The 20th Anniversary of Another Good Idea: Ecogeomorphology

Miles Glacier, Copper River, Alaska

by Jeffrey Mount and Peter Moyle

Several years ago on this site, we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Center for Watershed Sciences—what we termed a “really good idea.”  That blog described the founding principles of the Center that live on today.  A few years after starting the Center, we had a second really good idea—a course called Ecogeomorphology. 

For us, the most rewarding aspect of the Center was the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from different disciplines to try and address complex water management problems.  We worked with very creative people willing to share their expertise toward some common goals.  All while meeting our most basic standard—playing well with others.  These collaborations with thought leaders in different disciplines and institutions — like Jay Lund, Richard Howitt, Ellen Hanak, Buzz Thompson, Brian Gray and others—was both fun and productive.

We asked ourselves a basic question: how do you capture this collaborative magic in the classroom and pass it along to students?  We came up with Ecogeomorphology.  This is the 20th anniversary of that second really good idea, and it started with an epic Alaskan river adventure

The philosophy of the class was simple, but its logistics were very complex.  We would recruit 12 students—usually four graduate students and eight undergraduates—from an array of disciplines.  Every student was assigned to become an expert in something and then sharing that expertise with the other members in the class.  We remember well some of the hysterically funny interactions between engineers and ecologists as they tried to find a common language and understand each other’s approach to problem solving.  It was the same training we were getting in our research collaborations at the Center. 

Once we had assembled a team and assigned expertise, we chose a big question that would be the theme of the class.  We would study this question for 10 weeks followed by weeks of field study on a chosen river. 

We are both field people at heart, so there had to be a lot data gathering in the field, a whole bunch of puzzling over problems while standing knee deep in a river, and some amount of adventure to lock in the learning.  One of us (Jeff) had been running whitewater raft-based field trips in his home department for many years, simultaneously thrilling—and occasionally scaring—students while teaching them about rivers. 

Fortunately for us, in the early years we had Dennis Johnson, the Director of Outdoor Adventures UC Davis.  He bought into this idea of adventure education—indeed, he recommended most of the rivers we studied—and took care of all the complicated logistics.  In later years, Jordy Margid took over for Dennis and carried on the tradition. 

We also had the good fortune of funding.  The costs of the course for the students were paid for by the Roy Shlemon Chair in Applied Geosciences (then held by Jeff) and the Presidential Chair in Undergraduate Education (co-held by Jeff and Peter).  And, we had the Center as the home base to run the course.

Our first big trip in 2002 was an adventure.  Peter raised a simple question.  Alaskan rivers are highly productive when it comes to salmon, but why?  They are very cold and turbid, so they don’t seem ideal for the growth of juveniles as they make their way to sea from their natal streams and lakes.  And many juvenile fish—particularly sockeye and Chinook—travel many hundreds of miles in these cold, turbid, and presumably unproductive waters.  We were heavily involved in the early research on the role of floodplains feeding native fish in the Central Valley.  Where was the equivalent in these cold, glacier-fed Alaskan rivers?

Cold, turbid waters of the Nizina River in Alaska seemed inhospitable to juvenile salmon.

We organized our class to ask Peter’s question.  After extensive literature research, we headed to the Copper River watershed in Alaska to test some ideas through field observations.  This trip set the benchmark for all others to follow. 

We started our trip at the base of the Kennicott Glacier.   Water pouring out of the glacier was just above freezing, and such water behaves strangely due to its density and viscosity, especially with its high glacial silt load.  But there was Peter with students in the water seining to see if there were any fish (there were none).

Outflow from Kennicott Glacier was just above freezing.

We moved down to the confluence between the Kennicott River and the Nizina River where the first inkling of an answer was revealed.  It was a great learning experience for the students to watch their professors staring at this confluence with its giant cobble bars deposited by spring ice break up floods.   After much head-scratching, the possible answer hit all of us simultaneously.   There, throughout this cobble bar, were patches of clear, relatively warm water filling old scour channels.  Water was flowing through the cobbles—decanting their silt load—and slowly emerging into these side channels where the water would warm before gently flowing back into the river.  Algae in the water was being fed by willows and other plants sprouting along the edges.  And all of this was feeding a food web, with juvenile salmon taking advantage of it.  It was a warm, productive oasis in the middle of a raging, ice cold glacial river. 

Clear, warm backwaters at the confluence of the Kennicott River and Nizina River fed by flow through the confluence bar, with abundant juvenile salmon taking advantage of the productive food web.

That discovery dictated the work of the next few weeks as we moved down the Nizina, to the Chitna River, then to the Copper River, and eventually into the Copper River Delta—a 270 mile adventure, while living out of whitewater rafts in some of the most spectacular, raw, and rugged scenery in North America.  Our field studies confirmed this observation that backwater settings, wetlands connected to the river, and clear tributary creeks were crucial habitat for juvenile salmon. 

Floating by massive glacial terraces on the Chitna River.

There were some memorable days.  Along with daily, eye-popping discoveries, the students were exposed to the challenges of field work, where you hope Plan B works, because Plan A almost never does, and you better have a Plan C and D in mind.  And we had suitably epic weather.  We had hurricane force winds on one day that blew our rafts upstream despite more than 100,000 cfs passing beneath us.  We had a mile-high loess dust storm roar up the canyon.  We had the constant concern over ice-dam break outs (jökulhlaups) and the occasional grizzly bear.  And epically, we experienced the anxiety-rich passage of our rafts beneath the face of Childs Glacier as it was actively calving into the river. 

Floating by the face of Childs Glacier calving into the river.

All of the students and the wonderful people who helped make this trip happen (especially Dennis Johnson, Deb Desrocher, Paul Butler, and Sarah Roeske) will never forget it.  There is nothing like the joy of scientific discovery in a magnificent setting like Alaska’s Copper River: nature’s perfect classroom.  

We took lessons learned from that first trip and built a terrific class.  In subsequent years we went to the Skeena River in British Columbia to record how habitat complexity in a river drives biodiversity.  We went to the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam to document how river ecosystems recover with distance downstream of a dam.  We made several trips down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon to evaluate efforts underway to improve physical habitat.  We often used the Wild and Scenic stretch of the Tuolumne River and its main tributary, the Clavey River, as a study site to compare dammed and undammed rivers.  The 2009 Tuolumne class spearheaded the creation of the short book Confluence:  A Natural and Human History of the Tuolumne River Watershed, which has been used in multiple classes since.  And on the Kobuk River in Alaska, we studied how changing climate is altering the ecology and geomorphology of rivers north of the Arctic Circle, while wolves howled and yipped in the background (this was our new definition of a howling success). 

In all the years we ran this course, we brought all the students back in reasonably good condition, with no major injuries.  This is a credit to our handlers, Dennis Johnson and Jordy Margid, who built a culture of safety.  Our only significant injury was to Peter, who ironically hit his head on the first aid kit and got a helicopter ride out of the Grand Canyon. 

This class was a really good idea, and we are both proud of the effort.  Mostly we feel very lucky that that we had the opportunity to conduct this grand experiment in mixing adventure and education.  And we are especially pleased with the product of the class: the students.  Most students who took this course over the years have gone on to successful careers in resource management, usually involving water and rivers. 

Finally, it is very satisfying to see that the course lives on, 20 years and counting.  Today Nicholas Pinter and Sarah Yarnell are rounding up students, teaching them how to collaborate, and taking them into the field for new, inspiring experiences.  Like many college field classes however, funding for these inspirational and life-changing classes is difficult to come by.  They rely almost exclusively on private donations and fundraising.  You can help support the continuation of Ecogeomorphology here.

Jeff and Peter

2002 Copper River Trip participants: 

Jeff Mount, Instructor

Peter Moyle, Instructor

Sarah Roeske, Instructor

Sarah Yarnell, Teaching Assistant

Angela Depaoli, Undergraduate student

Carson Jeffres, Undergraduate student

Chris Hammersmark, Graduate student

Dylan Ahearn, Graduate student

Joe Wheaton, Undergraduate student

Joel Passovoy, Undergraduate student

John Wooster, Graduate student

Kaylene Keller, Graduate student

Kristen Morgan, Undergraduate student

Martin Koenig, Undergraduate student

Mark Rains, Graduate student

Randy Bowersox, Graduate student

Steve Winter, Graduate student

Wendy Trowbridge, Graduate student

Dennis Johnson, Trip Leader

Debbie Desrochers, Guide

Paul Butler, Guide

Instructors, students, and guides in the 2002 Copper River Ecogeomorphology class.

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Why give away fish flows for free during a drought?

Lower American River, 1977. Source: California department of Water Resources

American River, 1977. Source: California Department of Water Resources

by Jay Lund, Ellen Hanak, Barton “Buzz” Thompson, Brian Gray, Jeffrey Mount and Katrina Jessoe

This is a re-posting from 11 February 2014 (in the previous drought).  

With California in a major drought, state and federal regulators will be under pressure to loosen environmental flow standards that protect native fish. This happened in the 1976-77 and 1987-92 droughts, and today’s drought could become much worse.

These standards demonstrate the high value society places on the survival of native fish and wildlife. In past droughts, we have given away some of these protections because of pressure to make more water available for other uses.

But this time, California can do better. We can create a special water market that better meets the state’s goals of both ensuring a reliable water supply and protecting the environment. In this market, growers and cities would pay for the additional water made available from relaxed environmental standards, and the revenues would help support fish and wildlife recovery.

Water trading can often greatly dampen the costs of drought. Farmers irrigating high-cash crops such as almond trees can buy some water from growers of alfalfa, rice and other crops that are less profitable per drop of water used.

Such trading can greatly reduce the overall economic and social costs of a drought and distribute these costs more broadly. Importantly, such market transactions ensure that those who use less water than their entitlement are compensated for the reduction. Because water buyers must pay for the added water, they also have an incentive to conserve.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Although environmental uses generally do not have water rights, instream flow and water quality rules intended to protect endangered fish and other wildlife from extinction are similar to very secure water entitlements.

But in past droughts, state or federal decisions to relax environmental standards essentially became a gift to other water users. The shorted environmental uses were not compensated, and farmers and cities that benefited had less incentive to conserve water and be prepared for droughts – for instance by underinvesting in local storage or overinvesting in perennial crops that need more reliable water supplies than the system can provide.

A better approach would create a drought environmental water market, so that those who gain from relaxed standards help compensate the losers. When standards are loosened, fish threatened with extinction may require additional expensive actions such as restoration, habitat acquisition and “conservation hatcheries,” which help maintain endangered species outside their natural environment.

Unlike past environmental water markets, where agencies only bought water for fish and wildlife refuges, some environmental flows in this special drought market would be treated as senior water rights that could be sold. Fisheries agencies could sell some of these flows when they determine that the reduction will not jeopardize endangered species. The sale of this water would provide funds that help native species recover and lessen demands to relax environmental flows.

For example, a relaxation of environmental flow requirements that made available 100,000 acre-feet of water – perhaps worth $400 an acre-foot during a drought – would generate $40 million to help pay for compensating actions. Those actions might include buying water for environmental purposes elsewhere in the state or creating a reserve fund to aid native fish after the drought.

