Friday, July 11, 2014

Southern California's Santa Margarita River: Undammed by Man, But Not Beaver

One of the more astonishing things I come across when I talk to people about beaver in arid southern California is that not only have they never thought about beaver here - they are shocked to learn Castor canadensis is already here!! From just a few males and females translocated by some a very prescient California Department of Fish and Game (now wildlife) officers these founding beavers, perhaps even mating with remnant populations of beaver in southern California have created stable and increasing beaver populations in several watersheds in southern California as well as the rest of the state. Kate Lundquist of Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (www.oaecwater.org) kindly furnished me with the below map as well as additional detailed listings of the several hundred beaver translocations that took place in the early to mid 20th century.


Of course one should take note of the now outdated "original range map of beaver" as interpreted by Grinnel. New date has come to light showing that the historical range of beaver in California is best reflected by the map below per the work of Lanman et. al. 2013.


Now for this post I want to focus on a little heralded population of southern beavers represented by the stippled red dots on the river second from the bottom on the coast of California. That little river, better described as a creek in all actuality, is the Santa Margarita River. It's only about 30 miles long and like all rivers in socal is best described as intermittent. Formed by the confluence of Temecula and Murrieta Creeks, there are several well known beaver dams at the confluence. Now I have actually never visted this river but with the magic of google maps one can easily enough find the dams, from outer space!!


Hopefully you can see where I have measured this pond at about 47 meters (152 feet). Pretty nice litle beaver pond. Now I only recently started spending significant time tracing river/stream courses looking for beaver ponds and it is very fun I must admit. In fact I would suggest doing so is the best teaching tool for looking from a landscape perspective at where, how, and to what extent beaver do their work. I highly suggest it!!


Look at this big pond above over 140 meters (462 feet long) !! This might actually be an old dam, you can see it is not too well maintained. Or it might be a naturally occurring pool but the vegetated downstream section makes me thing mud was piled up there at one point.

Here is a pic of a series of dams that stretches over 357 meters long, for us Americans that is over 1170 feet long!! That has got to be a good amount of water storage. In fact a series of step dams seems to be a common style of dam in these low water volume watersheds. As you can see it is in a bit of a valley bottom. This is what beavers like, they are looking for alluvial - that means sediment bottomed - valleys at relatively low gradients. Along the coast range in southern California such a style of river/creek bottom is rare, but present in all watersheds. Although socal has a lot of high gradient, rocky bottomed creeks - they eventually plateau out in either wide bottomed valleys or the coastal floodplain.



Above is another example of a beaver pond at over 264 meters (868 feet long) in a broad, alluvial valley. Remember, having that alluvium, i.e. mud, to play around with allows the emergent vegetation and the riparian layer to develop that beaver need. This is why bedrock bottomed creeks/slot canyons are not so great for beaver dams. Hard for the vegetation to get a toehold.



Look at the dams above. You can see that vegetation is filling in the ponds. Chances are if beaver were not along this stretch of the river it would be completely dry. But beaver activity, I suspect deepening of the pools by beaver allows year round refugia. And this is a common theme looking at beaver activity along southern California streams/rivers. Long stretches of no water, followed by a gradual increase of vegetation and some surface flows and then you start to see hints of beaver activity and them voila active beaver ponds. Did the beaver seek out the springs of water or did they over time create them? You get into a little bit of a chicken vs egg conundrum. I am reminded of the Chumash oral tradition

Timbrook (2007:180) relates
a Chumash story where “a willow stick that had been cut by a beaver was thought to have
the power to bring water. The Chumash would treat the stick with ‘ayip (a ritually powerful
substance made from alum) and then plant it in the ground to create a permanent spring of
water.”  

Now that is a very powerful and eloquent parable for the beaver in southern California. In fact that story is more potent and powerful than just about anything I have came up with on this blog!!



