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There are currently ten state conservancies operating in California. Each of these state agencies was established to promote and protect a certain part of the California landscape that was deemed by the California legislature to be of particular importance. All the state conservancies operate within the California Resources Agency. Each conservancy is under the guidance of a board of directors that is comprised of a range of individuals who represent federal, state, and local agencies and NGOs that advise each conservancy’s staff on how to accomplish their core mission. Since I started working for one of these conservancies a few months ago, I thought it might be interesting to introduce the whole set. So here they are, in order of when they were created, the California State Conservancies.

1. The California Coastal Conservancy was founded in 1976. It’s mission statement is “…to preserve, protect, and restore the resources of the California coast, ocean, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Our vision is of a beautiful, restored, and accessible coastline, ocean and San Francisco Bay Area.” This agency is tasked with managing the 1,100 miles of coastline that runs from Oregon to Mexico. In 2014, their operating budget was around $8 million.

2. The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy was founded in 1979. It’s mission statement is “…to strategically buy back, preserve, protect, restore, and enhance treasured pieces of Southern California to form an interlinking system of urban, rural and river parks, open space, trails, and wildlife habitats that are easily accessible to the general public.” To accomplish this, the SMMC owns or manages thousands of acres from the Mojave Desert to the Pacific Ocean.

3. The California Tahoe Conservancy was founded in 1984. It’s mission is “…to restore and sustain a balance between the natural and the human environment and between public and private uses at Lake Tahoe.” Since its founding, it has acquired over 6,500 acres in the Tahoe Basin, and has worked to control invasive species, improve water quality, and restore forests and wetlands in the Tahoe Basin. In 2014, their operating budget was approximately $9.5 million.

4. The Coachella Valley Mountains Conservancy was founded in 1991. It’s mission statement is “…to protect the natural and cultural resources of the Coachella Valley: the scenic, wildlife, cultural, geologic, and recreational resources that make this such a splendid place for people and all the other life forms with which we share this special place.” With only limited staff and funds, this conservancy has ensured the conservation of over 46,200 acres.

5. The San Joaquin River Conservancy was founded in 1995. It’s mission includes, “…develop and manage the San Joaquin River Parkway, a planned 22-mile natural and recreational area in the floodplain extending from Friant Dam to Highway 99. The Conservancy’s mission includes acquiring approximately 5,900 acres from willing sellers; developing, operating, and managing those lands for public access and recreation; and protecting, enhancing, and restoring riparian and floodplain habitat.”

6. The San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy was founded 1999. It’s mission is “…to preserve open space and habitat in order to provide for low-impact recreation and educational uses, wildlife habitat restoration and protection, and watershed improvements within our jurisdiction.” The area covered by this conservancy is across eastern Los Angeles County and western Orange County.

7. The Baldwin Hills Conservancy was founded in 2001. It’s mission is… “to acquire open space and manage public lands within the Baldwin Hills area and to provide recreation, restoration and protection of wildlife habitat within the territory for the public’s enjoyment and educational experience.” The Baldwin Hills are a small area of unincorporated Los Angeles near Culver City about 450 acres in size.

8. The San Diego River Conservancy was founded in 2003. This Conservancy’s enabling legislation states that… “The agency’s mission, the restoration and conservation of the San Diego River Area, is accomplished by (1) acquiring, managing and conserving land; and (2) protecting or providing recreational opportunities, open space, wildlife species and habitat, wetlands, water quality, natural flood conveyance, historical / cultural resources, and educational opportunities.” One of the major goals of this Conservancy is to create a river-long park and hiking trail that will run from the river’s headwaters near the town of Julian to the Pacific Ocean.

9. The Sierra Nevada Conservancy was founded in 2004. It’s mission states that the “Sierra Nevada Conservancy initiates, encourages, and supports efforts that improve the environmental, economic and social well-being of the Sierra Nevada Region, its communities and the citizens of California.” The Sierra Nevada Conservancy operates throughout the Sierra Nevada Mountains providing funding for projects that support it’s mission.

10. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy was founded in 2010. It’s mission is… “Working collaboratively and in coordination with local communities, the Conservancy will lead efforts to protect, enhance, and restore the Delta’s economy, agriculture and working landscapes, and environment, for the benefit of the Delta region, its local communities, and the citizens of California.” The Delta Conservancy operates throughout the legal boundary of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Suisun Marsh by providing funding, support, and project management to efforts that further it’s mission.