Making this new market work would require some new rules, and there are several options. Compensated relaxation of environmental flow standards could be done as:

  • Part of the Endangered Species Act regulatory program (biological opinions, incidental take permits or habitat conservation plans),
  • Negotiated agreements with water users, or
  • Fixed penalties for violating flow and water quality standards.

Dry lakebed, 1988. Source: California Department of Water Resources

Dry lakebed, 1988. Source: California Department of Water Resources

The price could be set at the fair market value of the water made available, the cost of compensatory environmental actions, or a fixed or negotiated fee established by the regulatory agency.

Creating such a drought environmental water market would help limit the reductions in environmental river flows, while ensuring that such reductions receive some compensation.

For California, this would be an appropriate expression of the state’s co-equal environmental and economic goals for water management in times of hardship. If we can’t all get better together in a severe drought, at least we can reduce and share the pain fairly, in a way that provides some help to fish and other species that depend on our rivers for their survival.

 Jay Lund is director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis; Ellen Hanak is a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC); Barton “Buzz” Thompson is director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment; Brian Gray is a professor at the UC Hastings College of the Law; Jeffrey Mount is a senior fellow at the PPIC; and Katrina Jessoe is an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis.

Further reading

Hanak et al., (2011), Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA, 500 pp., February

Hanak, E. and E. Stryjewski (2012), California’s Water Market, By the Numbers: Update 2012, Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, CA

Howitt, R.E., “Empirical analysis of water market institutions: The 1991 California water market,” Resource and Energy Economics, Volume 16, Issue 4, November 1994, Pages 357–371

Israel, M. and J.R. Lund, “Recent California Water Transfers: Implications for Water Management,” Natural Resources Journal, Vol. 35, pp. 1-32, Winter 1995

Lund, J. et al., (2010), Comparing Futures for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, February

Lund, J.R. and M. Israel, “Water Transfers in Water Resource Systems,” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, ASCE, Vol. 121, No. 2, pp. 193-205, March-April 1995

Thompson, B. (2000), “Markets for Nature,” William and Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review, Vol. 25:261

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Parr for the Course – Holistic Fish Conservation

by Nan Frobish

April 1, 2022

Juvenile Chinook Salmon lack rearing habitat in the Central Valley due to pervasive land use change and altered hydrology. Historically, juvenile salmon (or parr) had access to roughly four million acres of seasonal floodplain which provided ideal growth conditions before transitioning to the ocean. Managed wetlands and flooded off-season agricultural fields can provide surrogate habitat to mitigate some habitat losses. A pilot program by fishery agencies and the PGA has turned their attention to a previously untapped habitat by stocking immature salmon parr to golf course wetland ponds to increase habitat and population. The program, coined “Parr for the Course”, serves to increase the salmon population after their decline. This could be salmon conservationists’ mulligan for past failures.

Golf course ponds are ideal habitats for juvenile fish due to their higher than average food productivity, protection from predators, and overall comfort. Compared to the remaining habitat that has long endured pervasive land use change and altered hydrology, these ponds create a sort of oasis in the habitat desert, sheltering parr from their long history of abuse. While discussing new mitigation efforts for these threatened fish, biologists at the Center for Watershed Sciences realized the potential for using these areas for fish conservation, piloting the effort at a local golf course. The River Redwoods Golf Club in Sutter County was chosen for its location near migratory pathways for Feather River and Butte Creek, allowing fish easy access back to the river for outmigration. Fish were planted at the Golf Club in February, during the time of year when juvenile salmon would need to access historic floodplain habitat (photo 1). Over the next several weeks, the fish were monitored and growth rates were measured, comparing them to other rearing habitats in the area. Parr for the Course fish that had reared in these golf ponds grew at faster rates compared to fish planted in canals and rivers, growing at about 0.5g/day. This might not sound like a lot of weight, but for a juvenile salmon, this can make the difference between surviving the journey to the ocean or being consumed by a predator. A real hole in one for the fish! 

Photo 1. Growth of salmon in 3 different habitats, displaying how fish in golf course ponds grow better than their canal and river reared counterparts.

Faster growth occurs in the ponds due to a highly productive detrital food webs. Jeffres et al., (2020) found that juvenile salmon in floodplain habitats are feeding primarily from a detrital based food web. In golf courses, grass clippings from the course’s constant upkeep are a source of nutrients in the pond to kickstart the detrital pathway. This supports a more productive environment, filled with zooplankton for the fish to consume. These detrital food webs also create a distinct isotopic fingerprint that can be permanently archived in tissues such as fish eye lenses. When fish return to spawn as adults, researchers can take the fish eye lens to see which fish used golf ponds and who didn’t (Tilcock et al. 2021). Knowing how many salmon from these golf ponds returned to spawn, allows researchers to quantitatively evaluate the success of Parr for the Course. 

Photo 2. Juvenile Chinook Salmon being stocked in golf ponds. 

Fish planted in these ponds don’t need to worry when they hear “birdie”, because golf ponds also provide excellent predator refugia. Many perils exist in the wild for juvenile salmon as they migrate to the ocean, including predation by many different birds. Golfers swinging their clubs and yelling “Fore!” naturally prevents birds from wanting to land near the water, preventing predators from accessing the ponds. This decrease in bird activity also contributes to higher numbers of insects present in the ponds, establishing another important food source for these juvenile salmon and, again, contributing to the productivity of this environment. In addition to birds being removed from the ponds, these ponds lack other natural predators. This allows the fish to grow in a stress-free, rich environment, before being released into the river. 

Along with being a predator-free habitat, the ponds have trees on their borders to shade growing salmon. Since the water in the ponds is not straight from the mountain snow melt, it is vital that the water remain cool for fish to survive, especially later in spring. Rain from the winter should be enough to keep the waters at an ideal condition.Underwater roots of trees also give fish  safe havens from rogue golf balls. 

Photo 3. Researchers from the Center for Watershed Sciences measuring and weighing fish  growth in the ponds. 

In return for giving young salmon a better chance of survival, the fish assist by suppressing pests. Chinch Bug and Sod Webworms are among the most common pests for golf courses. They eat grass, leave tunnels under turf and lead to brown patches. These bugs will one way or another fly across the ponds and when they land on the water, they are snatched by hungry young salmon. This mutualistic relationship benefits both the ecology and economy.

Because of the tee-rific success of this pilot year, these fishery agencies are committed to strike while the iron is hot to implement golf course habitats all across the Central Valley. This would provide opportunities for researchers from across the state and for diverse stakeholders to participate in conserving this important species. Parr for the Course has shown us a unique way research can be incorporated into everyday life and give hope for fish conservation.

Photo 4. Researcher from CWS sampling the golf pond food web while a golfer takes a one-stroke penalty after hitting his ball into the pond. 

Photo 5. Sample from the golf ponds showing the high food web productivity from these golf ponds. 

Further Readings

Jeffres, C.A., Holmes, E.J., Sommer, T.R., & Katz, J.V.E. (2020). Detrital food web contributes to aquatic ecosystem productivity and rapid salmon growth in a managed floodplain. PLoS One, 15(9): e0216019. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0216019 

Bell-Tilcock, M., Jeffres, C.A., Rypel, A.L., et al. (2021). Advancing diet reconstruction in fish eye lenses. Methods Ecol Evol, 12: 449– 457. https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13543

Holmes, E.J., Saffarinia, P., Rypel, A.L., Bell-Tilcock, M.N., Katz, J.V., et al. (2021) Reconciling fish and farms: Methods for managing California rice fields as salmon habitat. PLoS One, 16(2): e0237686. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0237686

Bell-Tilcock, M., Jeffres, C.A., Rypel, A.L., Willmes, M., Armstrong, R.A., et al. (2021) Biogeochemical processes create distinct isotopic fingerprints to track floodplain rearing of juvenile salmon. PLoS One 16(10): e0257444. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0257444

Cordoleani, F., Holmes, E., Bell-Tilcock, M., Johnson, R.C., & Jeffres, C. (2022). Variability in foodscapes and fish growth across a habitat mosaic: Implications for management and Ecosystem Restoration. Ecological Indicators, 136, 108681. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolind.2022.108681 

Nan Frobish is the nom-de-blog, in this case, for the team of Miranda Bell Tilcock, Abigail Ward, Francheska Torres, Scott Smith, Alexandra Chu, Eric Holmes, and Carson Jeffres.

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Nature has solutions…What are they? And why do they matter?

By Andrew L. Rypel

South Delta” by Laura Cunningham. An artistic recreation of fish and wildlife habitat in the Central Valley. Image use in blog courtesy of the artist.

California’s water problems are intense; so much so they are often referred to as ‘wicked’ for their extraordinary depth of complexity and general unsolvability. Yet it recently occurred to me that some of the better and more creative solutions often derive from one particular source – nature itself. Indeed, studies of nature-based solutions or ‘NBS’ are rising rapidly (Davies and Lafortezza 2019; Nelson et al. 2020; Acreman et al. 2021), and are especially popular within the NGO and environmental communities. This blog is a brief exploration of the concept, examples of nature-based solutions, both for California water and also generally, and why they might matter to us. As a fish ecologist, most of my thoughts are, as usual, focused on the status and conservation of our native fishes. I would love to hear your favorite examples of NBS or general thoughts on this topic in any area of water management or otherwise in the comments sections below.

Methods of blending Indigenous knowledge systems and Western approaches are important and also increasing (Reid et al. 2020), but have distinct connections with nature-based solutions. For example, Western science-based approaches are perhaps sometimes less effective because of an overemphasis on certainty and extent to which nature is “controllable” (Charles 2001). Indeed, Townsend et al. 2020 specifically suggests Indigenous knowledge and engagement are vital to success of nature-based solutions, especially with regards to climate change. Indigneous frameworks have the potential to help us all learn, to build back trust, and to move towards peaceful plural existence (Reed et al. 2022).

Early autumn snowfall at a beaver pond. Lamoille Canyon, Nevada. Photo by Famartin, Creative Commons Attribution from wikimedia.org

Beavers are one important nature-based solution that just aren’t discussed enough! During the early 1800s, fashion trends played an unusual role in the decline of Pacific salmon populations. Though perhaps odd to us now, at that time, the classic beaver hat was considered high fashion. Further, the main source of beaver pelts was California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia. Because of territorialism (e.g., between various fur-trapping regions), beavers were purposefully and quickly deleted from many salmon-producing streams to discourage nearby trapper encroachment. The net effect was something referred to as the “fur desert” (Ott 2003). Yet as beaver populations dwindled, so too did occurrence of beaver dams along the West Coast. This was a problem for fishes because native salmon and trout populations are known to exploit beaver ponds as productive rearing habitats for their young (Talabere 2002; Pollock et al. 2004; Herbold et al. 2018). For those of us interested in improving native trout and salmonid habitats, beaver conservation and reintroduction must be part of the larger fix (Wathen et al. 2019; Pollock et al. 2019). Mountain meadow restoration in particular has been floated as an important element to climate resilience in California, and is part of the California Water Resilience Portfolio. The meadow collaborative is currently working to support restoration of these systems. But scaling any substantial increase in mountain meadow acreage will need more beavers.

