California Water Policy Seminar Series: Peter Moyle and Melanie Truan: Applying reconciliation ecology to aquatic ecosystems in California

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Professor Peter Moyle

The 2014 California Water Policy Seminar Series, presented by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences and the law school’s California Environmental Law & Policy Center, focused on the concept of ‘reconciliation ecology’, an emerging discipline that is based on the premise that traditional conservation strategies of designating nature reserves and restoration projects will not afford enough protection to present large-scale extinction, and so proposes that human landscapes and ecosystems be reengineered to accommodate both people and wildlife.

Post Doctorate Researcher Melanie Truan

In this speech, the second in the series, Peter Moyle, Professor and former Chair of UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology, and Melanie Truan, Post Doctorate Researcher with the UC Davis Museum of Wildlife and Conservation Biology, discuss how a local creek with a long history of abuse went from trashed to local treasure, becoming a hotbed of biodiversity in the process.  Is this success story that could be emulated elsewhere?

Peter Moyle began by saying he would be talking about a favorite subject, Putah Creek, and relate reconciliation ecology to what’s going on there.  “The most interesting part of this is how Putah Creek became reconciled, and what makes reconciliation ecology work for it is why it’s such a special place,” he said.

He then began by reviewing the definition of reconciliation ecology.  Michael Rosenzweig, often referred to as the ‘father’ of reconciliation ecology, defines it as ‘the science of inventing, establishing, and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work, and play.’  “In other words, integrating natural values and wild species into human systems; the idea here is there are no longer any really any pristine systems out there,” said Mr. Moyle. “Michael Rosenzweig also said that ‘it seeks environmentally sound ways for us to continue to use the land for our own benefit, and I would add, land and water for our own benefit because especially in California, especially, water is the big issue. And this is what makes reconciliation ecology different. It doesn’t insist that we have to return to the natural ecosystems.”

Reconciliation ecology gets away from the idea of restoration and instead, it reengineers human ecosystems to accommodate both people and diversity, he said.  “What this means is that we’re dealing with novel ecosystems, ecosystems that have not been seen before – unique combinations of species on highly altered landscapes. It preserves human uses and benefits, that’s just the reality. … It’s idea of integration, wild with human.”

These are novel ecosystems, he pointed out.  “We’re always thinking like we want to go back to the pristine systems, but you really can’t do it anymore,” he said.  “So we’re dealing primarily with novel ecosystems, and Putah Creek is a good example of this, new combinations of species in human-altered environments.”

There are species in California from all over the world that behave and look like natural ecosystems, and they are in a lot of places that we might think of, such as the yellow hills of California that come from annual plants from Europe.  “There are mixtures of native and alien species, and new species interactions may appear, but there is the assumption that some kind of a new steady state can develop,” a fictional state, he acknowledged, “but the idea is that there is a state that would at least maintain itself for a while, that can be predicted and managed.”

