Wednesday, January 29, 2014

As the Drought Bleeds On... like Water from a Stone

Yep, things are pretty bad here in California with quite possibly the worst drought in California's recorded history pummeling California and other parts of the west right now. A picture is worth a thousand words...
To the left is California on January 13, 2013- a drought year but not as bad as this year on the right. In addition to the lack of Sierra snowpack, the lack of green is pretty startling as well in the picture. Yep, if we don't get any water soon there is going to be dramatic changes a-foot in terms of how this state treats it's water resources. Agriculture, golf courses, water recreation, front lawns- this state may have a wholly different appearance in the coming years if, as some are already suspecting, this drought is actually not a drought at all but simply the new normal...

And if you get out and hit boots to the ground you can easily see the crippling effects this drought is already having on the environment/water resources. Remember when I took a little beaver safari to the beautiful Santa Ynez a couple of months ago? Well I have not been there in some time but I have heard large portions of the river are dry and that, as the photo below of Bradberry dam attests, Lake Cachuma has dropped so low water outflow to the Santa Ynez is cut off.

Bradberry Dam @ Lake Cachuma (lake side facing us)
Let us hope the beaver population of the Santa Ynez, one of the best in socal, finds a way to get through this massive drought. Here is more on Cachuma lake, a reservoir that provides drinking water for much of Santa Barbara county.

Closer to home in Ventura county things are no better. On hikes through the chaparral hills I am noticing many of the normally bomb-proof plants simply browning up and failing. Scrub oak, manzanita, ceanothus- plants which thrive in our semiarid, 12-14 inches of rain environment- still need those 12-14 inches of water to survive! On the Oxnard plain in Ventura county where I live- a major agricultural hub- many of the normally bursting strawberry fields are simply being turned over and allowed to go fallow. Farmers are not getting the seasonal rains and as the aquifer plummets they may no longer be getting the historical pumping allotments, unsustainable as they were, that let them grow blueberries in the desert.

Things are bad for our friends the salmonids not just in southern California but throughout the whole state where some stocks of Coho salmon in central/northern California may go extinct.

Yep it is scary times. I would attempt to put a positive beaver spin on it- but beaver only work as water storage devices where there is at least some water there to begin with...

Never the less we can still hope. I recently hiked up the Matilija Creek in Ventura county. You know the one infamous for the dam that has that graffiti on it? Well the normally perennial creek was dry, until I got up higher in the drainage and found some water still flowing. Hiding out in one of the pools- a rainbow trout. Surviving trout give me hope- where trout live, maybe beaver can too...

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Monday, January 6, 2014

A Southern Californian Riparian Stream and an Amazing Video on Southern Steelhead

I want to share some photos of stream I took recently. The photos are of the Portrero John Creek located in the Sespe wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest. Although the larger stream it flows into the Sespe is actually fairly dry in several areas this time of year the Portrero John Creek maintains consistent flows, even during the persistent drought we are experiencing in California. The Sespe watershed, as I have discussed before may have served as one of the last refugia of native goldern beavers in southern California prior to their extirpation. Reintroduction of beaver into such creeks makes a lot of sense in my opinion. You will notice good riparian vegetation- willows, cottonwood - and year round flow- thats all a beaver needs. In addition to the sometimes ephemeral flows in these mountains there are also abundant predators - cougars, black bears, coyotes, bobcats - that offer much challenge in terms of establishing populations. Also keep in mind the creek is at several thousand feet of  elevation and the area is often snow covered this time of year- but it has been a warm, dry winter so far in socal.

Also if there are any botanical people out there let me know what this plant I kept finding under oaks and pines is. I think it might be a spikemoss but I can't find any pics of types that look like it found in these parts of the Transverse Range.

And finally an awesome video by cal-trout about the challenges facing steelhead restoration with beautiful clips of several southern Californian streams and rivers. Enjoy.

Southern California Steelhead: Against All Odds

Steelhead. Sespe Creek. 1911
Steelhead. North of Fillmore  April 1983

Steelhead. North of Fillmore April 1917

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Going Cuckoo for Beaver

(c) PhotosbyJoe
I want to introduce you to a bird, a bird you may not have even known existed in southern California- the Western Yellow Billed Cuckoo, Coccyzus americana. Yes southern California actually has a cuckoo and the western distinct population segment is what we are talking about here because it has different habitat requirement than the eastern population. It is a secretive bird, predator of large insects and small vertebrates, has a distinct call, and is one of the latest arriving migrants to America from its wintering grounds in South America. It lives in deciduous woodlands and, specifically for the western population segment, riparian habitats. Areas with stands of cottonwoods, willow, and sycamore. Sounds like it prefers the habitat of something else we talk a lot about here that happens to be the namesake of this blog. And surprise, surprise it is a rare bird. So rare in fact that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is moving to list this bird as a Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). And here is what the American Bird Conservancy group has to say about that:

"The draft rule only proposes to list the species as threatened rather than as endangered, and doesn’t address the threats or propose more effective conservation measures such as removing cattle from riparian areas and restricting the use of pesticides in adjacent agricultural areas,” said Steve Holmer, senior policy advisor with American Bird Conservancy.

But wait there is more:

"Federal agencies must address water diversion and grazing policies that are disastrous to the cuckoo. They need to reverse direction, stop the degradation, and develop a plan to restore riparian areas and regrow lost Yellow-billed Cuckoo habitat," Holmer added.

Ok so it appears this bird has a lot of obstacles in its way. Getting agriculture to go pesticide free, not likely for big agriculture. Removing cattle from riparian habitats, again gonna be a tough one. But that last sentence: "They need to reverse direction, stop the degradation, and develop a plan to restore riparian areas and regrow lost Yellow-billed Cuckoo habitat." That last bit about restoring and regrowing riparian areas yeah beaver can take care of the that part. The pesticides and the cattle- that is difficult but restoring the habitat beaver can go a long way towards that end.

Hopefully you are seeing a theme here. Steelhead salmon, yellow billed cuckoos, western pond turtles, red-legged frogs, willow flycatchers and even the beaver themselves- it is not really about any one of these species individually. It is about finding the most economically sound, viable, repeatable and observable tool that can at least give all of them a fighting chance- let the beaver do the work of habitat restoration for us.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is taking public comments on the listing of the western distinct population segment of the yellow billed cuckoo until February 24, 2014. I suggest you drop by and give them your thoughts.

Ventura River riparian forest

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