 

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mjs plastic

Tiny plastic microbeads in personal care products are washing into public waterways. — credit: Alliance for the Great Lakes

In March of 2014, I wrote a post about microbeads. Microbeads, for those who might be wondering, are tinny spheres of plastic that are added to a variety of personal care products such as toothpaste, body wash, and soap to increase the abrasiveness of the product. The problem is that these pieces of plastic are so small that they pass right through filters and water treatment plants and then flow out into the environment where they can have serious consequences. The polystyrene that microbeads are commonly made of attract a range of chemicals that bind to their surface. When a fish mistakes a microbead for a fish or insect egg, it not only gets a piece of plastic in its stomach, but also a concentrated does of the chemicals that piece of plastic is carrying.

And some of the numbers around microbeads are staggering! Researchers at State University of New York found that an average one square kilometer of Lake Ontario contained approximately 1.1 million microbeads! All these particles move through our streams, lakes, and rivers and eventually find their way to the oceans where they contribute to the massive amount of plastics floating on the earth’s oceans. These plastics continue to have environmental health effects as they move through food webs. A recent study out of Oregon State University found that approximately 90% of the seabirds in the world had plastic in their guts.

So, what to do? Well, in March of this year, Representative Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-NJ) introduced H.R. 1321 to the U.S. House of Representatives which would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to prohibit microbeads from being added to products. It calls for the phasing out of microbeads beginning on the 1st of July, 2017. And on the 7th of Dec. the House voted on, and passed, H.R. 1321! This legislation will now go to the US Senate for a vote, and then on to the President to be signed into law.

So, the U.S. Senate is the next hurdle. To help this bill over that hurdle, write to your senators and tell them that you want a vote on this issue, and that you want them to vote with the environment and ban microbeads from our waterways and the waters of the planet!

 

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The idea of a wetland that can move from place to place is an odd one, but in many ways it is not a new one. Basically, a walking wetland is when someone floods a piece of land and lets a wetland grow there for a while. Then, after some pre-determined amount of time has passed, that piece of land is drained and a different piece of land is flooded. A wetland is then allowed to grown on the new piece and, viola, the wetland has walked!

This technique is a lot like crop rotation schemes that have been around for just about as long as agriculture. Letting land lay fallow lets that land recharge some of its nutrients and so be more fertile the next time a crop is grown on it. Walking wetlands are just another type of rotations, but this rotation is to cover the land with shallow water. Not much water is needed to make this work. Generally, about 4 inches is the average depth! Letting the land be flooded in those 4 inches for from 1 to 4 years lets amazing things happen!

Walking Wetland 01

First year walking wetland in the Klamath Basin.

For one, a lovely wetland springs up quite quickly. In the first year, the area is generally covered in grasses and other fairly short plants that only raise above the water a relatively short distance and that grow in a fairly open pattern with lots of space for shorebirds to walk around and forage. In the second year, tules and cattails grow up. This form tall and dense stands. The small open patches are preferred by a wide range of duck species though the shorebirds don’t tend to like this habitat as much. In subsequent years, some habitat modification, such as mowing, is generally needed to keep the tules and cattails at a level that still allows for birds and other wildlife species to access the wetland. Otherwise the stands of tules and cattails grow so dense that only a few species will utilize them.

Another amazing thing is that some crop pathogens that live in the soil drown. Many pathogenic microbes cannot survive a year or two of being submerged. Impressively, many beneficial soil microbes actually can survive this long underwater, so when the land is drained, the good microbes are still present and many of the bad ones are gone! This has an economic benefit because growers then need to buy less pesticides. This has an environmental benefit because grower need to apply less pesticides.

A third amazing thing is that all the birds that come and use the wetland leave their waste behind! Bird guano is fantastic fertilizer, and having a few thousand ducks, geese, and shorebirds wandering around can result in the grower needing to buy and apply less fertilizer and also lead to a boost in crop production!

Walking Wetland 02

An older walking wetland in the Klamath Basin.

Along the Pacific Flyway, walking wetlands have been really pioneered in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge along the California-Oregon boarder, which is home to the first officially titled Walking Wetlands Program. It has since also been adopted in the Skagit Valley in northern Washington state. Additionally, several groups in central California, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy where I work, are looking at using walking wetlands in the California Delta.

For better or for worse, setting aside habitat exclusively for wildlife use is not going to be able to secure enough land to protect that majority of species. Instead, finding ways for agriculture and wildlife to both succeed is the only way that longer-term conservation is going to be successful, and walking wetlands are a terrific example of what that can look like.