Reconciliation ecology considers local conditions and needs, Mr. Moyle said.  “It also means we have to identify the species on which to design a new functional ecosystem,” he said.  “We get to choose what’s going on now. We’re choosing what species we want to have around. We decide we’re going to favor native species.  That may not always be the case – then we can choose which ones. But the important thing here is that it is not restricted to rare and endangered species.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_08Here is why reconciliation ecology is needed, Mr. Moyle said, presenting a map of the Central Valley with yellow depicting wetlands and riparian zones that existed in 1900 and red denoting what is left today.  “Just little spots of red in there, you’ll notice,” he said.  “And those ones that are left are not at all like the pristine systems that were there before. The historic systems are now mixtures of native and non-native species. We have to work with what’s left.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_09We also have to be realistic about the dams that we have, he said.  “There are dams on all our rivers that block access to the upstream areas, and greatly alter the areas below the dams. They fragment the landscape and they fragment our river systems from fish and invertebrate point of view. We’ve drastically altered our river systems and we’re not going to go back to free flowing rivers from headwaters to mouth in most cases.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_10And then you have crisis all the time, such as the drought we’re currently experiencing.  “Drought is hard enough on us, and on farmers, and cities, and so forth,” he said.  “It’s really hard on the fish, really hard on the aquatic and riparian systems.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_11We’re constantly trying to manage from crisis to crisis and we’re not doing so well in that regard right now, said Mr. Moyle.  He then presented a pie chart that depicted the status of California fishes, pointing out that 26% of endangered, and overall, 83% of the 129 species are extinct or declining.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_12Presenting another graph that showed how the species were faring over time, he pointed out: “This is accelerating. This is partly based in new information, but the first assessment I did was in 1975, and you can see the percentage of species considered to be endangered has gone from 9% to 24% in that 35 year period.  The numbers of species vulnerable to extinction are an additional 53%.  So it says we’re not doing well in protecting our aquatic ecosystems and that standard methods just don’t work. It means we need a different approach.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_13He then presented a slide with two maps, one that showed the average status quo of native fishes in 1975, and the same for 2010. “In 1975, the green says that at the time I thought everything was in pretty good shape. The red says that these are species that are extinct or endangered. And what you notice the green is just about disappeared from the 2010 map … Large areas of California no longer have aquatic fishes that are not in some degree of trouble. And that you have some places where whole fish faunas are on the verge of extension.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_14All this tells you that we’re not doing very well, and climate change has the potential to make it worse, said Mr. Moyle.  “83% of our native fishes have critical or a high vulnerability to climate change,” he said, noting that it’s not quite the same for alien species.  “We have 50 alien species of fish in California, but only 19% of those have high vulnerability.  That suggests we’re going to be hasty to switch from natives to non-natives in many of California’s water waysThis means that we have to be thinking of developing a reconciled ecosystems,” he said.  “We really have to be thinking in terms of new systems, and trying to look at new ways of developing things.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_16Suisun Marsh is the largest brackish water marsh on the West Coast and it has some appearances of being a natural system,” he said.  “But you only have to start looking out for dikes and things, you realize it’s not,” said Mr. Moyle.


pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_17“You can argue the system has been treated as a reconciled ecosystem for the past 100 years. A high percentage of the land is hunting clubs, which manage their lands for duck hunting as a wildlife refuge, and there is a major urban area here and an air force base.  So it looks like a nice wild area, but it’s highly managed and highly altered. And that’s sort of the reality of today.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_18There’s a pretty diverse fish fauna in Suisun Marsh, and they all get along pretty well, he said, presenting a slide of the 15 most abundant fish species in the marsh.  “These fish show a high degree of segregation and are behaving like a natural system, but everything marked A is an alien species,”  he said. “Half the fish in the marsh are non-natives and yet, they are interacting with the native species.

Melanie Truan then took the floor to discuss the wildlife, flora and fauna of Lower Putah Creek.  She noted that Putah Creek does continue above Monticello Dam and into the Coast Ranges, but the portion she would be speaking about is a 30-kilometer riparian remnant of Lower Putah Creek.  “It is a novel ecosystem with a lot of the new assemblages, and we’re hoping it can be a model for reconciled ecosystems elsewhere,” she said.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_22She presented a map of Putah Creek, and pointed out the location of Monticello Dam and the Putah Creek Diversion Dam, noting that about 90% of the creek’s water is diverted to Solano County at that point.  Further downstream, Pleasant Creek, a tributary to Putah Creek, is a source of fine sediment to the creek and creates water quality issues, and another tributary, Dry Creek, is a major source of coarse material.  “This is very important for salmon spawning and for in-stream habitat, so there’s work being done to try to recruit more of this gravel and bring it into the Creek, because it is starved for sediment,” she said.  She noted the towns of Winters and Davis, pointing out where the creek was shunted into a new channel around the early 1900s.  “It kept flooding the town, eventually they just shunted it south and made a new channel for it and run into the Yolo Bypass,” she said.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_23Ms. Truan noted that the landscape surrounding the creek is highly modified.  “It used to be a heterogeneous matrix of oak woodlands, tule swamps, and all kinds of different habitats,” she said.  “Now, it’s primarily agricultural, urban and ex-urban development, and that makes a big difference. There are a lot of introduced species coming from there and a lot of impacts from the land uses adjacent to the Creek.”

She then presented an aerial photograph of Putah Creek today, noting the location of Highway 180 crossing the creek.  “Land conversion, dams, water diversions and introduced species have created a novel ecosystem,” she said.  “Where once there was a broad interacting ecosystem, there is now this narrow ribbon of riparian habitat highly channelized, and everything that goes on in here stays in here.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_24Since 1997, the Museum of Wildlife and Fish Biology has been studying the terrestrial system along Putah Creek. “We have about 13 different study sites along the Creek that we monitor … and we have found so far, diverse assemblages and unique because of this interaction between the introduced species and the natives.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_25Comprehensive plant surveys were conducted in 2005-06 and again last year.  “We found over 250 species, about 50% of which are native. So, there is a lot of interaction with different kinds of plant species, new habitats forming, and new resource subsidies for wildlife.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_26In 2005-06, students conducted Pollard Walk Surveys, a method to count butterflies.  “We found 31 species, 75% of which were native and represented about 56% of the Central Valley butterfly fauna.  We caught quite a few of them and a lot of these results were set within a wide spread regional declines that the Central Valley has been experiencing over the last few decades.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_27We do yearly visual surveys for amphibians and reptiles as we are working on the creek, Ms. Truan said.  “We’ve documented four amphibian species, which is only 6% of the species found in California, but its 80% of the Sacramento Valley fauna, which tells you how depauperate the Sacramento Valley is of amphibians, which is not surprising considering how much habitat loss has occurred and probably water quality issues, too.”

The reptiles are doing a bit better, Ms. Truan said, noting they had found 10 species, but there were probably more they hadn’t found.  “About 90% of the species are native. 11% of the California fauna, 67% of the Sacramento Valley fauna and 71% of all the species found in Yolo County have been found on Putah Creek. So it is a hot-spot for diversity here in the valley.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_28There are yearly visual surveys for mammals, and they’ve also started using remote cameras, she said, noting that there were 31 species last time she checked, but probably more added since then.  “About 79% are native and about 81% of all species in Yolo County, 69% of the Central Valley and 14% of all mammals found in California including a few interesting ones. The black bear has been found on the Creek on more than one occasion, mountain lions, two species of foxes and coyotes.”

Ms. Truan said they had found many bobcats living on the Creek.  “I thought that they would be a little bit more sensitive to these sorts of environments, but they’re living in the corridor, they are foraging out in the matrix, and on the Edge Habitats and Ecotones between the ag fields and the riparian.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_30We have the most records for birds, Ms. Truan said.  “52,000 records so far, 72% of the Yolo County fauna and about 40% known or suspected to breed on the Creek,” she said.  She noted that riparian focal species, considered indicators of riparian health, have been found on the Creek.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_31The interesting thing is the original assessment of Putah Creek was based on this site right here,” she said, noting it on the slide.  “Originally they thought Putah Creek was trashy and there were no birds and it wasn’t very good habitat,” she said.  “But it turns out this was sort of the least abundant site on the Creek and we found many, many more since then.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_32Putah Creek is also a great fallout spot for vagrants and rarities,” she said, presenting a slide of a variety of different species.  “These are all species that have found their way, gotten lost and found their way onto the Creek and lived on the Creek for various periods of time.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_33The value of long-term monitoring starts to show up when there are several years in a row, she said, presenting a slide of showing abundance for two types of birds.  “The thing that’s interesting here is the inflection point in 2006, which we see for a variety of species,” she said.  “2006 was a big water year, and we see pretty much across the board a significant response of population abundance at that point.  So we’ve got baseline flows, but we also seem to be seeing some sort of a signal coming from these big pulse flows coming down the Creek.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_34In 2000, we started a project called the Putah Creek Nestbox Highway, a project to integrate habitat restoration, help species and provide environmental education for the public, Ms. Truan said.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_35We have 351 boxes across 13 sites of Lower Putah Creek,” she said.  “We do active management and monitoring of the boxes, we band the birds out of the boxes, both adults and chicks, and we do dietary studies as well as other work.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_36There have been different responses for different species to the placement of nextboxes, she said, presenting a graph of nestbox output for numerous species.  “Tree Swallows have been the most abundant responders to the nestboxes, but other species have responded as well – about 8,000 fledglings produced so far out of these boxes.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_40Western Bluebirds were largely reduced on the creek before we put the boxes out, she said.  “Our first year, we’ve had one population of Western Bluebirds and they produced three fledglings,” she said.  “Two years later, we had two populations and nine fledglings. In 2006, we had six populations and 78 fledglings. And in 2012, we had 11 populations and 123 fledglings. They are all sort of marching down the Creek as the founder populations spread out and started attracting more birds. Now we have a pretty thriving population of Western Bluebirds on the creek as a result of putting some boxes out.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_41She then presented a graph showing next box occupancy changes from 2001 to 2013, showing the increase in occupancy rate and corresponding output.  “The conclusion is that these increasing populations of secondary cavity nesters show that reconciliation management for target species can work,” she said.  “At least in this way, the Putah Creek ecosystem is getting better for secondary cavity nesters at least, and we hope for other species as well.”

