This updates a post from December on the likelihood of California entering a second dry year. Normally, a second dry year brings drought operations for California’s overall water system operations.
Today, it is even likelier that California is entering a multi-year drought.
Precipitation conditions have improved somewhat with a nice atmospheric river this last week, but remain 51% of average for this time of year for the Sacramento Valley. (San Joaquin and Tulare basins are 61% and 47% of historical seasonal average precipitation so far.) Snowpack has improved somewhat with very recent storms, but is about as scarce as the precipitation.
The Sacramento Valley precipitation index today is about 14 inches below average. This translates statistically to about 16 inches of likely precipitation deficit this year (on average). From historical statistics, this averages 7.4 maf or 41% below average Sacramento Valley runoff this water year (on average), solely due to reduced precipitation. The scatter in the plot below gives little hope for a wet year.
The warmer temperatures of recent years, and this year, increase evapotranspiration which returns more precipitation to the atmosphere, leaving less for runoff and aquifer recharge than would have occurred historically. This increases the effective precipitation deficit. Estimates of this effect are substantial, but can vary considerably. So although reduced precipitation might reduce this year’s annual runoff by about 7 maf from average, runoff might be still lower because of depressed groundwater levels from last year’s runoff and more evapotranspiration from higher temperatures.
Reservoir storage conditions have mostly worsened, not refilling as much as usual from last year (which was dry) and the last dry season. Most large surface reservoirs are 50 – 75% of their long-term averages for this time of year. (This is good news for flood management this year, however.)
Groundwater in the Sacramento Valley is in good shape, and much of southern California’s groundwater storage also has refilled. Southern Central Valley groundwater has not recovered entirely from the 2012-2016 drought.
Although there is still some chance that this year could become average, wetter, or even have a major flood, it less likely.
Preparing for an impending drought?
“Plans are nothing, but planning is everything.” – Dwight Eisenhower
Californians should always be prepared for droughts (and floods, and apparently now wildfires). But this year, it looks wise to make more urgent preparations. Many actions below are probably happening, but others might be wishful thinking.
Farmers and irrigation districts with trees and vines will be making back-up water source arrangements, and consider how much groundwater to use – especially in areas with critical overdraft. Dry years now will increase difficulties of achieving SGMA groundwater objectives.
Cities will check their stocks, drought conservation and contingency plans, and drought finances (on top of COVID financial impacts on utilities and impoverished customers).
Wildlife refuges should plan to reduce water needs and arrange for back-up water sources for declining species such as riparian brush rabbits and tricolored blackbirds, resident waterfowl, and other birds. Similarly, managers should be identifying drought water sources for wetlands state-wide.
Fish managers should be preparing/improving refuges for declining and endangered fishes, such as Suisun Marsh, including implementing the Delta Smelt Resiliency Plan. This includes improving/expanding captive breeding programs.
Fisheries and water agencies, along with water regulators, should work together in advance to modify flow and habitat operations in California rivers to support struggling fish, especially salmon and steelhead, through even less favorable times. For the Sacramento Valley, implement the Sacramento Valley Salmon Resiliency Strategy and use it as model for drought-oriented strategies in other river systems.
Salmon and steelhead hatcheries should prepare for reducing production in response to reduced cold water availability for hatcheries and downstream.
Delta managers, water project managers, and regulators should be planning now (ideally together) for low inflows and changed water operations in the coming year, including planning and permitting for salinity barriers in the coming years.
Fish agencies should monitor populations of all 62 California Fish Species of Special Concern and be prepare additional actions to protect populations threatened by drought. We assume such protection already exists for species formally listed as Threatened or Endangered (and we don’t need to lengthen this list).
Surprises are scenarios we did not expect. We seem to be in an age of surprises, especially the last 12 months. Organizations prepare for surprises by organizing adaptable plans and resources, collecting data, and developing rapid analytical capabilities, training to make flexible and fast decision (with inter-agency communications and exercises), and preparing to dedicate substantial resources rapidly. Surprises are the pop quizzes (or pop final exams) of organizational competence.
Will 2021 being dry make 2022 drier?
The same logic on a dry 2020 making a dry 2021 more likely applies now to prospects for 2022. Precipitation in northern California is poorly correlated across years, historically, as shown by the plot below. The trend is essentially flat for precipitation.
However, a drier year in runoff tends to reduce the next year’s runoff a bit, as shown in the plot below for runoff. So next year is likely to have a little less runoff even if we get average precipitation this year.
Runoff is slightly correlated over time because precipitation accumulating in groundwater is likely to increase flow into streams in the next year, and lack of precipitation accumulating in groundwater tends to reduce streamflows in the next year.
Longer droughts have progressively larger economic, social, and environmental impacts.
We should prepare.
Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and Co-Director of the University of California – Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.Peter Moyle is an Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and an Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.Andrew Rypel is a professor of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.
Lennox R.J., D.A. Crook, P. B. Moyle, D. P. Struthers, and S. J. Cooke 2019. Toward a better understanding of freshwater fish responses to an increasingly drought-stricken world. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 29:71-92 https://doi.org/10.1007/s11160-018-09545-9. Open Access.
We read with great interest Nicholas Chistakis’s piece outlining a “Swiss Cheese Model For Combating Covid-19” in the Wall Street Journal. Christakis presents a model for considering the individual steps needed to achieve a larger goal, and how each step should fit into a larger strategy. He points out that each action used to limit the spread of Covid (handwashing, mask wearing, social distancing) creates a layer of imperfect defense akin to a slice of Swiss cheese. No action alone is 100% effective – there are holes. Yet in combination, multiple layers of the Swiss cheese become increasingly effective in limiting virus spread. This powerful analogy might be applied to other problems, from drinking water quality to fish conservation.
“the multi-barrier approach takes all of these threats into account and makes sure there are “barriers” in place to either eliminate them or minimize their impact. It includes selecting the best available source (e.g., lake, river, aquifer) and protecting it from contamination, using effective water treatment, and preventing water quality deterioration in the distribution system. The approach recognizes that while each individual barrier may be not be able to completely remove or prevent contamination, and therefore protect public health, together the barriers work to provide greater assurance that the water will be safe to drink over the long term.”
Multi-layered approaches are attractive to diverse fields and applications, whenever individual solutions are imperfect, but consequences of failure are dire. Perhaps most importantly, a Swiss cheese or multiple barriers approach recognizes that many problems lack “silver bullet” solutions. Rather they require strategic, coordinated and sustained effort. Focusing on only one layer improves the function of that one layer, but reduces investment in other protective actions, and so can increase overall risk of failure. The additive benefit of multiple layers of activity is key.
Why is this relevant to water?
California water issues are notoriously complicated by a massive diversity of users, ecosystems, applications and futures. Indeed, water in the Delta has been described as a “wicked problem” indicating that these problems cannot be ignored and defy straightforward characterization and solutions. Below we highlight how a Swiss cheese model might be applied to vexing long-term declines in native fish populations in California. Our blog this week follows a recent update on the status of Delta Smelt – the iconic fish careening towards extinction in the wild. And while the analogy to the classic Swiss cheese model as applied to Covid isn’t perfectly aligned (e.g., we’re not trying to limit the spread of just one thing), the general idea is important – multiple actions taken together matter. Further, although this blog focuses on fish conservation as a proof-of-concept, the Swiss cheese/multiple barrier management approach is applicable to many environmental problems.
