VA Agreement Highlights Habitat Questions

Native Species



VA Agreement Highlights Habitat Questions

Restoring marsh and wetland habitat can have significant benefits for dozens of species throughout the Bay and Delta—that’s beyond dispute. But when it comes to saving the Estuary’s most imperiled fish, how much habitat improvements can help in the absence of dramatically increased freshwater flows is a question that has dogged and divided scientists and policy makers for years. As the State Water Resources Control Board considers the latest proposal from the State and water agencies for a flows agreement that would restore thousands of riparian and wetland acres—while dedicating less water to the environment than proposed under an alternative regulatory framework—critics argue that science doesn’t support its underlying assumptions. The debate highlights how much there still is to learn about...
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21
Mar

Taking the Measure of Success at the South Bay Salt Ponds

It is two decades now since some 23 square miles of South Bay salt evaporation ponds became public property. Eighty-eight old impoundments were to be remade into habitat for birds and other creatures—and into a superior flood-control buffer for communities beside the rising Bay. Progress since then has been slow, and fast. Slow, because relatively small swathes of territory have been visibly, obviously changed. Slow, because a whole set of basic questions had to be answered before the work could pick up speed. And fast, because those questions have now been answered, by and large, and the news is pretty good. As sea-level rise makes the project ever more urgent, the way seems open to a rapid transformation in the...
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Creek snorkel survey. Photo: Rick Johnson
21
Mar

A Steelhead Renaissance in San Mateo Creek

Rich Johnson steps through an inconspicuous gate between two backyards not far from the downtown San Mateo Caltrain station and points down a steep, overgrown streambank to a piece of PVC piping, barely visible beneath the tumbling water. “That’s our furthest downstream PIT array,” says Johnson, an aquatic biologist with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC). The Passive Integrated Transponder array is one of four stations along San Mateo Creek that capture signals from tagged steelhead as they migrate up and down the creek.  More than a month after a series of atmospheric rivers deluged the Bay Area in January, San Mateo Creek is still running high, fed by unusually large releases from Crystal Springs Reservoir. The high flows...
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Treatment near Bair Island with airboat. Photo: Drew Kerr, ISP
21
Mar

The Battle for Native Cordgrass

Now in its 17th year of monitoring and treatment, the San Francisco Estuary Invasive Spartina Project remains a uniquely ambitious invasive plant removal effort: from its timeline (indefinite) and size (covering 70,000 acres with more than 150 landowners and managers) to its budget (about $50 million to date) and use of technology (genetic testing, GIS, airboats, helicopters). It’s been an effective one, too, reducing stands of invasive cordgrass in the region to a tiny fraction of what they once were. “We are excited at the continual progress over two decades, even with all the permitting and pandemic challenges,” says project manager Marilyn Latta of the California State Coastal Conservancy, which manages the Invasive Spartina Project (ISP) in partnership with the...
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Los Rios Check Dam open for fish passage. Photo: Max Stevenson
21
Mar

Reconnecting Putah Creek with the Ocean

After decades of restoration, recent Chinook salmon runs in Putah Creek have reached 1,800, producing young that swim toward the ocean by the tens of thousands. But, says Putah Creek streamkeeper Max Stevenson, this growing population still faces considerable obstacles.  Putah Creek flows from headwaters in the North Coast Ranges to the Toe Drain of the Yolo Bypass, and was dammed near Winters in the 1950s to divert water for Solano County. Salmon began coming to the creek after settlement of a lawsuit in the year 2000 that stipulated releasing water for fish as well as optimizing spawning grounds.  Salmon need loose gravel to dig spawning pits, or redds, that are up to six feet across. “They flop over and...
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21
Mar

Saving a Species Struck by Systemic Oversights at Clear Lake

Since the 1950s, four native fish extinctions have taken place in Lake County’s Clear Lake: the thicktail chub, Clear Lake splittail, Pacific lamprey, and hardhead. A fifth endemic species, the Clear Lake hitch, is teetering on the brink. “Agencies view the hitch as just a fish. But for Tribes the hitch is sacred,” explains Big Valley Band of Pomo Indians tribal elder Ron Montez, Sr. “We believe Creator placed this fish here to help us survive for thousands of years. The chi (Pomo word for hitch) not only fed the seven Tribes around the lake, but it fed Tribes who came in from surrounding counties—Sonoma, Napa, Sacramento—and sustained all these people since time immemorial. That’s gone now. Anyone younger than...
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Seining Luco pond. Photo: Brian Williamshen
21
Mar

