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E-News Magazine

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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Regulatory Teams Coordinate

By Cariad Hayes Thronson In March the San Francisco Estuary Partnership released its Wetlands Regional Monitoring Program Plan, which lays out the science framework for a long-term program to monitor tidal wetlands around the Bay. “The focus of the plan is how we’re going to answer five guiding questions about the status and trends of our tidal wetlands,” says the Partnership’s Heidi Nutters. The framework is only the first phase of what will ultimately be a four-year planning process. Nutters...
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Where have all the Herring Gone?

Pete has fished San Francisco Bay for nearly all of his 60 years. A lifelong San Francisco resident who keeps his last name to himself, he recalls herring runs in the 1970s the likes of which rarely, if ever, occur anymore. “I remember herring spawns that went from Oyster Point all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge,” says Pete, a former commercial fisherman, referring to the point near Brisbane. He also remembers massive spawns that stretched contiguously from the...
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Sustaining Pajaro Valley’s Water

The Pajaro Valley enjoys a temperate microclimate, in part because it is situated at the hip of Monterey Bay. It lays like an east-west-oriented horseshoe, with the open end settling around the coastal plains of Elkhorn Slough and its various tributaries and side sloughs. Rimmed by the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north, the Gabilan Range to the south, and the San Andreas Fault at its head, the Pajaro Valley is a unique place in California. Marks from the state’s...
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Opening the Mouth of Walnut Creek

Paul Detjens is driving us from his Martinez office to a restoration site near the mouth of Walnut Creek on Suisun Bay, a project he spearheads as an engineer for the Contra Costa County Flood Control District. These lower reaches of the creek — straightened, widened, and leveed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — have been a sluggish, silt-filled problem for more than half a century. Detjens has worked to find a solution for the last 17 years....
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Network Listens for Passing Salmon

It’s a cold morning in early February, and Chris Vallee of the U.S. Geological Survey is motoring upriver along Steamboat Slough. His two-man crew is hunched in the bow with backs to the wind, wrapped to the ears in water-resistant jackets above warm layers. Vallee pilots the vessel in relative comfort behind the shelter of the windscreen. The boat passes the usual Delta sights: greenish-brown water drifting past road-crowned levees, the occasional dock and house, a greater egret the color...
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Dennis McEwan finished work on the 430-acre Yolo Flyway Farms Tidal Habitat Restoration Project in September 2018. A month later, he retired.

The timing was no accident; he’d delayed his departure from the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) to see the project through after helping to launch it ten years earlier. But even from the very beginning of his career, McEwan had been committed to doing all he could for declining species in and around the Delta. That “calling,” as he put it, began with 25 years at the California Department of Fish and Game (now Fish and Wildlife) supporting Pacific...
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A career spent monitoring imperiled fish has given Randy Baxter a strong sense of the vulnerability of aquatic ecosystems.

“We’ve overtaxed the system,” he says. Baxter officially retired from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife last August, but still works two or three days a week as a “reemployed annuitant”—a big change from supervising a staff of 14 studying the threatened longfin smelt and other native fish. The reduced schedule gives him more time to fish, in California and on British Columbia’s Skeena River, and tend his orchids and carnivorous plants. Chicago-born Baxter grew up in Pacifica with...
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Jan Thompson has always been most interested in what happens down at the bottom of the Bay.

The zone of interaction between the critters in the oozes and the water column above—where specks of sediment, nutrients, and fish food cycle through clam siphons into the Estuary—is the particular specialty of this US Geological Survey scientist. “I’m most proud of the research I’ve done establishing a solid connection between bivalve grazing and phytoplankton growth,” she says. When USGS first hired Thompson, who retired in October 2019, most women in the Menlo Park office were secretaries. She’s since trained...
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After nearly 30 years in refuge management on public lands, Anne Morkill is leaving government, but not wildlife, behind.

Following her February 2020 retirement from managing the San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which she led for nearly a decade, Morkill is taking the helm at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation, a nonprofit that stewards one of the largest freshwater wetlands complexes on the northern California coast. Morkill believes that San Francisco Bay provides unusual potential for restoring habitat for wildlife in a highly urban environment. “That’s what makes it so special,” she says, citing the Bay...
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Bob Fujimura spent his entire career with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Bob Fujimura spent his entire career with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. From 1987 until his retirement in late 2018, Fujimura served in a variety of roles at the department—but he is likely best known for heading up its long-term monitoring of native fishes in the Bay and Delta. Beginning in the mid-2000s, he oversaw annual smelt surveys with far-reaching implications for management and conservation, including the Spring Kodiak Trawl, which determines the relative abundance and distribution of...
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“The Bay is a jewel ― can you imagine if it stunk like it did in the ’50s or if it was green with algae?” asks retiring Executive Director of the Bay Area Clean Water Agencies (BACWA) David Williams, reflecting on his work over much of the last decade to address nutrient pollution.

Working with the 37 wastewater treatment plants that discharge into the Bay, as well as with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, Williams helped establish a science-based regional permit for nutrients from the plants. The forward-thinking permit includes nature-based solutions like using wastewater to nurture horizontal levees or create wetlands, buffering the Bay shore from crashing waves as the sea rises. “We have a very enlightened Water Board,” Williams says, “because of that, instead of fighting, the...
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Rainer Hoenicke is optimistic about the changes he saw in his five years as the Delta Stewardship Council’s Science Director.

“People are coming to the table and realizing we need to be anticipating and forecasting how to adapt,” he says. Prior to joining the Science Program, Hoenicke served for nearly a decade as deputy and executive director of the San Francisco Estuary Institute, where he managed two Boards of Directors and reorganized the Institute’s program areas. “I felt challenged to do something different,” he says of the move, “since the Delta is much more controversial territory.” In Hoenicke’s eyes, the...
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A new system for treating agricultural drainage water in the Delta could also help rebuild subsided islands.

The approach—known as a Chemically Enhanced Treatment Wetland—combines chemical treatment with natural wetland processes; researchers tested it on Twitchell Island, which features corn and rice crops, as well as wetlands. They dosed agricultural ditch water with dissolved organic material (DOM), then treated it with a coagulant to precipitate the DOM, forming flocculant. The resulting water then passed though treatment wetlands, where the flocculant settled and blended with plant detritus in the sediment. The study, reported in the September 2019 San...
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Manmade features in the Delta, including riprap-armored banks, water diversion pipes, pilings, and woody debris, may be sending juvenile native fishes into the jaws of finned invaders.

“We know from a decade of doing survival studies that migrating juvenile salmon are dropping out of the system pretty much everywhere in the Delta,” says UC Santa Cruz fisheries biologist Brendan Lehman. “Physical habitat features are potentially aggregating predators and prey in ways detrimental to salmon smolts and steelhead.” The scientists report in the December 2019 San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science that artificial light and submerged aquatic vegetation pose the most severe and widespread risks to native fishes....
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Levels of pyrethroid insecticides spike sharply in the North Delta’s Cache Slough during winter rainstorms, rendering the water so toxic that it decimates laboratory populations of a half-inch crustacean called Hyalella azteca.

However, according to a study reported in the September 2019 San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, Hyalella collected in the wild from Cache Slough are resistant to pyrethroids. Genetic analysis revealed that, collectively, Hyalella in the slough have four mutations for pyrethroid resistance. They also have a fifth mutation for resistance to organophosphates and likely carbamates, two additional major classes of pesticides that are applied extensively on agricultural and urban lands. “Hyalella are special,” explains co-author Helen Poynton, a molecular...
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Researchers hope new computer models will help clarify the effects of entrainment on the population of endangered Delta smelt.

Entrainment at the South Delta pumps of the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project has been a concern for years, but disentangling its impact on the dwindling smelt population from those of other environmental and water management factors isn’t easy, and operational differences between the SWP and CVP facilities complicate analysis. Now, US Fish and Wildlife Service statistician Will Smith has developed computer models for entrainment effects on different smelt life stages, part of a larger Delta Smelt...
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While the acreage of wetland restoration projects is growing throughout the Delta, scientists are still working to understand how best to help these areas become fully functioning, complex habitat as quickly and successfully as possible.

A study published in September’s San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science shed light on some essential questions about what triggers seed generation in wetland habitat. “Wetland restoration practices can be enhanced by a solid understanding of basic plant life history and species ecology,” says co-author Taylor Sloey of Yale-NUS College in Singapore. The researchers looked at three questions: what seeds are present in the seed bank (the viable seeds that accumulate naturally in the soil), and how exposure to cold...
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An emergency barrier installed to protect the state’s water supply from saltwater intrusion during the recent record-setting drought had little effect on the ecosystem.

In spring 2015 the California Department of Water Resources dropped 150,000 tons of rock into False River in the Central Delta to halt encroaching tides that had little freshwater to hold them back. A few months later, it was clear the barrier worked, as salinity rose on one side and fell on the other. But what were the effects on local plants and animals? Through six overlapping yet distinct projects funded by the state Delta Science Program and NASA, and...
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A recent test found more than 250 chemicals in the Delta’s Cache Slough, but “Dr Doom” says figuring out what they all are, and their concentrations, is beside the point in our efforts to understand stressors on native fish resilience.

“Knowing the effect on the fish is more informative than knowing which chemicals may be causing it,” says UC Davis’ Richard Connon (whose colleagues gave him his sinister title), referring to taking an ecological rather than regulatory perspective on fish health, and also to the less obvious sublethal effects of contaminants on fish behavior and reproduction. Connon is the lead author of a wide-ranging journal article in the December 2019 issue of SFEWS on how to better focus contaminants research...
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The San Francisco Bay-Delta is named in the federal Clean Water Act as one of 28 “estuaries of national significance." For over 20 years, the San Francisco Estuary Partnership has worked together with local communities and federal and state agencies to improve the health of California’s most urbanized estuary.

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