by Scientists at CWS
Holidays are a natural time of introspection on who we are, what we do, and why. Towards a bit of our own self-reflection, some researchers from UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences (CWS) have each contributed a photo and short description of their work. We hope you enjoy reading about us and learning even more about us. It is hopefully a soft bookend to a wild 2020!
This is one of my favorite pictures because it captures the integrative and applied research and teaching we do at CWS. These students are part of the Ecogeomorphology field class, which brings together students from a range of science backgrounds to study and address conservation and management issues in watersheds in California and the Western US. From the foreground to the background, students are surveying channel topography, macroinvertebrate diversity, fish presence, and sediment texture on the Yampa River, a free-flowing unregulated river. When compared to survey data collected on the Green River, a river regulated by dams, students see the impacts of streamflow regulation on riverine ecosystems and discuss how conservation management practices balance ecological and human resource needs. My research seeks to similarly integrate biological and physical processes to better understand and inform stream restoration practices and environmental flow management in regulated rivers.
The prosperity of civilizations in Mediterranean climates relies on water management, which involves eternally managing water disputes. The water court in Valencia, Spain has met weekly since medieval times in front of the city’s cathedral, and perhaps from Roman times in the same square. Unlike most water hearings in California, this one is a popular tourist attraction and the meeting ends after about 10 minutes. (a slightly pre-COVIN picture from February 2020).
This photo captures the moment water is returning to a restored wetlands landscape. About a mile away, giant cranes crack open an levee, allowing water to flow up through meandering channels. Here a student researcher focuses quietly on recording water quality, but around her is all movement: the water rolling into the new channel, the crackling of dried vegetation being inundated, insects blowing up in clouds above the water followed by birds of all sorts swooping in to feed. The effect is dizzying and thrilling, to watch and hear the ancient ritual of water meeting land played out again for the first time in a century.
These before-after photos capture the power of a living stream as it shifts and reshapes itself (and takes away my stilling well). This stream flows through an active cattle ranch, where the landowners recognize that stewardship includes both land and streamscapes. My research helps people like these ranchers preserve their heritage and livelihoods by guiding decisions about when and where to prioritize conservation. When science is combined with a coalition of the willing, we can have healthy rivers and rangeland.
Here a Chinook Salmon is preparing to spawn in the Shasta River below Mt. Shasta. This is a reminder of how physical processes allow for ecological function. The snow that falls on Mt. Shasta percolates into the ground and emerges as nutrient rich springs. These nutrient rich springs provide a productive food web that allows the Chinook Salmon and other fishes to complete their life histories. It always amazes me that the snow you see in the background of this picture will come out of the ground 20-40 years after the photo was taken to benefit future generations of fish and other fauna.
A drifter measuring position and shear in river currents floats down the San Joaquin River on approach to the Head of Old River. Data from drifter tracks helps keep our numerical models honest and provides a point of reference when studying how juvenile Chinook salmon navigate this junction on their way to the ocean. Hidden beneath the turbid waters is a network of hydrophones, recording the path of salmon smolts as they enter the Delta. By comparing data on the movements of water and fish, we learn about the swimming habits of the smolts, and how environmental cues can shape the path that they take through the Delta. Studies such as this one pave the way for effective stewardship of fisheries utilizing the Delta.
Rivers connect and carve the landscapes we live in and use. These systems are complex interconnected webs of life which we rely on and are part of, yet for every link that breaks, the systems become less diverse, and a little less stable or reliable. My research uses genetic and ecosystem data to help understand the connections between river organisms and changing environments, so we can prioritize and apply more effective conservation management.
As the Watershed Center Assistant Director I keep the wheels on the Center and help move it forward. A picture of my normal work would be a picture of a computer screen with 50 windows open. On field trips, I’m the one who likes to point out and identify birds, even though I’m a limnologist and oceanographer by training. There are many more birds and bird species around us than people generally see without a bird-brain like me to enthusiastically point out even the little brown birds that do not tend to be crowd pleasers. Verdin picture is from the Grand Canyon field trip in 2014—cryptic in the tree until it popped out in the open. Long-earred Owl in Davis (December 2020)—a rarity here and very cryptic in the tree. It is left up to the ecologists to identify the location where I am “properly dressed” for birding including photography.
The importance of salmon to ecosystem processes and food webs is well documented. We were still surprised to witness this bobcat feasting on a fall-run Chinook salmon carcass on the upper Sacramento River immediately below Keswick dam. As an aquatic ecologist, I usually have my head in the water too often and need to remind myself that cross-ecosystem subsidies occur all the time and are critical to broader ecological function across the landscape.
I spent years researching lake ecosystems in Northern Wisconsin. The emergent aquatic plants in the foreground of this photo is naturally-occurring wild rice. Now I work on rice and agricultural floodplains in California. Juvenile Chinook salmon and many other native fishes once roamed vast floodplain habitats in the Central Valley. These natural wetland habitats are largely gone now (reduced by 95%); however we are examining whether agricultural floodplains including rice fields can be used in creative ways to facilitate the life-cycle of native CA fishes. Incidentally, the remote lake in the picture is one of only a handful of lakes I could ever find with truly “unfished” bluegill populations (note the lack of homes, docks and boat landings).