By

Joe Eaton
About the author

Joe Eaton writes about endangered and invasive species, climate and ecosystem science, environmental history, and water issues for ESTUARY. He is also "a semi-obsessive birder" whose pursuit of rarities has taken him to many of California's shores, wetlands, and sewage plants.

Articles by Joe Eaton

Transformative Green Infrastructure

At the summit, the BAAQMD’s David Ralson described three examples of redoing infrastructure to break down barriers separating human ecology and the natural environment.  Three such initiatives are underway in the area around San Leandro Bay, the locale of RBD’s Estuary Commons project. “The I-880 corridor from High Street to 98th Avenue contains the worst-off disadvantaged communities in the Bay Area in terms of health outcomes,” he said. “They are also subject to sea-level rise and groundwater inundation.” Former wetlands...
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Breaching Season for Hill & Dutch Sloughs, Pacheco Marsh

In the life of a tidal wetland restoration project, the first levee breach is a major milestone, a kind of graduation. After years of securing funding, navigating the permit process, completing baseline biological surveys, filing endless reports, grading and sculpting the marsh plain, setting out plants—after all that comes the day when the earthen barrier crumbles, the water makes its move, and another marsh can start to regenerate. This fall, that’s happening around the Bay Area as three significant projects—Dutch...
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Bay Fish Still Not Good Eating

After decades of efforts to clean up San Francisco Bay, its fish still carry a toxic load that makes them unfit for human consumption. A new Regional Monitoring Program (RMP) report on its 2019 sport fish survey contains some positive news: an overall decline in polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE), hopeful trends in polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxin, and continued low selenium levels. But no downward trend was found for mercury. Then there are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which the...
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moss ball oregon USFWS

Invasions

Almost two months after invasive zebra mussels were discovered in imported “moss balls” (actually algae) in a Seattle PetCo store, federal and state agencies are still trying to track the Trojan moss balls and keep the mussels out of vulnerable water bodies, including California’s. So far, contaminated moss balls have been found in 46 states (Virginia, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Hawaii are the exceptions) and most of Canada’s provinces. The US Fish & Wildlife Service has issued detailed guidance for...
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Invasive Mussels Hide in Aquarium Moss Balls

A few weeks ago, someone working in a big-box pet store in the Seattle area informed the U.S. Geological Survey that they had seen suspicious mollusks in ornamental aquarium plants that were being offered for sale. Federal scientists confirmed the presence of zebra mussels tucked away in a clump of Aegagropila linnaei, a green alga marketed as moss balls or marimo balls, and issued a warning through the Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Alert System on March 2. The national Aquatic Nuisance...
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Dutch Slough Laboratory

For a hawk’s-eye view of one of the Estuary’s most ambitious restoration efforts, visit the Dutch Slough Tidal Marsh Habitat Restoration Project’s YouTube channel. Drone-shot footage shows what the Department of Water Resources has been doing on 1,200 acres of former wetland, converted to pasture and subsided up to 15 feet, in the West Delta between Big Break and Jersey Island. After moving millions of cubic yards of soil to elevate the marsh plain, a team of engineers, scientists, and...
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Fixing a Dysfunctional Marsh on Sonoma Creek

Restoration projects, like species, evolve. The Sonoma Creek Enhancement Project, originally about mosquito control, has shown itself to be a boon to special-status tidal marsh wildlife as well. More than a decade of adaptive management actions made that happen.  The existing marsh, formed rapidly beginning in the 1960s by deposited sediment, lacked the dendritic channels of a mature marsh. High tides brought in water that pooled in a central basin and didn’t drain out, providing breeding habitat for mosquitos. The...
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Heavy Lifting for Fish

Ted Frink recalls watching Jacques Cousteau’s television specials when he was growing up in coastal Orange County. “I envisioned myself as Cousteau,” says Frink, a fisheries biologist with the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) now approaching retirement. “My folks encouraged my interest in science. I knew I could be a biologist.” That early inspiration sparked a long and varied career, culminating in his work as chief of DWR’s Special Restoration Initiatives Branch and his role in mitigating obstacles to...
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Makeover for Delta Weed Patch & Salt Trap?

What began as a project to convert a submerged Delta island into habitat for endangered native fish has morphed into a multi-benefit package with additional payoffs for water quality and recreation. The collaborative design process for the Franks Tract Futures project brought initially skeptical local stakeholders on board and is being hailed as a model for future initiatives. Yet major uncertainties remain as interested parties explore the challenges of implementing a complex redesign of a big chunk of the Delta....
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Yet another non-native aquatic species may have made itself at home in the Delta.

As described by US Fish and Wildlife Service fish biologist Brian Mahardja and his co-authors in San Francisco Estuary & Watershed Science, the newcomer is an inch-long, minnow-like fish called the bluefin killifish (Lucania goodei), indigenous to Florida and adjacent southeastern states. It was first detected in the Delta Cross Channel during a beach seine survey in October 2017, and subsequently found in Beaver and Hog sloughs and at Decker, Sherman, and Brannan islands. With surveys curtailed by the coronavirus...
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Two recent exercises in modeling the hydrological effects of forest thinning and wildfire are yielding intriguing insights.

