the 1987-92 drought, one of the most punishing in state history.  There was unprecedented attention to solving the problems of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta at all levels of government. The Packard Foundation, which was interested in fostering science in support of environmental decision-making, provided Center start-up funds.  The CALFED Bay-Delta Program provided early research funding, and helped to institutionalize the science/policy feedback loop that has become a hallmark of the Center.

Good ideas are of little value if they don’t have champions.  Inertia is a powerful force in institutions as large and complex as UC Davis.  The only way to overcome this—and to promote new approaches and ideas—is to have dedicated champions willing to take risks for you.  Beyond the faculty members involved in the enterprise, there were key individuals on and off campus who went to bat for us.  This included folks like Bob Floccini, Director of the John Muir Institute for the Environment, Bob Grey and Virginia Hinshaw, Provosts who saw the value of this work, and deans like Peter Rock who embraced the approach.  Off campus champions were people like Michael Mantell of Resources Legacy Fund who—representing the Packard Foundation—gave the Center its first large grant, and Mike Eaton of The Nature Conservancy who invited us down to the Cosumnes River Preserve to conduct experiments on their floodplain.

Leverage good ideas with good people.  No matter how good the idea, if it is not staffed by outstanding people, it will not succeed.  The Center, during its early start up years, attracted a lot of people to work in it.  But we discovered early on that multi-disciplinary centers are not a good fit for everyone.  Whether faculty, research staff or students, the five key ingredients for successful Center collaborators were:

  • the ability to play well with others (the most important!)
  • a genuine interest in learning from each other
  • commitment to spending resources on growing the common enterprise, rather than financing one’s own projects
  • a desire to make a tangible difference, rather than to just publish papers
  • a sense of humor, preferably self-deprecating

    The original Watershed Lab, Crab Louie, and our guru for the five traits of a successful collaborator.

Individuals with these five attributes prospered in the early years of the Center.  Indeed, one of the  most productive collaborations that I was involved in included Peter Moyle (fish biology), Jay Lund (engineering), Richard Howitt (agricultural economics) and eventually Ellen Hanak  (economics – from the Public Policy Institute of California).  This also applied to many of the early student founders, like Carson Jeffres, Wendy Trowbridge, Kaylene Keller, Josh Viers, and  staff people like Cheryl Smith, Ellen Mantalica and Diana Cummings, who wanted to see the Center thrive as much as any of the principals did.

Good ideas need a good home.   A physical home creates identity, both for those working in the Center and for those who work with the Center.  And identity—or branding as it is called today—is key to success.  A physical home also makes it easier for people to collaborate and to administer the enterprise.  Lucky for us, two off-campus champions—Senator Mike Machado and Jerry Meral (then of the Planning and Conservation League)—saw this need, and collaborated to place funding for the Watershed Sciences Building in a successful 2000 bond bill.

Building the Watershed Center from scratch involved taking a timely good idea, cultivating champions, attracting good colleagues and giving it a good home.  For all involved, it was a challenge to put it together, but it was also a lot of fun.  I am gratified to see that 20 years later, and under Jay Lund’s able stewardship, it is still going strong.  Happy 20th anniversary, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Jeffrey Mount is a senior fellow at the PPIC Water Policy Center. He is an emeritus professor at UC Davis in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and founding director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 2 Comments

Evolutionary genomics informs salmon conservation

by Tasha Thompson, Michael Miller, Daniel Prince and Sean O’Rourke

Adult spring Chinook salmon, Salmon River, California (Photo credit: Peter Bohler)

Spring Chinook and summer steelhead (premature migrators) have been extirpated or are in decline across most of their range while fall Chinook and winter steelhead populations (mature migrators) remain relatively healthy. Because premature migrating fish are closely related to mature migrating fish within the same river, conservation policy typically lumps them into the same conservation unit. Thus, spring Chinook and summer steelhead, in most situations, don’t receive special conservation protections despite sharp declines.

In our recently published study, we show that incredibly important genetic adaptations can rely on rare evolutionary events in single genes, and that current conservation policies can fail to protect this type of adaptive variation. Most current policies protect genetic adaptations between distantly related population units, but they don’t necessarily protect adaptations within closely related population units, and the consequences of that can be substantial: in the case of Chinook and steelhead, the consequences could be the permanent loss of an economically, culturally, and ecologically important life history. To account for this type of adaptive variation, current conservation policies will likely need to be improved.

