West Coast Salmonids All Tired Out?

West Coast Salmonids All Tired Out?

West Coast salmon and steelhead populations have declined steeply in the past century – a plight that biologists have primarily blamed on habitat loss. Dams, for instance, block adult fish’s access to historic spawning grounds, and juvenile survival is impacted by streamside development and water diversions. Now, it turns out, microplastic pollution may be a much bigger factor than anyone knew just several years ago. In 2019, scientists with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the Los Angeles-based nonprofit 5...
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Big Boulders, Big Benefits to Coyote Creek Fish

As a source of flowing water, upper Coyote Creek is unreliable at best. Though storms swell its banks in winter, Mediterranean-climate summers shrink this South Bay stream to a series of isolated pools by August. “By October right before the rains come, we’re down to these really small pools that have all the fish in them,” says retired U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ecologist Rob Leidy. Leidy and UC Berkeley fish ecologist Stephanie Carlson began monitoring the annual dry-down of upper...
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Sturdy Sturgeon

A 90-year-old Australian lungfish at San Francisco’s Academy of Sciences has received a lot of press lately, but there is a wild fish species living in the San Francisco Bay that has the potential to live that long or longer — or so we think. While one white sturgeon caught in the Columbia River Basin was estimated to be 104 years old, the life expectancy of white sturgeon, Acipenser transmontanus, which includes the Central Valley population endemic to the San...
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The Complexities of Monitoring Steelhead

For more than two decades, steelhead — listed as federally threatened in 1997 — have been monitored throughout the state. However, until recently that monitoring has been a haphazard affair. Each local jurisdiction has established a different system, using different methods with different degrees of intensity, according to a 2018 study examining monitoring within the Central Valley and its environs. In some areas, primarily the Sacramento River watershed, which drains the vast northern part of the valley, data has been...
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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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Fish passage structures can be improved for the benefit of multiple species, if they are designed to account for differences in behavior, physical ability and size, according to a new literature review.

Historically, most fish passages have been designed to help native salmon return to their upstream habitat and spawning grounds, with little consideration for other migrating species such as sturgeon and lampreys. “There is an assumption that if you just build a fish passage structure, fish will go thorough it, but that is not always the case,” says Department of Water Resources fisheries biologist Zoltan Matica, who conducted the review. “The challenge is to understand that this isn’t only a physical...
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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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More than half the water diverted from Central Valley rivers is used to irrigate cattle-feed crops, implicating beef and dairy as top drivers of recent fish declines.

Recent findings, published in Nature Sustainability in March, strengthen the environmental arguments for going vegan while rewriting the familiar narrative that almonds and other high-value tree crops are the top hogs of Central Valley water resources. The study’s authors, led by Brian Richter of Virginia-based Sustainable Waters, focused on the arid West and found that irrigated crops like alfalfa and hay, more than any others, are drying out rivers. The reduced flows are pushing dozens of fish species toward extinction....
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Squeezed by Geography

By Nate Seltenrich In most respects, Marin County is a privileged place. It ranks first in the Bay Area for income per capita and includes many of the region’s priciest zip codes. But its miles of Bay and ocean shoreline and many low-lying towns, positioned to afford easy coastal access and world-class scenery, represent a major liability in the era of sea-level rise. “Marin is the canary in the coal mine in some ways, because almost everything is in that...
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Forty Miles of Creek, Six Adaptation Projects

By Robin Meadows In 2017, a perfect storm hit the City of San Jose in Santa Clara County. Coyote Creek, which winds through the heart of the city, overtopped its banks, flooding businesses and hundreds of homes up to depths of six feet. Thousands of people were evacuated and property damages exceeded $70 million. “If I’ve learned anything in my 25 years here, it’s that you have to give creeks room to move, which also creates more resilience to climate...
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A new project should dramatically improve conditions for endangered steelhead trout in the lower reaches of Alameda Creek.

