Facing the Dragon: California’s Nasty Ecological Debts

By Andrew L. Rypel

“Every time you borrow money, you’re robbing your future self.” ~N. Morris

Pre-dam view of the Tuolumne River stretching across Hetch Hetchy Valley in the early 1900s. Photo from Taber 1908.

When I was younger, a close friend of mine struggled with a crippling debt. It was during that unique period shortly before and after college graduation. He had, in relatively short order, maxed out three credit cards, plus taken out a line of credit as a ‘student loan’. The borrowed money was being used to fuel a series of bad habitats, including early 20s party life. I watched my friend, and just didn’t know what to do or how to help. Quickly, the debt and bills and interest stacked up to a breaking point.  Finally, the collectors were after him. Eventually, he told the parents, and together, they crafted a plan to solvency. It was hard. He moved home, changed his day-to-day behaviors, and took an entry level job as a teller at the local bank. It took almost two years of living at home, an abrupt end to college life, and placing any savings above minimum needs into paying back the debt. He did it though, and went on to graduate school and a successful career.

Being young at the time, watching this unfold was a formative experience. It taught me the important and timeless lesson: There is no free lunch. Recently, I have been reflecting on California’s intractable environmental woes: its ecosystems, water, and the communities who rely on them. For many, these problems seem too difficult to solve, so much as to classify them as ‘wicked problems’. Sometimes however, solutions require fresh perspectives. For example, there is much we can glean from economics and study of debt. In this essay, I explore the concept of ecological debts, the extent to which California has amassed ecological debt, and what a return to solvency might look like.

What are ecological debts?

The concept of ecological debts arose in the early 1990s by two independent teams of researchers focused on environmental liabilities transmitted to future human generations (Robleto and Marcelo 1992, Jernelov 1992). Over the years, applications of the environmental debt concept has been quite broad, with many applications showing connections to environmental justice. For example, many of the most degraded ecosystems are associated with marginalized communities and/or stolen lands. During the mid-90s, ecologists began to focus on variants on these concepts, like “extinction debts” (Tillman et al. 1994). That is, that extinctions often occur years or generations following habitat fragmentation. Speed of extinction following fragmentation can therefore be fast or slow, depending on the severity of amassed debt (Kuussaari et al. 2009). I think of ecological debts as impacts and/or resource consumption by humans in excess of the natural productive capacity of ecosystems. The concept of environmental debts seem unpopular with conventional economists, perhaps because it conflicts with the notion of economic growth as being unlimited. Yet as an ecologist by training, it is obvious to me time and again, that natural resources have limits, and that without proper management, ecosystems and species just collapse.

Examples of ecological debts abound. They are especially obvious in highly modified landscapes. Given poor agricultural practices for example, landscape modifications fragment and alter wildlife habitat, strip top soils from land, and send nutrients barrelling downstream into lakes and estuaries where toxic algal blooms ensue (Bailey 2020). Similarly, overfishing or poaching tends to benefit a select few, but the impacts of these activities are felt broadly (Carrizo et al. 2017). In other cases, we all take out a note from nature together. For example, when we collectively drive cars, we exact a toll on our climate and the metals, minerals, and land that support them.

Map of the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes referred to as the ‘dead zone’. These impacts are an example of an ecological debt from nutrient enrichment in the Mississippi River basin. Figure from Rabalais and Turner 2019.

Climate change is just another example of ecological debt, at the planetary scale. Scientists knew as early as the late 1800s that even minor changes to the composition of the atmosphere could substantially alter surface temperatures. Original theories of climate change based on carbon dioxide were formulated in the 1950s (e.g., Plass 1956). US Congressional hearings were held in the 1980s on the topic. All the while, a carbon dioxide debt continued to relentlessly build. And while some continue to deny the existence of climate change altogether, many opposed to climate action, often admit that climate change is real, but hold that the financial cost is too great to do anything about it right now. In essence, folks acknowledge the debt, but don’t want, or know how, to begin paying it back.

Has California amassed ecological debt?

Yes. As a student of the native freshwater species of the state, the scope of the debt that I am most familiar with is large and scary. A review of the status of native California fishes shows that, since the 1970s, the number of stable species has declined, while the number of threatened and endangered species continues to increase (Quiñones & Moyle 2015). The number of extinct species has not increased to the same degree, yet. This discrepancy between the number of threatened species and the number of extinct species clearly illustrates the status of our debt, and the stakes. This is an extinction debt – and it’s growing.

Status of California’s native fish fauna over time. Data adapted from Quiñones & Moyle 2015.

