Posted on

The Resilient Steelhead and the Zayante Watershed

by Bob Garbarino

Since steelhead are for many of us on our “to-do fishing list” this time of year, I thought I’d include some interesting information about this fish that, despite the environmental challenges it faces, continues to instinctively fight back to survive as a species. What I find really interesting is that steelhead are the same species as rainbow trout. Their lifestyles differ in that steelhead are anadromous (they spend part of their life-cycle in the ocean) and rainbow trout spend their lives in freshwater. An interesting blog appeared this month from FISHBIO about the steelhead’s amazing ability to adapt to unfavorable environmental conditions. Dams are problematic in that they limit spawning and rearing habitat. They also disrupt natural stream flow and temperature patterns. Stream diversions, agriculture and urban development also have an negative impact. And because they move from river to ocean and back they face threats that are difficult to measure. The article expands on the methods and new ideas FISHBIO and other biologist employ to collect data that provide information to help develop plans to improve wild steelhead populations. For more details go to:
https://fishbio.com/sea-to-shining-sea-amazing-adaptable-steelhead/

In other news, our local Sempervirens Fund received a conservation easement donation to permanently restrict development of 67 acres of property in the Upper Zayante Watershed. The property has second-growth redwood trees and habitat for rare animal species and mountain lions. Isabel Upani creek, where coho and steelhead inhabit, passes through the property on its way to the San Lorenzo River. Although the property still belongs to the landowners, the agreement ensures that the protections are permanent. To read more, go to:
https://www.sfgate.com/california-parks/article/california-redwoods-private-land-18590110.php

Posted on

Costly Columbia River Hatchery Program—Results Disappointing

by Bob Garbarino

In the May newsletter this year I wrote about a study that found introducing hatchery fish into streams with wild fish populations actually destabilized and reduced the wild fish population. This month I came across another article about how costly efforts to support and increase native salmon populations in the Columbia River has failed. This conclusion was based on a report published by an economics professor at Oregon State University and a biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Washington. They analyzed data collected over 50 years with counts of native and hatchery salmon and steelhead return runs at Bonneville Dam. The data indicated hatchery fish numbers had increased slightly, while wild salmon and steelhead populations had not. In fact, the introduction of hatchery fish have in some cases been found to have a harmful effect on the wild population. They also reported that over the last four decades, about $9 billion have been spent by federal and state agencies to run and maintain about 200 salmon hatchery programs in the Columbia River Basin.
While overfishing and the construction of 14 dams are the primary contributors to the declining numbers, others are farming pollution and diversion of water for irrigation, climate change, as well as habitat loss from logging and mining. An average of 1.5 million salmon and steelhead have run up the Columbia over the last decade—far short of the goal of 5 million by 2025. State of Oregon officials are moving forward with a third-party investigation of the hatchery operations, including the cost vs benefits. The Conservation Angler, an organization that focuses on protection of wild Pacific anadromous fish populations throughout the Northwest, is active in reforming hatchery practices including those on the Columbia/Snake River basin. This is another example of an angling group getting involved in conservation.
For more information about this subject got to: https://www.opb.org/article/2023/08/05/columbia-river-salmon-habitat-spending-study/

Posted on

Tulare Lake is Back—For Now

by Bob Garbarino

Some of the expected outcomes of the onslaught of storms this year are the near record snowpack, reservoirs full to the brim and swollen rivers. With climate change, we can expect more drastic swings between flooding and drought in a feast-or-famine cycle. One event during heavy rain and snowpack years is the re-emergence of the “ghost lake”—Tulare Lake. Part of the complex history of man controlling water in California, Tulare has an interesting legacy. Tulare Lake was once the largest lake west of the Mississippi River, although its size varied between dry and wet periods. It was fed by the Kings, Tule, Kaweah and smaller rivers. During a typical year, the lake covered 650-700 square miles!
It provided habitat to a vast number of wildlife including thicktail chub (now extinct),  hitch, blackfish, Sacramento perch, pikeminnow, sucker, Tule Elk,  blackbirds, singing marsh wrens, geese, ducks white pelicans, black cormorants, herons, egrets, frogs, turtles, otters and beaver. Living off the abundance of wildlife were the indigenous Yokuts bands.
The demise of the Yokuts and Tulare lake can be traced to the appearance of European settlers. In the case of the Yokuts, malaria, smallpox, enslavement, genocide and the loss of their ancestral land were certainly devastating.
For Tulare Lake, after California became a State, the newly annexed “swamp and overflow” land in the area was subject to sale by the federal government for pennies. The conditions for sale were that the lake can be crossed in a boat and that the prospective buyer was willing to drain the lake for the purpose of farming. With this incentive, farmers engaged in constructing levees and other water containment measures to make the lake bed farmable. The final blow to the lake came in the first half of the 20th century with the influx of mega farming. These farmers had a hand in convincing the Army Corps of Engineers to spend millions of dollars building Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River as a flood control structure. Following shortly afterwards, dams on the Kaweah, Tule, and Kern Rivers were built. So, except during years when the snowmelt overwhelms the flood control infrastructure (1969, 1983, and 1997 and 2023) Tulare Lake does not exist. From a wildlife resurgence perspective, this year can be considered a wonderful event. Not to mention recharging much-depleted aquifers that have been over-drawn over the years. The downside is how all the water has disrupted and displaced residents in the region. Many of the residents are on the low end of the income scale, will loose farming jobs. Water managers in the area think that it may take a year or two to reclaim much of the lake for farming, costing the economy over a billion dollars.
While we will never return Tulare Lake to its historic glory, I can’t help from thinking if a scaled back version of the lake would be a compromise for the best interests for all stakeholders in California.

For an interesting read, see the following website:  https://californiawaterblog.com/2023/04/16/lake-tulare-and-its-fishes-shall-rise-again/