Now the Santa Margarita has several good things going for it. Its in a relatively remote section bordering San Diego, Riverside, and Los Angeles counties and parts of it go through an ecological preserve of UC San Diego and Camp Pendleton both sites of which beaver are on. Military bases and environmental conservation make for strange bedfellows but you would be surprised. Also the Nature Conservancy has invested in the river. And no dams. Unfortunately non-native beasties have heavily infiltrated the system. And as is usually the case beaver - not humans as should logically be the conclusion - are posited as responsible for the spread of invasives. From a paper Status and Distribution of Fishes in the Santa Margarita River USGS May 2000 available online:


While the presence of beaver ponds to slow the water flow (thereby locally 
reducing the gradient) could be interpreted as favorable to stickleback, this would only be 
the case if the exotics were absent.  In addition, the beaver dams cause increased water 
temperatures that would be detrimental to the stickleback.  Threespine stickleback have 
thermal requirements higher that rainbow trout but lower than arroyo chub (Swift 1989) 
and would do better in the cooler flowing waters of the natural stream.  Stickleback were 
undoubtedly numerous in the large slowly flowing, algae filled pools in the gorge before 
the advent of exotic species.  In any case the necessity to limit or exclude beaver ponds as 
favoring exotic predatory exotic species overrides any consideration of possibly 
increasing habitat for stickleback that do now currently inhabit the drainage. 


Now they only assert the beaver ponds are raising water temperatures - they actually do not measure them. How the ponds affect water temperature depends on how much hyporheic exchange is going on - as well as how deep the pond is.

three-spined stickleback

Of the four originally native species to the river steelhead, pacific lamprey, arroyo chub, and threespine stickleback only arroyo chub was found in their survey. Interestingly striped mullet, an estuarine fish, went pretty far upriver. And as you can see from the list of exotics, it is  a system dominated by them. How are we to say with or without beaver that the natives would not be in trouble? I mean this is the situation on the Santa Clara River where there are no beaver but plenty of non-natives.

Nope I consider blaming beaver for the spread of invasives a bit of a logical fallacy - if you want to blame something blame humans - we put them there.

A big dilemma with non-natives and something that I think should be iterated is that many of the species in question are from the east coast of America. So beaver dams are not anything new to the ecology of these species. Furthermore if you are a green sunfish or a largemouth bass you do not really care if you are in a beaver pond, an irrigation ditch, or an oxbow - you found a good home. And secondly these east coast fish evolved in more competitive, diverse assemblages of fish than western species. So when push comes to shove they are just a bit more pugnacious, aggressive, and voracious than native fish. Holds true for bullfrogs and Louisiana swamp crawfish.

Fishing for Beaver Pond Bass - it's a thing

In fact in the case of bass there is a little bit of fisherman's cult emerging concerning bass and beaver ponds. Turns out, surprise surprise, the prized game fish just loves to hole up in beaver ponds and especially likes all the woody debris in the dam to hide out in during the day.

The way I see it the issue of invasives in California/arid watersheds is as such:

1) Do nothing. Admit they are too widespread and numerous to control. The new fish fauna is an alien fish fauna and this is the new normal. This is what seems to be happening anyways and is pretty much the default solution based on what I have seen. All those man made dams and reservoirs are stocked with non-native species for fishing purposes. Whenever there is a flood or water release the downstream river from the reservoir is inoculated with non-natives.

2) Do everything. Massive campaigns of eradication including hand capture, fishing, electroshock netting to eradicate non-natives. Several complete sweeps of entire watersheds necessary. Stringent laws enacted to penalize intentional release of non-natives. Somehow eradicate founding populations of non-natives from lakes and reservoirs. Likelihood virtually nil considering the scope, magnitude and prices involved. Would require a seismic shift in societal attitude.

3) Mitigation. Find ways for natives and non-natives to coexist. Electroshock areas and clean out non-natives but leave natives. Encourage restoration of native predatory birds, mammals, and reptiles to hold non-natives in check. Probably the best and most practical option for maintaining native populations.

As I have discussed before beaver ponds can be utilized as a tool for trapping out non-natives. If we know such and such non-native species is utilizing beaver ponds preferentially that species can be targeted at beaver ponds. Hand capture, netting, electroshock can be utilized to clean out the unwanted but leave in the wanted. Encourage the return of native predators to hold aliens species at check. Beaver ponds are easily found via google maps and can thus be cleaned occasionally of non-natives.

Cheers!!!




Friday, June 27, 2014

Organic Debris Creates Bigger, Fatter Fish

I was alerted to this recent study via Rick Meril who runs the very prolific blog Coyotes, Wolves, and Cougars...... forever! and although I first noticed it a couple of days ago I am just getting around to talking about it today as I find it very pertinent to all things beaver.