We see the scope of our ecological debts clearly when examining the story of California salmon. California was once the epicenter for the salmon industry in the USA. Chinook salmon abundance in the Central Valley might have approached 2 million fish annually (Fisher 1994). In 1880, 10 million pounds of salmon were caught within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta alone, roughly equivalent to 750,000 salmon (Yoshiyama et al. 1998). The most recent projection for all Sacramento River fall-run Chinook in 2023 is just 169,767 adults; a result that prompted closure of the fishery this year. Spring-run Chinook salmon were historically co-dominant with fall-run Chinook salmon, and were especially abundant in the San Joaquin Basin (Rypel et al. 2021). Spring-run Chinook salmon are now federally threatened under the US Endangered Species Act.

Historical catches of large salmon were once common in CA (Peter Palmquist collection)

Several impacts and ecological loan generating activities are responsible for these trends, none of which happened overnight. Dams were a major factor. Construction of the major dams blocked access for salmon to all the best spawning habitats. Then at lower elevations, water was extracted from the rivers, and the wetlands/floodplains summarily drained. At times, so much water was extracted that rivers would simply run dry. This one-two combo finally did in the San Joaquin River spring-run Chinook population (Rypel et al. 2021; Hause et al. 2022).

Occasionally, it is suggested ‘people didn’t know what they were doing back then’, implying that impacts of dams on salmon were unknown. This is false. Just as with climate change science, numerous reports painstakingly detail the impending impact of planned dams on salmon (e.g., Brennan 1938; Hanson 1940). Rather, the thinking seemed to be that the ecological loan would be worth it. Whether it was because of war time needs, or the need to grow the economy, or our tendency to undervalue nature, this was the decision. There was also hubris; for example, that hatcheries could effectively mitigate the problem. For this reason, most large rivers in California’s Central Valley with natural runs of Chinook salmon, now also have a production hatchery (Katz et al. 2013). But the hatcheries didn’t work (Rypel and Moyle 2023), and salmon continue to decline throughout California and the Pacific rim. These trends unfolded over generations and centuries (Munsch et al. 2022), often so long ago that we don’t recognize or grapple with the reality that these are debts from previous generations that we are still paying.

Construction work on Shasta Dam in 1942. Photo by Russell Lee from the US Library of Congress.

California’s ecological debts surround and haunt us. From salmon to delta smelt (Moyle et al. 2021), forest management (Hutto 2008), the attempt to eliminate Lake Tulare (Moyle 2023), the decline of the Salton Sea, decisions surrounding water rights (Börk et al. 2022), theft from California’s Indigenous communities (Hanks 2006), groundwater overdraft (Gray 2018), the accumulation of nitrate in groundwater (Harter et al 2012), a global loss of insects (van Klink 2020; Jähnig et al. 2020), and other important axes of biodiversity like freshwater mussels (Rypel 2022) or our herpetofauna (Halstead et al. 2010). All are ecological debts for California that remain unpaid.

What might a plan look like to pay back California’s ecological debts?

As with financial debt, acknowledging the problem is a critical first step. And just as one tries to come to grips with financial debt, a full-scale accounting is essential. This could show where we have borrowed and how much. It could suggest specific areas or actions that might have disproportionately positive conservation outcomes. Such an effort could be a special project, a blue ribbon report, or an interagency task force.

Release of spring-run Chinook salmon into the San Joaquin River. Photo from https://www.watereducation.org/aquapedia/san-joaquin-river-and-san-joaquin-river-restoration-program

The good news is we don’t need to reinvent the wheel from scratch. There are many examples we can learn from. The case of Mono Lake comes to mind, where diversions from the lake, including Rush and Vining Creek needed to be stopped. As flows to the lake improved, aquatic habitat and salinity conditions also recovered, and even today, lake levels are actively managed. The San Joaquin River is becoming another example. As the San Joaquin River Restoration Program gains steam, more water and fishes will be in the ecosystem. Recovery will take time, but payments (in the form of additional flows and habitat) are beginning to be made, which in turn is resulting in positive results for salmon (Rypel et al. 2021). The California State Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is aimed explicitly at solving debts in groundwater levels that have accumulated over decades. These groundwater debts ultimately resulted in subsidence, and ironically reduced capacity to convey surface water. The full socioeconomic impacts of SGMA have yet to be realized, but are large. Does this mean SGMA was a bad idea? Perhaps not, but it illustrates the kinds of hard decisions that sometimes need to be made to repay environmental debts. And of course Putah Creek continues to teach us how ecosystem services can be recovered with modest tweaks to water management (Rypel 2022; Jacinto et al. 2023). Public repayments must be collaborative endeavors – this is why solutions like the salmon-rice project, where growers and conservationists collaborate will be increasingly needed to craft payment structures that actually work in today’s human-dominated landscape (Rypel et al. 2022).