Suisun’s Working Landscapes Support Fish

On a sunny spring day in 2014, two UC Davis PhD candidates in waders pulled a 30-foot seine through Luco Pond (also known as the Potrero Duck Club) in Suisun Marsh. Luco Pond is within the Nurse-Denverton Slough Complex where duck clubs use tidal gates to control water exchange. After 45 minutes of counting diminutive fish, Brian Williamshen and Melissa Riley were excited to tally more than 6,900 sticklebacks, a thorny-backed native fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. “There was definitely a moment of excitement,” Williamshen says. “But when we were at our 50th fish, and the little spines kept poking us in the fingers, our emotions shifted to like, oh man, we still have hundreds more to go!”...
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Lookout Slough Restoration will be the Delta’s Largest Yet

When the restoration of Lookout Slough is complete, Lookout Slough will be no more. Created to provide water for a century-old duck-hunting club, the human-made canal will be filled in as part of a $119 million, 3,400-acre tidal wetlands restoration, the largest ever in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “Drought and climate change have elevated the importance of these types of multi-benefit projects,” said Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, when the project broke ground last June. “This project will reduce flood risk for communities in the Central Valley and create much-needed habitat for Delta smelt and other endangered and threatened fish species.” By their expected completion in late 2024, the new tidal wetlands will replace former...
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Shorebirds-on-1-restored-habitat_U.S.-Geological-Survey_William-Chan
21
Mar

Wetland Restoration is for the Birds

It’s high tide at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve, on San Francisco Bay due west of Union City, and Nathan Van Schmidt is counting birds on Pond E9 with both hands. Van Schmidt, science director for the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory, has a clicker in his right hand to track American Avocet, and another in his left for Northern Shoveler. “Wetlands can support an incredible biomass of birds,” he says. “And Eden Landing is one of the birdiest places in the Bay.” The Observatory, a local nonprofit bird conservation organization, helps the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project to monitor how birds are doing on 82 managed ponds and restored tidal wetlands. This pond, with water levels maintained at about...
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blue whale feeding
31
Oct

Blue Whales Consume Microplastic Particles by the Billion

The age of humans, termed the Anthropocene, might just as well be considered the age of plastic. The dangerously durable material, made ubiquitous in products and packaging through the late 20th century, has inundated our planet’s environment. Today, miniscule plastic pieces are present in deep-ocean sediment, high-mountain snow and just about every place in between. Plastic waste has also entered the marine food web, and according to new research, baleen whales are ingesting staggering quantities.  Blue whales off the California coast may consume as many as a billion pieces, or up to several tons, of microplastic in the course of a summer feeding season, according to a paper published today in Nature Communications.  The authors of the paper, led by Cal State Fullerton...
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The Long Haul to Restore San Joaquin Spring-Run Chinook

When a team of fish biologists was tasked with restoring spring-run Chinook salmon in the San Joaquin River in 2006, none of them quite knew where to begin. The thirsty farms that crowd the river on both sides had taken almost all the water out of it most years since the mid-1900s, leaving a nearly 60-mile long stretch below Friant Dam near Fresno completely dry. The riverbed had been parched for so long that someone even built a house in it. The salmon that once thronged up-river by the hundreds of thousands had vanished, and there was no precedent for jumpstarting a population from scratch. Then one of the team members joked that they should just write a white paper...
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12
Oct

South Bay Fish Fight

Two decades after the South Bay’s main water supplier agreed to restore aquatic habitat in the streams that flow from its reservoirs, fish in the region remain in dire straits, and local river advocates say it’s the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s fault. The agency, which serves the taps and toilets of 1.9 million Santa Clara County residents, has made some improvements on fish habitat along miles of stream and increased the amount of water it releases from its reservoirs. Yet Chinook salmon and steelhead in Coyote Creek, Stevens Creek, and the Guadalupe River remain about as scarce as ever. Several environmental organizations want Valley Water to do more, and last month one of them, San Francisco Baykeeper, sued the...
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29
Sep

Of Mice and Marshes: Surveying Salties to Save Them

It’s five in the morning, and Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge remains in the tight velvet grip of night. All is peaceful and quiet, despite the fact that the toll plaza of the Dumbarton Bridge is less than a quarter-mile away. By 5:15, car dome lights and slamming doors have transformed this lonely spot at the watery edge of Newark into a hub of activity. People are taking last sips of coffee, strapping headlamps to their foreheads, and swapping civilian footwear for rubber muck boots. The occasion that’s roused everyone from bed more than an hour before sunrise? The first survey of the salt marsh harvest mouse conducted across the rodent’s entire San Francisco Bay-centered range. In...
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31
Aug

California will spend big bucks on beavers to try to boost their numbers and reap some of the benefits—including slowing wildfire—these ecosystem engineers can provide.