Basically what the Cambridge researchers were looking at is the respective importance of organic debris versus algae in terms of fish health. Essentially zooplankton - which is more or less a catch all for various small to microscopic crustaceans, insects, worms, protists, and other invertebrate critters which collectively form the base of aquatic food chains i.e. fish food - can feed upon primary productive pathways or detrital pathways. In plain speak they can feed on water plants, usually algae, or also graze on the bacteria and fungi breaking down plant material - leaves, woody debris. In an elegant example of  the scientific method the researchers were able to control both inputs by looking at watersheds with pristine, old growth forests (lots of organic debris) and watersheds bordering strip-mined and deforested landscapes. Furthermore by analyzing the carbon isotope signatures in fish taken from these waters the scientists were able to trace where the carbon came from because algal carbon is going to bear a different isotope than carbon derived from land plants (forest debris washed into the system). 

While it has long been recognized that terrestrial organic input is an important factor in watershed and fish health, the study is alarming in addressing how important it is.

"We found fish that had almost 70% of their biomass made from carbon that came from trees and leaves instead of aquatic food chain sources," said Dr Andrew Tanentzap from Cambridge's Department of Plant Sciences, and lead author of the new study, published today in the journal Nature Communications.



Ok think about that for a second, 70% of their mass is derived from eating critters that fed off of stuff that was feeding off of dead land plants washed into the river. 



"More than 60% of the world's fresh water is in the boreal areas such as Canada, Scandinavia and large parts of Siberia. These areas are suffering from human disturbance such as logging, mining, and forest fires resulting from climate change -- all occurrences predicted to intensify in coming years," said Tanentzap.
The scientists studied eight different 'watersheds' surrounding the lake: a given area across which all the moisture drains into a single stream. When these fast-moving streams -- full of detritus from forest foliage -- hit the slow-moving lake, the debris falls out of suspension and sinks, forming layers of sediment which create mini deltas.
Debris is broken down by bacteria, which is in turn consumed by zooplankton: tiny translucent creatures that also feed on algae. The fish then feed on the zooplankton. Until recently, algae were believed to be the only source of food for zooplankton, but the new research builds on previous work that showed they also feed on bacteria from forest matter drained into lakes.
The researchers worked along the food chains in the mini deltas. "Where you have more dissolved forest matter you have more bacteria, more bacteria equals more zooplankton; areas with the most zooplankton had the largest 'fattest' fish," said Tanentzap.


Going a little further the authors also suggest such importance of organic debris is important in all freshwater ecosystems from the poles to the tropics.

"While we've only studied boreal regions, these results are likely to bear out globally. Forest loss is damaging aquatic food chains of which many humans are a part."


Ok if you are like me you probably realized that it is easy to substitute beaver ponds for lakes and also substitute the active transport of organic matter by beaver into freshwater systems for the passive natural input. If you accept these intuitive substitutions it becomes logical to suggest beaver activity is bolstering aquatic food chains. 

And here is your bonus google satellite view of beaver dams from Lundy Valley in the eastern Sierra.
I can't believe I never thought to look at beaver dams this way - the satellite views really let you see the large scale landscape transformation that beaver dams achieve!!

Lundy Valley beaver dams, the large dam to right is over 200 feet across!! Google Satellite (c)

Andrew J. Tanentzap, Erik J. Szkokan-Emilson, Brian W. Kielstra, Michael T. Arts, Norman D. Yan, John M. Gunn. Forests fuel fish growth in freshwater deltas.Nature Communications, 2014; 5 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5077

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Beavers Used to Be Almost Everywhere in California" Bay Nature

The issue of beaver in California got a booster shot today as it is featured prominently in Bay Nature, the article titles simply Beaver Used to Be Almost Everywhere in California. The backbone of the article is a certain paper recently published in CDFW revamping the historical range of beaver in California. I might have talked about the paper once or twice before. The article very succinctly ties together a lot of the main points of contention that the paper grapples with. From the "fur desert" perpetrated by the Hudson Bay Company to the lack of knowledge that Grinnel and Tapp had to contend with, if you are new to the issue of beaver in California this article does a great job of introducing the topic to you. I must also commend the author of the article Alison Hawkes for gathering some great quotes from some of the authors of the paper.