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California has a weird dichotomy (ok, it has many weird dichotomies, but I am only going to focus on one right now), and that is most of the people who live in this state are in the southern half, but most of the water falls in the northern half. So, what are we to do? Since people need water to survive, there are really only two options. Option one, bring the people to the water. Option two, bring the water to the people. Obviously, we as a society, have chosen option two.

So there are a lot of people in the desert who are not going to move and who need water (remember this point). So be it, we can figure out a solution to this problem. California took a page from the Romans, and in 1963 began building an aqueduct to bring water from the northern half of the state to the southern half. Once it was completed, the series of canals, pipes, pumps and reservoirs stretched over 400 miles from Clifton Court Forebay in the California Delta near the city of Tracy to (at its farthest point) Castaic Lake in western Los Angeles County.

To collect all that water and then get it to move all that distance, including over some significant mountains, requires some significant pumps. These things are huge and take a huge amount of energy to run. They are so large that when turned on, they can alter the flows of rivers. When the pumps are off, the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers flow together in the delta and then pass through the Carquinez Straights into the bay and eventually into the Pacific Ocean. When the pumps are turned on, much of the flows of those rivers change course the are drawn to the pumps, and not out to the bay. This leads to a bunch of problems.

One is that with less fresh water flowing into the delta, salt water from the bay spreads farther inland. This can alter growing conditions for crops and water quality for many cities. The altered flows also affect many fish species. Chinook Salmon and Green Sturgeon and Delta Smelt and Steelhead are all species of fish that are protected by the California Endangered Species Act, the Federal Endangered Species Act, or both! Some species of these fish use water currents to guide their migrations out to sea and then back up the rivers. If the currents lead them to the sea and then back up to the rivers then everything works fine. However, if the currents lead them to the pumps everything is not fine. As I’m sure you might guess, fish that get pulled into those giant pumps do not survive.

Since they are listed species, we the people of California need to work to protect these fish so that they do not get killed off. Ok, we can figure out a solution to this problem. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has built fish screens to stop fish from being drawn into the pumps. However, what happens is that get pulled close to the pumps, and then just mill around right in front of the screen. What do we do with all these fish? They have to go somewhere, or else there will just be more and more and more of them which will not be good for the fish. Ok, we can figure this one out too. DWR built a system of pipes and tanks so that the fish could swim down the pipe and be collected in the tanks. Then the tanks are loaded onto trucks and driven away to the a release site in the delta. Before I move on, I should say that a lot of study, engineering, and biology has gone into the design of those pipes and tanks to insure that the fish are not injured as they move through them. However, this process has now led to more problems. Many predatory fish, many of them Stripped Bass, have figured out that lots of fish come out of those release sites. Underwater cameras have shown that the fish actually hear the trucks coming and gather at the base of the release pipe to eat the fish as they come down. So while we thought we were saving the fish from death by getting them away from the pumps, we were actually just sending them to their death down the mouths of predators. Well, we think we can figure out a solution to this problem as well by establishing more release sites and mixing up the schedule of when different release sites are used. This should make it so that the predators do not have established sites for a meal and so do not gather in such numbers which should mean that the fish DWR release actually survive and swim away. However, this strategy is still being developed and judging from the long list of problems so far, there is no guarantee that it will not lead to even more of them that we cannot yet foresee.

And remember, all of this is so that we can bring water to people living in the desert.

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I have been working for the California Department of Water Resources for a couple of months now. It has been a really cool experience in many ways, and I thought that sharing some of those experiences would be fun. So, here are a bunch of photos from my first two months on the job. The job, in this case, is focused on a place called the Clifton Court Forebay in eastern Contra Costa County. This is one of the main points where water is collected and then pumped from the Forebay into the California Aqueduct for transport to southern California. One of the major problems with this pumping system is that it is so powerful it pulls lots of fish into the Forebay including several species of threatened or endangered species such as Chinook Salmon, Steelhead, and Green Sturgeon. In response to this puling in of high numbers of fish, high numbers of predators also concentrate around the Forebay. These predators include predatory fish such as Stripped Bass, Large-mouth Bass, and several species of catfish. Other predators are many species of piscivorous birds such as herons, egrets, pelicans, grebes, terns, etc. The main point of the project I am working on is to find ways of reducing the numbers of predators in and around the Forebay. To do this, we are trying to figure out how and where the predators most commonly access the Forebay. This includes frequent avian surveys around the Forebay and also tracking the movement of the predatory fish. This tracking is accomplished by capturing fish and preforming surgeries on them to implant PIT tags and/or acoustic tags in them. These tags emit sound at particular frequencies and in particular patterns. Each tag has a unique combination of frequency and pattern which allows each tag to be individually identifiable. Microphones are setup around the Forebay and in the canals that connect to the Forebay so that as fish swim around, their tags are picked up and their locations recorded. In this way, we can track fish movement to a pretty fine level of detail. Pretty cool!

