Climate change is heating, salinizing, and expanding the San Francisco Estuary, a review of nearly 200 scientific studies concludes.

Climate change is heating, salinizing, and expanding the San Francisco Estuary, a review of nearly 200 scientific studies concludes.

Sea level rise, changing snow and rainfall patterns, and warmer waters are some of the changes already observed in the Estuary and expected to continue through the rest of the century as greenhouse gas concentrations rise. Changes to water are at the heart of the documented and further expected impacts; there’s less of it entering the system overall, but more arriving in torrential bursts, and more saltwater creeping inland from the Bay. The scope of the research is expansive even...
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Researchers are applying a novel genetic technique as part of the development of an annual estimate for the number of juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon entering the Delta.

The technique, spearheaded by geneticist Melinda Baerwald from the California Department of Water Resources, allows researchers to accurately distinguish young spring-run salmon from other runs by targeting DNA sequences specific to these fish.   In a paper published in San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, lead authors Baerwald and Peter A. Nelson explain some of the challenges of developing this estimate, called the spring-run juvenile production estimate. A key hurdle is differentiating spring-run fish from salmon that migrate during other...
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Groundwater pumped from subsided islands back into Delta channels through 200 or more active outfalls can be laden with excess nitrogen transported from island soils, report the authors of a new study.

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta contains more than 50 peat islands. Most have subsided—some as much as three meters — as a result of drainage for farming, and must maintain artificial water tables below the land surface via managed pumping. According to researchers from the University of California at Santa Cruz and the US Geological Survey, these pump stations are an underappreciated source of nutrients in nearby waters, with potentially significant implications for habitat and water quality.   To get a...
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Light and nutrients are the staples of every phytoplankton production recipe, but wind and tides in the Delta affect phytoplankton production too, say researchers.

Several projects in the lower Sacramento River and Delta have been exploring strategies for increasing the quantity and quality of food for migratory and resident fish. As part of a broader whole-ecosystem experiment that added nitrogen into the Sacramento River Deep Water Ship Channel, Leah K. Lenoch and colleagues at USGS and UC Davis looked into the channel’s hydrodynamics to explore whether the environmental conditions there hold promise for increasing the quantity of phytoplankton (the microscopic algae at the base...
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chart by Hutton

An examination of 50 years of records reveals an apparent seasonal bias in estimates of freshwater flow from the Delta to the San Francisco Estuary.

The seasonal bias suggests flows were overestimated during the summer months and underestimated during the winter. Estimates of Delta outflow use a measurement called net Delta outflow index (NDOI), which is determined by taking the amount of Delta inflow, from sources such as the Calaveras, Sacramento, and San Joaquin rivers, and subtracting Delta exports, a direct measurement, and net Delta channel depletions. A team led by TetraTech’s Paul Hutton compared NDOI estimates against measured Delta outflow at four points, as...
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diagram of fish net trawl

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...
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field in delta with irrigation

Rain or shine, farmers in California use about the same amount of water every year, while residential water use varies considerably with precipitation.

A research team led by UC San Diego’s John Helly processed 15 years’ worth of water-use data from the state’s Department of Water Resources, reporting in the March 2022 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science that while “the annually precipitated water supply in the Bay-Delta” varied by 30%, agricultural water use scarcely changed year to year. “The water management system maintained nearly constant agricultural water use even in periods of intense drought, with year-to-year variation of about 7%,”...
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A large pulse of water sent through the Yolo Bypass in summer 2016 boosted phytoplankton biomass and food web conditions in Cache Slough and the lower Sacramento River, a new report confirms.

 “Our goal was to improve estuarine habitat by increasing net flows through the Cache Slough Complex to enhance downstream transport of lower trophic-level resources, an important driver for fish such as the endangered Delta Smelt,” write the authors—including esteemed (and recently retired) California Department of Water Resources lead scientist Ted Sommer—in the latest issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science. The pulse occurred over three weeks in July, a time when flows in the region above Cache Slough are...
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Scientists are finding it increasingly difficult to predict how ecosystems will respond to sudden and rapid changes such as extreme droughts, wildfires, and flooding.

Writing in the June 2021 issue of San Francisco Estuary & Watershed Science, a group led by environmental economist Richard Norgaard note that due to the increasing pace of ecological change associated with a warming world, models derived using past data are less able to provide reliable predictions, particularly as extreme events create conditions outside historic reference points. This has global implications for environmental management, but the authors—many of whom have served on the Delta Independent Science Board—center their focus on...
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Loss of wetland habitat in the Delta has reduced net primary productivity by 94%, but achieving current restoration goals could restore 12% of this loss.

In a new study published in the September 2021 issue of Science of The Total Environment, researchers modeled net primary production of the Delta under historical and contemporary conditions in order to project the potential benefits of restoration. The loss of net primary productivity—the amount of energy available to pass up the food chain—associated with human modification of the Delta since the early 19th century has reduced the energy available to support biodiversity and ecosystem services. Using the San Francisco Estuary Institute’s Historical...
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When it comes to managing Delta salinity, a new research paper suggests we treat public policy like a science experiment.