Cheryl Reynolds. Worth A Dam
"All of San Jose was a gigantic wetland with tens of thousands of elk and huge flocks of waterfowl that would have darkened the sky."

"We have the least understanding of any state on what used to live here."

Rick Lanman, Institute of Historical Ecology

"I knew this assumption that beaver were never in the Bay Area was bogus just from life experience. There was a beaver right under I-680 when I would drive home. I knew they were there."

Heidi Perryman, Martinez Beavers/Worth a Dam

I want to concentrate on this next quote by Brock Dolman of the Water Institute at Occidental College as it pertains directly to the question of beavers at the limit of their range in coastal California, namely southern California.

"We felt the missing piece was that beaver were never as numerous (as otters) and a group of native folks set on capturing them wouldn't take long in eradicating them, especially in riparian systems where there is not a lot of room to move."

Now I think this quote really contains a lot of good stuff but I think it might go over a lot of people's heads. First off we should clarify that otter refers to sea otter, and they roamed all the way down into Baja. And they were ruthlessly hunted for their pelts by fur trappers. Once the sea otters started getting low in number trappers looked at what else was around. By supplying native Americans with steel traps, the wary and elusive beaver - normally a difficult quarry - was now an easy and reliable source of fur to trade with the Europeans. Now with this in mind we must remind ourselves that coastal California, especially getting into southern California, never had the water and therefore the population of beavers that areas like the delta or wetter parts of the continent had. Each watershed may have had very low or even ephemeral populations of beavers even before trapping commenced. It is entirely possible that beaver would become locally extinct in a watershed and then reestablished several times over even without human interference. There was in all probability a waxing and waning of beaver populations at the limits of their range, becoming more pronounced into southern California. Keep in mind that even without human intervention California has seen some serious droughts in the not so distant past - which by themselves limited beaver populations in California.

Jaguar in southern California painting by Laura Cunningham

I also think, when discussing beaver at the limits of their range. it useful to talk about jaguar in California. Yes jaguar ranged perhaps as far north as the Bay area historically. If you do some Internet sleuthing you will come across records of jaguar in Palm Springs and Monterey, California. But jaguar were rare  here in California even before European colonization. They were at the northern limit of their range. In all probability jaguar sporadically made it further up into the Pacific Northwest or Rocky mountains. But we will probably never find good records of them there as they were exceedingly rare even in the best of times. Likewise even in areas where they maintained populations we may never see records of them there. I think a similar situation is going on with the spotty record of beaver on the coast especially in southern California. They were never that common to begin with.








Wednesday, June 11, 2014

River Restoration... If You Want It

For this post I want to concentrate on several positive stories on river restoration. One does not have to look far these days to be pummeled into a state of angry depression. So only good new today.  Beaver are just one piece of the puzzle with regards to watershed health. I would offer the most important factor in watershed health/river restoration in compromised ecosystems is the still daunting task of increasing public awareness and interest in healthy rivers.

For any seemingly insurmountable challenge an invisible tipping point exists. Where the shackles that bind us to social inertia, inaction, and pragmatic pessimism,  are quickly stripped away and revealed for what they are: human constructs. What mankind has created, mankind can destroy.

"A couple of decades ago it was radical in terms of thinking you can take a dam out... unthinkable... the conversation has changed."


Last week I was very fortunate and blessed to see a screening of a very important, compelling, and timely film: Damnation. It was all you can hope for in terms of making a profound argument for letting the rivers of America run free and wild. I will not attempt to summarize or recap the points the film made you should just go see it for yourself.


What was especially important to me with regards to this film was that a key dam featured in the film, a noted dead beat dam, is Matilija dam of Ventura county. Matilija creek is a steelhead creek and the dam serves zero purpose what so ever being completely silted in. Patagonia, a company based in Ventura, produced and screened the film at their yard and have long championed removal of the dam. 


From tearing down dams to building small ones (the beaver variety of course!!). Make sure you check out and support the Beaver Believers with a taxable donation for their kickstarter. I just donated 25$, i would have loved to have donated more but I am a wage slave... But my 25$ gets me on the wall, gets me stickers, a digital download of the film and a beaver believers shot glass!! Awesome!! 23 days to go to reach the extended goal of 12,000$!! Good job believers!!!