Peter Moyle then returned to the floor.  “It’s really amazing how so many of these animals have responded,” said Mr. Moyle.  “When Putah Creek started out, when we started working on it, it wasn’t that great a place to go, and now it is, so it’s a great example of how rapidly things can respond. But I do want to emphasize that it’s far from being a pristine system.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_42You see this in the aquatic ecosystem as well – sometimes it looks pretty good,” he said, presenting a slide of a picture taken during a time when flows are released for native fishes. “In the spring, the flows are up, it looks good. But there is also tamarisk, which is a non-native species, so it’s an irreversibly altered system with a mixture of native and alien species.  It is truly a novel ecosystem …  Most of the things did not evolve together. But nevertheless, it’s a place so you can manage for native fishes. We’re very lucky that we have 10 species of native fish in the Creek. And we’ve been able to manage for them quite successfully.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_44One of those is the Tule Perch which was quite rare until the flows improved, said Mr. Moyle. “Now, you can snorkel in some places and see dozens of these fish. These are fish that are live bearers and each female gives birth to 30 or 40 young, which then swim away. It’s really quite amazing.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_45We have salmon spawning in the Creek, he said.  “Salmon were not here before until the recent years,” he said.  “What’s been going on is that we’ve modified the Creek in ways that now favor native fish. This is a key aspect of reconciliation ecology. You pick the species you want to shoot for and then, you try to manage for them.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_43With the aquatic system, we decided the best thing to do was to manage for ten native species, he said, displaying a graph if the abundance and percent of both alien and native fish before and after the establishment of a ‘natural’ flow regime on Putah Creek.  “Before we changed the flow regime, the fish were 80% aliens both in numbers and in species, and after that, it’s now 80% native species. So, a very dramatic shift over about a five-year period.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_47“You can manage the environment, but the aliens are still there, said Mr. Moyle.  “They don’t go away – they just get suppressed, and in fact, they’re still abundant in many places.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_49He then presented a slide which categorized various groups of species and the percentage of aliens that are present in the creek.  “What you see is that all these groups are partly non-native species,” he said.  “This means this is a dynamic system. There’s always tension with the native and non-native species, and what we can do is manage for the native species.”

So Putah Creek is a biodiversity hot spot in an agricultural landscape,” he said.  “This looks like a tough place for anything to survive, yet it seems to be working. And it’s working in part because it is a novel system. It’s a mixture of these native and non-native species that have figured out how to live in this very narrow corridor. And that’s why it’s a great test case for reconciliation ecology.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_52In the 1850s to 1950s, there was a lot of flooding from the Creek so the focus was on trying to make Putah Creek go away, so it was leveed and confined to a channel, he explained.  In 1957, Montiecllo Dam was built which totally changed the creek, and even the resource agencies wrote off the lower portion of the creek as not worth bothering with, he said.  In 1986, the University of California stopped mining gravel out of the creek and declared it a riparian reserve.  “It looked really awful but that’s where you start,” he said, noting that it came about because of student demands.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_53The Putah Creek Counsel was formed in 1988, an organization designed to pick up trash and to help the land owners take care of the land along the Creek, he said.  Then a drought, which dried up the creek at times, culminating in a 1996 lawsuit to restore the flows that was settled in 2000, he said, noting that it was the period from 1996 to 2000 that things really started to change.

