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

Tailing a Thrush

By Joe Eaton Researchers like Point Blue Conservation Science ecologist Tom Gardali have equipped Swainson’s thrushes, weighing just over an ounce, with tiny, one-gram GPS tags. If recovered, the tag shows the thrush’s exact winter destination, information vital to border-crossing conservation efforts. “You only get a few readings,” says Gardali, “and you still need to get the tag back. But GPS goes to a spot on the map. This is Holy Grail stuff.”  Sierra/Cascade thrushes were presumed to migrate to...
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Brinkmanship for Frail Smelt

By Joe Eaton Delta smelt had a bad year in 2017. Although scientists are still analyzing the data, the message seems to be that strong freshwater flows alone are not sufficient to allow the population to increase. The resulting sense of urgency has led fish biologists to consider how cultured smelt, raised in hatcheries, could be used to supplement the wild population. “We’ve considered the cultured smelt as a lifeboat,” says California Department of Water Resources biologist Ted Sommer. “Now...
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Jessica Fain got a crash course in resilience planning when Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast in 2012.

Fain, Planning Director for the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) since October, was part of a three-person office in the Waterfront and Open Space Division of New York’s Department of City Planning. “We were doing a small study on adaptation options,” she recalls. “In the middle of that, Sandy hit. Suddenly all eyes were on us.” Fain brings that background to a setting unlike New York in many ways. Instead of five boroughs, for example, she’s dealing with a...
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Getting a Bead on Table Salt

By Joe Eaton Microplastics are present in the San Francisco Bay, and at higher concentrations than Chesapeake Bay or the Great Lakes, according to a San Francisco Estuary Institute study led by Rebecca Sutton. There’s “a lot of uncertainty about potential impacts to people and wildlife,” she says.“[Miicroplastics are] a variable contaminant and challenging to interpret.” What we know is sufficient cause for concern: apart from their physical impacts, plastics can absorb other pollutants and some plastic ingredients are known...
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Pied-billed grebes are providing valuable biocontrol services in the Estuary by consuming red swamp crayfish, an invasive crustacean known to disrupt ecosystems.

Although grebes are primarily fish-eaters (they swallow their own feathers to cushion the sharp bones), this species also consumes significant numbers of crayfish, sometimes detaching the pincers before swallowing the good part. Native to southern swamps and bayous, the red swamp crayfish has been introduced in the Sacramento Valley and San Francisco Delta. According to the US Geological Survey, the species is established at Coyote Hills Regional Park and elsewhere around the Bay. The crayfish preys on the larval stages of...
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Green Cement Blues

For the last three years, an environmental storm has been brewing in the North Bay city of Vallejo. Some elements of the story are familiar: grassroots activists pitted against a multinational corporate developer, environmental justice versus the lure of new jobs. Add historical preservation, iconic wildlife, political shenanigans, and the unexpected involvement of the California Attorney General’s office, and the mix becomes more complex. An Irish cement company and its local partners want to build a processing plant and a...
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The Nature Conservancy’s venture in growing food crops for wintering cranes on Staten Island is under fire from an unexpected source—the Wetlands Preservation Foundation.

The nonprofit, headed by Stockton tomato packer Dino Cortopassi, is suing TNC and the California Department of Water Resources, which holds a conservation easement on Staten Island, alleging farming practices that cause soil subsidence and threaten levee integrity, and misuse of revenue from farm operations. The 9200-acre farm, acquired by TNC in 2001, is a major destination for migratory greater and lesser sandhill cranes (the latter a California endangered species) as well as Aleutian cackling geese and other birds. As...
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Big Restoration Experiment for the Delta’s Dutch Slough

Development agreements were already in place for three parcels of land around Dutch Slough when John Cain first took a hike in this West Delta area in the spring of 1999. “It was clear as day to me that removing the levee would be a great way to restore freshwater wetlands at the mouth of Marsh Creek,” says Cain, who now works for American Rivers. Almost two decades later, earthmoving equipment is now preparing 1,178 acres for conversion to marsh...
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Kitchen Sink Update on Every Last Invader

On multiple fronts, with multiple forces and weapons, California’s battle against invasive aquatic organisms continues. Notoriously, San Francisco Bay is the world’s most invaded estuary. The state’s lakes, rivers, and other freshwater wetlands have their own problematic exotics. Keeping them out, and preventing their spread once established, requires coordination among agencies and levels of government. At best, meshing jurisdictional gears can be a challenge. Legislation pending in Congress could make treating ships’ ballast water to remove invasives yet another source...
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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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Innovative stormwater management strategies throughout California are pioneering new ways to capture and use stormwater to augment local water supplies and prepare for climate change, according to a new report.