So, with that background, here is what my job actually looks like (all photos are my own unless otherwise noted).

IMG_2813The front doors of my building.

This is the Resources Building in downtown Sac.

My little corner.

IMG_2814Sunrise over the yard where we keep our trucks and boats.

IMG_2814aThis is me with my first Stripped Bass. It is just a small one, but still big enough to tag! (Photo courtesy of Mike Cane).

A view of the edge of the Forebay.

IMG_2817Osprey.

IMG_2818Bald Eagle.

IMG_2825The portion of the Forebay that leads into the pumps.

IMG_2826Tule beds in a corner of the Forebay.

IMG_2827A view across the Forebay.

IMG_2828One of the canals that leads into the Forebay.

IMG_2829The east slope of Mount Diablo in the distance.

IMG_2835Can you see the bird?

IMG_2837There it is! This is a Snowy Plover that I found on the edge of the Forebay. I was pretty excited to find this federally threatened species, especially since this was decidedly outside its normal habitat and range.

IMG_2842Here is another photo of the same HY Snowy Plover.

IMG_2844A flock of Long-billed Curlews and WIllets hanging out on the edge of the Forebay.

IMG_2845Long-billed Curlew.

IMG_2851Long-billed Curlew in flight.

IMG_2854I found this Red-shouldered Hawk on the bank of the Sacramento River as I walked to work one morning. It is sitting on a California Groundsquirrel.

IMG_2859Piscivorous birds lined up on one of the wing walls in the Forebay.

IMG_2860There are obviously a lot of fish to be had.

IMG_2863Pied-billed Grebe nesting in the floating vegetation that grows in the Forebay.

IMG_2864Clark’s and Western Grebes nesting on the Forebay.

IMG_2869This large fly (about 2-3 cm long) landed on the truck. Any ideas as to an ID?

IMG_2871Another view of Mount Diablo.

IMG_2873Me conducting an avian survey (Photo courtesy of Michelle Tyson).

IMG_2877Caspian Tern, Snowy Egret, and California Gulls.

IMG_2879American White Pelicans feeding in the Forebay.

IMG_2882One American White Pelican swam quite close to us as we were counting.

IMG_2883Clark’s and Western Grebes nesting in a patch of floating vegetation.

IMG_2884A closer look at the Clark’s and Western Grebe nesting colony.

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We who live in California are pretty accustomed to droughts.  Water shortages are pretty common since drought years occur every 2 to 3 years in this state, according to the California Department of Water Resources.  But even taking our frequent lack of water into account, 2013 was an impressively dry year.  For example, Sacramento gets an average of about 20 inches of rain each year, but in 2013 it got only 6.13 inches.  San Francisco has an annual average of about 23 inches, but in 2013 it received 5.59 inches.  Los Angeles gets an average of about 15 inches of rain each year, but in 2013 it received only 3.60 inches which has not happened since 1877!

California usually gets most of its precipitation in the months of December, January, and February.  We have just finished an extremely rain-free December, and there is no precipitation in the forecast for early January.  Most of our major reservoirs are down to about 20% of their capacity, and the snow pack in the Sierra is very thin.  These low water levels will mean a very dry summer of 2014, and an increase in the number and size of fires in the late summer and fall.  Now, all this dry news should be tempered with the fact that we usually get most of our precipitation in just a small number of major storms, so there is still a chance that we will get some refreshments in the next month-and-a-half.  March is also a potential rain month which may help further.  In other words, it is still too early to start freaking out about water levels in 2014.

But, it is not too early to start thinking about conserving water in our daily lives.  For example, while you are waiting for the water to get hot, keep a pitcher next to the sink so that you can collect the cold water instead of letting go down the drain.  This can be refrigerated for drinking water or used to water your plants.  Do not buy plastic water bottles.  Do not water lawns in winter, but instead let them go dormant.  Visit car washes that recycle their water.  Soak pots and pans instead of keeping the water running over them.

Water shortages are going to become an ever increasing issue as climate changes and the human population continues to grow.  This means that the drought water levels of today may become the standards of tomorrow.  This makes drought years useful learning opportunities for how to get by with less.

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