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 those thousands of miles of levees went in, the Central Valley had one of the West Coast’s largest salmon runs, with a million or more of these mighty fish returning each year. A big reason for the salmon’s success was that the valley was among the most extensive floodplains in the world. “In winter and spring, the rivers would swell,” says Jacob Katz of the conservation nonprofit California Trout. “There used to be weeks and months of water flowing across the land.”

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About the author

Robin Meadows is an independent science journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. She covers water and climate change adaptation for Estuary News, is the water reporter for the Bay Area Monitor, and contributes to Bay Nature, Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, PLOS Research News and Water Deeply. Robin also enjoys hiking and photography.

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Over time, the median actual flow to San Francisco Bay in the ecologically critical winter and spring months has declined to less than half of the unimpaired runoff. This bar chart divides actual inflow (the amount that actually made it to the Bay) and unimpaired runoff (the inflow to the Bay that would occur if there were no dams or diversions) into quintiles from wettest to dry, and marks years drier than 2015 (roughly, the driest 2% of years) as “super-critically dry” years. Over the last 54 years, “super-critically dry” runoff conditions in the Bay’s watershed occurred naturally only once, in 1977, but the Estuary received runoff volumes in the super-critical range in 22 years, or 40% of the time. Overall, flow volumes characteristic of the driest 20% of years now occur more than half the time as a result of storage and diversion of runoff for consumptive uses. Source: The Bay Institute, based on data from California Department of Water Resources.

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