"Water is one of the most sacred, magical, and powerful gifts that we have ever been given, and we need to remember that because we have forgotten it."


"If we can put beaver back in the majority of the streams where they used to be is exactly what we should be doing."



Films such as these, and the powerful messages behind them, offer hope that a new dawn is rising with regards to our attitude towards the lands we live on and the wild beings we share the earth with. It is important to remind ourselves that every journey begins with the first step and that 
the darkest hour is just before dawn.

Steve Nash. Oxnard CA







Friday, May 30, 2014

Vern-Freeman Diversion Part 2


Above is a picture of water in southern California. Look closely because it is going away... Now what you are looking at is one of the main channels leading to the dozens of acres of man made ponds that recharge the aquifer on the Oxnard plain. The water is diverted from the Santa Clara River at this specific spot because of the congruence of the river leaving a wide valley and maximum percolation utility for the aquifer. Why is recharging the aquifer so important? Because growing strawberries in a semidesert. And because agriculture is taking out more than is being put back naturally. And because strawberries do not grow on salt water. And salt water intrusion occurs in places like Oxnard when freshwater groundwater reserves are tapped so long and hard that salt water creeps in. And it takes about 40 gallons of freshwater to combat 1 gallon of saltwater. Despite all these measures, it is quite possible that the water situation in Ventura county will be handed over to the feds through a process known as adjudication. Because we could not handle our resources responsibly the adults will have to step in.


What should be immediately apparent to you is that the Saticoy settling ponds as they are affectionately known are mainly dry. These ponds should be full this time of year doing their job recharging the aquifer. But nothing.



Depressed yet? I do not want to get you on a complete downer but it gets worse. Although the pools create habitat for numerous birds and there are some fish (non native for the most part), reptiles, and amphibians that use the ponds - what you should notice is that all emergent vegetation is completely scoured away. No willows, tules, cattails - all plants that would thrive in such an environment and provide crucial habitat - are scoured away to prevent clogging of the gravity fed system of pipes, berms, and levees.

Now the word mitigation gets used a lot when discussing the complex matter of nature being steamrolled by human wants and interests. It usually goes something like this (to paraphrase) "We are going to do so much damage to the system, I mean just completely disrupt things that for a little pity party we will do this little token of appreciation over here for you (insert park, nature center etc etc)." 

Well how about this for mitigation? Let the settling ponds re-vegetate and naturalize a bit, providing habitat for wildlife. It might take a little bit of extra work keeping the culvert clear, minimizing disruption and what not. But why can't it be done? Perhaps these extra costs could themselves be mitigated by allowing fishermen and bird watchers onto the property for a nominal fee? Kayaking anybody?

My point is this: the Vern-Freeman diversion though it provides a necessary service to the agricultural economy of this region can not escape the burden of proof that it, like all man-made water diversions/dams, has imposed a huge burden on the evolutionary, geological, and ecological processes of the Santa Clara river watershed. Is United Water doing all that it can in its power to mitigate these damages?

Well as I pointed out above I do not think so, but in all fairness as my last post addressed they are doing much more than they have in the past by taking a pro-active approach to fish passage, designing a new fish ladder, getting a cool fish camera etc etc.



And finally, this being a beaver blog after all, what is the connection to beaver? You should know that the Sespe River is the primary tributary of the Santa Clara River- providing about 40% of the flow into the river. And if you are up to date on your beaver studies in socal you should also know that a primary piece of data used in the Lanman et al paper on historic range of beaver in California was a beaver collected in 1906 on the Sespe prior to statewide translocations of beaver. Beaver are native to this watershed. While some parts of the Santa Clara do become dry sandy washes unsuitable for beaver other parts such as the diversion and upriver in Santa Paula contains some flows year round. Beaver could live here. Take a look at the video below on how the channel is maintained to see the habitat here for them.


And take a look slightly upriver in the city of Santa Paula. You will notice good flow, abundant riparian vegetation, and where some diversions have created some faux beaver ponds already.


And check out the habitat on the Santa Paula Creek, a tributary nearby:

Santa Paula Creek
Now if you think like me you have already made the connection. Humans divert river water into man made ponds to allow water to slowly percolate back into and recharge over drafted aquifer. What furry, buck toothed critter do we all know that does that already? And does it for free while at the same time providing abundant habitat for other critters? Hmmmm.... United Water engaged in multiple law suits with  environmental groups, fish groups, municipalities over water rates, looming adjudication. Beaver involved in 0.0 lawsuits. Charge nothing for their water. Allow fish passage. Allow percolation.

