Tuesday, December 2, 2014

When Communities Don't Take Ownership Of Their Rivers Guess Who Does?

Although this is a blog about beavers, specifically in southern California, any talk of beavers naturally lends itself into a very META analysis of water and watersheds in general. This post definitely falls under this banner.

The above is a picture taken underneath the Victoria bridge overpass of the Santa Clara river which straddles the cities of Oxnard and Ventura in Ventura county. Now regardless of your opinion of "graffiti art" - I quite like and would draw a distinct line between this and "graffiti tagging" - I highlight this picture because when communities are cut off from their rivers, or more often than not lawfully forbidden from entering their rivers, guess who takes sole ownership of said rivers? These abandoned rivers become the province of the homeless, the dispossessed, the drug dependent, and the artists who can't find a canvas elsewhere. My point here is not to bash these groups; the path towards addressing these social issues is obviously beyond the scope of this post. But I find a disconnect in many of our communities in that the rivers that should be the jewel of our urban, suburban, or rural communities - usually becomes the last recompense of some of the most marginalized groups in said communities. And that these marginalized groups find haven in rivers, does not speak well too the value many communities places on these rivers, de facto viewing rivers themselves as marginalized pieces of the landscape. And like the marginalized groups inhabiting them, avoiding at all costs to personalize, make contact with, engage with, or hold in high esteem at all. Instead forget, ignore, and marginalize the rivers that houses said groups further.

A relatively too frequent thing happens when I engage people who live in a community about a river that flows through that same community. Usually they do not even know the name of the river I speak of and will something to the effect of, "Oh you mean that thing that floods occasionally that I cross on the 101 freeway? Yeah I usually think of it as a big drainage ditch and don't go down there because there are a lot of dangerous homeless and drug addicts living in it."

And the above sentiment is pretty much par for the course. Apathy no doubt has crept in. But it is not entirely the fault of the person in question. Communities are literally cut off from their rivers by signs legally prohibiting them from entering, by walls, fences, and private property. No wonder the apathy and disinterest when people are not even allowed to get in physical proximity to the rivers in their very own communities. When rivers are outlawed only outlaws live in rivers.

Santa Clara River. Santa Paula. great potential beaver habitat btw
Interestingly a strange thing occurs, at least here in southern California, when a river is restored or revitalized - said revitalization efforts pay a nod to the ecological health of the river, but emphasis is geared more towards making the river a "human playground". Recently the Santa Ana River has received attention for restoration efforts, but in all actuality the "restoration" is nominal, the push is towards making the river navigable for kayaks and rafting. Here is a line lifted directly from the abc news report:

"There is a big push to reclaim the Santa Ana River. It's become overrun with vegetation and rocks, but now a local group is working to clear the waterway for kayaking and rafting."

Video and Link Here. Now let's unpack that statement a bit. They use the word "reclaim", but reclaim for what or better yet for whom? And then the zinger "overrun with vegetation and rocks". Now it would be one thing if they were talking about invasive arundo reed or rocks/concrete dumped by humans. But they are not. Rocks and vegetation are natural and beneficial parts of a river for crying out loud. What they are referring to, if you watch the video or read article, is naturally occurring willow/cottonwood trees that line the river. Good things. Even in restoration efforts we can't seem to stop wanting to control/modify/or usurp rivers for our own purposes. Why do we have to make rivers "playgrounds" for people. Can't we just let a river be a river?

Can we strike a compromise between complete apathy of our watersheds/rivers to total control/augmentation/human mediated use?

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Blair Witch Beavers of the Santa Ynez River

All right today I want to go over my idea on what the hell those intrepid beavers of the Santa Ynez River were doing making all those strange rock piles across the river when the river was essentially drying up. They were not making the beginning stages of a dam but were instead actively hydro engineering the river itself to best suit their needs!!! This is my working hypothesis and let me explain my reasoning.

