Aerial view at Lake Oroville showing low water level (drought conditions). View is of The Enterprise Bridge (Lumpkin Road) on the South Fork of the Feather River. Shot July 20, 2015 by Paul Hames/DWR Photography. *FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY *
Water management, economy, and the environment: How is California doing after four years of drought?
Dr. Jay Lund, Dr. Jeffrey Michael, and Dr. Peter Moyle discuss the drought impacts at the State of the Estuary conference
The coming El Nino has been described as “Godzilla” and ‘too big to fail’, and the weather service is predicting most of the state will get wet. However, experts have warned that even heavy precipitation this winter, while certainly helpful, won’t alleviate all of the drought conditions. As the state warily waits for winter, a panel at the State of the Estuary conference last month took a look at the impacts of the drought so far on water management and operations, the economy, the environment, and our native species.
Dr. Jay Lund, Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Davis; Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Director for Center for Business and Policy Research at the University of Pacific; and Dr. Peter Moyle, Professor and former Chair of the Department of Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology at UC Davis discuss the drought in a panel moderated by Randy Fiorini, Chair of the Delta Stewardship Council.
DR. JAY LUND: Coping with Year 4: How are we doing and what’s needed next
Dr. Jay Lund kicked off the panel with a discussion of what has been learned four years into the drought from a water management standpoint. “Heraclitus had the ultimate saying on a lot of these things: ‘You can never step into the same drought twice’” he said. “Every drought is a little different; this one is going to be warm; future ones are going to be warm as well.”
Dr. Lund then gave his main points:
1) Fourth year of drought, so far similar to droughts seen 1-2 times per generation: “I don’t think this is the 500 year drought,” he said. “Droughts are always kind of unique events … this is probably the kind of the drought we should expect to see once or twice a generation. I think it’s moving from being once in a generation to twice in a generation, which I think for institutions makes all the difference in the world – because if it’s only going to be something that happens once in your career, ‘oh the heck with it.’ But if it’s going to happen again, oh now we have to figure out how to deal with it, so I think that’s an important distinction.”
2) California is doing amazingly well, given the magnitude of the drought: “California’s doing amazing well in this drought given the magnitude of it. Coming from the East Coast, we’re pretty much set up to do droughts. We have a worst drought in California here every year then the East Coast has ever seen in geologic times, so we’re kind of set up for that.”
3) Stay between complacency and panic: “I have colleagues that panic, I have colleagues who like to be complacent, and I think they are both wrong,” he said. “If you look at the history of improvements in California water management, they come around floods, droughts, and lawsuits, so we have to take good advantage of these opportunities.”
4) Integrated portfolios are the future: “It’s not just one thing – it’s not just conservation, it’s not just new dams, it’s not just fix the Delta,” he said. “We have a lot of things to do with this system, and we have to get them all so they work together.”
5) Ecosystems (fish and forests) and agriculture most affected: “The real big issues that have been the most affected in this drought have been the ecosystems, first and foremost. Particularly the fish and the forest. Waterbirds have sort of been lucky so far in this drought. Agriculture is the next most affected.”
6) Droughts and floods remind us to change, and prepare: “It’s important to say between complacency and panic, because if you panic, you don’t usually make good decisions and if you’re complacent, you don’t usually make very good decisions, but somewhere in between is where we’re smart, usually,” he said. “Droughts and floods remind us to make changes, because we all belong to institutions, and then personally we don’t like to make changes. … Breakdowns, stresses on the system, they encourage us to move forward and get a better water system.”
Dr. Lund presented a map showing statewide precipitation. “Over historical time, this has led to this beautiful system from an engineer’s perspective of water management that really has provided an amazing water supply support for our very diverse economy,” he said.
“Agricultural water use is about 80% of human use, about 9 million acres are irrigated, about $45 billion a year,” he said. “That’s a lot of money, $45 billion a year, but that’s in the context of a $2 trillion economy, so it’s kind of amazing that this most water-dependent sector that we have is a very small part of our economy. If you were to go back to 1930s, agriculture was 30 or 40% of the state’s economy. Big difference. The structure of the economy is very important.”
We’re rich enough to want to keep fish, birds, and forests – our native ecosystems around, Dr. Lund said. “You all said you were going to be willing to pay for this, tut we really transformed this. We’ve made more changes in the native ecosystems here in 150 years than the East Coast has done in 500 years, partly because of the dry Mediterranean climate. Droughts lead to change.”
Droughts test us and spur us to progress, he said. “If you look at the history of the development of California’s economy looking at the changes in the employment sectors, droughts have really helped us alter the way we manage water over time, because it’s really the economy, stupid, that is driving most of our water use and water demand,” he said. “So as the structure of our economy changes, we change how we want to manage water, and now that we’re rich enough and not so agriculturally dependent, we’re more interested in keeping the environment around.”
Major water policy changes require droughts, floods, and lawsuits, so there are some benefit to droughts, he said. “I was showing a very accomplished Dutch engineer around the Delta last year, and he mentioned to me that in the Netherlands requires a threatening flood at least once a generation. Not a catastrophic flood like they had in the 1950s; not just a little flood, but one that gets people worried, because if you don’t have an event at least once a generation that causes people to worry, what happens to people? When was the last time you got really worried about lightning striking you? – it doesn’t happen very often. We get lazy as individuals and as institutions, we tend to defund that area, all kinds of things, so we need a little bit of excitement in our lives.”