A Swiss cheese model for conservation of California’s native fishes
California has a highly endemic fish fauna under high major risk of extinction in the next 50 years. 83% of native species are declining, and 5% of species (e.g., Bull Trout, Clear Lake Splittail, Thicktail Chub) are already extinct (Moyle et al. 2011). Yet while these trends have persisted for decades, there remains a lack of consensus statewide strategy for recovering the fauna.
Declining native fishes fundamentally threaten water reliability, particularly agricultural and urban water diversions. For example, the inability of existing regulations, habitat, and environmental flows to protect native fishes is leading the State Water Board to only further increase environmental flow requirements. Climate change is raising water supply uncertainty further in an already variable climate by increasing the frequency and duration of droughts. These realities point towards a future where fish populations and ecological function need to substantially recover in order to better support agriculture, cities, and diverse communities.
Here we propose some conceptual scaffolding for a statewide approach to conserve and recover fish populations. It is a six point plan that, in combination, should improve conditions for fishes in powerful ways.
Layer 1: Protect the best remaining habitats; restore others. California is fortunate to have some exemplary fish populations and habitats remaining. In some cases, fishes have very limited distributions (e.g., Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout or Clear Lake Hitch); so protecting the watersheds for these sensitive species is essential. In other cases, watersheds should be preserved for their unique productive capacity. The McCloud River was once one of the most productive trout and salmon fisheries in North America, with all four runs of Chinook salmon, in addition to anadromous steelhead and other native salmonids like McCloud Redband Trout. Watersheds like the McCloud should be preserved to the fullest extent possible to retain this outstanding productive capacity.
Decisions over “what to protect” might benefit from a decision support tool. Above is a useful tool developed by Jacobson et al. (2016) to support integrated lake watershed and fish management in Minnesota. In the model, lakes are classified into one of four categories: vigilance, protection, full restoration, and partial restoration. Classifying California watersheds into similar categories might improve decision making. Dam removals are essential tools for restorative actions. Beaver rehabilitations are also key.
Layer 2: Deploy some protection for every native species. Securing a safe place for every native species in California helps reduce further population collapses from climate change and other anthropogenic effects. California is in a position to consider protecting every native species because total fish species richness is comparatively low given the state’s large size. Nonetheless, to protect this broad range of habitats, much more habitat work is needed. This is especially true for recently described or previously ignored species (e.g., the California roaches). The emerging concept of “freshwater protected areas” draws from conservation successes with marine protected areas. An important recent study found that small, community-based freshwater reserves were effective for sustaining freshwater fish diversity and fisheries in Thailand (Koning et al. 2020); parallel approaches could help protect fishes and freshwater diversity in California.
Layer 3: Implement and expand environmental flows below dams. Even though some dams have outlived their functionality and are being removed, many large and still functional dams remain. Re-operating this infrastructure to be more wildlife-friendly will be essential to conserving and restoring diversity and ecological function, particularly in the Central Valley (Börk and Rypel 2020). Coldwater releases from Shasta Dam are essential to preserving winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River. In many cases, providing flows for fish is the central consideration of restoration efforts. Putah Creek is a different type of example we highlight often on the California WaterBlog. In the 20 years following reoperation of Monticello Dam to prevent the creek from drying up, the fish community shifted from one dominated by nonnatives to one dominated by natives, including fall-run Chinook salmon (Keirnan et al. 2012; Jacinto 2020).
The California Environmental Flows Framework is a holistic, science-based process to support resource managers, water agencies, and NGOs working to restore the health of California’s rivers. The approach is largely compatible with 2018 Water Board policy, especially if implemented in a flexible way that incorporates water budgets. We encourage additional work on how the Framework can be used in environmental programs across diverse settings. A important ingredient will be delivering flows to improve ecosystem functions, such as fish production. By developing understanding of links between environmental flows and production of native fish species and assemblages, scientists will be able to recommend flow regimes that broadly benefit fisheries.
Layer 4: Develop a water right for aquatic animals, including fishes. According to the State Water Resources Control Board a water right is:
“A legal entitlement authorizing water to be diverted from a specified source and put to beneficial, nonwasteful use. Water rights are property rights, but their holders do not own the water itself. They possess the right to use it. The exercise of some water rights requires a permit or license from the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board), whose objective is to ensure that the State’s waters are put to the best possible use, and that the public interest is served.”
California provides legal protections for fishes, notably through California Fish and Game Code Section 5937 (water for fish) which states that dam owners are responsible to at all times release the water necessary to provide and keep in “good condition” the downstream ecosystem, its fish and other aquatic life. The code was successfully applied through lawsuits that sought to return flows for fish to Putah Creek and the San Joaquin River. The response of the Putah Creek ecosystem to delivery of water for fish has been an overwhelming ecological success (Jacinto 2020). Putah Creek is now a model of the impact and power of environmental flows when applied to declining native California fishes.
Yet, does California Fish and Game Code Section 5937 go far enough in protecting native California fishes and aquatic ecosystems? For example, how are streams kept in “good condition” for fishes when dams and dam owners are not in play? A water right for aquatic animals would solve this large and important loophole. For example, minimum flows could be established based on best available science that clearly outlines thresholds of water needed to sustain species of interest. These thresholds are particularly important to monitor in times of water scarcity (droughts).
Layer 5: Identify, manage, & rehabilitate floodplain ecosystems. Floodplains are essential to riverine ecosystems, particularly in California’s Central Valley. Historical accounts show the valley’s floor was once a sprawling seasonal wetland teeming with fish and wildlife. Most native fishes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin basins are adapted to use floodplains. Fortunately, some water control structures for the Sacramento Valley allow some floodplain processes to remain in the Yolo and Sutter Bypasses. Despite this, ~95% of the original Sacramento Valley floodplain has been lost.
The presence of bypasses in the Sacramento Valley has likely saved many native fishes. This includes some iconic species that you might not immediately consider floodplain specialists, such as juvenile Chinook salmon (Katz et al. 2017). Yet the importance of floodplain management for juvenile salmon in our rivers is clear (Sommer et al. 2001, Holmes et al. 2020, Jeffres et al. 2020, Sommer et al. 2020). We must learn to better leverage the remaining floodplain ecosystems. However, managing floodplains requires working with non-traditional conservation partners (e.g., rice farmers and local water managers) to maximize the conservation value of these lands for fishes. Developing conservation programs that incentivize growers to participate in fish conservation will be important. Complementary programs that promote flood extension (more water and for longer periods) will be critical. Finally, stringent protections for existing floodplains (e.g., in the Cosumnes River) and efforts to manage for fishes in these habitats also are needed. We note that this work must also include protection and restoration of tidal marshes and managed wetlands in the delta that may serve related functions (Aha et al. 2021).
Layer 6: Cultivate hatcheries and reservoirs as emergency refugia for native fishes. Because many California reservoirs have expansive coldwater habitats, we have previously suggested that reservoirs could serve as emergency refuges for declining native fishes. Some California reservoirs have developed self-sustaining populations of Chinook salmon (Perales et al. 2015). Such populations may be needed as a backup plan if a disease or other disturbance threatens principal salmon runs. Reservoirs that support declining native fishes could be prioritized for infrastructure repair processes and as a conservation rubric in re-licensing processes.
