Thursday, April 3, 2014

Final Thoughts on Coastal Salmonid Restoration Conference

North Fork Matilija Creek. Ventura County D. Nash
I have been dilly-daddlying on this post for a while now, not sure how I want to approach it. I have decided that I don't really have the time or effort to do a blow-by-blow on the speeches I attended. Instead I just want to do a quick and dirty run through of some of the common themes, questions, observations, and points that have stuck with me and which I think matter the most.

Woody debris. N Fork Matilija Creek. Ventura County. D Nash
Woody debris is good- whether a tree falls down, floods distribute it or you just put it there yourself -wood is a natural substrate from which algae, bacteria, fungi can grow on which in turn feed invertebrates and which in turn feed fish. I think of wood in water as a slow release fertilizer- it is not going to stimulate an oxygen depleting environment with loads of nutrients/bacteria but a slow trickle of nutrients into the system. Of course I should not have to preach to the converted on this blog but a general theme for many of the presentations- creating pools, side channels, infusion of woody debris, bank stabilization -yeah this can all be stuff that beaver do. But you too can be the beaver (stolen from Swiftwater Design).

Woody debris. N Fork Matilija Creek. Ventura County. D Nash

Coastal coho salmon and steelhead salmon are facing some pretty depressing obstacles. Drought, diversions, climate change, dams, inconsistent water releases, public apathy and outright antipathy have all conspired to create a unique feeling of dread when it comes to the maintenance or restoration of many populations. Indeed many presenters took the tone that some watersheds we should basically just give up on and concentrate on the ones that show the best promise. The pragmatic part of me concedes a bit towards it but I just can't in good conscience admit defeat to populations that are still going at it despite all the shit we throw at them.

From this I want to dovetail into some of the issue with southern steelhead- a fish that was featured very prominently at this conference and which of course means a lot to me. I did notice that a lot of salmon people are a decidedly north-western lot- this makes sense too -so I think it was eye opening and alarming for them to come to southern California and try to envisage how southern steelhead make a go of it in our water limited landscape. How does a fish actually utilize a river that is not there more than 90% of the time, such as the Santa Maria? Not only are these fish on the edge of existence naturally but team humanzee is not really helping 'em. You see California is a little funny in that, of all the things we do regulate, groundwater is not one of them. And in the looter in a riot mentality of  agribusiness this over-withdrawl of 1000+ year old water has meant subsidence and actually a switch to more water intensive crops like nuts, berries, and grapes.

And then when limits are imposed on farmers or their 1000 foot deep wells start going dry due to their unsustainable year round farming practices- or their neighbor sucks the water table dry -guess who gets blamed- delta smelt and salmon. And they are the purported victims because they grow food for you and I to eat- but not because they are benevolent providers - but because they are making money doing it.

California farmers gamble while the blame game goes on and on...

Now let us get back to southern steelhead and water rights. I was in Santa Paula and checking out the santa clara river when I noticed a whole bunch of diversions- some legal and some not -and was surprised to hear that senior water rights allowed some farmers on the river to divert surface flows!?! This was according to an employee of the nature conservancy and so it seemed pretty legit- I am just surprised at California's weird antiquated water rights policies. Just so you know the santa clara is one of the last bastions for southern steelhead among a number of other endangered and threatened species.

Water Diversions: Legal and Illegal on the Santa Clara River

So where does this leave us? How do we find room for fish in an increasingly chaotic and divisive water regime? Some of the best points at the convention were not brought up by presenters but by particularly pointed questions and comments by the audience.

As I observed there were more more people in attendance than successfully returning and spawning southern steelhead in the whole of their range. The conference with more people than actual fish one attendee confirmed.

One commentator regarding Charlotte Ambrose's insightful speech on the history of failed salmonid conservation going back well into history said to paraphrase:

"Has there ever been a society that managed to save salmon where that society did not fundamentally look at the environment as a resource, an economic asset?"

And I think the long and short of the answer to that question is no... And that one question really gets to the heart of the matter regarding salmon, and indeed all conservation efforts. Saving salmonids- especially in semiarid California -will require fundamentally seismic shifts in how we view nature and our relationship to it. Do we own nature, is it there for us to look at when we please and disavow when economic interests trump? Or does it have a right to exist for its own sake? I, as you might assume support the latter, because as I have said before,  business will always find it's voice, money will not stay hushed up in the corner and look on meekly... and all business comes and go- more ephemeral than a southern Californian river you might say - but what is left in the wake? Is the land, water, and animals so disturbed that the system is now a dead zone?

And for me this is where the salmon restoration federation conference must go in the future, and I love interesting science knowledge and studies that illuminate new insights, but we will have to increasingly focus on getting the public to care about fish or else we will not have anything left to pit tag or study...

Enjoy some Midnight Oil- remember them? For me better than U2 and in my view one of the most prophetic and insightful bands that speaks to present times. River Runs Red performed in front of Exxon building.

So you cut all the tall trees down 
You poisoned the sky and the sea 
You've taken what's good from the ground 
But you left precious little for me 

You remember the flood and the fall 
We remember the light on the hill 
There should be enough for us all 
But the dollar is driving us still 

River runs red 
Black rain falls 
Dust in my hand 

River runs red 
Black rain falls 
On my bleeding land 

So we came and conquered and found 
Richers of commons and kings 
Who strangled and wrestled the ground 
But they never put back anything 

Now I'm trapped like a dog in a cage 
Wherever the truth is pursued 
It must be the curse of the age 
What's taken is never renewed 

River runs red...

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