After years of advocacy by beaver “believers,” the state has allocated funding for a beaver restoration program. The $1.67 million in license plate funds for fiscal year 2022-23 and $1.44 million the following year represents a new way of thinking about beaver management in California, says Kate Lundquist, of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center. “Until recently, the Fish and Game Code has focused on recreational and commercial beaver trapping and permitting the depredation of nuisance beaver,” she explains. “I am excited that the Governor, the Natural Resources Agency, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife are recognizing beaver and process-based restoration as legitimate nature-based solutions that can restore our watersheds, recover listed species, and make our state more...
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30
Aug

Drought Plan Means Full Lake, Empty River

In the mountains and foothills of California, an enduring drought has depleted the state’s major reserves of water. There is virtually no snowpack, and most of the state’s large reservoirs are less than 40 percent full. But in the central Sierra Nevada, a trio of artificial lakes remain flush with cold mountain water. The largest of them, Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, from which millions of Bay Area residents receive water, is more than 80 percent full. This remarkable plentitude is the outcome of careful planning by the agency that manages the Yosemite National Park reservoir plus conservation by Bay Area residents, who use less water per capita than most other people in the state—between 35 and 65 gallons per person per...
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19
Jun

Finding Her Way to Fish: Denise Colombano

The path into a career is not always a straightforward one. “I hated school. I mean, hated school,” says Denise Colombano, a postdoctoral fellow and Delta Science Fellow working on fisheries research at UC Berkeley. Today, Colombano feels that it is important to talk about her story as a way of encouraging inclusiveness and opportunity within her field — and in the sciences in general.  “I actually flunked ninth grade, and was attending a continuation school, when my science teacher asked if anyone was interested in skipping classes for the day.” Colombano jumped at the chance, and found herself at Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland, helping the Audubon Society train schoolchildren in birdwatching. “We were supposed to...
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Defining Unimpaired Flows

For the second time in four years, a proposal for a voluntary agreement between agencies and water contractors on flows into and through the Delta from the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers and their tributaries is wending its way through the State Water Resources Control Board. The proposal, which would replace the regime outlined in the Board’s most recent update to the Bay-Delta Plan, calls for substantially less water remaining in the system than the update, but comparing the two requires understanding some terminology, specifically the concept of “unimpaired flows.” In 2018 the State Board adopted Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Plan update, calling for San Joaquin River inflows to the Delta of 40% of unimpaired flow; a framework for...
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Reorienting to Salmon Recovery

The days when salmon and steelhead teemed in California’s coastal watersheds faded away last century. Today, many populations of the fish are gone or dwindling, the river systems where they spawn drained by diversions or too warm for native fish to survive. Warming trends and drought are squeezing water resources tighter. Nearly all efforts to revive the state’s ailing salmonids have failed, often stalemated by political tensions, and it takes hatcheries and truck transport of juveniles to saltwater to maintain the feeble populations that remain. California’s disappointing history of salmonid recovery programs has motivated a group of scientists from public water agencies and environmental conservation groups to step back, dream big, and take a new path forward. This group wants...
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diagram of fish net trawl
13
Apr

Fish monitoring surveys in the San Francisco Estuary net different numbers of different fish species depending upon when and how they sample.

According to a new study published in San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, even surveys that target the same part of the water column can come up with significantly different catches. The study’s authors analyzed decades worth of data from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Fall Midwater Trawl, which spans from San Pablo Bay to the upper Delta; CDFW’s San Francisco Bay Study midwater and otter trawls, covering the South Bay to the central Delta; and the UC Davis Suisun Marsh Fish Study, also an otter trawl. The two midwater trawls, which sample the middle of the water column, were found to be generally more successful at catching pelagic (open-water) fish like Delta smelt and American shad...
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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 Gyres published findings indicating that car tire particles are one of the most prevalent forms of microplastic pollution flowing into San Francisco Bay. Then, in 2020, a team of West Coast scientists discovered that a chemical in these particles is...
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