The project is part of a long-term effort to restore steelhead to Alameda Creek. Last year, for the first time in decades, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission began releasing water from a newly retrofitted dam, effectively reviving an important tributary stream. Also in 2019, the Alameda County Flood Control District began construction of a key fish ladder at the BART line crossing that will allow adult steelhead to access the river’s headwaters. The new fish passage enhancement plan focuses...
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Taking a Break from the Corps

By Robin Meadows Corte Madera creek is an outsized problem for people in Ross and other towns built right up to its banks. “Our peaceful creek turns into a rushing torrent in winter,” says Chris Martin, who grew up in the small Marin County town. Finding a fix has been contentious since 1971, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put a mile-long concrete flood control channel through Ross. “It disconnected the creek from the floodplains, wrecked the Coho salmon...
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Dam Tweaks Yield Results

By Alastair Bland “After one year of flows, we’re seeing lots of rainbow trout,” says Brian Sak of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). For the first time ever, cold water is flowing steadily through Calaveras Dam in southern Alameda County, and into the creek canyon below. The return of rainbow trout to Calaveras Creek marks a milestone in an ongoing, multi-agency restoration of Alameda Creek, which drains more than 600 square miles of the East Bay. Since the...
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Clout and Cool Science Push Land-River Connection

By Robin Meadows Statewide, 13,000 miles of levees disconnect our rivers from their floodplains, which once served as nurseries for young salmon migrating to the ocean. California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot wants to help restore this connection. “It’s one of the most exciting parts of my job,” he said in an interview, his face lighting up in a wide smile. “It’s a win-win-win―it’s a way we can reconnect water with land, create habitat, and provide flood protection.” Before all...
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California Sun Podcast Interview with ESTUARY’s Editor Dives into All Things Bay & Delta on the Front Burner Today

This August the California Sun’s Jeff Schechtman interviewed ESTUARY magazine’s editor in chief Ariel Rubissow Okamoto, also a long-time Bay Area science writer, about her personal opinions on the resiliency of the largest estuary on the West Coast, the challenges facing the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, and the potential impacts of climate change and sea level rise on the San Francisco Bay.  Listen to the 20-minute podcast here. Mentions: Nutrients, Toxics, Giant Marsh, Adaptation Atlas, Resilience, Sea Level Rise impacts, BCDC...
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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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Joaquin Esquivel is impatient with the narrative that has dominated California water policy for decades, especially when it comes to the Delta and the eternal tug-of-war between farms, cities and the environment.

“For so long in the water space you’ve had these false dichotomies where you are being told you have to choose one or the other,” says Esquivel, who Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board in February. “These narratives can fuel themselves, they take root in communities, but they don’t really do much to get to the heart of the policy question.” A native of the Coachella Valley, Esquivel served on the State Board for...
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Putah Creek Pipeline for Salmon

By Robin Meadows “The dream is to reestablish a natural run of salmon in Putah Creek,” says UC Davis professor emeritus Peter Moyle. In 1972 Putah creek was a trickle of water between heavy machinery mining gravel for the campus roads. Moyle and others urged the university to cease mining and by the end of the decade the machinery was gone and the administration designated a riparian reserve along the creek on campus. After droughts and an ensuing long legal...
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Floods and droughts can cause pools and riffles—and the bugs that live in them—to become more homogenous.

For years, scientists monitoring water quality in streams and rivers have collected mixed samples of aquatic invertebrates from riffles, pools, and transition zones. But UC Santa Barbara stream ecologist David Herbst and his colleagues recently finished a 15-year study of the benthic life in small streams of the central Sierra that examined pools and riffles separately. They found that during flood and drought events, these habitats and their inhabitants become more uniform. But while floods come and go, droughts can...
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California’s Wild and Scenic Rivers System expanded for the first time in 13 years in June when Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. signed legislation protecting 37 miles of the upper Mokelumne River.

It was the culmination of a long struggle for the Jackson-based Foothill Conservancy and other river advocates. Four years ago, a Mokelumne bill was approved by the state Senate but killed by a parliamentary maneuver  that blocked a vote in the Assembly. Despite significant support in Calaveras and Amador counties, the bill was opposed by local water agencies concerned about the potential impact on their water rights. In 2015 Assemblyman Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals) successfully proposed a state study of the...
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