Debts are an unpleasant aspect of life. They are undoubtedly frustrating because, in the case of the environment, loans were taken out by previous generations that may or may not share our contemporary values. Those generations profited from these loans that we still owe, and even worse, engaged in nefarious activities by today’s standards. And in some ways, we have benefited from the debts they incurred. Yet they are debts whose balance comes due nonetheless. Nature continues to unambiguously signal that our existing loans are too heavy, and bankruptcy is on the horizon. California has a history of innovation and problem solving that has defied its critics. Dealing with our ecological debts is one of our biggest current challenges. Just as my old friend had to finally face his financial debt, so must we with ecosystems. Doing so necessitates that we collectively face the dragon and attempt to deal with our ecological problems with clear eyes and a full heart.

San Joaquin River near the Mossdale boat launch. Photo from USFWS/Steve Martarano.

Further reading:

Börk, K., A.L. Rypel, S. Yarnell, A. Willis, P. Moyle, J. Medellin-Azuara, J.  Lund, and R. Lusardi. 2022. Considerations for developing an environmental water right in California. https://californiawaterblog.com/2022/06/12/considerations-for-developing-an-environmental-water-right-in-california/

Carrizo, S. F., S. C. Jähnig, V. Bremerich, J. Freyhof, I. Harrison, F. He, S. D. Langhans, K. Tockner, C. Zarfl, and W. Darwall. 2017. Freshwater megafauna: Flagships for freshwater biodiversity under threat. Bioscience 67:919-927.

Fisher, F.W. 1994. Past and present status of Central Valley Chinook salmon. Conservation Biology 8: 870-873.

Gray, B. 2018. The public trust and SGMA. https://californiawaterblog.com/2018/10/07/the-public-trust-and-sgma/

Halstead, B. J., G. D. Wylie, and M. L. Casazza. 2010. Habitat suitability and conservation of the giant gartersnake (Thamnophis gigas) in the Sacramento Valley of California. Copeia 2010:591-599.

Hanks, R. A. 2006. This war is a war for life: the cultural resistance among southern California Indians, 1850-1966. PhD Dissertation. University of California Riverside.

Hansen, H. A. 1940. Preliminary report on an investigation to determine possible methods of salvaging the Sacramento River salmon and steelhead trout at Shasta Dam. Stanford Ichthyological Bulletin 1:199– 204.

Harter, T., J. R. Lund, J. Darby, G. E. Fogg, R. Howitt, K. K. Jessoe, G. S. Pettygrove, J. F. Quinn, J. H. Viers, D. B. Boyle, H. E. Canada, N. DeLaMora, K. N. Dzurella, A. Fryjoff-Hung, A. D. Hollander, K. L. Honeycutt, M. W. Jenkins, V. B. Jensen, A. M. King, G. Kourakos, D. Liptzin, E. M. Lopez, M. M. Mayzelle, A. McNally, J. Medellin-Azuara, and T. S. Rosenstock. 2012. Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water with a Focus on Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley Groundwater. Report for the State Water Resources Control Board Report to the Legislature. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis. 78 pp.

Hause, C. L., G. P. Singer, R. A. Buchanan, D. E. Cocherell, N. A. Fangue, and A. L. Rypel. 2022. Survival of a threatened salmon is linked to spatial variability in river conditions. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 79:2056-2071.

Hutto, R. L. 2008. The ecological importance of severe wildfires: some like it hot. Ecological Applications 18:1827-1834.

Jacinto, E., N. A. Fangue, D. E. Cocherell, J. D. Kiernan, P. B. Moyle, and A. L. Rypel. 2023. Increasing stability of a native freshwater fish assemblage following flow rehabilitation. Ecological Applications:e2868.

Jähnig, S. C., V. Baranov, F. Altermatt, P. Cranston, M. Friedrichs‐Manthey, J. Geist, F. He, J. Heino, D. Hering, and F. Hölker. 2021. Revisiting global trends in freshwater insect biodiversity. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 8:e1506.

Jernelov, A. 1992. Miljoskulden, En rapport om hur miljoskulden utvecklas om vi ingenting gor. SOU. 1992: 58 Allmanna forlaget, Stockholm, Sweden.

Katz, J., P. B. Moyle, R. M. Quiñones, J. Israel, and S. Purdy. 2013. Impending extinction of salmon, steelhead, and trout (Salmonidae) in California. Environmental Biology of Fishes 96:1169-1186.

Kuussaari, M., R. Bommarco, R. K. Heikkinen, A. Helm, J. Krauss, R. Lindborg, E. Öckinger, M. Pärtel, J. Pino, and F. Rodà. 2009. Extinction debt: a challenge for biodiversity conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24:564-571.

Moyle, P.B. 2023. Lake Tulare (and its fishes) shall rise again. https://californiawaterblog.com/2023/04/16/lake-tulare-and-its-fishes-shall-rise-again/

Munsch, S. H., C. M. Greene, N. J. Mantua, and W. H. Satterthwaite. 2022. One hundred‐seventy years of stressors erode salmon fishery climate resilience in California’s warming landscape. Global Change Biology 28:2183-2201.

