E-News WHITEBOARD

Pearls in the ocean of information that our reporters didn’t want you to miss
Vulnerable homes and office parks in San Mateo County.
August 6, 2017
Cariad Hayes Thronson

Simultaneous lawsuits filed against 37 fossil fuel companies by Marin and San Mateo Counties, along with the City of Imperial Beach, over sea level rise may open new front in climate battle.

The suits, filed in California Superior Court, seek compensatory and punitive damages and other remedies for the ongoing harm that oil, gas and coal cause by contributing to global warming and sea level rise. A 2009 Pacific Institute study calculated that San Mateo has more property and people at risk from sea level rise than any California county, while in Marin more than 12,000 homes, businesses and institutions, with an assessed value of $16 billion could be at risk from tides and surge flooding by the end of the century. The suits claim that the companies have known about the dangers posed by greenhouse gases for nearly fifty years and sought to conceal them from the public and encourage the use of fossil fuels while protecting the companies’ own assets and developing plans to profit from a warmer world. According to some legal experts, the suits may succeed where other efforts to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for climate change damage have failed, thanks to advances in climate science and recent revelations about what the companies knew about global warming and when they knew it. CHT

Man’s best friend is being enlisted in efforts to detect the soil-born pathogen responsible for sudden oak death and other rapidly spreading plant and tree diseases.

Phytophthora is difficult to detect in nurseries, plant materials, and planting sites until it has done its damage. To develop early-detection options, H.T. Harvey and Associates are training a female cattle dog/border collie mix named Bolt to sniff out Phytophthora. Part of the Harvey Dog ecological-scent detection program, Bolt has accurately identified four species of Phytophthora in the lab. If her training in a natural setting is successful, Bolt could get to work helping minimize the spread of Phytophthora. Potential beneficiaries would likely include those working to re-oak the parks, open spaces, and backyards of Silicon Valley to improve habitat for native plants and animals.  KMW