There is no unified plan with broad buy-in to guide fish conservation decisions in California, despite various efforts to do so. The State of the Salmonids II report highlights risks facing trout and salmon in the California (Moyle et al. 2017). The Delta Science Council regularly creates a Science Action Agenda to guide support for delta conservation management projects; however it is mostly limited in scope to the Delta. The recently released water resilience portfolio details many excellent aspects of water management that could help fish, but doesn’t deal with fish conservation explicitly. CDFW has various species and statewide management plans, but they often are not utilized by other agencies and conservation partners. An actual statewide strategy with broad consensus buy-in is missing. What we present in this blog isn’t a plan per se either; however perhaps some ideas presented here could be helpful in such an endeavor.
Successful organizations spend substantial time developing, refining, and gaining feedback on strategic plans to help guide their organizations. In the early 2000s, Apple developed a strategic plan for developing hardware to facilitate portable music for the consumer (i.e., the iPod). Similar visioning and strategic planning is needed for fish conservation in California. Such a plan requires broad buy-in from the various stakeholders, agencies, and NGOs in the environmental and water sectors. Anything developed by fiat will be doomed. Without a widely-supported statewide plan, agencies will continue to struggle to prioritize and identify the best work. In the meantime, fish and water reliability will continue to decline.
In summary, the future of fish conservation in California needs a multi-layered approach. We end by noting that, while we clearly favor many of the above suggestions, a plan that incorporates just some of these layers can make all actions more effective. The key is to develop and codify a plan, such that critical decisions can be made to allocate resources towards a successful direction. Without a plan – we remain adrift and without control over obtaining the outcomes we collectively seek.
California’s Central Valley produces much of the nation’s food, including about 40% of the country’s fruits and nuts and has the nation’s second most pumped aquifer system. Its drier southern portion, the San Joaquin Valley, has decreasing surface water supply reliability due to frequent and prolonged droughts, stricter environmental regulations, and growing competition among water users. Many farmers pump groundwater to provide their unsupplied water demand. The resulting groundwater overdraft has numerous impacts on the Valley’s agriculture and residents. The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires local water agencies to end a decades-long overdraft (averaging about 2 maf/year) and bring groundwater basins into sustainable use by about 2040, a major challenge for San Joaquin Valley agriculture (Escriva-Bou et al. 2020).
Managing surface water and groundwater together, rather than separately, helps both supplies maximize overall regional benefits. This is referred as conjunctive water use, and is often a cost-effective way to help end overdraft (Harou and Lund 2008). Implementing SGMA has increased interest in expanding recharge programs, and also shows the need to reduce and modify agricultural groundwater use and production. The dry 2020 and so far dry 2021 underscore the importance of conjunctive water management for surface water, groundwater, and agriculture.
This post summarizes some recent research examining conjunctive water management for agriculture integrating hydro-economic optimization models on two timescales, neglecting for now salinity effects on crop yield: an intermediate term 10-year stochastic model of water and crop management spanning dry and wet years, and a far horizon (100 years of 10-year stages) management model which embeds intermediate-term model to represent longer-term aquifer targets (Yao 2020). The modeling was applied for conditions similar to California’s San Joaquin Valley.
Integrated economically-driven optimization of permanent and annual crop acreages and water management for these two timescales identifies some economically-promising strategies considering both crop decisions and water management to mitigate groundwater overdraft. Some results of this investigation are:
Conjunctive use of surface water and groundwater can greatly smooth variability in water availability to support crop decisions, production, and agricultural profitability across different water years. More groundwater is pumped in drier years to support more profitable (often permanent) crops. More surface water is recharged in wetter years, often reducing wetter-year annual crop acreages to bank some water needed for artificial groundwater recharge.
Surface water is usually more valuable than groundwater, because of its lower operating cost, and because groundwater is ultimately recharged by often scarcer surface water. Table 1 shows how the economic value of surface water and groundwater vary with groundwater recovery targets and across dry to wet years. The high groundwater storage capacity means groundwater economic values are constant across hydrologic events.
Optimized intermediate-term and long-term decisions with overdraft limits differ in some ways. Intermediate-term optimal decisions propose more aggressive pumping to maximize profit (though pumping without limitation does not necessarily yield the highest profit when additional pumping cost exceeds the additional crop profit). Optimal shorter-term decisions often change when the longer-term context changes.
Long-term optimal solutions balance groundwater pumping across decades. Where sustainability goals are longer-term, these results adjust shorter-term crop and water decisions over time to achieve target groundwater levels (usually to end or recover groundwater overdraft), and are affected by financial interest (discount) rates. This finding is broadly consistent with past research on resource economics stating optimal depletion rates are close to the discount rate.
For conditions similar to the San Joaquin Valley, salinity accumulation aside, drawdown initially increases with groundwater recovery delayed until the final stages before the sustainability target must be met (Figure 1). The depth of drawdown and the delay in groundwater recovery both increase with higher discount rates due to the higher weight on near term benefits compared to more distant costs.
Higher discount or interest rates reduce planting of perennial crops, because these more profitable crops have higher initial costs and delayed initial benefits. Higher rates also reduce groundwater pumping in drier years needed to support these permanent crops.
The economic value of surface water is affected by climate and initial groundwater availability. A much drier climate can increase the economic value of remaining surface water for agriculture by several hundred dollars per acre-foot in a long-term timescale. Lower groundwater availability increases the economic value of surface water. A drier climate also increases the value of groundwater, without salinity, but less than its effect on surface water value.
Perennial crops, with high economic value, but high initial planting cost and inability to fallow in dry times, largely drive water and crop management in the model results. In shorter-term optimal decisions, permanent crop acreages are often limited by water availability in drier years, which also reduces annual crop acreage in drier years. However, in longer-term optimal decisions, perennial crop acreages are maintained as high as possible to reduce planting costs in later decades.
Overall, the modeling results agree with farming observations and economic theory. There is a transition from growing annual crops to increasing the planting of higher-value perennial crops to maximize the profit under water-scarce conditions. The results also suggest that aquifer recovery and ending overdraft will require substantial reductions in pumping and total net water use, with perennial crops being less affected, especially when aquifers are not degraded by salinity.
Dr. Gracie Yao recently completed her PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis. Jay Lund is a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California – Davis
by Peter Moyle, Karrigan Börk, John Durand, T-C Hung, and Andrew L. Rypel
2020 was a bad year for delta smelt. No smelt were found in the standard fish sampling programs (fall midwater trawl, summer townet survey). Surveys designed specifically to catch smelt (Spring Kodiak Trawl, Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring Program) caught just two of them despite many long hours of sampling. The program to net adult delta smelt for captive brood stock caught just one smelt in over 151 tries. All signs point to the Delta smelt as disappearing from the wild this year, or, perhaps, 2022. In case you had forgotten, the Delta smelt is an attractive, translucent little fish that eats plankton, has a one-year life cycle, and smells like cucumbers. It was listed as a threatened species in 1993 and has continued to decline since then. Former President Trump made it notorious when he called it a “certain little tiny fish” that was costing farmers millions of gallons of water (not true, of course).