Chinook salmon ‘holding’ and circling before heading upstream to spawn (Photo credit: Jan Jaap Dekker)

Pacific salmon are born in freshwater streams, migrate to the ocean as juveniles, spend a few years there, then return to the stream they were born in to spawn. Some species of Pacific salmon, specifically steelhead (a legendary sport fish) and Chinook (a workhorse of the West Coast fishing industry), exhibit two strikingly distinct life history types within their species when it comes to spawning migration time. Mature migrators (a.k.a. fall Chinook and winter steelhead), return from the ocean in a sexually mature state. These fish migrate directly to their spawning grounds and spawn almost immediately. In contrast, premature migrators (a.k.a. spring Chinook and summer steelhead) return to freshwater months before sexual maturity. These fish migrate high into the watershed and hold in cold, deep pools over the summer while their gonads develop, then spawn at about the same time as mature migrators.

Premature migrators are special for a number of reasons: they play an important ecological role by carrying marine nutrients higher into watersheds than mature migrators, they are very significant to the cultures and traditions of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, they provide a larger window of fishing opportunity, and they have much higher fat content than mature migrators so taste much better.

Policies that lump together premature and mature populations have been justified by two  assumptions that our study shows are incorrect. The first assumption was that spring Chinook and summer steelhead had evolved from their mature migrating counterparts independently in each river; the second was that spawning migration time was controlled by many genes that each has a small effect. These led to the belief that premature migration had evolved many times and therefore could easily re-evolve in the future if lost.

Genomic data analysis (Photo credit: Gus Tolley)

To identify the genetic basis for migration timing, we used an inexpensive and efficient technology called RAD (restriction-site associated DNA) sequencing to test hundreds of thousands of points throughout the steelhead genome, and then compared the results of summer steelhead to the results of winter steelhead to see where their genomes differed. We did the same thing with spring and fall Chinook.

Strikingly, we found that the same genetic region differed between summer and winter steelhead as between spring and fall Chinook, and that variation in this single region (a gene called GREB1L) completely explains the difference between migration types in both species.

Next, we investigated if premature migration versions of GREB1L had arisen once or multiple times. We found that all summer steelhead versions had arisen from a single event and all spring Chinook versions had arisen from a single event. The evolutionary events were different between the species, so both evolutionary events occurred sometime in the past 15 million years since the two species diverged. Finding that the same gene is crucial for premature migration in two separate species and that all the premature migration versions of this gene we examined arose from a single evolutionary event within each species strongly suggests that the genetic mechanisms for evolving premature migration are limited and happen very rarely across evolutionary time.

For the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, our study indicates that we should be much more concerned about the decline of spring Chinook and summer steelhead than we previously were. The premature life history depends on a particular version of the GREB1L gene. However, the number of fish carrying that version has declined dramatically. If premature migrating fish are lost, that version will be lost and may take many thousands to millions of years to re-evolve.

Juvenile steelhead sampling on the Salmon River, California (Photo credit: Mikal Jakubal)

This study is also significant for many specific rivers and local communities, such as the Klamath Basin in Northern California, that have seen dramatic declines of spring Chinook and summer steelhead. In many of these locations, grass roots efforts are among the only things keeping these fish from totally disappearing. Premature migrators have been completely lost from many California rivers where they used to be abundant, and most populations that remain are severely depressed. For example, the Salmon River in Siskiyou County only had approximately 100 spring Chinook return this year, where it historically had tens of thousands. The same pattern is common throughout Oregon and Washington too.

Identifying the premature migration gene has also allowed us to develop genetic markers to easily test the migration type (premature or mature) of ambiguous samples such as juveniles or carcasses for which the migration type was not previously able to be determined. This will enable a better local scale understanding of the ecology of premature vs. mature migration, factors behind the decline of premature migrators, and steps that can be taken to bolster premature populations.

Now that genomic technologies allow us to determine the genetic basis and evolutionary history of important adaptations, we can use this information to improve conservation policies. More specifically, we can better protect adaptations that exist within closely related population units, are disproportionately impacted by human activities, and are unlikely to re-evolve in human timeframes.

Tasha Thompson and Daniel Prince are Ph.D. Candidates in the Integrative Genetics and Genomics Graduate Group at University of California, Davis. Michael Miller is an Assistant Professor of Population and Quantitative Genetics in the Department of Animal Science at University of California, Davis. Sean O’Rourke is an Assistant Project Scientist in the Department of Animal Science at University of California, Davis.

Further reading

D. J. Prince, S. M. O’Rourke, T. Q. Thompson, O. A. Ali, H. S. Lyman, I. K. Saglam,T. J. Hotaling, A. P. Spidle, M. R. Miller, The evolutionary basis of premature migration in Pacific salmon highlights the utility of genomics for informing conservation. Sci. Adv. 3, e1603198 (2017).


Posted in Biology, Conservation, Fish | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment