Heavy Lifting for Fish

Heavy Lifting for Fish

Ted Frink recalls watching Jacques Cousteau’s television specials when he was growing up in coastal Orange County. “I envisioned myself as Cousteau,” says Frink, a fisheries biologist with the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) now approaching retirement. “My folks encouraged my interest in science. I knew I could be a biologist.” That early inspiration sparked a long and varied career, culminating in his work as chief of DWR’s Special Restoration Initiatives Branch and his role in mitigating obstacles to...
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More than half the water diverted from Central Valley rivers is used to irrigate cattle-feed crops, implicating beef and dairy as top drivers of recent fish declines.

Recent findings, published in Nature Sustainability in March, strengthen the environmental arguments for going vegan while rewriting the familiar narrative that almonds and other high-value tree crops are the top hogs of Central Valley water resources. The study’s authors, led by Brian Richter of Virginia-based Sustainable Waters, focused on the arid West and found that irrigated crops like alfalfa and hay, more than any others, are drying out rivers. The reduced flows are pushing dozens of fish species toward extinction....
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Squeezed by Geography

By Nate Seltenrich In most respects, Marin County is a privileged place. It ranks first in the Bay Area for income per capita and includes many of the region’s priciest zip codes. But its miles of Bay and ocean shoreline and many low-lying towns, positioned to afford easy coastal access and world-class scenery, represent a major liability in the era of sea-level rise. “Marin is the canary in the coal mine in some ways, because almost everything is in that...
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Forty Miles of Creek, Six Adaptation Projects

By Robin Meadows In 2017, a perfect storm hit the City of San Jose in Santa Clara County. Coyote Creek, which winds through the heart of the city, overtopped its banks, flooding businesses and hundreds of homes up to depths of six feet. Thousands of people were evacuated and property damages exceeded $70 million. “If I’ve learned anything in my 25 years here, it’s that you have to give creeks room to move, which also creates more resilience to climate...
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A new project should dramatically improve conditions for endangered steelhead trout in the lower reaches of Alameda Creek.

The project is part of a long-term effort to restore steelhead to Alameda Creek. Last year, for the first time in decades, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission began releasing water from a newly retrofitted dam, effectively reviving an important tributary stream. Also in 2019, the Alameda County Flood Control District began construction of a key fish ladder at the BART line crossing that will allow adult steelhead to access the river’s headwaters. The new fish passage enhancement plan focuses...
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Taking a Break from the Corps

By Robin Meadows Corte Madera creek is an outsized problem for people in Ross and other towns built right up to its banks. “Our peaceful creek turns into a rushing torrent in winter,” says Chris Martin, who grew up in the small Marin County town. Finding a fix has been contentious since 1971, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers put a mile-long concrete flood control channel through Ross. “It disconnected the creek from the floodplains, wrecked the Coho salmon...
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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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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...
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California Sun Podcast Interview with ESTUARY’s Editor Dives into All Things Bay & Delta on the Front Burner Today

This August the California Sun’s Jeff Schechtman interviewed ESTUARY magazine’s editor in chief Ariel Rubissow Okamoto, also a long-time Bay Area science writer, about her personal opinions on the resiliency of the largest estuary on the West Coast, the challenges facing the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, and the potential impacts of climate change and sea level rise on the San Francisco Bay.  Listen to the 20-minute podcast here. Mentions: Nutrients, Toxics, Giant Marsh, Adaptation Atlas, Resilience, Sea Level Rise impacts, BCDC...
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Two long-scarce freshwater mammal species are staging a comeback in Bay Area waterways.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) recently updated its distribution map for the state’s river otters, reflecting sightings by citizen-scientist “otter-spotters.” River Otter Ecology Project director Megan Isadore says the map fills in major gaps in the North Bay and East Bay, increasing otters’ documented range by 4,100 square miles. “It’s interesting to find how well they’re doing in very populated cities,” she says. Absent from the Bay Area for decades, river otters were observed near Tomales in...
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Joaquin Esquivel is impatient with the narrative that has dominated California water policy for decades, especially when it comes to the Delta and the eternal tug-of-war between farms, cities and the environment.

“For so long in the water space you’ve had these false dichotomies where you are being told you have to choose one or the other,” says Esquivel, who Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Chair of the State Water Resources Control Board in February. “These narratives can fuel themselves, they take root in communities, but they don’t really do much to get to the heart of the policy question.” A native of the Coachella Valley, Esquivel served on the State Board for...
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Putah Creek Pipeline for Salmon

By Robin Meadows “The dream is to reestablish a natural run of salmon in Putah Creek,” says UC Davis professor emeritus Peter Moyle. In 1972 Putah creek was a trickle of water between heavy machinery mining gravel for the campus roads. Moyle and others urged the university to cease mining and by the end of the decade the machinery was gone and the administration designated a riparian reserve along the creek on campus. After droughts and an ensuing long legal...
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Floods and droughts can cause pools and riffles—and the bugs that live in them—to become more homogenous.

For years, scientists monitoring water quality in streams and rivers have collected mixed samples of aquatic invertebrates from riffles, pools, and transition zones. But UC Santa Barbara stream ecologist David Herbst and his colleagues recently finished a 15-year study of the benthic life in small streams of the central Sierra that examined pools and riffles separately. They found that during flood and drought events, these habitats and their inhabitants become more uniform. But while floods come and go, droughts can...
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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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Corps Explores New Ecological Territory

A levee replacement project near the small town of Hamilton City is breaking ground as the first project that the US Army Corps of Engineers has approved based in part on potential benefits to an ecosystem. “We’ve been told this will be a national model once it’s completed,” says Lee Ann Grigsby of Hamilton City. The levee, whose original construction failed to meet modern standards, had needed to be fixed for a long time: recent estimates gave it only a...
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Alameda Creek: Harnessing a Watershed for Public Sediment

In Resilient by Design team Public Sediment’s effort to unlock Alameda Creek, the key lies in sediment--raw material needed to build levees and raise marshes so shorelines can withstand sea level rise. “We’re designing a suite of special structures, a mix of living and constructed features, to move more sediment and create a dynamic new equilibrium for the creek,” says team leader Gena Wirth. To get a conversation about sediment going, Wirth’s teammate Claire Napawan will often start by talking...
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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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South San Francisco: Colma Creek Collect and Connect

On the south face of San Bruno Mountain, giant white letters read “South San Francisco: The Industrial City.” According to Richard Mullane, urban designer and Resilient by Design team member of HASSELL+, “that sign has given this city a massive identity problem.” As a part of the challenge to redesign a Bay Area more resilient to sea level rise, HASSELL+ has focused on the urban core of South San Francisco, currently a noisy mess of boulevards, freeways, and warehouses that...
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Locals Trade Vines for Resilient Rivers

Cold water, essential for the life cycle of Chinook salmon, is all too often in short supply along the Sacramento River. A primary cause: California’s massive water conveyance system, using reservoirs, dams, and hydroelectric plants to divert water and deliver power to farms and cities. “When we started releasing water in spring, we let cold water out too early. None was left by fall, when salmon really needed it,” says USBR hydraulic engineer Tracy Vermeyen. Two clever innovations have been...
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Coyote’s Cache of Intermittent Riches

There’s a common perception in California that more water is always better for fish. Yet many native species possess traits that allow them to persist through harsh, dry summers and cyclical drought. Over the long run, summer releases from reservoirs and urban runoff can harm local fish by laying out a welcome mat for non-native species adapted to perennial flows, Leidy says. “In areas where streams have been altered by humans, where the natural hydrograph has changed, that’s where you...
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