As part of the permitting process for Delta water infrastructure, the USFWS issued a Biological Opinion (BO), written by biologists, that found that increased export of water from the big pumps of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project would further endanger the smelt. The BO was then revised by non-biologists to conclude that increased pumping would not hurt the smelt. The reason given was that large-scale habitat improvement efforts, plus the development of a facility for spawning and rearing of domesticated smelt, would save the species. We have written a short, fairly readable, article for a law journal that describes why the revised BO will not save the smelt. We will not write further about the paper in this blog but encourage readers to give the full article a read (it is a free download).
So, is this the year the smelt becomes extinct in the wild? Frankly, we are impressed by its resilience (see previous California WaterBlogs on smelt status) but small populations of endangered pelagic fish in large habitats tend to disappear, no matter what we do, partly the result of random events.
Looking for delta smelt
We trawl clear Delta water
And find emptiness.
Baumsteiger, J. and P.B. Moyle 2017. Assessing extinction. Bioscience 67: 357-366. doi:10.1093/biosci/bix001
Hobbs, J.A, P.B. Moyle, N. Fangue and R. E. Connon. 2017. Is extinction inevitable for Delta Smelt and Longfin Smelt? An opinion and recommendations for recovery. San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 15 (2): San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science 15(2). jmie_sfews_35759. Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2k06n13x
Deltas globally adjust with changes and fluctuations in external conditions, internal dynamics, and human management. This is a short history of big changes to California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) in the past and present, and its anticipated future. This history is important for understanding how many of the Delta’s problems have developed, changed, and continue to change.
Sea level rise. California’s Delta is a product of sea level rise. At the end of the last Ice Age, about 11,000 years ago, the sea was about 300 feet below today’s levels and the delta from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers formed in the Pacific Ocean, outside the Golden Gate. As sea level rose, San Francisco Bay flooded, and about 6000 years ago, the rising sea level began to drown the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, forming an inland delta at the Delta’s present location. Sea level rise during this latter period was slow enough that the resulting immense tidal freshwater marsh arose with the sea level, forming the Delta’s deep peat soils of partially decomposed marsh plants. These peat soils typically are deepest in areas longest affected by sea level rise. Before 6000 years ago, today’s Delta was not a delta at all, but a river corridor subject to probably extensive seasonal flooding. (Atwater and Belknap 1980)
Poldering. From the 1850s until the 1930s, most of the Delta’s 750,000 acres of wetlands were diked and drained to produce today’s agricultural Delta islands and tracts, which are predominantly agricultural with a few towns. The Delta was California’s first large irrigated area, with year-round access to fresh water, near sea-level elevations that supported both field flooding and drainage with the tides, and location on steamship routes to markets. However, the drainage of peat soils quickly accelerated their chemical decomposition, lowering the elevation of many island interiors by up to several inches per year. After several decades, lowering lowland elevations required pumping for drainage and increasing costs for maintaining Delta dikes. This dominant agricultural land use and increasing drainage and flood risk costs from land subsidence continues today, with occasional abandonment of islands to become flooded tracts (such as Big Break, Franks Tract, Mildred Island, and Liberty Island). (Thompson 1957; Weir 1950)
Upstream diversions. In the late 1800s, irrigation expanded using water upstream of the Delta, diverting from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, and their tributaries. Without major reservoirs, these upstream diversions occurred predominantly in the summer, and largely depleted summer inflows to the Delta in dry years during the early 1900s. In the 1924 drought, the Carquinez Strait sugar plant was sending barges west to Marin, instead if east to the Delta, for freshwater. By the 1930s drought, summer seawater intrusion extended inland to near Stockton. Even today, most water taken from the Delta is diverted upstream. (Jackson and Paterson 1977)
In-Delta diversions. By the 1930s, plans were being made to build reservoirs above the Central Valley to store water from winter for summer water supply and build pumps and canals from the Delta to thirst parts of the Bay Area, San Joaquin Valley, and southern California. Preventing seawater intrusion by building a dam west of the Delta was considered, but rejected due to its high costs compared to the water cost of a “hydraulic barrier” of required Delta outflows. Major in-Delta diversions began in 1949 by the USBR Central Valley project, growing faster with the State Water Project, to the present time. These major in-Delta diversions, especially those from the southern Delta, caused major changes in the flow directions and magnitudes in Delta channels, and tied the Delta even more to the state’s economy as a whole. (DWR 1931)
Invasive species. From the time of the Gold Rush, non-native species have been introduced to the Delta by ships hulls and ballast water, fishermen, fish agencies, and household aquarium owners. Today’s Delta ecosystem is dominated by non-native species. The Delta seems destined to be dominated by non-native species in highly altered habitat. However, efforts can be made to manipulate conditions to be more conducive for native species overall, recognizing that most non-natives will be impossible to eradicate. (Moyle et al. 2012)
Climate change. Climate change will continue to shape the Delta, likely more rapidly than in the past century, especially from more rapid sea level rise and higher temperatures. The maintenance of some subsided Delta islands will become less sustainable, with higher sea levels, continued land subsidence, less summer and more winter inflows (due to loss of snowpack), and more frequent flood flows and high water. Temperature increases and more frequent droughts seem likely to further squeeze some native species and facilitate expansions of non-native species. (Brown et al. 2013; DISB 2020)
Other human-induced changes. Additional human-caused changes in the Delta should be expected from increased economic demands for Delta water exports from ending groundwater overdraft and more valuable agriculture, changes in conveyance and storage infrastructure, increased management for native species, and changes in environmental regulations and regulatory approaches (such as voluntary agreements).
What this means for Delta science and management. Changes build upon changes. Many old changes will continue, like sea level which has always defined the Delta, and there are more, mostly faster, and different changes to come. The Delta’s ecosystems, water supplies, and communities will be challenged by these changes. Managers, policymakers, and Delta communities will have to deal with all of these changes altogether – not one by one. To be prepared, our scientific efforts must face these challenges in advance.
Historically, managing the Delta was about making planned changes, building and operating levees, pumps, canals, and land uses to provide services. The future will include making planned changes, but management will increasingly be responding to changes driven from outside the Delta and the internal dynamics of Delta landscapes and ecosystems.
Atwater, Brian F. (1982), Geologic maps of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California, Miscellaneous Field Studies Map 1401, USGS, https://doi.org/10.3133/mf1401
Atwater, B. F. and Belknap, D. F., 1980, “Tidal-wetland deposits of the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta, California,” in Field, M. E., Bouma, A. H., Colburn, I.P.-;-Douglas, R. G., and Ingle, J. C., eds., Quaternary Depositional Environments of the Pacific Coast: Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Pacific Coast Paleogeography Symposium 4, p. 89-103.
Brown, Larry R., et al. “Implications for Future Survival of Delta Smelt from Four Climate Change Scenarios for the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, California.” Estuaries and Coasts, vol. 36, no. 4, 2013, pp. 754–774., doi:10.1007/s12237-013-9585-4.
Division of Water Resources (1931), Report to the Legislature on State Water Plan 1930, Bulletin 25, State of California Department of Public Works, Sacramento, CA.
Jackson, W. T., and A. M. Paterson, The Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta and the Evolution and Implementation of Water Policy: An Historical Perspective, California Water Resources Center, Contribution No. 163, University of California, Davis, June, 1977.