As I have mentioned in several past posts the Santa Ynez is a human modified river in terms of flow. It largely dries up starting in spring depending on how much rain we get. Water is usually released late summer/early fall to satisfy downstream senior water rights. Beaver on this river have adapted to this unusual water regime for at least several decades since reintroduction in the middle of the last century (but remnant endemic populations can not be ruled out).

Above is a pic of the unique rock constructions I am talking about. This pic was photographed in late April 2014 and the river was already well on its way to drying up. Upstream is a section of small, rocky riffles and above that is what I believe to be an old disused beaver pond. Immediately downstream is a slower section of river and a new dam under construction and a potential beaver bank burrow I have located. (New readers should be aware that humans constructing these rock piles is unlikely as there is no path here and only a steep bank and marshy area on the right side - a residential area is nearby to the left however)

This is a picture of the beginning of a new dam taken in late April 2014 a little downstream of the above rock piles.

Now above is a picture of the river with substantial flow from a late season water release taken in October at the location of the strange rock piles pictured above. What you can see is that when water hits the first pile of rocks it forces it slow down and spread out - a speed bump. The water also has substantially eroded the bank on the other side creating a nice deep pool where there was not one before. In a sense accentuating a nice thalweg.

In this pic above you are looking at the second pile of rocks. Water, after it has flowed over the first pile of rocks and starts to erode and enlarge the hole is held back a bit by the second pile of rocks to further increase the "thalweg" effect.

So what in a sense the beavers are doing is modifying a section of the river that runs relatively fast - a riffle section, not great habitat for a beaver due to the lack of swimmable sections and sparse vegetation - and using the power of the moving water to carve out a deeper pool and create more amenable habitat and slower flow which the beaver prefer. What is not pictured is that a few meters away from this thalweg is a marshy creek area. Separating the river and this marshy area is more rocks and debris. Given enough time and erosive potential of the river I think that the two area can merge over time. I will monitor this.

What should not go understated is that the bulk of this activity was underway before there was any substantial water flow at all. The beaver were not only actively managing where and how the water flowed but they were predicting the return of the water flow itself.

Pretty cool no? These beaver never cease to amaze me making a go at it in the ephemeral Santa Ynez River.

And a bearded bad ass in front of a beaver pond.

And a big dump of youtube clips from the same excursion in October.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Santa Ynez River Beavers Pulling Through in the Drought

It was with some trepidation that I returned to my study site on the Santa Ynez River on Sunday October 12th 2014. The good news is that a water release was ongoing from Cachuma Reservior (senior water rights is a powerful thing even in drought years!), what I was worried about was that the period of no water was potentially devastating to the beaver. After all the last time I went to this area in late July it was bone dry - so dry the willows and cottonwoods were prematurely shedding their leaves and the only water left was a greasy little pool.

Dry Santa Ynez River late July
In areas where I had found abundant and fresh beaver sign - freshly knawed/felled trees, pulled up cattails, bank burrow slide marks - I found no sign of recent beaver activity. Do they move up or down the river to other sources of water? There is always some release from Cachuma to feed a steelhead creek and there is wastewater release year round further downstream. Or do they seek refuge in golf ponds? There are several golf ponds nearby. Both hypotheses are possible and not necessarily mutually exclusive at this point and not outside the adaptive potential of this animal. The golf pond hypothesis seems more tenable given that upstream and downstream movements towards water would entail movements of several kilometers, with kits in tow potentially, and traversing through other beavers territories. But then again although this drought is exceptional there is always some degree of drying of this river annually after the winter/spring rains and before the first release from Cachuma (usually Sep/Oct). Given that this beaver population, descended as it is from a few individuals released by CDFW in the middle of the last century, is more or less kissing cousins - perhaps territorial claims are lessened a bit in drought times? But that this population has adapted to this unusual water regime over several decades, and survived other droughts before, gave me some glimmer of hope that they indeed had found ways to survive the drought conditions and came back.

The beavers did not disappoint.

The first tentative signs of beaver activity were adjacent to a large beaver pond which can actually be seen to the right in the picture above. Beaver have siphoned off a little side channel to the right and created a nice big pool.