California winter-flooded rice farm where Chinook salmon were reared during 2022. Photo by Derrick Alcott.

There are other nature-based solutions we talk about frequently on this blog. I am personally deeply engaged with the salmon-rice project. Sacramento Valley Chinook salmon evolved within a landscape full of floodplains and wetlands (see artistic recreation by Laura Cunningham, above). Juvenile Chinook salmon, born to clear snowmelt streams of the Sierras out-migrated onto the valley floor where they reared, fed on the luxurious carbon and floodplain foods, and gained energy for the final leg of their arduous journey to the Pacific Ocean. Fast forward to present day, and 95% of the floodplain in the Central Valley is gone. However, there are roughly 500,000 acres of rice fields that might be used more smartly to assist struggling salmon populations (Katz et al. 2017; Holmes et al. 2020). Mimicking historical floodplains using rice fields is already a widely known and effective conservation practice for migratory birds of the Sacramento Valley (Bird et al. 2000, Eadie et. al. 2008). Thus, it follows that these same practices might work for native fishes. We just need to figure it out! Here is a recent podcast on the topic. There is also an indication that having fish on rice fields might help mitigate flux of methane (a greenhouse gas), a concept that connects with the regenerative agriculture movement described below. 

Environmental flows are a nature-based solution that receives much attention from CWS and California scientists (e.g., Yarnell et al. 2020; Grantham et al. 2022; Yarnell et al. 2022). Perhaps “flows” are about more than just a minimum value of water needed in a river. The magnitude and frequency, timing, duration, and rate of change in flows all matter (Poff et al. 1997). Further, the quality of the water may also matter. There is rightfully much interest in this science, mainly because it aims to make the most of the water we do have, and it has also been shown to actually work (Kendy et al. 2017; Chen and Wu 2019; Tickner et al. 2020). There are interesting parallel frameworks afoot for describing natural thermal regimes of streams – see Willis et al. 2021. However, there is still much science needed to figure this all out in California, and because it involves water users and endangered species, it is bound to be controversial. Nonetheless, long-term hydrographs of natural rivers combined with ecological data on these same systems provide windows into the natural mechanics of river ecosystem function. Scientists unlocking these nature-based secrets should be in high demand by water professionals in California in the future.

‘Regenerative agriculture’ is a larger movement also worth examining within the context of NBS (Schulte et al. 2021). Agriculture is a modern miracle – we can feed many more people now on the same amount of arable land as in 1960. Nonetheless, such high productivity and land efficiency also comes at an environmental price. Effects of conventional row crop agriculture on soils (Arnhold et al. 2014; Fageria et al. 2004), insects (critical to soil health) (Wagner et al. 2021), water quality (Baker 1985), and wildlife (Brinkman et al. 2005) are well-documented (Rhodes et al. 2017). Although no legal or regulatory definition of ‘regenerative agriculture’ exists, a surge in academic research indicates the topic is gaining traction with scholars (Newton et al. 2020). Examples of regenerative agriculture include reductions in tillage, use of cover crops and crop rotations, increasing crop plant diversity, restoration of native plants and habitats, integration of free-range livestock, use of ecological or natural principals, organic methods, focus on smaller scale systems, holistic grazing, incorporation of local knowledge, and others (Newton et al. 2020). In Iowa corn and soybean fields, replacing just 10% of land with strips of restored prairie increased overall biodiversity and ecosystem services with almost no impacts to crop production (Schulte et al. 2017). In Indiana, winter cover crops decreased soil nitrate by >50% while soil N mineralization and nitrification rates increased (Christopher et al. 2021). The regenerative agriculture movement is clearly quite real and is generating innovation within the agricultural sector.

“Regenerative agriculture is the renewal of a food and farming system that focuses on the whole chain from soil health to plant health to animal health and then to human health. The nutrient density of the foods that we produce are related to the health of the soil. How biologically active is that soil? You know there are more microorganisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on this planet. Think about that!”

Elements of nature-based solutions are beginning to trickle into popular culture. For example, the “paleo diet” or “primal blueprint” are nouveau approaches to eating that emphasize consumption of unprocessed natural foods, similar to the way pre-industrial ancestors might have eaten. Many of the foods recommended in these diets connect back to sustainable and regenerative agricultural methods to promote consumption of nutrient-dense foods. 

Ultimately, nature-based solutions are a linked aspect to management of reconciled, working landscapes. Yet while both concepts are closely related, they are also decidedly distinct. Reconciliation ecology emphasizes balance between human and environmental needs. It also emphasizes that humans are in charge, and must assume responsibility for decision making. In contrast, nature-based solutions are often viable solutions to human problems, but are likely especially desirable inside human-dominated environments such as working lands. Indeed, one of California’s major environmental policy initiatives currently touts nature-based solutions as a method for accelerating our region’s climate change goals. These innovations will likely underpin the emerging climate solutions sector of California’s economy.

There are problems with the NBS movement too. The topic has been criticized for “green-washing” – that is, conflating and confusing public debate, wasting resources, and drawing attention away from more pressing needs (Giller et al. 2021). There are also critical questions. Where should the line be drawn as to what counts as a NBS? How should such practices be rewarded through payment programs and the like? As one example, I drove past an almond orchard the other day brightly advertising how they were ‘fighting climate change’ and ‘going to net zero’. Is this a NBS? Furthermore, there are probably cases when an engineered solution might be better. If I were living below sea level on a hurricane-prone coastline, I might prefer a really strong, well-engineered levee than a patch of mangroves. In the long-run, people and ecosystems need both nature and engineering, and there should be room for a portfolio of solutions. Further, a healthy dose of skepticism is required to properly vet any potential NBS. Fortunately, science is one of the most powerful tools ever developed to explore the efficacy of solutions – whether engineered, nature-based, or a combination.

California water has major problems, especially as we enter into another year of intense drought. We need solutions that will truly work over the long haul. Sometimes extensively engineered solutions are touted as “silver bullets” for what are actually highly complicated and long-running challenges exacerbated by hard-to-control factors like human population growth, climate change, and macroeconomics. In the case of our declining native fish fauna, it is clear that it took many years to get into this mess, and any real solution requires time to correct. Furthermore, I have the sense that we are just scratching the surface with the vast possibilities of nature-based solutions. Indigenous partnerships will be key to finding new solutions with the potential to heal both nature and our peoples. Sadly, in many cases, we don’t even know what the potential solutions might be because of shifting baselines and constant modification of the landscape. As we move forward, let’s collectively keep our eyes glued for creative nature-based solutions, listen to one another, maintain a critical eye, and collectively engage to make our landscape and water practices more sustainable for future generations.

Putah Creek – a reconciled Central Valley ecosystem where nature-based solutions have been put into action.

Andrew 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 Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further Reading

Grantham, T., J. Howard, B. Lane, R. Lusardi, S. Sandoval-Solis, E. Stein, S. Yarnell, and J. Zimmerman. 2020. Functional Flows Can Improve Environmental Water Management in California https://californiawaterblog.com/2020/11/29/functional-flows-can-improve-environmental-water-management-in-california/

Rypel, A.L., P.B. Moyle, and J. Lund. 2021. A swiss cheese model for fish conservation in California. https://californiawaterblog.com/2021/01/24/a-swiss-cheese-model-for-fish-conservation-in-california/

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/

Literature Cited

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Arnhold, S., S. Lindner, B. Lee, E. Martin, J. Kettering, T. T. Nguyen, T. Koellner, Y. S. Ok, and B. Huwe. 2014. Conventional and organic farming: soil erosion and conservation potential for row crop cultivation. Geoderma 219:89-105.

Baker, D. B. 1985. Regional water quality impacts of intensive row-crop agriculture: a Lake Erie Basin case study. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 40(1):125-132.

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Charles, A.T. 2001. Sustainable Fishery Systems. Wiley-Blackwell.

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Giller, K. E., R. Hijbeek, J. A. Andersson, and J. Sumberg. 2021. Regenerative agriculture: an agronomic perspective. Outlook on Agriculture 50(1):13-25.

Grantham, T. E., D. M. Carlisle, J. Howard, B. Lane, R. Lusardi, A. Obester, S. Sandoval-Solis, B. Stanford, E. D. Stein, and K. T. Taniguchi-Quan. 2022. Modeling functional flows in California’s rivers. Frontiers in Environmental Science 10:787473.

Herbold, B., S. M. Carlson, R. Henery, R. C. Johnson, N. Mantua, M. McClure, P. B. Moyle, and T. Sommer. 2018. Managing for salmon resilience in California’s variable and changing climate. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 16(2).

Holmes, E. J., P. Saffarinia, A. L. Rypel, M. N. Bell-Tilcock, J. V. Katz, and C. A. Jeffres. 2021. Reconciling fish and farms: Methods for managing California rice fields as salmon habitat. PLoS ONE 16(2):e0237686.

Katz, J. V. E., C. Jeffres, J. L. Conrad, T. R. Sommer, J. Martinez, S. Brumbaugh, N. Corline, and P. B. Moyle. 2017. Floodplain farm fields provide novel rearing habitat for Chinook salmon. PloS ONE 12(6):e0177409.

Kendy, E., K. W. Flessa, K. J. Schlatter, A. Carlos, O. M. H. Huerta, Y. K. Carrillo-Guerrero, and E. Guillen. 2017. Leveraging environmental flows to reform water management policy: lessons learned from the 2014 Colorado River Delta pulse flow. Ecological Engineering 106:683-694.

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Newton, P., N. Civita, L. Frankel-Goldwater, K. Bartel, and C. Johns. 2020. What is regenerative agriculture? A review of scholar and practitioner definitions based on processes and outcomes. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems 4:194.

Ott, J. 2003. “Ruining” the rivers in the Snake Country: The Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur desert policy. Oregon Historical Quarterly 104:166-195.

Poff, N. L., J. D. Allan, M. B. Bain, J. R. Karr, K. L. Prestegaard, B. D. Richter, R. E. Sparks, and J. C. Stromberg. 1997. The natural flow regime. BioScience 47(11):769-784.

Pollock, M. M., G. R. Pess, T. J. Beechie, and D. R. Montgomery. 2004. The importance of beaver ponds to coho salmon production in the Stillaguamish River basin, Washington, USA. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 24(3):749-760.

Pollock, M. M., S. Witmore, and E. Yokel. 2019. A field experiment to assess passage of juvenile salmonids across beaver dams during low flow conditions in a tributary to the Klamath River, California, USA. bioRxiv:856252.

Reed, G., N. D. Brunet, D. McGregor, C. Scurr, T. Sadik, J. Lavigne, and S. Longboat. 2022. Toward Indigenous visions of nature-based solutions: an exploration into Canadian federal climate policy. Climate Policy:1-20.

Reid, A. J., L. E. Eckert, J. F. Lane, N. Young, S. G. Hinch, C. T. Darimont, S. J. Cooke, N. C. Ban, and A. Marshall. 2021. “Two‐Eyed Seeing”: an Indigenous framework to transform fisheries research and management. Fish and Fisheries 22(2):243-261.