Malamud-Roam, Frances, Michael Dettinger, B. Lynn Ingram, Malcolm K. Hughes, and Joan L. Florsheim. (2007), “Holocene Climates and Connections between the San Francisco Bay Estuary and its Watershed,” San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. Vol. 5, Issue 1 (February). Article 3. http://repositories.cdlib.org/jmie/sfews/vol5/iss1/art 3
Moyle, Peter B., et al. (2013) “Climate Change Vulnerability of Native and Alien Freshwater Fishes of California: A Systematic Assessment Approach.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 5, 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0063883.
National Research Council. A Review of the Use of Science and Adaptive Management in California’s Draft Bay Delta Conservation Plan. National Academies Press, 2011.
Thompson, John, 1957, Settlement geography of the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta: Stanford University, Ph.D. thesis, Stanford, California, 551 p.
Weir, W., 1950, “Subsidence of peat lands of the Sacramento – San Joaquin Delta, California,” Hilgardia, v. 20, p. 37-56.
“Twas the night before Fishmas, when all through the space Not a creature was stirring, not even a Dace; The fyke nets were hung by the boat dock with care, In hopes that St. Fish-olas soon would be there;
The salmon eggs were nestled all snug in their redds; While visions of zooplankton danced in their heads; Andd mamma in her life vest, and I in my cap, Had just docked our boathouse for a long winter’s nap,
When out of the water there arose a fish ladder, I sprang from my seat to see what was the matter. Away to the port side I ran like a flash, Tore up the shutters and threw up a sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow; Gave a lustre of midday to objects below, When what to my wondering eyes did glimpse, But a miniature boat and eight tiny rein-fish,
With a little old driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment he must be St. Fish. More rapid than sailfish his coursers they came, And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Bluegill! now, Largemouth! now, Sturgeon and Splitie! On, Striped Bass! on, Sucker! on, Tule! and Crappie! To the top of the dam! to the top of the trawl! Now swim away! swim away! swim away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, When they meet with an obstacle, swim to the sky; So up to the boathouse the fishes they flew With the boat full of toys, and St. Fish-olas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard with a swish The flipping and flopping of each little fish. As I drew in my head, and was turning around, Into the cabin St. Fisholas came with a bound.
He was all dressed in fur, from his head to his fins, And his clothes were tarnished with ag run-off—what a sin!; A bundle of toys he had flung on his back; And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! His lateral line, how merry! His operculum like roses, his adipose fin like a cherry! His droll little maxilla was drawn up like a bow, And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his pharyngeal teeth, And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath; He had broad fins and a little round belly That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly-(fishes).
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old trout, And I laughed when I saw him, T’was St. Fish, no doubt; A wink of his eye and a twist of his head Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, And filled all the tackleboxes; then turned with a jerk, And laying his fin aside of his nose, And giving a nod, up the cabin he rose; He sprang to his boat, to his team gave a whistle, And away they flew like the down of a thistle. But I heard his exclaim, ere he swam out of sight— “Happy Fishmas to all, and to all a good night!“
Rudolph the Redear Sunfish
You know Bluegill and Crappie and Greenie and Largemouth Smallmouth and Longear and Warmouth and Rock Bass But do you recall The most famous sunfish of all?
Rudolph the Redear Sunfish Had a shiny opercle flap And if you ever saw it You would say “What’s up with that?”
All of the other sunfish Used to laugh and call him names They never let poor Rudolph Join in any sunfish games
Then one foggy Christmas Eve Santa came to say “Rudolph, with your spot so bright Won’t you guide my boat tonight?”
Then how the sunfish loved him As they shouted out with glee “Rudolph the Redear Sunfish You’ll go down in history”
Holidays are a natural time of introspection on who we are, what we do, and why. Towards a bit of our own self-reflection, some researchers from UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences (CWS) have each contributed a photo and short description of their work. We hope you enjoy reading about us and learning even more about us. It is hopefully a soft bookend to a wild 2020!
This is one of my favorite pictures because it captures the integrative and applied research and teaching we do at CWS. These students are part of the Ecogeomorphology field class, which brings together students from a range of science backgrounds to study and address conservation and management issues in watersheds in California and the Western US. From the foreground to the background, students are surveying channel topography, macroinvertebrate diversity, fish presence, and sediment texture on the Yampa River, a free-flowing unregulated river. When compared to survey data collected on the Green River, a river regulated by dams, students see the impacts of streamflow regulation on riverine ecosystems and discuss how conservation management practices balance ecological and human resource needs. My research seeks to similarly integrate biological and physical processes to better understand and inform stream restoration practices and environmental flow management in regulated rivers.
The prosperity of civilizations in Mediterranean climates relies on water management, which involves eternally managing water disputes. The water court in Valencia, Spain has met weekly since medieval times in front of the city’s cathedral, and perhaps from Roman times in the same square. Unlike most water hearings in California, this one is a popular tourist attraction and the meeting ends after about 10 minutes. (a slightly pre-COVIN picture from February 2020).
This photo captures the moment water is returning to a restored wetlands landscape. About a mile away, giant cranes crack open an levee, allowing water to flow up through meandering channels. Here a student researcher focuses quietly on recording water quality, but around her is all movement: the water rolling into the new channel, the crackling of dried vegetation being inundated, insects blowing up in clouds above the water followed by birds of all sorts swooping in to feed. The effect is dizzying and thrilling, to watch and hear the ancient ritual of water meeting land played out again for the first time in a century.
These before-after photos capture the power of a living stream as it shifts and reshapes itself (and takes away my stilling well). This stream flows through an active cattle ranch, where the landowners recognize that stewardship includes both land and streamscapes. My research helps people like these ranchers preserve their heritage and livelihoods by guiding decisions about when and where to prioritize conservation. When science is combined with a coalition of the willing, we can have healthy rivers and rangeland.
Here a Chinook Salmon is preparing to spawn in the Shasta River below Mt. Shasta. This is a reminder of how physical processes allow for ecological function. The snow that falls on Mt. Shasta percolates into the ground and emerges as nutrient rich springs. These nutrient rich springs provide a productive food web that allows the Chinook Salmon and other fishes to complete their life histories. It always amazes me that the snow you see in the background of this picture will come out of the ground 20-40 years after the photo was taken to benefit future generations of fish and other fauna.
A drifter measuring position and shear in river currents floats down the San Joaquin River on approach to the Head of Old River. Data from drifter tracks helps keep our numerical models honest and provides a point of reference when studying how juvenile Chinook salmon navigate this junction on their way to the ocean. Hidden beneath the turbid waters is a network of hydrophones, recording the path of salmon smolts as they enter the Delta. By comparing data on the movements of water and fish, we learn about the swimming habits of the smolts, and how environmental cues can shape the path that they take through the Delta. Studies such as this one pave the way for effective stewardship of fisheries utilizing the Delta.
Rivers connect and carve the landscapes we live in and use. These systems are complex interconnected webs of life which we rely on and are part of, yet for every link that breaks, the systems become less diverse, and a little less stable or reliable. My research uses genetic and ecosystem data to help understand the connections between river organisms and changing environments, so we can prioritize and apply more effective conservation management.