As you can see the vegetation/trees are brown - a testament to how dry the river got. As I investigated the pool I found several trail marks and side channels suggestive of beaver movement between this pool and the main river channel.

They might not be too obvious from the pics these were definite trails/paths created by something going from the pool to the river. That they were created by beaver most likely was substantiated by a recently knawed tree:

All together this was some very promising observation of beaver sign and good evidence hat they had came back into this area of the river. But I was very eager to revisit an interesting area upriver where over the last several months I observed some very suspicious rock piles appearing on the river. Yes these rock piles were either the work of beaver, people, or the Blair Witch.

Here are some pics from May when the river was already well underway in drying up:

From May 2014
As you can they are definite piles of rocks and many people who saw the pics felt that humans had constructed them. What argues against these three rock bridges being constructed by humans is; they are not on a path or hiking trail; on the other side is a steep unscalable oak shrouded hill and cattail marsh; and interestingly as seen on the bottom pic there are two adjacent rock piles. Why would people create two adjacent rock walkways so close in an area of the river that is easily traversed anyways?

from July 2014
With the return of substantial flows to the river on this trip I had my answers and I can almost unequivocally say that these rock piles were created by beaver.

The above pic is actually the single rock pile seen in the pic above. Obvious that the rocks placed down were actually the foundation for what is now seen to be an obvious and growing beaver dam. Not only was the rock pile created by beaver but they were making it as the river was drying up and anticipating the return of water flows. Very Cool.

But what about the twim set of rock piles? Just as it is hard to imagine why humans would construct such a weird design, why would beaver make such a funny design - surely in this stretch of the river, moving at high velocity, it was not an ideal spot to place a dam?

Well if you want to know what my working hypothesis is for those strange Blair-Witch beaver rock pile designs you will just have to tune in later as I will explore this facet and other things I saw on the Santa Ynez River in a later post!!!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Sespe Creek is Hurting in the Drought

Sespe Creek. Duane Nash 9/29/14
In the Ventura county back country is a special creek and wildlife area - the Sespe wilderness area. Not only is it undammed and relatively pristine compared to other southern Californian watersheds - the creek and it's surrounding watershed serve as critical habitat for California condors, desert bighorn sheep (following a successful reintroduction campaign), southern steelhead trout, arroyo toad, red-legged frog, western pond turtle, pacific lamprey, numerous threatened riparian/chaparral birds and many other species. This wilderness was also a last holdout for California grizzly and today still hosts black bear, puma, bobcat, coyote, and badger among other predators. And oh yeah, the story of beaver in California - and especially southern California - is intimately linked with the Sespe (from Lanman et. al. 2013):

A MaNIS search combined with
direct inquiries to California museums for pre-1923 Castor specimens located only a single
vouchered specimen. That specimen, a beaver skull (catalogued MVZ Mammals 4918)
was collected by John Hornung on 19 May 1906 on Sespe Creek, a tributary of the Santa
Clara River, Ventura County. Grinnell (1937) was hesitant to accept the provenance of
this specimen and placed a question mark by its location on his range map. Hornung, an
NHMLAC zoologist, had collected many specimens for the MVZ as well as the American
Museum of Natural History (Loomis 1901, Osborn 1910) and CAS (Howell 1923). Recently
digitized correspondence between Grinnell and Hornung has become available and settles
this longstanding question. When Grinnell wrote Hornung asking for further details regarding
the specimen; Hornung (1914:1-2) wrote back: “... In reference to the beaver, I will say
that I murdered the specimen in question 3 miles east of Cold Springs. I was on horseback
and saw on the river, enormously swollen as the date which you have [19 May 1906], what
appeared to me as a dead large dog surrounded by branches of a big stump. This stump
was swimming in the water, but anchored in a tangled mass of some kind of a vine. After
some maneuvering I could reach this animal with a stick. As soon as I touched it, it showed
its teeth, and I knew then what unexpected find I had made…A shot ended the animal’s
sufferings, and I secured the skull which you have…”. Hartman Cold Springs Ranch (34°
33’ N, 119° 15’ W) is located on upper Sespe Creek in the Sierra Madre Mountains at 1,025
m elevation and the creek along this stretch is quite low gradient, i.e. suitable beaver habitat.
Interestingly there is a Beaver Camp on the USGS GNIS at 1,000 m elevation about 1 km
east of Hartman Cold Springs Ranch, although its toponomastic origin is not known (Figure
3). In addition to the 1906 Sespe Creek beaver specimen, Hornung (1914:2) told Grinnell:
“There are still quite a few beaver in Southern California, myself being so lucky as to get
hold of one as late as Dec. 24, 1913, 3 weeks ago.”