Rhodes, C. J. 2017. The imperative for regenerative agriculture. Science Progress 100(1):80-129.

Schulte, L. A., B. E. Dale, S. Bozzetto, M. Liebman, G. M. Souza, N. Haddad, T. L. Richard, B. Basso, R. C. Brown, and J. A. Hilbert. 2021. Meeting global challenges with regenerative agriculture producing food and energy. Nature Sustainability:1-5.

Schulte, L. A., J. Niemi, M. J. Helmers, M. Liebman, J. G. Arbuckle, D. E. James, R. K. Kolka, M. E. O’Neal, M. D. Tomer, and J. C. Tyndall. 2017. Prairie strips improve biodiversity and the delivery of multiple ecosystem services from corn–soybean croplands. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(42):11247-11252.

Talabere, A. G. 2002. Influence of water temperature and beaver ponds on Lahontan cutthroat trout in a high-desert stream, southeastern Oregon. MS Thesis Oregon State University.

Tickner, D., N. Kaushal, R. Speed, and R. Tharme. 2020. Implementing environmental flows: Lessons for policy and practice. Frontiers in Environmental Science 8:106.

Townsend, J., F. Moola, and M.-K. Craig. 2020. Indigenous Peoples are critical to the success of nature-based solutions to climate change. FACETS 5(1):551-556.

Wagner, D. L., E. M. Grames, M. L. Forister, M. R. Berenbaum, and D. Stopak. 2021. Insect decline in the Anthropocene: death by a thousand cuts. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118(2).

Wathen, G., J. E. Allgeier, N. Bouwes, M. M. Pollock, D. E. Schindler, and C. E. Jordan. 2019. Beaver activity increases habitat complexity and spatial partitioning by steelhead trout. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 76(7):1086-1095.

Willis, A. D., R. A. Peek, and A. L. Rypel. 2021. Classifying California’s stream thermal regimes for cold-water conservation. PloS ONE 16(8):e0256286.

Yarnell, S. M., E. D. Stein, J. A. Webb, T. Grantham, R. A. Lusardi, J. Zimmerman, R. A. Peek, B. A. Lane, J. Howard, and S. Sandoval‐Solis. 2020. A functional flows approach to selecting ecologically relevant flow metrics for environmental flow applications. River Research and Applications 36(2):318-324.

Yarnell, S. M., A. Willis, A. Obester, R. A. Peek, R. A. Lusardi, J. Zimmerman, T. E. Grantham, and E. D. Stein. 2022. Functional flows in groundwater-influenced streams: application of the California environmental flows framework to determine ecological flow needs. Frontiers in Environmental Science:752.

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Drought Year Three in California, 2022

by Jay Lund

2022 is another drought year, although we won’t know exactly how dry for about another month.  Precipitation and snowpack this year in California are below average.  In addition, the prolonged dry and warm months of January through March of this year’s “wet” season will have evaporated more water from watersheds and reduced snowpack, reducing runoff and groundwater recharge from this year’s modest precipitation and likely lengthening this year’s wildfire season. 

Some reservoirs did refill during the wetter-than usual December, but many of the largest reservoirs remain significantly lower than at this time last year, in the 2nd year of this drought.  This dry year already has more precipitation than 2021, and hopefully more runoff, but we enter this year with less stored water. 

Agricultural surface water deliveries are already scheduled to be significantly reduced, some urban areas will likely have mandatory water use reductions, and prospects for salmon and other native species are not promising. This now three-year drought could go on for still more years (something we won’t know for sure until March 2023).

What should we do for this third year of drought?

Overall, California is fairly well prepared for drought, but some sectors and regions are much more vulnerable than others and require special attention. We naturally and usefully focus on California’s drought weaknesses,

Urban areas

Urban areas are a small proportion of human water use in California, but about half of urban water use is for landscape irrigation.  So urban areas have considerable potential to reduce their water use, in percentage terms, but even large percent reductions, though useful, usually do not provide large volumes of water for the environment. 

Water conserved in urban areas can serve several purposes: a) saving water in storage for urban users to use in additional dry years, b) increasing water available for more junior agricultural water users, c) making more water available for the environment.  Prudent urban water managers tend to maximize storage of water for additional dry years, with some of this stored water becoming available to others in future wet years.  Remaining conserved water tends to mostly become available for the larger thirstier agricultural sector.  Only sometimes does conserved urban water make large amounts of water available for struggling ecosystems. 

Maintaining the financial sustainability of urban water systems is challenging with drought.  Urban water supply costs are largely fixed (for infrastructure and people) and vary little with water delivery volumes.  Indeed, drought raises costs as management effort increases (for increasing water conservation and using more expensive water sources).  Urban water utilities already having special drought rate structures are better prepared for the financial problems of drought. But water utilities lacking special drought rate structures already are likely to see their financial reserves tested or risk having unpopular rate hike proceedings detract from simultaneous requests for additional water use reductions.  Urban water utilities in California should all have pre-established drought water rate structures that can be called upon.

Agriculture

Agriculture is by far the largest organized water use in California.  Overall, agriculture again will see much larger water supply reductions than urban areas, even after farmers pump additional groundwater to make up for reduced surface water supplies.  In 2021, the drought cost agriculture about $1 billion, about a 2% reduction in crop revenues and several thousand jobs lost for lower-income communities.  Last year, these impacts were disproportionately felt in the Sacramento and Tulare basins, and were also substantial elsewhere (Medellin et al 2021). 

Drought impacts are especially severe for rural counties and lower-income workers there, where agriculture is often the major economic engine and employer.  Overall, the state economy is well insulated and prepared for drought, and is in a position to redress some of these regional economic impacts. The growth of more profitable permanent crops has increased agriculture’s economic ability overall to endure droughts, so long as groundwater and more fallow-able annual crops also exist.

This and future drought impacts on agriculture will extend beyond the end of this dry period, as future cropping will need to be reduced to replenish the additional groundwater pumping during this drought to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and prepare for the next drought.  Some large agricultural areas have begun assessing pumping fees exceeding $300/acre-foot to reduce long-term water use and fund groundwater replenishment.  In the long run, ending groundwater overdraft and reducing agricultural drought impacts will require reducing irrigated acreage statewide by about 10-15%, mostly from less profitable crops grown on less productive soils.

Rural drinking water

Rural drinking water supplies from wells are again threatened and will be interrupted by falling groundwater tables from additional agricultural pumping during drought.  These problems affect about one hundred small community water systems and thousands of rural household wells.  Short-term water-hauling and long-term consolidation into bigger systems when possible, deeper wells, and ending groundwater overdraft are the only solutions.  These are individually expensive solutions (some more than others) that often face local political difficulties.  The state is getting better with organizing relief for some of these systems, but the state, counties, and local systems themselves have a long way to go.

Ecosystems

Ecosystems are the water use sector hardest hit by recent droughts and the current drought.  Wild spawning of winter-run salmon was reduced by 95% in 2021 and needed to be supplemented by emergency hatchery releases.  The drought also reduced other salmon runs and populations of other native fishes and birds. 

Despite valiant efforts to rescue several endangered species during drought, California is not nearly prepared or effectively organized for preparing habitats and other conditions for native ecosystems to be sustained through drought.  The magnitude and ubiquity of native habitat destruction over 150 years has overwhelmed the naturally evolved substantial drought adaptations of California’s aquatic ecosystems.  A bright spot and example of effective management is how Pacific Flyway bird species are being sustained by long-term development of permanent and seasonal wildlife refuges with additional operational support and management during droughts – involving close coordination among state and federal agencies as well as environmental organizations, hunters, and land owners.

Forests and wildfires are the areas most affected by drought.  Drought increases stresses and deaths of forests, which increases the severity of wildfires extending years after dry years end.  The $9 billion direct costs of the 2012-2016 drought were dwarfed by the many tens of billions of dollars in damages and many deaths from worsened wildfires in the following years.  Indeed, the biggest urban impacts of the previous drought were undoubtedly from air quality economic and health impacts from the ensuing worsened wildfires.

Conclusions

California’s climate has always had frequent and sometimes prolonged droughts.  Urban and agricultural water users have developed major infrastructure and water management to largely dampen the effects of such droughts.  Changes in climate, especially higher temperatures, are making these droughts deeper and probably longer, which will require additional preparations.

The same infrastructure improvements that have insulated human water users from drought, have helped overwhelm the ability of native aquatic ecosystems to endure droughts.  Similarly, the prolonged suppression of forest fires has made forests more vulnerable to large wildfires.

We do not know long much longer this drought will last beyond its third year.  We can be sure that, if water is managed well, this drought will not soon be devastating to California, overall.  Nevertheless, this drought will have major impacts to some regions and sectors, which should motivate improvements to water and ecosystem management for the long term.

California has become more resilient to drought with steady adaptation and improved preparation from each drought, particularly from better human organization of water management (Pinter 2019; Lund et al. 2018).  Natural evolution also made California’s natural ecosystems relatively resilient to droughts until this resilience was overwhelmed by human land and water management.  Today, these human and natural systems are mutually-dependent for their sustainability, and we must better organize these combined efforts for this and future more severe droughts.

Further readings

Lund, J.R., J. Medellin-Azuara, J. Durand, and K. Stone, “Lessons from California’s 2012-2016 Drought,” J. of Water Resources Planning and Management, Vol 144, No. 10, October 2018.

Medellín-Azuara, J, et al. (2022), Economic Impacts of the 2021 Drought on California Agriculture – Preliminary Report, UC Merced.

Pinter, N., J. Lund, and P. Moyle. “The California Water Model: Resilience through Failure,” Hydrological Processes, Vol. 22, Iss. 12, pp. 1775-1779, 2019.

Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California – Davis. He writes this after recently traveling across northern California’s watersheds, where reservoir levels are low and snowpack almost non-existent for mid-March, fire scars for several years of wildfire are prevalent, and more orchards are being planted than removed.

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Between a rock and a dry place: effects of drought on stream drying patterns in California’s intermittent streams

By Hana Moidu, Mariska Obedzinski, Stephanie Carlson, and Ted Grantham

You may have heard the saying from the Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” If you walk along a coastal stream in California at the end of the summer, you will understand the dynamic nature of these systems. In a wet year, such as 2017, you might find a stream that is fully connected with flowing water. But in a dry year, like 2021, you might walk miles of dry stream channel before discovering an isolated pool. Many of California’s streams naturally become intermittent at some point in the dry season. However, when and where stream channels go dry is highly variable year-to-year and difficult to predict (van Meerveld et al., 2020).

Intermittent streams may seem like harsh environments, but are actually hotspots for freshwater biodiversity. Native California fishes, invertebrates, and other aquatic organisms have evolved a variety of adaptions for the natural seasonal drying of streams. Many native species, including salmon and trout, depend on intermittent streams. However, climate change is intensifying drought in California (Diffenbaugh et al., 2015), decreasing stream flows and prolonging dry seasons, enhancing the vulnerability of freshwater species.