One specific issue at the diversion was the issue of high sediment load in the water. Before going into the Saticoy ponds the water is shunted through a series of settling ponds where the sediment is allowed to drop out of the water so as not to gunk up the pipes.

One word of encouragement. According to Steve Howard, senior fisheries biologist at Freeman, they decided not to trap out the badgers who have begun colonizing the dry settling ponds. Even though their aggressive digging could destabilize earthen berms they opted to utilize the mustelids as rodent control for a booming ground squirrel population. Maybe if United Water decides to take a "let nature do the job" attitude towards badgers there is hope for beavers and United Water collaborating in the future? Perhaps as a collaborative partner in groundwater recharge?

"The arrogance of man is in thinking he is in control of nature and not the other way around."
                                                                                                                                         Godzilla 2014

Dinosaur trap at Vern-Freeman (cowbird trap-nest parasite)


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Leave It to Beavers... some thoughts

First of all if you missed it or just want to see the beaver epicness all over again here. Video was having trouble loading however...



So it has been a week since PBS premiered Leave it to Beavers and as you may know the show was a resounding success. I personally thought the show did a great job of distilling all the different strands of knowledge, controversy, and potential that go with beavers in today's world. The personality driven stories of beaver rescues and rehabilitation were well done and well received. The whimpering cries of infant beavers, very child-like, will doubtless drive up interest and passion for beaver based on the cuteness factor alone. I never knew that the young were so vocal myself. But I have to admit, what made the most impact for me out of all the segments was the part on Suzie Creek in Nevada.

To see the transformation of that creek from a greasy little cattle trodden dribble of water to a lush oasis of life with a robust riparian corridor- that really reinforced the importance of beaver in arid lands and inspired me to keep up what I am doing. One of the two scientists in that scene likened beaver ponds to little savings accounts of water on the landscape. In a climate regime where snowpack is becoming less dependable as a source of water retention on the landscape it is beaver ponds that stockpile and release water slowly into the landscape. Perfectly done.

And the other section that really stuck out to me was the underwater footage, I just love scenes of beaver swimming underwater. SOOOO COOOOOL. Seriously if I could just have a video montage of beaver swimming underwater I would watch that video on loop more times I should mention even on a beaver blog.



The three dimensional landscape of beaver ponds, I think mentioned during the section in Canada (Alberta?) was also a stand out for me. The amount to which beaver penetrate  into and modify the substrate in their own ponds was awesome. Beavers will take the mud from the bottom and fill in their dams with it. In deepening ponds beaver increase invertebrate diversity and also provide deep, cool refugia for heat sensitive fish. In deepening their pools beavers lower the amount of surface area exposed to the sun, less evaporation occurs, and beaver ponds keep and retain the water better than surrounding areas.

Anyways congrats to PBS on producing such a timely doc on beavers and keep fighting the good fight!!!


Sunday, May 18, 2014

Southland Beaver Visits the Vern-Freeman Diversion Dam Part 1



Among the river systems of southern California it is the Santa Clara River that offers perhaps the most promising hope for restorations. Unlike the Santa Ynez river it is not dammed. Unlike the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana rivers it is not channelized. As the largest river system in southern California that is not dammed and not channelized the Santa Clara has garnered much attention from groups such as the Nature Conservancy who are working to protect large chunks of this watershed. Many unique and imperiled species utilize the Santa Clara River as habitat. Riparian species of concern include western pond turtle, unarmored three spine stickleback, tidewater goby, southern steelhead, pacific lamprey, Santa Ana sucker, arroyo toad, southwestern willow flycatcher, least bell's vireo, western yellow-billed cuckoo, and red-legged frogs- among others. Additionally the Santa Clara River maintains connectivity with many of its tributaries the larger including Sespe Creek, Santa Paula Creek, Piru Creek, and Castaic Creek. Several of these creeks, most notably the Sespe, are undammed and offer miles of prime steelhead habitat and produce ocean bound smolts annually. Regular readers should recognize Sespe Creek as the source creek from which a beaver specimen was captured in 1906 by Dr. John Hornung and was a foundational piece in the recently published paper by Lanman et al proving the historical presence of beaver in coastal southern Californian streams. But more on the prospects of beaver reintroduction into this watershed later.