Interestingly sporadic/anecdotal beaver sightings occurred right up until the 2000's. My own middle school biology teacher, Tim Peddicord, recalls seeing a beaver in Lions Creek ( a tributary to Sespe) in the 1960's. Whether or not the sightings are due to remnants of an original population or translocations that the CDFG did in the middle of the 20th century is anyones guess. And whether or not beaver are still holding out in isolated pockets of the Sespe is a (remote) possibility as well. I did notice some interesting and suggestive features on the Sespe when I recently went up and down it with GEOlocate.

Now most likely the suggestion of beaver activity in these pictures is just that - a suggestion - but there is the possibility that these features are the result of ancient beaver dams. The Sespe is known for deep pools that retain water during the dry season and which serve as refugia for fish and other aquatic organisms. Below is a picture of one such pool in wetter times after the last rainy season.

Such deep, permanent and snow melt fed pools (it is at about 3000') of course are the exact sort of place rainbow trout - or a beaver - can make a home of. And altogether the relative isolation (i.e. lack of conflict with agriculture/man), abundance of habitat, historical occurrence there, potential benefit to fisheries/other riparian species, low gradient, and history of species reintroduction in the area (desert bighorn sheep/California  condor) puts the Sespe wilderness high on my personal list of watersheds in southern California that beaver SHOULD be put back into.

Potential difficulties include the lack of political will on the part of the CDFW services to 1) finally admit they are native 2) come up with a comprehensive management/restoration plan.

And as noted earlier there are abundant predators in the Sespe so any reintroduction should be into spots with year round water/deep pools/hiding spots/alluvial banks for bank burrows.

And another difficulty for beaver in the Sespe, indeed all of California: Is this drought simply the new normal?

Now I know that is a disturbing and alarming thought but a controversial paper from Stanford scientists suggests that the stubborn high pressure ridge diverting storms away from California might be here to stay. Well at this point there are differing opinions and data - we shall see. Although it would not hurt to  plan for the worse.

But back to the Sespe. I got word from a friend on facebook that the pools were drying up and concentrating fish. Not just the small pools that may normally go dry... but the big, deep ones that generally always retain some water through the year. This was scary but, given that the Sespe is about 45 minutes away from me, I had to go check it out. Things did not look promising, when, as I drove through Rose Valley on the way to trailhead I noticed some failing pines (sugar pines?).

I honestly don't know if the trees are failing due to the drought or Japanes bark beetles - but as I was driving by a gun club I did not get out of my truck to investigate further. Depressing either way.

And when I got to Sespe Creek itself it has in fact, gone underground for long stretches.

The last picture is near the confluence of Lions Creek with Sespe Creek. For comparison below is a picture in the same area, in wetter times.

As I found out there were several deep pools that remained and offered hope for surviving fish and drinking water for the wildlife. I found one particularly nice, deep shaded pool after doing a little bushwhacking (and constantly checking for ticks/lions/bears).

And also the better known "Piedra Blanca pool" a well known swimming, diving pool was reduced to a grimy little wallow full of bullhead catfish and some unidentified fish (non-native) that kept biting and nibbling my hand when I put my hand in. I did not see any native trout but they were probably deeper amidst the rocks.