Once the dam is built and you’ve gotten rid of the natural flow regimes of the natural system, you can’t really go back, and the Putah Creek Diversion Dam, about 8 miles downstream from Monticello Dam, sends most of the water into Solano County, leaving a small amount left in Putah Creek, he said.  “So this is a very, very altered stream,” he said.  “There are very few streams that are this straight and that are confined between levees like Putah Creek is, yet that seemed to work reasonably well and this is despite this long history of abuse.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_54He then presented a series of historical pictures documenting the once-squalid conditions in the Creek. This is 1991, and this is the ‘Detroit Riprap’, the classic way of disposing old cars, he said.  “You dump it, throw it in the streams, and stabilize the banks,” he said, noting that the university also mined gravel out of the Creek for a long time.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_55“That was general reflection of general abuse of the Creek. … A pretty depressing place. But nevertheless, there are some of us even back then, could see it had possibilities.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_56People didn’t get motivated to do much about the Creek until the drought got really severe in 1989-1990 when the Creek dried up, and even catfish died,” said Mr. Moyle.  “While the Creek had been neglected, Putah Creek Council was taking some of the car bodies out, some of the plants were coming back, a few more birds were appearing, and it was starting to look better. Then it dries up, and everything seems to be going to hell.”

That’s when people started getting angry, and that resulted in a lawsuit, he said.  “The most amazing thing about this lawsuit is that while it was led by the Putah Creek Council, the City of Davis and the University of California joined in the lawsuit. To have a university join a lawsuit to get more water down the Creek was just downright astonishing. It said a lot about the administration at that time, but their argument was this was important for teaching and research. There was a lawsuit against the Solano County Water Agency in Sacramento Superior Court, and the settlement agreement in the year 2000,” he said, noting that citizens and students collected the essential data for the lawsuit.  “But the legal issues focused on providing flows for native fishes.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_58It was fortunate that there was a gravel pit below the diversion dam where vegetation had grown, and for some reason, ten species of native fish had managed to survive in this area, he said.  “So we had a sea bank of the native species, the little fish refuge,” he said.  “The settlement agreement basically said that we have to keep the Creek from drying up, we get spring flows for native fish spawning and rearing, we get fall attraction flows for the salmon, but we’ll leave high flows up to unusual events, down spills and so forth. That was a lot, because suddenly we had guarantees that this could be a living ecosystem.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_61The Putah Creek Accord was signed in 2000.  “And so, Putah Creek has become a conservation and community resource,” said Mr. Moyle.  “There’s a lot going on at the Creek. The landowners are very proud of what the Creek. There is a lot of citizen involvement.”

So what does it take to manage this Creek as a reconciled ecosystem?” said Mr. Moyle.  “Well first off, it takes fairly a bold vision. And indeed the accord that followed the trial was a visionary statement. It’s the one where the Putah Creek Council, the university, all the various representatives sat down and figured out, “What do we want?