Plass, G. N. 1956. The carbon dioxide theory of climatic change. Tellus 8:140-154.

Quiñones, R. M., and P. B. Moyle. 2015. California’s freshwater fishes: status and management. FiSHMED: Fishes in Mediterranean Environments 1:1-20.

Rabalais, N.N., and R.E. Turner. 2019. Gulf of Mexico: past, present, and future. Bulletin of Limnology and Oceanography 28: 117-124.

Robleto, M.L., and W. Marcelo. 1992. Deuda ecologica. Instituto de Ecologia Politica, Santiago de Chile.

Rypel, A.L., and P.B. Moyle. 2023. Hatcheries alone cannot save species and fisheries.  https://californiawaterblog.com/2023/04/30/hatcheries-alone-cannot-save-species-and-fisheries/

Rypel, A.L. 2022. Being patient and persistent with nature. https://californiawaterblog.com/2022/10/16/being-patient-and-persistent-with-nature/

Rypel, A.L., D.J. Alcott, P. Buttner, A. Wampler, J. Colby, P. Saffarinia. N. Fangue, and C.A. Jeffres. 2022. Rice and salmon, what a match! https://californiawaterblog.com/2022/02/13/rice-salmon-what-a-match/

Rypel, A.L. 2022. Losing mussel mass – the silent extinction of freshwater mussels. https://californiawaterblog.com/2022/10/09/losing-mussel-mass-the-silent-extinction-of-freshwater-mussels

Rypel, A.L., C.A. Parisek, J. Lund, A. Willis, P.B. Moyle, Yarnell, S., and K. Börk. 2020. What’s the dam problem with deadbeat dams?, https://californiawaterblog.com/2020/06/14/whats-the-dam-problem-with-deadbeat-dams/

Rypel, A.L., G. Singer, and N.A. Fangue. 2021. Science of an underdog: the improbable comeback of spring-run Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin River, https://californiawaterblog.com/2021/12/05/science-of-an-underdog-the-improbable-comeback-of-spring-run-chinook-salmon-in-the-san-joaquin-river/

Tilman, D., R. M. May, C. L. Lehman, and M. A. Nowak. 1994. Habitat destruction and the extinction debt. Nature 371:65-66.

Van Klink, R., D. E. Bowler, K. B. Gongalsky, A. B. Swengel, A. Gentile, and J. M. Chase. 2020. Meta-analysis reveals declines in terrestrial but increases in freshwater insect abundances. Science 368:417-420.

Yoshiyama, R.M., F.W. Fisher, and P.B. Moyle. 1998. Historical abundance and decline of Chinook salmon in the Central Valley region of California. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 18: 487-521.

About Andrew Rypel

Andrew L. Rypel is a Professor and the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Chair of coldwater fish ecology at the University of California, Davis. He is a faculty member in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology and Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Facing the Dragon: California’s Nasty Ecological Debts

  1. Tony Buffington says:

    Nothing quite like the cold douche of reality. Thank you for this!

  2. Cheryl Mulder says:

    I believe that facing California’s ecological debts can be overwhelming unless you consider the scale in which you are able to make a difference. To take a global approach, little can be done, but one stream at a time, on slough at a time, one dam at a time, making a difference is totally possible. To infer that their is a debt that was incurred by others in the past, pointing towards past decisions, is a start, but it could be also argued that present day land use decisions, when we supposedly know what we are doing is causing past actions and their effects to have an increasing negative impact on the current environment.
    From 1995-2006, I worked as a forest hydrologist on the Eldorado National Forest, home of the heart of the California Gold Rush. Most of the rivers and streams on the forest still had what we called the legacy bedload from the mining days, 140 years earlier. I determined that several floods of 50-100yr frequency would be needed to sort and distribute that bedload effectively downstream before the effects from the mining days would recover. However, management decisions on forest health today, have the ability to increase the effects of that historic use. An increase of sediment from new roads, upslope activities, has the potential to cause a sediment accumulation that exaggerates the issue, if not approached in a manner that actually reduces long term sedimentation. That decision is possible and has been done, stream by stream, project by project.
    Personal note: I believed myself to be totally free of the responsibility for the effects of the gold mining in California while working to mitigate them as best as I could. In fact, my personal thoughts towards the foolishness that accompanied the mining was entirely negative. In 2015, while working on my family ancestry, I learned that my great great grandfather was indeed a miner on the very rivers that I had been working on, along with his cousin, James Caples, whom had a lake named after him. So now, who owns the environmental debt that California inherited from that time in history?

  3. Emma Howard says:

    One of the best blogs I have read for awhile. Scary, but I think very true.

  4. Tom Cannon says:

    As a fish population ecologist focusing on recovery and extinction reduction, after this essay I now think of myself as a ecological debt reduction planner.

Leave a Reply