Anyways I have some youtube videos  I posted to my channel, feel free to subscribe and you will be my first subsribee!! I would post them here but blogger is giving me grief right now and not allowing that... 

Until I post again Cheers and Pray for Rain!!!

Black Bear paw print. Piedra Blanca Pool 9/29/14 Duane Nash

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Mojave River Beaver Continues

And that is the last bit of surface flow in the Mojave River after coming off Deep Creek before it goes underground. Does not look very good for a beaver? No riparian corridor but Lawrence of Arabia amounts of sand. Until the river does something miraculous and resurfaces about 8 miles downstream at Mojave Narrows Regional Park where a confluence of geology forces the water back up. And discovering this amazing desert oasis are beavers from the nearby San Bernardino mountains where several translocations took place last century.

And they seem to like the desert.

Victorville looks like a veritable haven for beavers smack dab right in the middle of one of the most well known deserts in the world.

Look at that big body of water, the whole pond is about 750 feet long!!

You can actually back up and see the swath of riparian green - largely created by the beavers - contrasted sharply against the desert from outer space!! Beaver can attenuate waning surface flows and even more substantially increase subsurface flows.

A little bit after Victorville the river submerges underground again and the river become a wide sandy wash as pictured below.

So pretty cool little desert population of beaver. In the areas with surface flows the beaver have found them and greatly augmented the habitat for plants and wildlife, and deepened and widened the channel for more persistent year round flows and groundwater percolation. The Mojave River is a noted habitat for several endangered reptiles and amphibians - especially western pond turtles - and doubtless multitudes of bird species. Unfortunately the lone native fish - The Mojave Tui Chub - has more or less been pushed to the brink of extinction by its non - native introduced relative the Arroyo Chub. Interestingly the Mojave Tui Chub is an ice age holdover from when the Mojave river used to flow into a permanent lake so beaver would have likely benefited this fish as they prefer slow moving, lentic waters.


Friday, September 5, 2014

Why Are Rivers In Northern California Starting to Look Like Rivers In Southern California?

Ah the old southern vs northern Californian debate.... a little background from where I am coming from I have family in the Bay Area dating to the gold rush and even though I currently live in southern California and was born and raised here - I did go to school and live in northern California from 1997 to 2010. So bottom line is I feel first and foremost that I am Californian. Now you can inject any arguments and historical anecdotes that vilify southern California in terms of water usage - and truth be told southern California is and continues to be negligent both in terms of public and governmental use of water. But when it comes to bad, outdated policy and the loss of perennial flows and natural habitat both the North and South have blood on their hands. Remember for every Owens Valley there is also a Hetch Hetchy Valley.

Hetch Hetchy Valley- the "other" Yosemite, now a reservoir for Bay Area
I want to direct your attention to a YouTube clip The Eel River Has Stopped Flowing:

Now down here in socal we are used to seeing our rivers look like this, in fact this is more water than one should expect in a southern river by this time of the year. However the Eel River is not supposed to look like this. By the way it is named the Eel River for the historical abundance of lamprey that were found here - which are not true eels.

Let us see.... is there any other bad news I can throw at you? There has been the suggestion that the drought we are experiencing in California and the west may in fact be the start of a prolonged multi-decade drought or that even these rainfall patterns are the new normal. Cry me a (drying) river...

Northern and Southern California needs to get some common sense groundwater management, get rid of all the lawns, stop growing rice and nut crops, and start importing non-native beavers from Patagonia and Argentina to restore groundwater in ALL watersheds!!! Every problem is a chance for a creative solution!!!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

England Looks In No Way Like Southern California

"You know what's remarkable is how much England looks in no way like Southern California."

Above is one of my favorite lines from Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me. If you need a refresher Austin is cruising the "English countryside" with Felicity Shagwell when he makes the comment. The irony of course, being that the scene and the whole movie were filmed in southern California.