As the Watershed Center Assistant Director I keep the wheels on the Center and help move it forward. A picture of my normal work would be a picture of a computer screen with 50 windows open. On field trips, I’m the one who likes to point out and identify birds, even though I’m a limnologist and oceanographer by training. There are many more birds and bird species around us than people generally see without a bird-brain like me to enthusiastically point out even the little brown birds that do not tend to be crowd pleasers. Verdin picture is from the Grand Canyon field trip in 2014—cryptic in the tree until it popped out in the open. Long-earred Owl in Davis (December 2020)—a rarity here and very cryptic in the tree. It is left up to the ecologists to identify the location where I am “properly dressed” for birding including photography.
The importance of salmon to ecosystem processes and food webs is well documented. We were still surprised to witness this bobcat feasting on a fall-run Chinook salmon carcass on the upper Sacramento River immediately below Keswick dam. As an aquatic ecologist, I usually have my head in the water too often and need to remind myself that cross-ecosystem subsidies occur all the time and are critical to broader ecological function across the landscape.
I spent years researching lake ecosystems in Northern Wisconsin. The emergent aquatic plants in the foreground of this photo is naturally-occurring wild rice. Now I work on rice and agricultural floodplains in California. Juvenile Chinook salmon and many other native fishes once roamed vast floodplain habitats in the Central Valley. These natural wetland habitats are largely gone now (reduced by 95%); however we are examining whether agricultural floodplains including rice fields can be used in creative ways to facilitate the life-cycle of native CA fishes. Incidentally, the remote lake in the picture is one of only a handful of lakes I could ever find with truly “unfished” bluegill populations (note the lack of homes, docks and boat landings).
Conservation science and restoration ecology are challenging and interdisciplinary fields. Managing for ecological function necessitates focus on multiple scales of ecological organization while simultaneously integrating feedback loops with critical environmental drivers like temperature, flow and habitat change. This means scientists working on these issues can emerge from diverse areas of inquiry including ecology, engineering, hydrological sciences, fisheries, geology, geography, and law. UC Davis’ Center for Watershed Sciences embraces this broad approach to water issues in California, but there are common challenges among fields. One particularly tricky proposition is the selection of appropriate “response metrics” when discussing restoration activities.
A heuristic experience with Baldcypress trees
When I worked in rivers and reservoirs in the southeastern USA, I was always intrigued by the large Baldcypress trees (Taxodium distichum, a close relative to our California redwoods) growing in the middle of huge reservoirs. There were always only large trees – never any juveniles. It turns out these trees (which are long-lived, like redwoods) date back to the original floodplain, before the damming of rivers. Baldcypress are evolutionarily adapted to variable hydrological systems (Rypel et al. 2009). Thus while trees can persist as adults in reservoirs (flooded rivers), the seeds must fall into dry soil to germinate. In others words, reservoir cypress stands were now ecological sinks rather than sources – a form of extinction debt yet to be paid from dam construction. Yet a community ecologist might go out to reservoirs and, based on presence data, conclude that reservoirs are perfectly optimal habitats for Baldcypress trees. However these habitats clearly are not suitable to complete their life-cycle and these stands are in the process of decline because of hydrological impacts from dams – the decline is just very slow.
This example, while admittedly simple, offers a cautionary tale for how we can trick ourselves into focusing on pet ecological aspects and processes while ignoring critical ones. Holistic approaches are needed to isolate governing ecological dynamics and help guide management. In this blog, I’d like to briefly highlight one integrative metric I’ve gravitated to over time. The goal is not to convince that we should all measure or study secondary production. Rather, it is to illustrate the types of dynamics and thinking we might consider for evaluating effects of the vast water projects in California. While I focus on production, many other metrics could be equally relevant (e.g., nutrient cycling, decomposition, primary production, water circulation patterns, resilience) – essentially metrics classified as “ecosystem functions”.
What is “secondary production”?
Secondary production is the formation of biomass that crosses ecological trophic levels through time. It directly parallels the concept of primary production, but is intended for heterotrophic animals rather than plants. Both primary and secondary production are expressed in the exact same units (e.g., g m-2 y-1), meaning rates are comparable within or across food webs (Fig. 2, 3). It is also directly analogous to metrics of economic production such as GDP, only in this case, carbon is the currency of import. Although biomass is a representative static measure at a point in time, production is dynamic, and appropriately defined as a “flux”. And while correlated with biomass, production integrates a wider array of critical rate functions for animals including growth, reproduction, mortality, development time and lifespan. There is also the production-to-biomass ratio or “P/B”. P/B ratios provide an estimate of biomass turnover time and is a representative measure of productive capacity, expressed in units of inverse time (i.e., y-1). For these reasons, secondary production captures underlying dynamics related to energy availability, trophic relationships and turnover. Interestingly, it also can be quantified at any level of organization – from an individual (essentially growth), to a population (probably the most common approach), to a community or assembly of species (much rarer but still done), or even whole ecosystems (quite rare).
In a recent paper, we suggest secondary production is an underutilized metric for tracking efficacy of restoration initiatives. Dating back to Lindeman (1942) and before, ecologists have been interested in understanding the dynamics of energy transfer in food webs (Fig. 2). Yet most of the literature over the last 30 years has focused on benthic macroinvertebrate communities. The relative paucity of studies for other taxa may have something to do with a perception among other ecologists that these approaches require extensive data that are too costly or laborious to obtain. For example, if one were “starting from scratch” with study design, it can be difficult and costly to obtain all the data necessary to estimate secondary production rates. However, often we are not starting from scratch. For high profile fisheries and ecosystems, all the data needed to estimate secondary production are usually already available (Rypel et al. 2018). Furthermore, when data are not available, simple shortcuts can still provide useful paths (Rypel and David 2017). And usually these analyses yield important insights and patterns. Jeffres et al. (2020) highlight how detrital food webs facilitate the dramatically higher rates of salmon productivity observed on floodplains in the Central Valley. A recent analysis found that valuable fish populations were experiencing hidden overfishing only visible after patterns in fish production were calculated and examined relative to harvest rates (Embke et al. 2019). Another study of California oil platforms found these to apparently be some of the more productive marine habitats known (Claisse et al. 2014).
Scope for secondary production in California and the Delta
As we consistently discuss in this blog, California’s natural aquatic resources face unprecedented threats, most of which stem from the sizable existence of human populations. Given the challenges of designing and implementing complex restoration studies in this context, it is unsurprising that many do not initially focus on production as a tool. For example, regulatory mechanisms consistently guide us towards species-based management even though many increasingly recognize these approaches as ineffective and in need of a total re-rewrite (Fogerty 2014; Sass et al. 2017). Holistic, ecosystem-based approaches offer potential for broad understanding of conditions that can support many species (even non-fishes!). Furthermore, focusing on ecological aspects that support general functionality is a more promising and realistic path to improved management. Attempting complete recovery of Delta Smelt is likely impossible at this point. Understanding the conditions that once promoted smelt production, but now support production of natives and similar non-natives (e.g., striped bass) is a worthwhile approach. This context can generate ideas on what actions are needed to boost the type of ecosystem productivity we desire and value.