What do these changes mean for intermittent streams and the biodiversity they support? Will intermittent streams exhibit more extensive seasonal drying in drought years? If so, what management strategies are needed to limit impacts to native species? The Russian River watershed is an ideal system for exploring these questions.

California Sea Grant Russian River and Salmon Steelhead Monitoring Program field crew conducting a wet dry mapping survey in Gray Creek in Sonoma County, California in August 2021 (photo courtesy of California Sea Grant Russian River and Salmon Steelhead Monitoring Program).

Since 2012, the California Sea Grant Russian River and Salmon Steelhead Monitoring Program has monitored tributaries to the Russian River, surveying where wetted channels persist at the end of the summer. Field crews walk the length of the stream and map the presence of surface water with a GPS unit (Fig. 1). Over many years of monitoring, they realized that some streams contract in proportion to the amount of rainfall in the previous wet season (Mill Creek in Fig. 2), while others show the same pattern of drying year after year (Dutch Bill Creek in Fig 2). To understand why different streams exhibit different drying patterns, we analyzed wetted channel survey data collected at 25 streams between 2012-2019.

Figure 2. End-of-dry-season wetted-habitat conditions for Dutchbill Creek and Mill Creek from 2012-2018.

In our recently-published study, a statistical model determined the influence of various physical factors (such as topography, soils, and geology) and climatic variables (such as antecedent rainfall and dry season temperatures) on the extent and interannual variability of stream drying. Not surprisingly, rainfall in the previous wet season was the most important variable predicting stream drying –more rainfall in the wet season led to less drying at the end of the dry season.

Total rainfall over the previous 5 years also influenced stream drying. This “hydrologic memory” occurs when the landscape retains the effects of a hydroclimatic event longer after it occurs (Jacobs et al., 2020). This means that in some streams, a wet year may not produce the expected higher flows if it is preceded by a multi-year drought. Conversely, an unusually dry year may not result in the same amount of stream drying after high precipitation in previous years. The degree to which streams showed “hydrologic memory” was related to the underlying geology and soil characteristics of their watersheds.

Figure 3. Model-predicted stability of end-of-season wetted habitat for tributary streams in the Lower and Middle Russian River watershed.

The model helped characterize stream drying patterns across the entire lower Russian River watershed over the past 10 years. We classified stream reaches (100-m segments of the stream network) as “reliably dry” and “reliably wet” – those expected to be dry and wet, respectively, regardless of antecedent rainfall – and as “variable” – those that tend to be wet or dry depending on the amount of rainfall in the wet season (Fig. 3).

These classifications predict where aquatic habitat is likely to persist, which can aid resource managers. For example, stream reaches identified as reliably wet could serve as critical drought refugia for native aquatic species, such as coho salmon and steelhead (Vander Vorste et al., 2020), and warrant increased protection. Similarly, reaches with variable drying patterns should be monitored during drought to assess if management interventions are needed. For example, streams at risk of drying might be targeted by California’s Department of Fish and Wildlife for coho salmon rescue and relocation, as has been performed in previous droughts.  Efforts to maintain streamflows during drought, such as through voluntary efforts or management actions, could also be focused on streams most vulnerable to drying. As the frequency and severity of drought continues to increase, efforts to predict stream drying can play an important role in improving management and protection of intermittent streams and the aquatic biodiversity they support.

Hana Moidu is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, working with Stephanie Carlson and Ted Grantham. Mariska Obedzinski is a PhD student at UC Berkeley working with Stephanie Carlson and Ted Grantham. She is also a California Sea Grant Extension Specialist and has coordinated the Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program for over 15 years. Stephanie Carlson is a Professor in the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Department at UC Berkeley. Ted Grantham is an Assistant Cooperative Extension Specialist and Adjunct Professor in the Environmental Science, Policy, and Management Department at UC Berkeley.

Further Reading:

Bogan, M.T., Leidy, R.A., Neuhaus, L., Hernandez, C.J. & Carlson, S.M. 2019. Biodiversity value of remnant pools in an intermittent stream during the great California drought. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 29(6): 976-989.

Diffenbaugh, N. S., Swain, D. L. & Touma, D. 2015. Anthropogenic warming has increased drought risk in California. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112(13): 3931–3936.

Jacobs, E. M., Bertassello, L. E. & Rao, P. S. C. 2020. Drivers of regional soil water storage memory and persistence. Vadose Zone Journal 19(1): e20050.

*Moidu, H., Obedzinski, M., Carlson, S.M. & Grantham, T.E. 2021. Spatial patterns and sensitivity of intermittent stream drying to climate variability. Water Resources Research e2021WR030314.

Vander Vorste, R., Obedzinski, M., Nossaman Pierce, S., Carlson, S.M. & Grantham, T.E., 2020. Refuges and ecological traps: Extreme drought threatens persistence of an endangered fish in intermittent streams. Global Change Biology 26(7): 3834-3845.

van Meerveld, H. J. I., Sauquet, E., Gallart, F., Sefton, C., Seibert, J. & Bishop, K. 2020. Aqua temporaria incognita. Hydrological Processes 34(26): 5704–5711.

*Please email the lead author (hanamoidu@berkeley.edu) for a copy of the full article!

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Shift happens

By Miranda Bell-Tilcock, Rachel Alsheikh, and Malte Willmes

Doing science is hard. Even in the best of times, it’s incredibly difficult, with many failures, mishaps, and disappointments along the road. More so than just smarts, perseverance, resilience, and teamwork are essential to seeing a project from initial field and lab studies to final conclusions.

If everything aligns, you may write a scientific paper to add to the vast library of science knowledge. Maybe it’s OK, then, that at the end of the road you let your guard down a little bit. Next thing you know, your final paper, in all its published glory…has a typo. Some typos are small, a missing comma somewhere (though remember, commas save lives. Friendly intent: Let’s eat, Grandma! vs. Cannibalistic: Let’s eat Grandma!) or a misspelled word that has little or no impact on the overall meaning of your text.

Recently, we published a paper detailing a diet-shift experiment that spanned multiple years with how isotopes can help identify off-channel habitat used by juvenile Chinook Salmon. This study used three stable isotopes (δ¹³C, δ¹⁵N, δ³⁴S) to characterize differences in food webs between off channel habitat and the adjacent river. We found differences in δ¹³C and δ³⁴S in the stomach contents between the two habitats with the off-channel having much lower values than the river. These differences were seen in the muscle tissue as well as the otolith for each fish. Using these two isotopes together, provides a toolset to quantify the role of off-channel habitats for fish. 

After years of work, we were excited to publish these data about food webs and isotopes but sometimes,  

sh#ft just happens: 


Can you spot our typo below?

Figure 1. An unfortunate typo. Bell-Tilcock et al., 2021, PLOS One.

That’s supposed to say “diet-shift”. With an f. That f is really crucial, isn’t it?

Getting a typo pointed out to you minutes after a paper goes live is embarrassing. While Miranda can find the funny factor in anything and immediately embraced the humor in the situation, this quote from Darwin’s famous letter to Charles Lyell better summarized Malte’s feelings:

But I am very poorly today & very stupid & I hate everybody & everything. One lives only to make blunders.”― Charles Darwin, The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, Volume 9, 1861

Our typo had survived several months with multiple drafts that traveled through many people, including all of our coauthors, four reviewers, and the journal’s copyeditors. Although many edits were made to the paper and all numbers and figures were triple-checked, nobody caught this typo. Maybe because it was in a subheader, our brains skipped over it. We even read the paper out loud, and still the typo wasn’t caught until a friend pointed it out after publication.

We immediately reached out to the journal to inquire about getting the typo fixed. You would expect that correcting an innocent mistake, one that doesn’t change the results of a manuscript, would be a straightforward and easy process, but that’s not the case. Any significant changes to a paper require a formal correction process (for example, comments; or in serious cases, retraction and resubmission), but there is no standard method to fix a small, annoying (embarrassing) mistake. The journal only offered that a short, regretful comment could appear below the paper. This imperfect solution was not unique to this journal, in fact, it’s the same answer for most, and in many ways it is counter-intuitive. Since the typo didn’t constitute a significant error, we decided against making a formal correction. We were left with one option: leaving it as is. And then writing this blog post about it.

But why do we even make typos, and why do they seem common in scientific papers that are supposedly well-checked by many smart and dedicated people? Part of the answer comes from our familiarity with text we spend a lot of time on. Our brain loves to take shortcuts. By the time we’re looking at a final version, we know the text well, so well that our brain doesn’t actually read it anymore. It doesn’t need to. It already knows it.

Figure 2. Take a break so that your Brian sees the text with new eyes. Wonderful comic from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal by Zach Weinersmith.

A good example of our brain’s amazing ability to recognize text is that yuo cna raed tihs. Btu how cmoe we can raed wrods eevn wehn the letrtes are julbmed? Our brain generally doesn’t read words one letter at a time but rather processes them in their entirety all at once. Moreover, it skims sentences at high speed to infer their meaning while barely looking at the individual words that make them up. With our own writing, all of this happens even faster, because we learn to anticipate the words and sentences. To put it another way, the more familiar we are with a text and its context, the more efficiently we can read it — and the more easily we can miss a typo. Of course sloppy and fast writing can cause typos, but highly detailed and involved writing can lead to typos just as well.

When does this become a problem? Well, apart from creating some inappropriate headings, typos can cause all sorts of serious problems, like distracting from the message being communicated or undermining the authority of the work being presented. This gets exacerbated when we talk numbers. For instance, we all “know” that spinach is a good source of iron because of one misplaced decimal point (it’s got 2.5mg/100g, not 25mg/100g). And then there’s NASA Mariner 1, the first spacecraft sent to explore Venus, which lost steering capabilities shortly after launch due to a single missing subscript bar in its code.

Typos happen to even the most prominent scientists. For example, Peter Moyle told us that if you carefully read the key of the 1976 version of the benchmark reference Inland Fishes of California, LIVEBEARER FAMILY accidentally becomes LIVERBEARER FAMILY. And while no one ever pointed it out to him, that typo made him cautiously proof titles and subtitles ever since. 

So, in light of the fact that typos are extremely difficult to remedy in a published manuscript, the best strategy we have is to avoid them as much as possible during the writing and proofreading process. We’ve gathered some proven strategies to do just that. Note: most of the tips try to trick your brain into treating your writing as new and unfamiliar to stop your brain from assuming the text is correct and allowing a review from square one. Approaching your writing in a new way helps you notice things you never saw before, like that last typo.