Now taken as it is we have a great example of Michael Myers penchant for witty, off the cuff dialogue - the line was not scripted - and Heather Graham simply mutters "What?" in reply. But such a line, innocuous as it is, can take on some deeper meaning. For starters the native chaparral vegetation which dominates the coastal hillside of southern California and central California, along with oak savanna and coastal sage-scrub, is often featured in movies not explicitly taking place in California but filmed there due to the proximity of the film industry. Indeed the famous Hollywood sign is on a hillside of chaparral vegetation. In stands of old growth manzanita the tangle can get over 30 feet tall and by all accounts chaparral was actually some of the most productive grizzly habitat in the state. While it is true fire is part of this habitat, it has become apparent that the frequency of fire due to anthropogenic causes has increased over time to the detriment of the ecosystem. Interestingly the fire barriers created by people seeking to separate the brush from their property might be accelerating fire risk due to non-native grasses moving in and spreading fires.

Sespe Wilderness. Ventura backcountry
With its ubiquity in many of the most iconic spots in California and its export around the world via the film industry you might think native Californians would take pride in this unique biome found in only a few places on the planet. Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth.

For the most part large swaths of the population look at chaparral as a prickly, dry, combustible, menace.  Fortunately there are lovers of chaparral - a notable example being the chaparral institute - which I encourage you to check out.

Old Growth Manzanita. San Luis Obispo county
It is for shame that California does not herald the unique chaparral biome to the extent it is does the redwood forest - or other parts of the country celebrate their native flora. I mean just check out how cool the twisted, gnarled bark of old growth manzanita looks. Now imagine all of coastal southern and central mountains dominated by stands of old growth manzanita. And this tall canopy creating shade and thermal refuge for amphibians, fungi, wildflowers, reptiles and mosses that one would not expect in such an arid climate. Grizzly bears carving out intricate mazes and centuries old foot paths through the tangle of growth.

Now to get back to what I was saying about Californians having at best an ambivalent relationship with chaparral and much of the native vegetation. This became especially obvious to me working at a retail plant nursery in the Bay Area. I would try and chide and cajole customers to the native plant section but  often time with frustrating results. People from the east coast wanted eastern Lilacs not ceanothus. Everyone insists on a lawn and water hungry annuals. About right here you can insert a discussion on planting for a drought tolerant landscape - especially in, you know, a time of drought.

Now let me dovetail this discussion into the insights gleaned by Heidi Perryman and others concerning why and how often beaver are lethally trapped in California over the last 20 months.

From Martinez Beavers
As discussed already on Martinez Beavers - Dying For Information - over 36% of complaints stem from either agriculture  (20%) or to trees/landscaping (16%). Although dealing with beaver in agricultural situations can be tricky - live trapping and relocation should be the option - it is the high number of reports of damage to trees and landscaping which resulted in 41 kills that is most distressing. And this is because it is easily remedied by a simple wire mesh around the trunk or bad tasting paint - but no plastic por favor. Or, as I would like to see, simply letting the area in question go native to the willows, cottonwood, sycamore and other trees than can coppice, resprout, and reseed in the wetland provided. Check out this cute blog Georgia Backyard Nature and the authors love/hate story of beaver felling valued trees. You can see that several of the trees the author bemoaned the loss of due to beaver actually resprouted and several other trees reseeded in the habitat made by the beaver.

But this recalcitrance to just let things go back to what is there naturally - whether it be your cities creek side park or beaver pond adjacent to your landscaped property - really speaks to the ambivalent relationship Californians have with chaparral. It is our emblematic native vegetation. In the past it provided sanctuary for grizzly in daunting chaparral mazes and today it fuels massive fires that threaten urban sprawl. In the past grizzly was seen as a challenge and menace to be eliminated by California settlers. Today fire is seen as a threat to California that needs managing. Both fire and the grizzly are intimately linked with the chaparral.

Whether it be fire, grizzly, or beaver it seems we have a tendency to try and demonize, eliminate, trap, or suppress it as opposed to understand, value, and cohabitate with it.

Santa Monica Mountains near Pt Mugu. Camarillo Springs Fire

One piece of good news is that there were no depredations for beaver in southern California during this period!!