The flow regime is key, because without that, you don’t have anything else, he said.  The accord also said the water agency would pay for the monitoring of fish and wildlife, as well as a general agreement that the creek should be restored to a healthier environment.  “That was a pretty big vision right there,” he said.  “But then you have all these other things that were needed. You had to have the appropriate flow regime, water agency cooperation, the stream keeper and so forth … A whole bunch of things have to work to make this a reconciled system.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_63With a bold vision and the right people around, you can accomplish amazing things, he said.  “This is a Winter Creek, sometimes called the Ecology Park, in downtown Winters. It’s still being constructed. This was the vision for this park to recreate the channel of Putah Creek.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_64There were some old cement dams that had to be taken down because they were unsafe for the kids, so people decided to make it into an ecological park at the same time, he said.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_66During construction, the creek had to be put into pipes, and the fish had to be rescued.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_68This is what happened. The original system looked like this, it doesn’t look too bad actually because of the trees and so forth, but there are all kinds of issues here,” said Mr. Moyle.  “But this is what it looks like today, this was about a year ago, so. You can see there’s a natural channel, these are all native plants that have been planted. The Creek is becoming more like a natural Creek there. And best of all, it’s accessible to the citizens of Winters.  They take the fifth grade classes and go down to the Creek for study, and it’s available. It’s there. So you can do it.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_70Community involvement is an essential part of any reconciled ecosystem, and the Putah Creek Council exemplifies this, he said.  “Every little thing that goes on at the Creek, whether some change that will need labor and need volunteers, Putah Creek Council does it. Planting trees and so forth.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_72Another thing important factor is the Solano County Water Agency’s cooperation, he said.  “Remember, we had this trial. It was a nasty trial in lots of ways, with the Water Agency versus the environmental groups.  Now the Solano County Water Agency has become one of the good guys. … They are a strong supporter of most of the actions in the Creek. They still get 95% of the water, but they keep doing everything else they can as well. So if they weren’t a willing cooperator, it’d be a lot harder.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_73Part of the settlement agreement is that Solano County Water Agency pays the salary of Rich Marovich, the streamkeeper, he said.  “Rich’s job is to take care of the Creek. The plan that I showed you for restoring the park in Winters, that’s largely his doing. He found the funding.  And we’ve a real full-time person who’s caring for the Creek. That makes a huge difference. And above all, his main job is as a diplomat. He’s the person who talks to the landowners because there are over a 100 landowners along the Creek. Most of the Creek banks are in private hands. That means you need somebody who can talk to landowners and he can do that.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_74Then there’s the ongoing monitoring and research, as Melanie pointed out, he said.  “It’s quite remarkable. We know a lot more Putah Creek than most streams in California.”

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_75So the question becomes then, is this a model for other watersheds?  We have a lot of unique things going on. With the university, with the educated populace, with willing landowners, but all these developed too. It didn’t happen overnight, it developed. So we like to think it’s a model for other watersheds and the biggest test of this is going on right now in the San Joaquin River Basin, where there are not such willing landowners.”

So there is hope. So, at this point, I’ve some conclusions, but Melanie, do you want to start with your conclusions?” Mr. Moyle said.

The thing that strikes me most as an ecologist about this whole process and system is that species interactions are what drive evolution pretty much,” said Melanie Truan.  “And what we have here is a system in which we have brand new species interactions happening between invasive species, native species, and new combinations of species in a new environment and it makes one wonder what sorts of evolutionary processes are occurring or could occur in a system like this and what’s driving these sorts of changes.  Maybe there’s rapid evolution happening here and not other places. It seems like there’s a lot of opportunity for students and professors and researchers to apply some of these questions to the Creek and to take a look at what’s going on out there and use it as a springboard for research and as well as education,” and she noted that there are a lot of projects going on right now, such as an active working landscapes group looking at the agricultural matrix and how it interacts with the waterways, and connectivity between different habitat elements.

pmoyle_seminar_13jan2014_Page_76We have the good fortune to have a university here, but I’d still think this is a model that could be used elsewhere,” Peter Moyle said.  “I think the key elements that you see here is this idea of people getting together at the very beginning and figuring out what they want. That’s what reconciliation means – getting diverse people together and then deciding what it is that you want. And increasingly, there’s the idea that you want to protect native flora and fauna. And one of the very good motivations for doing this is that people want to avoid having species listed as threatened or endangered, because once the big arm of the Endangered Species Act comes down at you, your options get greatly reduced. And one of the good things about Putah Creek, at least, initially was that there were no endangered fish in it. These are all fish that were relatively common even though they’re native fish.”

We didn’t have any Endangered Species Act issues and the fact that we got the recovery going to the Creek without endangered species is quite remarkable,” continued Mr. Moyle.  “We do have a few endangered birds and things along the Creek, but by and large, it’s still being managed without that big driver as a reconciled ecosystem that works in a landscape because people want it to work. I think that’s what the big model is that we have to keep people looking forward. And that’s hard because it means you’re trying to get people together. You going to need people with very diverse points of view to work together. And that’s also why I think the stream keeper is so important. …
It’s very important to have one person who’s actually making a living, dedicated the Creek raising money for projects, talking to people, making sure everything works. So, it’s a very positive experience, and I hope it can be repeated elsewhere.”

The floor was then opened for questions.