Hydrogeologist Fadji Maina and colleague Erica Siirila-Woodburn of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory ran simulations of wildfire effects in the Cosumnes River watershed (see map). “We chose the Cosumnes because it’s one of the largest rivers that has no dam in California,” explains Maina. The most significant findings concerned the way wildfire affects groundwater recharge and storage. “It depends on where the wildfire occurs,” says Maina. The underlying rocks—foothill volcanics or High Sierra granites—make a difference. Consistent with earlier studies, the model also...
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Should the striped bass be a suspect in the decline of the Delta smelt?

Writing in the March issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists Matt Nobriga and Will Smith suggest that the smelt’s baseline might have shifted long before anyone was paying attention, and striped bass predation may have constrained its numbers before recent water diversions and food web changes added their effects. The smelt’s historic abundance is unknown; systematic surveys didn’t begin until 1959. But it’s thought to have evolved its boom-and-bust life history in...
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Parks and Cities Seek Shore Resilience

By Joe Eaton For Alameda County, climate vulnerability is no abstraction. King tides push the waters of San Leandro Bay into parking lots at Martin Luther King Regional Shoreline. When Diablo winds rattle the eucalyptus, Berkeley and Oakland hill-dwellers recall the conflagrations of 1923 and 1991 and dread the next one. The county feels the bite of both edges of the climate sword: fire and flood. With highways, BART, a major airport and seaport, business parks, and sports complexes, the...
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Kinky Fish Spines Linked to Selenium

By Joe Eaton Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are using new tools to track selenium, with the Sacramento splittail, a California-endemic fish, as an indicator species. Robin Stewart, lead author of a new paper on splittail and selenium, is one of the region’s most seasoned current experts on bioaccumulation of metals in estuarine species. In some sampled splittail, selenium levels exceeded the proposed EPA protective criteria for fish ovaries. Liver levels, not...
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Tracking Curlews Cross-Country

By Joe Eaton This winter, Jay Carlisle, director of the Intermountain Bird Observatory, teaming with Nils Warnock of Audubon Canyon Ranch and netting expert David Newstead of Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, caught two long-billed curlews and outfitted them with transmitters. Those birds may reveal where the wintering curlews on the California coast and Bayshore are coming from. While many grassland birds are experiencing catastrophic declines, long-billed curlews had appeared to be an exception. “It’s such a habitat generalist...
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A career spent monitoring imperiled fish has given Randy Baxter a strong sense of the vulnerability of aquatic ecosystems.

“We’ve overtaxed the system,” he says. Baxter officially retired from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife last August, but still works two or three days a week as a “reemployed annuitant”—a big change from supervising a staff of 14 studying the threatened longfin smelt and other native fish. The reduced schedule gives him more time to fish, in California and on British Columbia’s Skeena River, and tend his orchids and carnivorous plants. Chicago-born Baxter grew up in Pacifica with...
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Researchers hope new computer models will help clarify the effects of entrainment on the population of endangered Delta smelt.

Entrainment at the South Delta pumps of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project has been a concern for years, but disentangling its impact on the dwindling smelt population from those of other environmental and water management factors isn’t easy, and operational differences between the SWP and CVP facilities complicate analysis. Now, US Fish and Wildlife Service statistician Will Smith has developed computer models for entrainment effects on different smelt life stages, part of a larger Delta Smelt...
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Not So Picky Marsh Mouse

The endangered salt marsh harvest mouse (informally “Salty”) is a poster child for tidal marsh restoration in San Francisco Bay. But recent research, presented by University of California at Davis postdoc Katie Smith in a State of the Estuary conference session on tidal wetlands, suggests we’ve misinterpreted what the mouse needs. “It’s been managed as a habitat specialist,” she said, based on assumptions that it requires tidal wetlands and a diet of pickleweed. However, hours of mouse-tracking around the Bay...
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New Regional Rainmaker

By Joe Eaton Environmental issues were important to Michael Montgomery as a young man. Montgomery’s career path led to 33 years with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, where he gained a wealth of experience in navigating complex regulatory landscapes to protect water resources, and ultimately to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, where he is now executive officer. “The Bay Area has a strong tradition of coming up with collaborative solutions,” he says. That’s how he...
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Two long-scarce freshwater mammal species are staging a comeback in Bay Area waterways.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recently updated its distribution map for the state’s river otters, reflecting sightings by citizen-scientist “otter-spotters.” River Otter Ecology Project director Megan Isadore says the map fills in major gaps in the North Bay and East Bay, increasing otters’ documented range by 4,100 square miles. “It’s interesting to find how well they’re doing in very populated cities,” she says. Absent from the Bay Area for decades, river otters were observed near Tomales in...
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