Several larger points come to mind when considering how a production approach could be useful in California:
Synthesis now! In some cases, we already have enough data for production-based approaches and vital rate analyses that leverage oodles of previously collected data. We simply lack synthesis capacity to fund ecologists to do the work. Transparent and open databases are needed to encourage capacity for diverse scientists to innovate new approaches. Training students and researchers in synthesis, data science, and ecosystem ecology will be key.
Design monitoring programs wisely. Careful choice of focal taxa is needed. It is noble to want to protect and study all species, but this isn’t practical. Ideal monitoring programs would include multiple species, but these might not always be the species at most risk of going away. They should however be representative of the functionality that is valued. Then for each focal species, data on vital rates would be needed so production or key elements of production can be studied over time. Analyses of relationships between production and environmental variables (e.g., flow) would be the next logical step. Indeed frameworks incorporating this type of thinking have emerged before (Fig. 4).
Inventory existing monitoring programs. How satisfied are we with data currently collected as part of our monitoring programs? Are these data yielding a critical depth of understanding to manage ecosystems? Without giving up on core datasets, can we make small tweaks to incorporate critical elements to help scale to the ecosystem level? Existing review efforts by the Delta Independent Science Board and Delta Science Program may be useful in revealing some of these gaps (Brandt and Canuel 2019).
Water is central to ecological production, but ecological efficiency is key too. Because secondary production is expressed per-unit-area, it is a mathematical certitude that more habitat (water) yields more production. We don’t need additional studies to show this basic relationship. However, understanding how to increase production per unit area is less well-understood. This is similar to agriculture – we know more crops can be grown by having a larger acreage in rotation. The more important challenge is how we grow more crops on the same amount of land? How can we get the most bang per habitat buck in the Delta? This central question can be understood and answered firmly with an ecosystem- or production-based approach.
Water reliability likely won’t increase without improved ecosystem function. Increasing costs and decreased exports combine with uncertain climate change impacts to create water reliability issues for contractors. Given current constraints, reliability simply won’t increase without increased ecological function. How do we get that? A good start might be to focus on defining the ecological functionality that we value or are required to ensure – fish and other ecological production is likely high on this list. We are ultimately in this together and should focus on metrics that lead to the goal.
Study ecology – and management. As shown by the Lindeman 1942 example, these are ancient and fundamental quests in ecology. Data collected in California in conjunction with management-relevant research can contribute to advancing basic ecological understanding. Reciprocally, ecology can help advance management by providing clues about how human actions affect ecosystem functionality. A new focus on vital rate functions would provide a rare bridge between basic and applied sciences that few explore. Doing so will invite more talent into California water and provide greater insights and comparability for needed ecosystem management alternatives. We can’t get lost in our silos – there is too much work to be done.
Yes, California will have another multi-year drought. California has immense hydrologic variability, with more droughts and floods per average year than any other part of the country. California’s water users, managers, and regulators should always be prepared for droughts (and floods). Eventually, California will have a multi-year drought worse than any we have ever seen.
More immediately, since the 2020 water year was dry in northern California, will this current 2021 Water Year be dry enough to put us into year two of a multi-year drought? (California’s water infrastructure and management system almost eliminates one-year drought effects for most uses in most years. This contrasts with the Eastern US, where rainfed corn or soybeans can die from a few weeks of drought.)
So far, we are early in the 2021 Water Year (October 2020 – September 2021) with essentially no October precipitation and almost none in November. Although early in the wet season, this water year’s Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Tulare precipitation, so far, are the lowest, or among the lowest of record. And the 2-week forecast shows no substantial precipitation. Last year was definitely dry for northern California, so most of California’s reservoirs are drawn down a bit. People also keep talking about El Nino. Let’s look at some historical statistics on how these factors affect the likelihood that we are entering a multi-year drought, and what we should do about it.
Does a dry October and November mean 2021 will be another dry year?
Mostly no, at least not by itself. The figure below plots annual northern California precipitation against October + November precipitation for each year since 1921. There is only a little correlation. The Sacramento Valley precipitation index today is about 6 inches below average. Statistically, on average, we would expect this year’s total precipitation to be about 7.7 inches below average (statistically translating into about 3.5 maf or 20%, below average annual runoff). We have a dry start to the 2021 water year, but the year can still become wet. Given the lackluster forecasts, adding a dry December would make a dry year more likely, but still not guaranteed.
Will 2020 being dry make 2021 drier?
Precipitation in northern California does not seem correlated across years, at least not historically, as shown by the plot below. The trend line is essentially flat for precipitation.
However, a drier year in terms of runoff tends to make the next year a little drier in runoff, as shown for a similar plot below for runoff instead of precipitation.
So this year is likely to have a little less runoff because last year was dry, even if we get average precipitation this year. (But precipitation this year seems unlikely to be affected by last year’s precipitation.)
Why is there a between-year correlation difference between precipitation and runoff? Runoff is slightly correlated over time because precipitation accumulating in groundwater is likely to increase flow into streams in the next year.
What about El Niño/La Niña?
Below is a plot of the historical El Nino index against northern California annual streamflow. The conclusion is pretty clear – La Niña/El Nino has little to do with annual runoff from northern California. (The ENSO index plotted here is average of December-April for each water year.)
Although ENSO may signal significant weather changes elsewhere in the world, it seems to have little predictive capacity in Northern California where most of the state’s precipitation occurs. ENSO has better predictive value for Southern California (Schonher and Nicholson 1989).
So what should we do?
There is a significant probability that this year will be the second year of a multi-year drought, since last year was dry, and this year seems likely to be dry. At this early time in the water year, the chances seem roughly even, but remain quite substantial.
Given such odds, it makes sense to prepare for another dry year, and perhaps several additional dry years. Reservoir water levels are already below average from last year being dry, and groundwater will be a little lower as well. So we have less water in reserve than last year at this time.
What to do?
If your agency or interest has a drought plan, you are likely to be looking it over and updating it.
If your agency or interest does not have a drought plan, what state do you think you live in? This is a good opportunity to develop a drought plan before you are desperate. This applies especially for the Delta and many critical environmental and regulatory interests.
But this year could be wet or contain floods as well. So, as usual for this time of year, Californians should be prepared for both floods and drought.
Finally, most technical people know Murphy’s Law, that “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong (and at the worst possible moment).” The inverse of this pragmatic “law” would hold that those who just made or updated a good drought plan should be less likely to see a drought. (So update your flood plans as well!) It is always good to be prepared.
Jay Lund is a professor of civil and environmental engineering and Co-Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis.
By Ted Grantham, Jeanette Howard, Belize Lane, Rob Lusardi, Sam Sandoval-Solis, Eric Stein, Sarah Yarnell and Julie Zimmerman
Over the past three years, a team of scientists from universities, NGOs, and state agencies across California have been working to provide guidance on how to better manage river flows for freshwater ecosystems throughout the state. A key product of this effort is the California Environmental Flows Framework (Framework), a guidance document and set of tools to help managers and stakeholders develop environmental flow recommendations for California’s rivers. The technical approach of the Framework relies on the concept of functional flows, defined as aspects of a river’s flow that sustain the biological, chemical, and physical processes upon which native freshwater species depend. Under the functional flows approach, environmental flows would be maintained at levels that preserve key ecosystem functions—such as sediment movement, floodplain inundation, and environmental cues for species migration and reproduction—to satisfy native freshwater species needs. Flow recommendations developed through the Framework would address ecosystem water needs throughout the year and preserve the many benefits to people from healthy rivers and streams.