Photo: H.T. Harvey

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 the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Environmental managers often speak of ecosystem resilience but the authors argue it’s just as important to apply the concept of resilience and adaptability to our human systems of policy-making and management.“Without a concerted effort, scientists, policy-makers, and managers may be overtaken by the rapidity of change and find themselves reacting to, rather than anticipating, changes,” the authors point out. They also propose a Delta Science Visioning process that brings together experts from across the biological and social sciences, as well as policymakers and environmental managers, to collectively envision a more adaptive and integrated strategy. Norgaard says that building support for more integrative approaches hasn’t been easy, as scientific institutions aren’t organized that way. “There’s a lot of awareness...
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 Ecology Project, which modeled the early Delta based on archival photos, maps, and texts from the early 1800s, researchers estimated the total area for five specific habitat types: open water, tidal marsh, non-tidal marsh, riparian forest/scrub, and seasonal floodplains. The 94% loss of net primary productivity is even greater than the estimated 77% loss of total wetland extent (defined as hydrologically connected habitat), as the Delta lost high-productivity marsh habitat and gained lower-productivity open water habitat.“Not only have we reduced the magnitude of net primary production, but we’ve also transformed the marsh fuel ecosystem into one fueled more by aquatic plants, many of which are non-native, and phytoplankton,” says James Cloern, one of the study’s lead authors, when presenting results...
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 survive. The paper insists that the patterns observed suggest that the future will be difficult to predict, as extreme weather events will lead to bigger fluctuations in salt levels, and recommends that management agencies encourage interdisciplinary coordination when approaching future challenges. The paper concludes that researchers and policy-makers should work more closely together, and consider water-management projects as science experiments. Co-author Ted Sommers believes that this type of management will require substantial investments in science support and flexibility from regulators and water managers, but “the good news is that there is an increasing interest in using science to guide annual decision-making.” As with any experiment, “clearly-stated assumptions, alternative hypotheses, and predictions should be part of the planning process.” Funding can...
Smelt cam photo
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: According to a new study in the June 2021 issue of San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science, the use of an underwater camera—the “SmeltCam,” developed about a decade ago by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research fish biologist Frederick Feyrer—could provide comparable data with less stress by simply filming the fish as they pass through the net. In this case, the cod end would be left open, so that the fish return to open water on their own. But to estimate the retention efficiency of the SmeltCam (how well it “captures” fish that enter the net), Feyrer and fellow USGS fish biologists Brock Huntsman and Matthew Young instead paired the device with a closed-end net and pulled the whole thing to...
photograph of beautiful tree overhangin a river
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 of Sciences, demonstrating they rely on groundwater to make it through the dry season. By contrast, woodlands along the 70% of streams receiving water from dams, wastewater treatment plants, and other human sources kept up the same vigorous levels of photosynthesis and water use throughout the summer.  “One would initially think, well, that’s great, the extra water is really helping the environment,” says Dr. John Stella, a professor of ecohydrology at SUNY-ESF. But while water subsidies enable established riparian trees to grow bigger faster, that benefit comes at a high cost: earlier mortality and poor regeneration. In nature, spring snow-melt floods normally cause riverbanks to erode and channels to migrate across the floodplain, exposing bare, moist sandbars ideal for nurturing...
A few months before his retirement in October 2021, Ariel Rubissow Okamoto asked Ted Sommer, lead scientist for the California Department of Water Resources, to reflect on his accomplishments and hopes for the future. Sommer is a leading researcher on native fishes, and has published more than 60 research articles in peer-reviewed scientific publications since 2001. Sommer began his long career at DWR in 1991 under Dr. Randy Brown. Early on he founded the Feather River fish monitoring program, but his work moved progressively downstream to the Bay-Delta, where he has also helped manage the Interagency Ecological Program since the late 1990s. According to his longtime colleague Jim Cloern, an emeritus scientist with the United States Geological Survey: “Ted has a special gift in communication, he’s irreplaceable!” Former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fish biologist Bruce Herbold said: “Ted helped develop a commonality between DWR and other resource agencies and universities, creating a solid, collaborative approach to Delta science and showing its relevance to decision-making. That was not always an easy task, because some of the science was unpopular with management and water users.” Audio excerpts from this interview appear above. ARO: Pretend I’m a Safeway cashier in Los Angeles. Why should I care...
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 resource managers the difficult task of designing flows intended to help salmon without clear guidance on flow targets,” write the authors, led by Cyril Michel of the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. Studying migrating Chinook salmon smolts under a wide range of hydrologic conditions, they found that fewer than three percent of fish carrying acoustic tags were detected after release at flows weaker than about 4,260 cubic feet per second. However, survival jumped to 19 percent at flows ranging between 4,260 and 10,700 cfs; they jumped again to more than 50 percent when the river was carrying between 10,700 and 22,870 cfs. However, fish survival did not improve at even greater flows. “It looks like survival plateaus beyond a...
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 support long-term conservation planning. Electrofishing, or e-fishing as it’s sometimes known, uses a generator aboard a small boat to pass electricity through the water beneath and in front of the boat. “When the electricity moves through the water, it can immobilize the fish within the zone of being shocked,” says McKenzie. “It’s a really cool method. You’re looking down at the water, and then all of a sudden fish pop out of the water.” Briefly incapacitated, fish are collected via dip net and placed into a holding tank, where they come to their senses within a minute or so and can be identified, measured, and otherwise studied before being returned to the water. Electrofishing has been used intermittently by various...
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 multi-million dollar Delta smelt survey] has not really been seen before in the Estuary,” says lead author Brian Mahardja, a biologist with the US Bureau of Reclamation, “that’s why there was a call to see what else we can gain out of this program.” The study team, also representing the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the California Department of Water Resources, analyzed juvenile Chinook salmon bycatch data collected through the EDSM to assess its potential to augment data obtained through other fish surveys. They found that some under-sampled regions of the Delta see improved coverage through EDSM, and that the program’s boat-based, labor-intensive random sampling technique “can provide more statistically robust abundance estimates relative to traditional methods.” That said,...

REBALANCING THE BAY

Former Chronicle reporter Jane Kay spent a year exploring the San Francisco Bay’s 1,000-mile shoreline, focusing on efforts to restore the balance of the bay she loves. She reports that the rising seas and intensified storm surges of climate change may be mitigated by natural buffers, including tidal marsh from reclaimed hayfields and commercial salt ponds as well as restored eelgrass and oyster reefs in subtidal zones. Kay also highlights the ecological role of freshwater flowing though Delta, which benefits species in the Estuary and helps flush treated sewage out of the South Bay. Her story was posted by National Geographic on June 13, 2017. Photo by Ariel Okamoto.

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