As anthropogenic factors like salt accumulation through irrigation and freshwater storage combine with drought and sea-level rise, the Delta is headed for a saltier future. The June 2021 paper, published in San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, integrates biological and physical sciences to draw a comprehensive picture of Delta salinity and changing freshwater inflow. Changing salinity patterns could have a profound impact on the region’s ecology, affecting how and when fish like the Delta smelt or Coho salmon spawn, and which aquatic plants...
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Smelt cam photo

Monitoring Delta smelt with an underwater camera could be safer and more effective than with a traditional trawl.

Standard smelt surveys rely on the use of boat-driven nets, which trap fish by funneling them from the wide mouth of the net to the closed end (known as the cod end). To check their catch, researchers must pull the net and its contents from the water. But this additional handling can harm and even kill the same fish that wildlife agencies are trying to save with the support of robust, long-running monitoring efforts. There may be a better way:...
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photograph of beautiful tree overhangin a river

Modern water management practices damp down natural river patterns and produce streamside forests that “live fast and die young.”

Such practices also hasten the destruction of an important and dwindling habitat. Melissa Rohde of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) and colleagues analyzed five years of high-resolution satellite and water resource data showing vegetation greenness along California rivers. Trees growing alongside the 30 percent of state rivers with natural flows decreased in greenness from the wet spring through the dry summer months, the scientists report in the Proceedings of the National Academy...
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New research indicates that survival of juvenile Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River system can be significantly boosted by achieving key thresholds for river flow.

The findings, published in the journal Ecosphere, add important context to the general scientific understanding that more water in the river improves fish survival. Previous studies, the authors explain in their paper, have demonstrated that more juvenile salmon migrating toward the sea complete their journey when the Sacramento River system contains more water. Just how much water has been the source of much controversy among user groups. “These studies have not explored the potential nonlinearities between flow and survival, giving...
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Electrofishing is a powerful but underutilized tool for monitoring Delta fish, particularly species favoring “structured” habitats that are difficult to sample using more common methods like trawls and seines.

By analyzing fish catch data from past surveys, researchers Ryan McKenzie, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Brian Mahardja, of the US Bureau of Reclamation, determined that electrofishing resulted in better detection rates for many native and non-native species than net-based surveys. Although electrofishing is currently restricted to freshwater areas of the Estuary and is more selective of larger fish and those with swim bladders, McKenzie and Mahardja recommend that resource managers employ the technique more widely to...
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The robust monitoring programs established to track now-rare Delta smelt could benefit other native fishes, too.

Decades ago, resource managers first learned of declining Delta smelt numbers not through surveys targeting the once-abundant native fish, but rather as a byproduct of long-term monitoring programs for non-native striped bass. Now, the authors of a new study published in the March 2021 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science advocate for the use of bycatch data from the recently established Enhanced Delta Smelt Monitoring (EDSM) program to better understand juvenile Chinook salmon distribution. “The scope of [this...
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New insights into Delta smelt swimming behavior could help locate the increasingly elusive fish and prevent losses at the pumps.

Scientists know that smelt use tidal ebbs and flows to migrate landward to spawn, but the degree to which external cues influence behavior remains unclear. In a new study published in the March 2021 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, researchers used computer modeling to predict smelt distribution based on hypothesized swimming behaviors. Six increasingly complex behaviors were tested. For example, the “passive” category assumes that smelt do not swim at all, simply drifting with currents and tides....
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Water turbidity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta can be used as a reliable indicator of smelt entrainment rates in the fish screens of the export pumps at the southern edge of the Estuary.

In a new study published in the March 2021 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, researchers Lenny Grimaldo, William Smith, and Matthew Nobriga used advanced statistical approaches to understand what factors best predict Delta smelt entrainment at the pumps. The paper builds upon research that Grimaldo conducted in the 2000s, which provided the basis for regulations established in the 2008 Delta smelt Biological Opinion. “This study reinforces previous work that adult Delta smelt salvage is largely explained by...
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North America’s largest and most ancient freshwater fish species, white sturgeon, hang out in some kinds of Estuary waterways more than others, scientists find.

 Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey found that adult and sub-adult white sturgeon occupy deep open-water channels and shallow open-water shoals in equal measure, but don’t use shallow wetland channels. As a group, white sturgeon are characterized as amphidromous, meaning they regularly migrate between freshwater and the sea, in both directions, but not for the purpose of breeding. According to the study, which appears in the December 2020 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, adults in the local...
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As agencies wrangle over how best to protect the Delta’s dwindling native fish species, researchers want to see more consideration to the needs of the estuary’s birds.

 “If we want to restore the ecology of the Delta, we can’t just be looking in the water,” says Kristen E. Dybala of Point Blue Conservation Science. In a paper published in San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, Dybala and two co-authors make the case that “birds and their habitat needs are often not addressed in science syntheses, conservation planning, and large-scale restoration initiatives in the Delta.” While some birds use the same sloughs and channels that support such high-profile...
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