Drought a ghost of Christmas past — and present

Alan Marciochi

A California Christmas greeting card from 1977, a year of severe drought. Drawing by Alan Marciochi, courtesy of Peter Moyle

By Peter Moyle

I love this cartoon because it says so much about water and droughts in California. Alan Marciochi drew this during the 1976-77 drought. He knew what he was drawing.

A farm boy from Los Banos with a degree in biology, Alan worked for me studying endangered Modoc suckers in remote northeastern corner of California. His main stipulation in working for me was that he had to have the melon harvest season free. He could make more money packing melons in a month or two than he could make working for me in a year. I could not give Christmas bonuses.

Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Modoc suckers dwell in pools of headwater streams flowing through meadows and dry forests, primarily in Modoc County. Photo: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

For his field job with me, Alan moved to Modoc County where he soon joined a local band as a banjo player. He gained enough local trust that ranchers allowed us on their land to look for an endangered species, the Modoc sucker. I am happy to report that, partly as a result of that early work, the species has become much more abundant and there are proposals to remove it from its fully protected status.

Drought was just one of many threats to the Modoc sucker at the time. Cattle trampled its habitat during low-flow periods. Irrigators channelized and diverted key streams. Alien brown trout and green sunfish devoured the suckers, especially when they were concentrated in a few pools. Restoration projects have greatly improved conditions for the sucker, but it remains vulnerable to severe drought.

In Alan’s cartoon, the line queuing up to the weary Santa could easily be made up of 120 species of California native fishes, each asking for more water. In this unexpectedly wet holiday season, Santa may be able to appear less weary, but there is still not enough water to go around for all fish and human uses — even in wet years.

The Modoc sucker story suggests we can work things out in ways to sustain our native fishes in a human-dominated landscape, such as on ranches. I like to keep this message of reconciliation in mind, especially during the holiday season. A few large gifts of water to the fish would be nice, however.

Peter Moyle is a distinguished professor of fish biology and associate director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.

Further reading

Moyle, P. B. and A. Marciochi. 1975. Biology of the Modoc sucker, Catostomus microps, in northeastern California. Copeia 1975:556-560

Moyle, P. B. 2002. Inland Fishes of California. Revised and expanded. Berkeley: University of California Press. 502 pp



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3 Responses to Drought a ghost of Christmas past — and present

  1. gymnosperm says:

    And drought will be a ghost of Christmas future as well, yet much of northern California has already received half a season’s average rainfall this year. Many stations have already received as much rain since the rainfall year began in July this year as they received all last season.

    Rather than persist in the misconceived notion that “carbon exhaust continues to warm” when human emissions are clearly insignificant, and that currently unfathomable climate change that happens to be in a warming direction will result in drought, when that is demonstrably not the case; I suggest you consider the “monster floods in the 1930’s” that prompted the channeling of the LA River.

    That concrete riverbed is butt ugly and I hate it too. Amigo, the 1930’s were VERY dry in central California.


  2. Pingback: Blog round-up: Drought and the BDCP » MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK | MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK

  3. gymnosperm says:

    True scientists engage and accept discordant opinion, particularly from alumni.

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