  • Use a trusted spell and grammar checker (ideally one not desensitized to curse words).
  • Read your writing aloud to yourself, or have someone else or even a text-to-speech program read your writing to you. Don’t skip titles and headings!
  • Change the arrangement. Switch up the order of the paragraphs, then read your paper that way.
  • Change the appearance. Switch up the font and size of the text, the spacing between the lines, or the margins of the page. Brace yourself: some writers suggest proofreading in Comic Sans (psychologists have found that Comic Sans Italicized can increase reading comprehension).
  • Proofread backwards. Start at the bottom of your paper and read one sentence at a time until you’re at the top. The meaning of the text gets completely lost, but the typos don’t have much room to hide.
  • Get your colleagues, who haven’t seen countless drafts of your paper, or a friend, who is completely unfamiliar with your area of expertise, read it for clarity. 
  • Google (or should we say Googol?) common misspellings. Have a checklist of words you personally misspell often or that spell checkers commonly confuse. NPR calls this an accuracy checklist and has a handy list of ideas to get you started.
  • Triple-check numbers and all those critically important bits to minimize catastrophic typo potential.  Check decimal places.
  • Let the text (and yourself) rest. Step away, sleep on it, and come back fresh.
  • Print the paper out to read it through a different medium.
  • Send the paper to your coauthors with the word “final” somewhere in your email, because you’ll inevitably spot an error the moment you hit send.
  • Finally, don’t let the short deadline (many) journals give you to submit your final proof cause you to stress out and rush your last edits. Ask for more time and then take a deep breath. You’re nearly done, and it’ll be worth it.

We used many of these techniques, but nevertheless did not spot the typo staring us in the face. Shift happens. At the end of the day, we hope it doesn’t affect the science we presented. While in this case we take responsibility for the typo, other cases are completely outside of any writer’s control. Typos can even get introduced in typesetting during publication. Our final lesson is to be more forgiving of our typos and of others’, and to realize one misteak does not reflect the years of effort that go into a research paper. 

We would love to hear the best, or dare we say the worst, typo that slipped past you, and to learn what’s on your accuracy checklist. Comment below or share with us on Twitter using the hashtags #shifthappens and/or #typosci.

Further reading

Why typos are hard to catch

Why can we read words that are jumbled

MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit

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Approaches to Water Planning

by Jay Lund

“Structured decision-making” and “decision biases” are all the rage, but methods to structure and make better decisions have been common for centuries.  A recent paper reviews structured approaches to water planning and policy discussions (Lund 2021).  This blog post summarizes these approaches for practical water planning problems.

Rational Planning

“Rational” planning is a general approach for a person or group of people to structure decision-making with more explicit preferences and reasoning so implemented results are more likely to perform well.  In this approach, the problem is defined, objectives are defined (which establish the ultimate aspirations for decision outcomes), future conditions are projected, and a range of decision alternatives are identified.  These alternatives are then evaluated in terms of their future performance on the stated objectives, to help identify the “best” alternative, which is subsequently adopted and adapted for implementation.  Ideally, this process occurs linearly, as in Figure 1.

Figure 1. Classical linear rational planning of direct steps to a plan and solutions

This approach works well and, despite its many difficulties and imperfections, is effective for many problems.  Elements of this process are embodied in the National Environmental Protection Act’s (1969) requirements for the development and content of environmental impact reports.  Various approaches implement aspects of this general framework under a wide range of conditions (Lund 2021):

  • Requirements-based – Minimum-cost alternative for achieving specified project requirements, works well for many narrowly specified technical problems.
  • Benefit-cost based – Develop and select alternatives with the greatest net benefits
  • Multi-objective based – Identify alternatives which are Pareto-optimal (whose performance can only be improved on one objective by reducing performance on another objective)
  • Conflict resolution – Alternatives are developed and compared among stakeholders with technical support and discussions, sometimes with structured technical evaluations, modeling, and systematic learning (adaptive management and shared vision modeling)
  • Market based – Markets motivate development and selection of alternatives
  • Muddling through – Incremental approximation of rational planning
  • Hydrid – a mix of the above (which is common)

Not surprisingly, different problems in different situations are usually best addressed by different approaches to rational planning.

However, for many problems, successful planning cannot occur directly or cleanly.  These tend to include our most wicked, recalcitrant, cantankerous, and difficult problems. 

For such problems, rational planning often must be less linear, with more iterations or divergent explorations to refine steps so it might move forward with greater agreement.  Getting people to agree is hard.  The actual path of planning often seems to follow a spiraling iterative pattern, sometimes even iterating across groups of steps, before and during implementation, as suggested in Figure 2.

Figure 2. More typical spiraling forward implementation of rational planning

The time taken to complete a spiraling rational planning process is often prolonged.  More prolonged rational planning processes can result in better plans, with better defined objectives, better exploration of diverse and more sophisticated alternatives, and more considered selections and improvements to the selected alternatives, with better adaptations of the selected alternative for implementation.

Prolonged planning also can either solidify or jeopardize the political support needed for planning succeed.  Changes in political leadership and priorities often disrupt planning processes (Kelley 1989).  Slow or fast planning can be better, depending on circumstances. 

The social discussion of problems and solutions, which a planning process embodies, often consists of several iterative or sequential planning processes, each established by a different political administration, each making halting progress towards the long-term societal planning function. 

Major infrastructure water planning often consists of a series of plans which are individual failures, but cumulatively explore and educate policy-makers, staff, and the public on a wider range of alternatives and a changing set of objectives, forming a foundation for a more implemented plan resulting from this cumulative consideration.  Often this final decision-making is motivated by a major crisis, such as a drought of flood (Pinter et al. 2019).

Rational planning in a realpolitik world

Because planning ultimately exists in a realpolitik world, rational planning aspirations and frameworks are often diverted or curtailed for realpolitik ends.  Without enough political commitment, a planning process will not succeed, even if it is completed.

Planning processes with insufficient political commitment can become dead ends, divergent uncompleted spirals, or closed and ultimately abandoned non-progressing circles, illustrated in Figure 3 for two common fallacies in planning.

Figure 3.  Divergent or circular planning processes are often doomed

Non-planning Plans

Planning efforts often have non-planning objectives.

Earnest non-planning efforts can be veiled as plans when political conditions do not favor successful plans, and seek to use a “planning” process to prepare plans which are educationally or technically useful, even if they fail in direct problem-solving.  Such directly failed plans can help future planning succeed more directly (with less spiraling) under perhaps more favorable decision-making conditions.

More cynical efforts may employ prolonged planning processes to perpetuate the status quo and delay real decision-making without producing useful technical or educational progress, often at considerable financial and reputational cost to participating agencies.  These “planning” processes often stress high-sounding aspirations without political support needed to make them effective.  Figure 3 illustrates some common courses of such planning processes. 

Successful planning usually requires a supportive political foundation, but even without political support can have incremental successes.

Implications for California (and elsewhere)

Planning efforts can succeed directly if supported by political conditions or succeed indirectly and cumulatively if properly scoped and conducted for less auspicious political conditions.  For difficult problems, where direct success is unlikely, agencies often fail to employ plans incrementally to better educate and prepare analyses and alternatives to make immediate incremental progress and improve future planning under hopefully more propitious decision-making conditions.

Most scorn-worthy are “planning” efforts which delay and distract away from productive discussion.  Such planning efforts waste the reputation, time, and finances of both sponsoring authorities and participants.

The most directly successful water planning efforts tend to be for fairly routine infrastructure capital planning where there is consensus on needs, such as for improvements in pump stations, distribution networks, sewer systems, and treatment plants.  Routine seasonal operations planning, despite their necessarily short planning process, rest on examination of many alternatives, yet could often benefit from more explicit discussion and evaluation of broader operational alternatives (especially in a regulatory environment).  Planning for novel or larger than routine regional projects or programs often require several generations of plans and planning to build understanding and consensus on the needs, options, and evaluations of project or program alternatives.  An example of a good state plan in this vein is the 2012 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan. (Lund 2012, DWR 2011)

Many regional and state water “plans” present a single preferred alternative, essentially representing a consensus by the plan authors on the situation supporting a single solution, rather than a methodical movement through the problem and alternative solutions, evaluated on explicit objectives. Such plans are perhaps unavoidable and can represent a negotiated solution and/or an advocacy statement in a political context. Unless rational planning processes and analyses were completed in the background (and perhaps included as an appendix), such plans might represent a form of political rationality, without being explicitly rational in terms of achieving explicit plan objectives. The challenges of changing times, changing climates, and political divisions might benefit from more explicitly rational planning for improving discussions and gaining broader support.

Planning efforts and participation should be properly planned to achieve their desired objectives. 

Further reading

Escobedo Garcia, N., Ulibarri, N. Plan writing as a policy tool: instrumental, conceptual, and tactical uses of water management plans in California. J Environ Stud Sci (2022). [A very nice recent paper, illustrating many of these ideas empirically, using a different vocabulary.]

Kelley, R. (1989), Battling the Inland Sea, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Lindblom, C. E. 1959. “The science of ‘muddling through.’” Publ. Admin. Rev. 19 (2): 79–88. https://doi.org/10.2307/973677.

Lindblom, C. E. 1979. “Still muddling, not yet through.” Publ. Admin. Rev. 39 (6): 517–526. https://doi.org/10.2307/976178.

Lund, J., “Approaches to Planning Water Resources,” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, ASCE, Volume 147, Issue 9. September 2021. (open access)

Lund, J. (2012), Can solid flood planning improve all California water planning? 27 March 2012.

Pinter, N., J. Lund, and P. Moyle. “The California Water Model: Resilience through Failure,” Hydrological Processes, Vol. 22, Iss. 12, pp. 1775-1779, 2019.

Volpe, A. (2022), “How to get better at making every type of decision,” Vox.com, Feb 12, 2022,

Jay Lund is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis. He has enjoyed planning since his first course on the subject in 1978 with one of Vincent Ostrom’s students, Robert Warren.

Why scientists are rarely brought into policy processes. https://xkcd.com/2579/

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FEMA’s Community Rating System: Worth the Effort?

by Jesse Gourevitch and Nicholas Pinter

In response to growing threats of climate change, the US federal government is increasingly supporting community-level investments in resilience to natural hazards (Executive Order 14008, 2021; Lempert et al., 2018). As such federal programs become more widespread, evaluating their efficiency and effectiveness becomes essential. The Community Rating System (CRS), which is part of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), is a promising example of a federal policy designed to incentivize community-level investment in climate adaptation. This analysis assesses the program, asking if it has been effective in reducing flood losses, how it can be improved, and what lessons it has for similar types of programs.

The NFIP is the primary means for US homeowners and small businesses to insure against flood damages. The fundamental goal of NFIP is to promote flood resilience nationwide by engaging and incentivizing local communities to address their own risk. Since 2005, NFIP claims have far exceeded revenue collected from premiums (Horn and Webel, 2021). Simultaneously, there is growing concern about the affordability of NFIP premiums, particularly following price changes under FEMA’s new Risk Rating 2.0 (as discussed in this post from September, 2021). With growing flood risk under climate change and continued housing development on US floodplains, these challenges to the NFIP are likely to continue.

In 1994, FEMA introduced CRS, in part to address solvency and affordability issues. CRS provides discounts on NFIP premiums within communities that invest in a range of risk communication and risk reduction activities. The goal of CRS is to reduce damages by encouraging proactive behavior at the community level. Another key element of CRS is that it is designed to be revenue-neutral. Discounts given to CRS communities are paid for (i.e. “cross-subsidized”) by added costs to other policyholders (Horn and Webel, 2021).