Discussion highlights

Peter Moyle was asked who pays for the stream keeper.  Peter Moyle answered that his salary is paid for by the Solano County Water Agency.  “Initially he was paid as a half-time employee with half his salary raised from grants and things. Now he’s full-time employee of the Water Agency, which you could argue as maybe a conflict of interest there. But that tells you that the water agency’s really been very good about this. They’ve really been pretty hands-off.  … They like it because he keeps them informed of what’s going on. No surprises from their perspective which is important.”

You said at the beginning that reconciliation ecology takes away from restoration, moves away from the premise of restoration,” asked a participant.  “Yet what I saw in your presentation earlier that there are many elements of restoration, such as bringing flows in and planting native vegetation. So what really is the difference between restoration and reconciliation?

Restoration in the classical context is trying to take the system back to some previous pristine historic condition – restoring it back,” answered Melanie Truan, “whereas reconciliation is saying, ‘This is what we have. It’s never going to go back to what it originally was … ‘So this is what we’ve got, and we’re reconciled that humans are using it, wildlife are using it, everyone’s using this system. How can we make this system work, function, most effectively for all the parties involved?

Putah Creek 1
Putah Creek by flickr photographer Miwa.

I think the word ‘ecosystem’ function’s really important because that’s what’s going on here,” added Peter Moyle.  “We’re trying to get a functioning ecosystem even though it contains native and non-native species. but the flow regimes illustrate if you’re smart and you have data so you know what you’re doing, you can manipulate the environment in ways that favor the natives, but don’t get rid of the non-natives that are still there. The whole idea is that you don’t assume your end-point is some fictitious time in the past when everything was perfect, but your end-point is what you want it to be. And restoration on Putah Creek may well involve a whole suite of non-native plants.”

Certainly the non-native fish are not going to go away so they have to be part of the system, so you figure out how do you accommodate them,” continued Mr. Moyle.  “And maybe how do you get rid of the most pestiferous plants?”  Arundo is a false bamboo or giant reed which takes over the edge of a riparian system, eliminating a lot of the more desirable plants, so it’s worth it to go after that plant. … And then there are other non-native plants you don’t worry about so much. You make a choice.   You might say, “Those plants, those are guest species. We’ll let them be part of the system.” But we’re in charge and we’re trying to create a system that’s as sustainable as possible.”

A participant asked if they thought the process would have gotten as far as it has without the lawsuit.

I think it was a tipping point,” said Peter Moyle.   “It was really key. I think a lot of this would’ve gone on even without the lawsuit. The University had already had it reserved, the Putah Creek Council was formed, but that water was what got the trees growing, it got the fish growing, … ”

Without the mandated funds for monitoring, we wouldn’t know nearly what we know now, and a lot of the work I do would not have ever been done,” added Melanie Truan.  “I think it really did put teeth into the whole process.

“I think it’s amazing how much you’ve been able to do with just such a small amount of water in proportion to what’s natural to be there in this particular Creek,” said a participant. “But there are other ecosystems like the big one that everyone talks about all the time like the Delta where they’re trying to intensively manage it … and the fish aren’t responding. So what happens when reconciliation ecology fails? What then?

Putah Creek 2
Putah Creek by flickr photographer Miwa.

You’re going to have an ecosystem out there regardless,” said Peter Moyle.  “The south Delta is a classic place. The south Delta has almost no native plants or animals in it, it seems. It’s still a reconciled ecosystem because it’s working in some respects. We can try to change it. The problem with the Delta, it’s so altered. And this gets into your definitions of trying to figure out what you do, when you get to a place on the Delta that’s so altered, can you pick and choose the species, and pick and choose the areas that you work in. The north Delta for example, the Cache Creek region, has a lot of very positive attributes … If you get more water in there especially, you are likely to have more responses from the native fish. If you tried to do that elsewhere on the Delta, you may not have those responses.

I think the the work that’s been done recently by the San Francisco Estuary Institute and others really does suggest that the Delta is just not one place, it’s multiple places,” he continued. “That’s why you have to treat each place differently as a different system and maybe have different goals for it. I know I’ve started going around your question but, it’s not an easy one to answer. Water alone is never enough.  Even in Putah Creek, water is really great the way it worked out, but water by itself was not enough. We had to have all these other things going on at the same time, but that’s what gave the motivation to make it work.”