“Stormwater has traditionally been considered a nuisance or danger in terms of flooding and water quality,” says the Pacific Institute’s Morgan Shimabuku, lead author of Stormwater Capture in California: Innovative Policies and Funding Opportunities, “But we’re starting to see it as more of a resource with potential for water supply.” Shimabuku notes that stormwater capture is also “a great strategy for adapting to climate change, alleviating the impact of high-intensity rainstorms and reducing dependence on other water sources in times...
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Islais Creek: Hyper-Creek Mediates Hazard Sandwich

Situated between trendy Dogpatch and struggling Bayview-Hunter’s Point, the Islais basin is, according to Bry Sarté of Sherwood Design Engineers, “the biggest watershed in San Francisco and home to the city’s most disadvantaged community.” These days, Islais creek is mostly invisible, culverted and paved over between Glen Canyon upstream and its outfall near Third Street. Tasked with restructuring and reimagining the basin as a part of the Resilient by Design Challenge, Sarté and team BIG + ONE + Sherwood began...
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Permitting Made Easier?

“Bay Restoration is a race against time,” says San Francisco Restoration Authority Chair Dave Pine. “That’s why it’s so important to bring the regulatory agencies together to fast-track the permitting process.” The Restoration Authority, overseeing projects funded by Measure AA, took a step forward this June by approving funding for a Regulatory Integration Team. BCDC and six other organizations, including the US Army Corps of Engineer, the US EPA, federal and state wildlife agencies, and the state Water Board, joined...
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Eighteen years after local stakeholders adopted the Putah Creek Accord to guarantee minimum flows and other enhancements, birdlife is flourishing in the Creek’s Riparian Reserve, highlighting the restoration of what was once a dried-up ditch.

Former U.C. Davis post-doc Kristen Dybala and her colleagues recently reported in Ecological Restoration on a project that monitored populations of breeding species, mostly songbirds, at the Reserve and 13 other sites along lower Putah Creek from 1999 through 2012. Some sites had seen active restoration efforts to benefit native fish; others had not. Overall, birds seemed to respond to the modified flow regime, with positive trends for 27 species and greater community diversity. Seven riparian-dependent species showed increases in...
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Two Urban Estuaries Soften Shorelines

For two cold clear days in February, scientists, engineers, and other specialists from all three North American coasts gathered at the Oakland Airport Hilton, in what a local speaker called “the least interesting part of Oakland,” for the second national Living Shorelines Technology Transfer Workshop. The event, co-sponsored by Restore America’s Estuaries, the California Coastal Conservancy, and Save the Bay, featured talks and interactive sessions on this emerging approach to coastal protection that went well beyond technology. Referred to by...
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Not the Last Word on Buckler

In January, the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board appealed December decisions by a Solano Superior Court Judge concerning Point Buckler and its owner John Sweeney. The decisions voided $3.6 million in fines and cleanup and restoration requirements that the two agencies had imposed on Sweeney for dumping and excavation in Suisun Bay, and draining tidal wetland, without authorization. “If this decision sets precedent, we’re in real trouble,” says Erica Maharg...
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In Humboldt County’s coastal dunes, a multi-agency partnership is restoring the native plant community to build resilience to sea level rise.

The project, along with four others in the Bay Area and Southern California, is featured in a new report, Case Studies of Natural Shoreline Infrastructure in Coastal California. Much of the state’s dunescape was built over or hauled away before its value as habitat for unique species and a buffer against climate change was recognized. San Francisco’s dunes are long gone, and with them the endemic Xerces blue butterfly. Humboldt’s 32-mile stretch still shelters endangered plants like the Menzies’ wallflower...
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The battle of Point Buckler Island isn’t over yet.

In January the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board appealed decisions by a Solano County Superior Court Judge voiding $3.6 million in fines and cleanup and restoration requirements that the agencies imposed on the island’s owner for dumping excavation spoil in Suisun Bay and draining tidal wetland without authorization. The agencies held that due to the failure of previous owners to maintain levees, the interior of the island had become tidal...
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Smart Plover Predators

The South Bay’s salt pannes, bleak unvegetated flats left behind by commercial salt works, seem inhospitable to life. To western snowy plovers, though, they look like home. Still, the plovers are in trouble themselves. Considered a California species of special concern, the Bay-wide snowy plover breeding population sits at about 250. As Karine Tokatlian explained in her State of the Estuary Conference presentation in October 2017, efforts to boost their breeding success in the remaining salt pannes have encountered unexpected...
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Buckler Brouhaha

There’s a big dispute over a small island at the edge of the Suisun Marsh. John Sweeney, the current owner of Point Buckler Island via a limited liability corporation, faces enforcement action by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board for diking and draining a tidal wetland and dumping excavation spoils in Suisun Bay. The extensive work he did was subject to regulation by state and federal agencies, and no authorization...
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