CRS awards points to communities that exceed minimum NFIP floodplain management requirements. Points are awarded for actions that span categories of public information, mapping and regulations, flood-damage reduction, and warning and response. These points give participating communities a “CRS Class” ranging from 1 to 9 (Table 1), with Class 1 being the highest. Depending on the awarded class, NFIP policyholders within the community receive 5% to 45% discounts on their premiums. Discounts differ depending on whether the policyholder is located within FEMA’s Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA), similar to the 100-year floodplain, or outside the SFHA.

Since its start, CRS has had supporters and critics. Several recent studies have found risk reduction interventions implemented through CRS do in fact reduce flood losses (Sadiq et al., 2020b). In Mississippi and Alabama, Frimpong et al. (2020) showed participation in CRS reduced flood damages by ~6% in Class 5 communities, but had no effect for Class 6 – 9 communities. Highfield and Brody (2017) found CRS drove even larger damage reductions, exceeding 40%. In contrast, critics argue NFIP policyholders in communities not enrolled in CRS are effectively penalized via the cross-subsidization of premium discounts.

Our analysis evaluated 22 years of data that included CRS classes and actions as well as NFIP flood losses for every NFIP community in the US. First, we used linear regression panel models to relate community participation in CRS to the value of NFIP claims after subsequent flood events. Second, we assessed each community’s specific CRS activities with subsequent damage claims to quantify more and less effective activities.

Characteristics of Communities Participating in CRS

Communities across the US participate in CRS, including many small communities with few policyholders across the Midwest and West Coast. The largest number of CRS communities and NFIP policyholders receiving CRS discounts are along the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast coasts (Figure 1). Florida has the most policyholders who receive discounts from CRS. Interestingly, the highest CRS scores are in communities with relatively few NFIP policyholders – such as Roseville, CA and Tulsa, OK.

Figure 1 Communities currently participating in CRS. Each circle represents a unique community. Circle size represents the number of NFIP policies in the community. Circle color represents the community’s CRS class in 2020.

On average, communities participating in CRS are more populous, less white, wealthier, and more highly educated than non-participating NFIP communities (Figure 2). These trends track with the general characteristics of large coastal communities on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. This raises the question of whether the benefits provided by participation in CRS to NFIP policyholders are equitably distributed among demographic and socioeconomic groups.

Figure 2 Population characteristics of communities participating in CRS. Each point represents the median value for all communities within a given CRS class, with error bars. The horizontal red line represents the median value of NFIP communities that do not participate in CRS.

Evaluating Program Effectiveness

Figure 3 Estimated effect of CRS participation on the value of NFIP claims. Mean estimates for each CRS class are represented using black points. Red dots show the premium discounts for NFIP policies in the SFHA in that CRS class.

Based on our statistical analysis, we find participation in CRS is associated with reduced flood damage claims. On average, the percent reduction in claims for each CRS score is roughly the same as the premium discount for that class. For instance, Class 7 communities incur 18% lower flood damages than non-CRS communities; those same communities receive a 15% discount on their NFIP premiums. These results show the CRS program is working as intended, for reducing flood damages. In addition, FEMA seems to effectively price CRS discounts, at least for SFHA policies, assuming their objective is to balance costs of incentives and damage reduction benefits.

We also evaluated the effectiveness of specific CRS activities that communities implement under the program (Figure 4). The greatest reduction in claims were associated with activities that FEMA classifies as “Flood Damage Reduction” (Figure 4). These activities include buyouts and relocation of floodplain buildings and protection of buildings by floodproofing, elevation, or other structural projects. Communities implementing these two activities reported 25-30% less damage claims than communities without such activities.

Figure 4 Estimated effect of CRS activities on the value of NFIP claims. Mean estimates for each CRS activities are represented using colored points. Statistically significant estimates are indicated by ‘*’ next to the activity label.

In contrast, many other activities on the CRS menu either had no discernable effect on flood losses or seemed to increase damages. However, these activities require closer examination before they are criticized as ineffective or worse. For example, activities to promote flood insurance are not intended to reduce damages. Rather, increased insurance uptake likely increases insurance claims, yet also improves financial resilience within communities by increasing the proportion of insured damages.

Based on the effects of participation in CRS by class, we estimate the benefits of the program annually, in terms of the reduction in flood claims. In all but five years since 1998, the costs of CRS (total premium discounts) outweighed its annual benefits (Figure 5B). However, those five years were when the US had its greatest flood damages: 2005 (Hurricane Katrina), 2012 (Hurricane Sandy), and 2017 (Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma). These non-linear trends indicate that the economics of flood damages, as well as flood risk management generally, are primarily driven by relatively low frequency, high severity events.

Figure 5 Comparing the benefits and costs of CRS. The benefits are estimated in terms of reduced flood damages from CRS participation (blue points). Costs are estimated in terms of the value of CRS discounts (red points). The top plot shows cumulative values over time and the bottom plot shows annual values.

The cumulative flood damage reductions from CRS between 1998 and 2020 were approximately $10.1 billion (Figure 5A). Over the same period of time, the cumulative costs of NFIP premium discounts were $10.0 billion.

Conclusions & Policy Recommendations

The 1:1 match between the cost of CRS and its estimated benefits is an endorsement of CRS historically and supports its continuation. As climate change increases the frequency and severity of major flood events, such as those in 2005, 2012, and 2017, we expect CRS will become crucial in mitigating damages and will yield greater net benefits to the NFIP.

At the same time, it remains uncertain if CRS is the most cost effective strategy for reducing flood losses, as compared with other types of policy and management interventions. For instance, previous work estimates that other types of FEMA hazard mitigation grants yield benefit-cost ratios of more than 5:1 (Rose et al., 2007).

In addition, our results raise concerns regarding programmatic equity and efficiency. The program pays the costs of CRS in terms of premium discounts, but receives benefits twice: once by covering premium discounts through the cross-subsidy surcharge on policyholders in non-CRS communities, and again from reductions in claims paid out of NFIP.

Like any policy mechanism, CRS should be revised to build on its strengths and address its challenges. In fact, FEMA is currently updating CRS in response to ongoing feedback from NFIP administrators and external stakeholders nationwide – a process called “CRS Next.” The stated mission of CRS Next is:

“To align the Community Rating System with the improved understanding of flood risk and flood risk reduction approaches gained since initiation of the program, and better incentivize communities and policyholders to become more resilient and lower their vulnerability to flood risk, thereby supporting the sound financial framework of the NFIP.”

Based on our analyses, we offer several recommendations for improving CRS to support these goals.

1. Expand community participation in CRS. We show that participation in CRS reduces flood damage claims. As flood risks continue to increase, investments in natural hazard mitigation need to become more widespread. Participating in CRS can be burdensome though, particularly for small communities (Sadiq et al., 2020a). FEMA could streamline administrative requirements for the program and/or allocate resources to support under-resourced communities.

2. Critically examine cross-subsidization of premium discounts. The results here suggest that CRS pays for itself through reduced flood damages and NFIP claims. While removing the cross-subsidy will not help resolve the NFIP’s solvency issues, the effective taxation of communities that do not participate in CRS raises questions about equity.

3. Revise the allocation of CRS points to favor the most effective activities.CRS activities such as buyouts, structure elevations, and floodproofing are the most effective for reducing flood damage claims. Other activities may generate other social benefits not necessarily reflected by claims data. Given more than two decades of data, the incentive structure for allocating points could be more revised based on empirical assessment of what has worked most effectively.

4. Consider alternative incentive structures, such as transferring CRS credits directly to government entities. The benefits of CRS participation are accrued by individual policyholders in the form of premium discounts. As a result, CRS creates a perverse incentive for increased development in the floodplain by reducing the costs of exposure to flood risk. In an alternative model, CRS benefits could be directed to local governments with a mandate to pro-actively invest these funds in flood mitigation.

5. More broadly, increase local incentives for community-level investment in climate adaptation. CRS provides a broadly successful model for incentivizing community-level investment in climate resilience. With climate change and continued development driving increasing losses due to flooding, coastal storms, wildfire, and other natural hazards, both top-down and bottom-up actions are needed to mitigate these threats. Financial incentives by federal agencies, such as those provided by CRS, can generate public and political support for local investment in mitigation interventions as well as directly fund these projects.

About the authors

Jesse Gourevitch is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Davis and the Wharton Risk Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Nicholas Pinter is the Roy Shlemon Professor of Applied Geosciences in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences and an associate director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further Reading

Executive Order 14008, (2021) Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad.

Frimpong, E., Petrolia, D.R., Harri, A., Cartwright, J.H. (2020) Flood insurance and claims: The impact of the Community Rating System. Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy 42, 245-262.

Highfield, W.E., Brody, S.D. (2017) Determining the effects of the FEMA Community Rating System program on flood losses in the United States. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 21, 396-404.

Horn, D., Webel, B., (2021) Introduction to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), Congressional Research Service.

Lempert, R., Arnold, J., Pulwarty, R., Lempert, R., Gordon, K., Greig, K., Hoffman, C.H., Sands, D., Werrell, C., Lazarus, M.A., (2018) Chapter 28: Reducing Risks Through Adaptation Actions, in: Reidmiller, D.R., Avery, C.W., Easterling, D.R., Kunkel, K.E., Lewis, K.L.M., Maycock, T.K., Stewart, B.C. (Eds.), Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 1309–1345.

Rose, A., Porter, K., Dash, N., Bouabid, J., Huyck, C., Whitehead, J., Shaw, D., Eguchi, R., Taylor, C., McLane, T. (2007) Benefit-cost analysis of FEMA hazard mitigation grants. Natural Hazards Review 8, 97-111.

Sadiq, A.A., Tyler, J., Noonan, D. (2020a) Participation and non-participation in FEMA’s Community Rating System (CRS) program: Insights from CRS coordinators and floodplain managers. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction 48, 101574.

Sadiq, A.A., Tyler, J., Noonan, D.S., Norton, R.K., Cunniff, S.E., Czajkowski, J. (2020b) Review of the federal emergency management agency’s community rating system program. Natural Hazards Review 21, 03119001.

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Rice & salmon, what a match!

By: Andrew L. Rypel, Derrick J. Alcott, Paul Buttner, Alex Wampler, Jordan Colby, Parsa Saffarinia, Nann Fangue and Carson A. Jeffres

Long-time followers of this blog may have tracked the evolution of our salmon-rice work for some time. The work originated most strongly with the “The Nigiri Project” in the early 2000s, building from important earlier work by Ted Sommer and colleagues (e.g., Sommer et al. 2001). This blog is a primer on the concept with an update on current studies.

A juvenile Chinook salmon being sampled from a winter-flooded rice field. Photo by Derrick Alcott.

Salmon are in a prolonged state of decline in California. Two of three recognized Chinook salmon runs (Spring-run and Winter-run) are listed under the US Endangered Species Act. The recognized Fall-run and unrecognized Late-Fall-run may not be far behind. These last two populations are notably influenced by a rise in hatchery-origin fish and declines in wild-origin fish, which may mask the Fall-run decline. These trends should not be surprising. 83% of native California fishes are in some form of decline, leading scientists, conservation groups, agriculture, municipal water agencies, and policy makers to search for innovative solutions. One interesting aspect of salmon ecology in the Central Valley is that these fish appear to be floodplain specialists. Before widespread modification of California, water would come off the Sierra Nevada mountains and spread out over the vast Central Valley wetlands. Juvenile salmon would rear in floodplains and feast on abundant food resources. Essentially, salmon used the Central Valley floodplains to ‘gas up’ during their long journey to the Pacific Ocean. Yet today, it is estimated that only ~5% of the original floodplain remains.