Despite the rosy picture I paint the Santa Clara has some definite issues. Chief among these are invasive    plants and animals (especially the giant reed Arundo donax), agricultural and urban runoff, groundwater pumping, agricultural diversions, and last, but not least, the Vern-Freeman diversion installed in 1991. For a brief history of the dam check this out. This diversion was built to direct flows from the river to recharge the Oxnard aquifer and protect against salt-water intrusion. The Oxnard plain is an agricultural hub. Chances are if you eat a lot of strawberries you have probably ate an Oxnard strawberry, which was watered by water provided by the Vern-Freeman diversion, which was water taken from the Santa Clara River. While at first the diversion was hailed as a major success - increased reliance on high water crops, miscalculations on the amount of water that can be withdrawn, the recognition of southern steelhead as federally endangered species in 1997, and several drought episodes including the current one - have all compiled to put the diversion and the agency that runs it, United Water, through some very pressing times. United Water has went through and is currently engaged with several lawsuits ranging from municipality water rates to securing better flows and passage for fish movement.

It is in this context that southland beaver was permitted to view and be granted access to the diversion by the senior fisheries biologist employed at United Water's Vern-Freeman diversion dam, Steve Howard. For reference sake the diversion is located about 1/2 between Santa Paula and the ocean on the map above.

Senior Fisheries Biologist Steve Howard explains Vern-Freeman Diversion Santa Clara River

Now, here I want to thank Steve again for spending two hours of his time taking me around and answering all of my questions. I was pleased to find out he is a true fish guy and this was good news because I had long held negative connotations for United Water with regards to their fish work. But Steve seems like the right guy for the job and as we talked I could see he really was making some strident efforts for steelhead and lamprey (don't forget the lamprey!!) in this river. I learned that because of downstream down cutting of the river due to quarry work, the diversion was actually offering some benefit by preventing the down cutting to continue upstream.

So what kind of fish passage does the Vern-Freeman have? Well watch the video below as Steve explains the Denil fish way they use, why it is not the best system for the river, and how they are going to improve it. World exclusive on southland beaver!!

Denil Fishway on Vern-Freeman and New Passageway Coming!!


Did you catch all that? The problem with this particular fish passageway on this particular river is that when the Santa Clara rages, it really rages. Steve told me he has seen the river in such flow that as it crossed the diversion wall, it scarcely dropped in height at all. Now for a steelhead trying to find its way upstream in such a torrent, in flows that come and go quickly, it may miss it's opportunity to pass by keying in on the area of highest flows (the diversion wall itself) and missing the passageway. Let us look a bit at the Denial fish passageway.

Denil Fish Passageway


Now if a steelhead makes it up through the ladder, how would Steve know that it made it through? Well it turns out that the steelhead on this particular passageway are some of the most highly scrutinized fish in the world. Steelhead have to pass through a point where they are on motion detection camera from two angles as well as infrared detection. Pretty sweet...

So despite all the difficulties with steelhead on this river going through this particular diversion- have any made it through? Turns out yes, in 2012 two mature ocean-grown steelhead made it back up and through the diversion. Steve has the video to prove it which I will show below.


Well need less to say Steve said he was jumping through the roof when those two steelies made it through in 2012.

Some may wonder- why are all these resources and water being given to a fish?

Now for me southern steelhead are some of the coolest fish around. I mean big fish like those two make it up through largely intermittent to totally dry rivers during brief high flow events in a mad dash to their spawning grounds in perennial, spring and snowmelt fed streams. For any readers here from more wetter parts of the world the picture below shows how much of the lower Santa Clara looks the vast majority of the year, if not a sandy wash.


Until it looks like this:



And even with all the crap we throw at them they still make a go at it.  People can learn a lot from this fish in my estimation. That fish to me is very inspiring, more so than most humans at least.

More to come including how channel maintenance is achieved, fish traps, settling ponds, percolation, bird life at the diversion, problems with badgers and I ask the question: 
Is the Vern-Freeman diversion doing what beaver would do naturally? (and for free)