The Framework is a departure from previous environmental flow approaches in California. Here, we describe key attributes of the Framework’s functional flows approach and highlight how it relates to past approaches and those recently adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board). As described in the Framework Guidance document, previous publications (Yarnell et al. 2015; Yarnell et al. 2020), and recent policy reports (Grantham et al. 2020), a functional flows approach would involve:
Managing for ecosystem functions: Environmental flow management in California has traditionally focused on habitat needs for individual fish species, such as threatened salmon populations listed under the federal Endangered Species Act. A functional flows approach would shift the focus from single species needs to ecosystem needs. By protecting the underlying functions that sustain river ecosystems, this approach is likely to deliver broad benefits for freshwater biota, including listed fish species, as well as support valued ecosystem services, such as clean water, fisheries, and recreation.
Mimicking natural flow variation: The traditional focus on single species (or even single life history stages of individual species) has also tended to favor static environmental flow requirements that vary little within seasons and across years. However, California’s native freshwater biota are adapted to the high natural variability in river flows. A functional flows approach preserves elements of natural flow variation upon which native species depend.
Coupling flows with physical habitat and water quality improvements: Environmental flow protections have traditionally focused on water quantity, but have often overlooked water quality (temperature, salinity, contaminant loads, and other parameters) and physical habitat (the form and composition of the river channel, banks, and floodplains) in supporting ecosystem health. A functional flows approach recognizes that ecosystem benefits of environmental water are realized only when flows are coupled with suitable water quality and suitable physical habitat.
The total quantity of water required to implement a functional flows approach in any given watershed can be expected to vary depending on its hydrologic setting and water year. However, it is likely that additional environmental water, beyond the volumes currently protected as minimum instream flows, will be needed in rivers subject to high human water demands, such as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Basin. This raises the question: how does the functional flows approach compare with recent environmental flow regulations adopted by the Water Board for this region?
In 2018, the State Water Resources Control Board adopted new flow objectives as part of the Bay Delta Water Control Plan for the San Joaquin Rivers and its major tributaries: the Tuolumne, Merced, and Stanislaus Rivers. Under the Plan, environmental flows for these rivers are expressed as a percent of unimpaired flows – a fixed proportion of expected natural flows unaltered by upstream diversions, storage, or imported water. For the months of February to June, the default flow objectives are 40% of unimpaired daily flow, based on a minimum 7-day running average, from each of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers. The policy also sets minimum flow requirements for the San Joaquin River.
The Water Board policy has some similarities and differences with the functional flows approach described above. Like the functional flows approach, a percent-of-unimpaired flows approach is designed to preserve natural patterns of flow variation that support ecosystem health. Establishing flow recommendations as a fixed proportion of unimpaired flows ensures that seasonal, sub-seasonal, and interannual variation in flow are preserved. However, there is a risk that flows implemented as a percent-of-unimpaired flow may be insufficient to support some ecosystem functions targeted by the functional flows approach. This is because many stream functions have a threshold response and reducing flows by a fixed percentage cannot support all functions similarly. As stated by Poff et al. (1997), “clearly, half of the peak discharge will not move half of the sediment, half of a migration motivational flow will not motivate half of the fish, and half of an overbank flow will not inundate half of the floodplain.” To maintain ecosystem functions, it is likely more than 40% of unimpaired flow will be required at particular times of year, and for other times, potentially less.
Despite this apparent limitation in the percent-of-unimpaired flows approach, provisions in the new policy would allow environmental flow recommendations to more closely follow a functional flows approach (Mount et al. 2020). Specifically, the policy allows for negotiated agreements in which unimpaired flows can vary over a larger range (30-50%) and potentially allows for even further deviation from these levels by treating environmental flows as a block of water. Conceptually, this block of water could be managed as functional flows by allocating it to meet functional flow targets at specific times of year (Grantham et al. 2020).
A budgeted water approach could also bring needed flexibility to the way environmental flows are managed in California (Mount et al. 2019). Environmental flows in California have historically been established through a variety of regulatory and legal processes, but tend to be prescriptive, requiring flows to be maintained at or above specific thresholds following a set flow schedule. This approach offers certainty to environmental interests and water users, but a fixed flow schedule makes it difficult to adapt to changing ecosystem conditions or take advantage of unique opportunities to enhance ecosystem benefits (Horne et al. 2018). For this reason, implementation of functional flows as an ecosystem water budget—a fixed volume of water for each year that can be flexibly managed to maximize ecosystem benefits and that could also be stored, traded, or leased—is a promising approach for improving the effectiveness of environmental flows in achieving ecosystem management objectives (Grantham et al. 2020).
The California Environmental Flows Framework is a holistic, science-based process to support resource managers, water agencies, and NGOs working to restore the health of California’s rivers. The Framework has been acknowledged by the Governor’s Office as a key element in building the resilience of California’s water system (State of California 2020). Environmental organizations and water user communities have both recognized the potential value of the functional flows approach advanced by the Framework (Grantham et al. 2020). The functional flows approach is also largely compatible with the 2018 Water Board policy, especially if implemented as water budgets supported by adaptable, robust governance. Additional work is needed to understand how the Framework will be used to inform the development of environmental flow programs and guide their successful implementation in diverse settings. Even so, the strong technical foundation, broad support, and new regulatory directives suggest the Framework’s functional flows approach has significant potential to improve the scale and effectiveness of environmental water management in the state.
Ted Grantham is a cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley, Jeanette Howard is the director of science for The Nature Conservancy’s water program, Belize Lane is an assistant professor at Utah State University, Rob Lusardi is a senior researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, Sam Sandoval-Solis is an associate professor and cooperative extension specialist at UC Davis, Eric Stein is a principal scientist with the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, Sarah Yarnell is a senior researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, and Julie Zimmerman is the lead scientist for freshwater at the The Nature Conservancy. These individuals have been working with government agency staff to develop the California Environmental Flows Framework.
Grantham, T.E., Mount, J., Stein, E.D., and Yarnell, S.M. 2020. Making the Most of Water for the Environment: A Functional Flows Approach for California’s Rivers. Public Policy Institute of California Water Policy Center Report.
Horne, A.C., Kaur, S., Szemis, J.M., Costa, A.M., Nathan, R., Angus Webb, J., Stewardson, M.J. and Boland, N., 2018. Active management of environmental water to improve ecological outcomes. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 144: 04018079.
Yarnell, S.M., Petts, G.E., Schmidt, J.C., Whipple, A.A., Beller, E.E., Dahm, C.N., Goodwin, P. and Viers, J.H., 2015. Functional flows in modified riverscapes: hydrographs, habitats and opportunities. BioScience 65: 963-972.
Yarnell, S.M., Stein, E.D., Webb, J.A., Grantham, T.E., Lusardi, R.A., Zimmerman, J., Peek, R.A., Lane, B.A., Howard, J. and Sandoval‐Solis, S. 2020. A functional flows approach to selecting ecologically relevant flow metrics for environmental flow applications. River Research and Applications 36: 318-324