One particularly intriguing solution draws from successful conservation practices developed for waterbirds in the Central Valley. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Pacific flyway birds (many of which overwinter in the Central Valley) were also in decline from a lack of wetland overwintering habitat. These ecological trends overlapped with a need to greatly reduce rice straw burning after harvest in the fall to improve air quality. Thus, the idea was hatched to flood rice fields in winter to decompose the rice straw (when fields would otherwise be fallow). Winter flooding accomplished two goals: 1) massive amounts of wetland habitat for waterbirds, including food; and 2) natural microbial decomposition of rice straw, without smoke! This program was a huge success and almost single-handedly halted Pacific waterbird population declines in California. It was a classic example of ‘reconciliation ecology’, showing how large human-dominated landscapes can be managed to be more wildlife-friendly while still supporting agriculture. What soon followed were even more programs, largely funded by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), to do even more to enhance rice fields for waterbird habitat.

Indeed, the bird program was so effective that some people began asking: ‘Hey, if we can do that for birds, why can’t we do that for fish?’

Some of the early work on this question focused on first order questions, like: Do salmon use floodplains? And was followed by the ‘Nigiri Project’ that further asked: Can salmon survive on rice fields?; and do the fish even grow? To make a long story short, salmon do extremely well in seasonally flooded rice fields. They survive at high rates (often 50-80% over the course of a month – excellent for baby fish!), and grow fast (often ~1 mm/day). The secret sauce appears to be their ability to feast on the lush zooplankton communities that develop naturally in winter-flooded fields.

We’ve learned so much more though.  Even without fish, winter-flooded fields can grow fish food (zooplankton) that could be strategically drained to help wild and in-river salmon and other native fishes in the system. Central Valley salmon also may tolerate lower dissolved oxygen levels compared to other salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest, presumably a local evolutionary adaptation to their historic use of floodplains. But temperature and dissolved oxygen conditions can become problematic if fish are held too long (often later into the spring). Finally, there are preliminary indications of an outmigration benefit to rearing on rice fields versus rearing in the river and/or lab. But, this pattern requires replication across more years, and water year types. 

The benefit to salmon from rearing on rice fields can be summed up in two words – big & early. Young salmon from floodplain habitats grow fast and get big, and do so earlier in the season. The resulting outmigrating smolts likely ride higher river flows better, and more reliably, to the ocean. 

Schematic illustrating the draft NRCS practice standard for salmon on rice fields.

Providing a mosaic of growth and outmigration conditions is essentially similar to a diversified stock portfolio and provides a buffer for adverse conditions which also takes advantage of good conditions. Most studies that release fish into the river in the late spring have low outmigration survival. Flows in late spring and into summer tend to have clear water with low food abundance and more active predators. Thus, imagine a riverine food desert – but one where fish are also at constant risk of being eaten – not a great situation for baby salmon.

There is much potential for novel conservation practices, but we still need more science. We are currently collaborating with the California Rice Commission, NRCS, California Trout, state and federal agencies, and others to develop a draft a new management practice for how rice farmers could make their fields salmon-friendly during winter months. Currently, this practice involves prescribed flooding instructions, installing modified boards (boards with a v-notch and a hole, see schematic) for the salmon to swim through, and monitoring of water levels and aquatic habitat conditions. We have focused the draft practice on rice fields in the Sutter and Yolo bypass where salmon could enter rice fields during flood events and leave the fields volitionally. Some of the major science questions we currently have are: 1) What is the rate at which natural-origin salmon are entrained into these fields? 2) How well do juvenile salmon swim through a modified board system? 3) Can we replicate the promising potential outmigration benefit in additional years?

A juvenile salmon receiving a PIT tag before release to the rice fields. Photo by Derrick Alcott.

This year we are working primarily on a production-scale test field in the Sutter Bypass. The test field was prepared in accordance with a developing draft NRCS management practice. 8000 fertilized salmon eggs were acquired from Coleman National Fish Hatchery and reared at UC Davis. A subsample of these reared juvenile fish were implanted with PIT tags at UC Davis – essentially a FasTrak transponder injected into the fish. After placing PIT antennae (toll plaza) on the rice boxes, the hatchery fish were released into the test field to grow, eat zooplankton and presumably benefit from rearing in this naturalized floodplain system. PIT tagged fish will tell us how well juvenile salmon navigate the system of boards and checks, when they choose to exit the field, and how many ultimately pass out of the bottom check (i.e., in-field survival). We also have salmon growing in cages which allow us to track growth of individual fish, and to protect some fish for JSAT tagging. JSAT tags (an acoustic tag) produces high frequency sounds. Listening devices (receivers) in the Sacramento River and Delta allow us to listen for and track individual fish as they migrate to the ocean. Our goal is to tag 600 of our rice- and lab-reared fish and to conduct a side-by-side comparison of outmigration survival.

Picture of the flooded Neader Farm study fields during winter, 2022. Photo by Derrick Alcott.

Yet research projects in actual floodplains need to be prepared for actual flooding and drought. If the bypass and study plots flood, our hatchery fish would leave the study plots, but natural fish could theoretically also come in. Indeed we actually selected the study fields partially because they had a high tendency to flood. In this scenario, our experiment changes. We would now be studying the entrainment rates of natural fish to the test plots, working with the grower to continue managing the field for salmon, and continue with our planned JSAT side-by-side experiment using caged fish. With or without natural floods, the rice fields must be drained by March 1st to allow rice planting and prevent poor temperature-oxygen conditions as spring arrives. Oh, we also have temperature-oxygen sensors in the fields to monitor habitat conditions 24-7, and time lapse trail cameras to study wading bird visitation and avian predation risk. 

There’s a lot going on! It is hard and important work, and there is no shortcut to high quality science. Ultimately, it’s a prime example of the type of thinking needed to solve environmental challenges in California (and elsewhere). Flooded rice fields are also just part of the solution for native fish. Wetland restoration and holistic/flexible flow and land management will also be needed to create sustainable solutions. An important and differentiating characteristic of the work is that, while fish and farms have often been pitted against each other in California, here there is real collaboration with potential for success. With 40 million people on the landscape, and too few wetlands, we must learn to use and expand wetland functions in smarter ways, even if they are agricultural wetlands.

Andrew Rypel is a Professor and the Peter B. Moyle & 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 a Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences. Derrick Alcott and Parsa Saffarinia are postdoctoral scholars at University of California, Davis and the Center for Watershed Sciences. Paul Buttner is Manager of Environmental Affairs for the California Rice Commission. Alex Wampler is a Master’s student in the Animal Biology Graduate Group at University of California, Davis. Jordan Colby is a Junior Specialist in the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology at University of California, Davis. Nann Fangue is a professor and Chair of the Department of Wildlife, Fish & Conservation Biology at University of California, Davis. Carson Jeffres is a Senior Researcher and the Field and Laboratory Director at the Center for Watershed Sciences at University of California, Davis.

Salmon-rice 2022 study fields. Photo by Derrick Alcott.

Acknowledgements: We thank a large number of people, agencies, growers, project funders, landowners and agencies that have helped along the way. We especially thank landowners we are currently working with, especially Steve and the rest of the Neader family, John Brennan, and Montna Farms. We thank Coleman National Fish Hatchery and USFWS for providing the hatchery eggs for this work. We thank Dennis Cocherell for technical and logistical support and Rachelle Tallman, Mattea Berglund Ken Zillig, and Cassidy Cooper for past and current assistance with the project. We also thank past farms we have directly worked with who have contributed to where we are today, especially Conaway Ranch and River Garden Farms. We thank staff and leadership at NOAA (Kimberly Clements, Maria Rea, Brian Ellrott, Kristin Begun, Garwin Yip), NRCS (Timmie Mandish and Jennifer Cavanaugh), CDFW (Jonathan Nelson, Bjarni Serup, Dan Kratville, Lee Scheffler) and California Trout (especially Jacob Katz and Jacob Montgomery). And finally our major sponsors, notably USDA NRCS, California Rice Commission, Syngenta, State Water Contractors, along with many supporting partners including Valent, Grow West, Corteva, The California Rice Research Board, American Commodity Company, California Family Foods, Lundberg Family Farms, the Almond Board of California, the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation and other valued sponsors. 

Further Reading

California conservationists and farmers unite to protect salmon https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/california-conservationists-farmers-unite-protect-salmon-2022-02-09/

Raised in rice fields. https://www.biographic.com/raised-in-rice-fields/

The nigiri concept https://caltrout.org/regions/central-california-region/the-nigiri-concept

Helping fins and feathers https://podcast.calrice.org/episode-29-helping-fins-and-feathers/

Bellido-Leiva, F., R.L. Lusardi, and J.R. Lund. 2021. Modeling the effect of habitat availability and quality on endangered winter-run Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawystscha) production in the Sacramento Valley. Ecological Modelling 447:109511.

Bellido-Leiva, F., R.L. Lusardi, and J.R. Lund. 2021. Assessing portfolios of actions for winter-run salmon in the Sacramento Valley. https://californiawaterblog.com/2021/05/29/assessing-portfolios-of-actions-for-winter-run-salmon-in-the-sacramento-valley/

Corline, N.J., R.A. Peek, J. Montgomery, J.V.E. Katz, and C.A. Jeffres. 2021. Understanding community assembly rules in managed floodplain food webs. Ecosphere 12: e03330.

Holmes, E.J., P. Saffarinia, A.L. Rypel, M.N. Bell-Tilcock, J.V. Katz, and C.A. Jeffres. 2021. Reconciling fish and farms: Methods for managing California rice fields as salmon habitat. PLoS ONE 16(2): e0237686.

Jeffres, C.A., E.J. Holmes, T.R. SOmmer, and J.V.E. Katz. 2020. Detrital food web contributes to aquatic ecosystem productivity and rapid salmon growth in a managed floodplain. PLoS ONE 15(9): e0216019.

Katz, J.V.E., C. Jeffres, J.L. Conrad, T.R. Sommer, J. Martinez, S. Brumbaugh, N. Corline, and P.B. Moyle. 2017. Floodplain farm fields provide novel rearing habitat for Chinook salmon. PLoS ONE 12(6): e0177409.

Sommer, T.R., M.L. Nobriga, W.C. HArrell, W. Batham, and W.J. Kimmerer. 2001. Floodplain rearing of juvenile Chinook salmon: evidence of enhanced growth and survival. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 58: 325-333.
Sommer, T., B. Harrell, M. Nobringa, R. Brown, P. Moyle, W. Kimmerer, and L. Schemel. 2001. California’s Yolo Bypass: evidence that flood control can be compatible with fisheries, wetlands, wildlife, and agriculture. Fisheries 26: 6-16.

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