A participant asked how agriculture intersects with reconciliation ecology.

There are groups within the larger agricultural community, such as the organic farmers and the sustainable agriculture people, Ms. Truan answered.  “I’m thinking specifically about the farm on Putah Creek, which is run by Craig McNamara and also John Anderson who runs Hedgerow Farms. These folks have taken forward thinking approaches to agriculture and have installed tailwater ponds to collect runoff, for example, to treat. They’ve installed hedgerows for wildlife values; they look at pollinator interactions between native areas and agricultural areas, and trying to limit pesticides by trying to use beneficial insects. So, there are these factions within the larger group that are becoming more vocal.”

You have to recognize that all the large landowners along the Creek are farmers and those farmers, by and large, did not start out being initially friends of the Creek, but by and large they are now,” added Mr. Moyle.  “They’re pretty responsible for what they’re doing. I think that’s sort of the evolution that’s taking place, probably as they saw the reconciliation and this idea of bringing the Creek back was not a threat but actually a positive thing, they became much more active in protecting the Creek. It was quite remarkable actually.”

Other than environmental, what other benefits or incentives did the farmers have to work with you in restoring or reconciling the ecosystem?” asked a participant.

“I could say pollinators is one,” replied Peter Moyle.

One thing that springs to mind is water rights and extractions from the creek,” added Ms. Truan.  “The people that live along the creek have various types of water rights. … A lot of the farmers do get their irrigation water from the Creek. So, one of the things that was important during the lawsuit was to guarantee those water rights from people who are maybe taking diversions that they weren’t entitled to. So, by establishing this oversight and the stream keeper and all the activities that are going on to benefit the environment and benefit wildlife, it’s also coming hand-in-hand with the guaranteed water rights and protection of people’s water rights. So, I think some of the farmers are gaining from this, some of them are not. Some of the illegal diverters are not so happy. But it’s more guarantees for all, perhaps.”

I think there is also this attitude for farmers that they want to demonstrate they’re the good guys and that agriculture is not all bad,” added Mr. Moyle.  “I know that some of them love pointing out that Swainson’s Hawks forage on their land, and especially in the alfalfa fields and things of this nature. … There are other motivations, but certainly just the fact that it’s a good thing to do is a part of it.

I think a lot of the agriculturists have a really strong land ethic and environmental ethic,” said Ms. Truan.  “They live on the land, it’s their livelihood, it’s their soul. It has to work economically, but if they can make it win-win for everybody …

Putah Creek 3
Putah Creek by flickr photographer Aidan Wakely-Mulroney

Are you at all worried that there might be a source of perversion of reconciliation ecology in the name of deriving more ecosystem services from the anthropogenic view, instead of doing it for ecosystem function and biodiversity?” asked a participant.

That is usually the way it’s stated and that is a worry,” replied Mr. Moyle.  “Say you’re doing reconciliation ecology and you don’t have a firm goal in mind of restoring native species or something like this, so, it could be abused. And that’s one of the main criticisms that Rosenzweig gets is that you’re just fighting for the developers because you’re saying that humans have to be in the landscape and that we don’t necessarily have to do large scale restoration. But the argument back is that restoration and preservation really don’t work, and so this is what we’re forced into. But, yeah, it’s a worry. I agree that you do have to be concerned about it being perverted. But reconciliation is such a great word. It’s such a positive word. Rosenzweig says himself, he worked hard finding that word and he said it’s sort of ambiguous for that reason. He hopes that good people will use it in positive ways.”

“This is sort of more of a comment, but you mentioned Putah Creek as sort of an example of what can be achieved elsewhere as a model and I think it’s also a model of sort of how science and policy can work together,” said a participant.  “Here we are in a room full of people at the dawn of their scientific careers. I just think it’s really important to point out that if you have good data, you do unimpeachable science, you can advocate for something that you want to achieve if you keep those two things separate. And that’s something that really worked here.  People in this room are probably already working throughout the state and the nation and the world, but as they do that throughout their careers, you all have an opportunity to make good things happen.”

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