Dr. Lund then gave the statistics. With California’s Mediterranean climate, things get wetter starting October 1st. The driest year was 1924, the next driest year was 1976-77, and last year was the 8th driest year in 106 years for the Sacramento Valley. For the San Joaquin River basin, it was drier this year than last year in terms of precipitation so it’s the third driest year of record; it’s pretty dry in the Tulare basin as well, he said.
The warmth is the big distinguishing feature of this drought, Dr. Lund said. “It’s a warm drought; we’ve got the lowest snowpack on record,” he said “Some people have tried to calculate it – this is the 500 year drought for snowpack and the 1200 year drought for soil moisture, so it’s dry and it’s hot. Reservoirs are down.”
For the agricultural sector in the Central Valley, the biggest water user in the state, surface water supplies are down about 8 or 9 MAF; of that we’re pumping about 6 MAF more, so the shortage in the reduction in deliveries is about 2.7 MAF.
“This has led, from our studies and modeling calculations, to about a $1.8 billion reduction in net revenues out of that $45 – $48 billion agricultural economy,” he said. “To me, it’s remarkable that you lose one-third of your water; fallowing is half a million acres – about 6 or 7% of that 9 million acres of irrigated agriculture, so how’s that? Because you pumped a lot of groundwater. That’s the major adaptation. 70% of adaptation to this drought in agriculture has been pumping groundwater. And you have to pay a bunch for that.”
Net revenue loss is only 3.7%, he said. “Why is that happening? Because people are smart. They are fallowing their least valuable and least profitable crops, and all kinds of adaptations along the way,” he said.
“It’s not to say there aren’t people suffering; there’s still about 10,000 to 20,000 people out there, we can argue about multipliers, but there are still people out there that would have had jobs but don’t have jobs because you can’t fallow half a million acres and not have anybody unemployed. But the remarkable thing is that the total employment in agriculture has still been growing. Again it comes back to the structure of the economy, the agricultural economy is fundamentally changing structurally to have more people, because we’re shifting to more profitable crops.”
He then presented a graph showing the cumulative acres and the cumulative jobs and revenues that come out of the different crops. “You can see about half the crops are responsible for about 85 to 90% of all the jobs and all the revenues,” he said. “We are lucky as this gives us some ability for market transfers to be very valuable as a system no matter what our water rights system is, so as long as it’s a coherent one.”
Cities have done really well in this drought, Dr. Lund pointed out. “If it wasn’t for the Governor’s declaration and the prospect of the fifth dry year, this would not be an urban drought,” he said. “The cities were very well prepared for this drought. A lot of the rural communities were having troubles anyway, and this drought really kicked them over the edge. We have a lot of adaptability in the urban sector because half of our water use in the urban sector is for lawn watering, which is a relatively low value use for most of us.”
But our ecosystems have not done so well, he noted.
We need to get serious about portfolio-based management, said Dr. Lund. “A lot of us when we talk about water supply and droughts, we get really romantic: ‘we’re going to use rain barrels’ – nah. Get serious, pencil out the numbers, see what makes sense.”
“We have a huge field experiment going on that we could have never gotten permits for,” said Dr. Lund. “It’s a big experiment, we should be able to see effects. Lots of hydrodynamic water quality effects … We have this Delta barrier. We could never have gotten permit for that. So where’s the science so far? That’s the charge to all the agencies out there. Where’s your science taking advantage of this huge experiment? We ought to have it. People are collecting data, we ought to be doing more.”
He then issued a report card.
“And for El Nino, does anybody believe it’s the great ‘wet’ hope? This is a plot of El Nino index and Sacramento River annual runoff, so it could be very wet, or maybe not … ”
DR. JEFF MICHAEL: Economic Impacts of the Drought – Fact, Fiction, and Uncertainty
Dr. Jeff Michael began by noting that he’s proud to say that he works for the University of Pacific, the only college or university located within the legal Delta. “It’s not just lines on the map,” he said. “We have actual Delta, right in the middle of the campus. That’s a picture of the Calaveras River … so you can take your fish biology class right out into the Delta without leaving campus.”
NOAA is a good place to look as they have a consistent framework of tabulating costs for disasters, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires, Dr. Michael said, presenting a slide showing the annual costs of the drought compiled from various sources. “Their estimate is about $4 billion across the western US, most of that in California, but they are calculating impacts as far west as Texas,” he said.
The impacts to California farm output is $600 million to $1.2 billion, depending on how it is modeled and counted; the figures for 2015 are higher, he said. Groundwater pumping, taken from the UC Davis study, is over $500 million. “It’s a significant cost to agriculture, and I think it’s correct for them to include that in their calculations,” he said.
Non-ag economic welfare is a difficult thing to estimate, Dr. Michael acknowledged. “What is the cost of all the dead grass out there? Maybe we’ll know more about the cost of this as we determine whether it comes back. This is one of the great mysteries of my life. I have a crunchy lawn right now, and I’m quite curious of what it’s going to look like when the drought is over, whether it will even exist, who knows. And I know there are millions of people just like me out there, because I see them.”
Hydropower losses are about $500 million. The drought has been a significant hit for tourism, primarily the ski industry, with a 30-40% decline in skier business and about $250 million in losses.
Altogether, it’s about a .1% loss in California’s gross state product, Dr. Michael said. “Early on in the drought, I put some things out there that said it could be as much as a quarter of a percent, but it looks like it’s coming in under what I projected,” he said.
Dr. Michael then presented a slide comparing different disasters by economic cost that was drawn from data within the NOAA online database. “This drought definitely registers in the billion dollar weather and climate disaster list with NOAA,” he said. He pointed out NOAA’s assessment of the cost of the 2012 US drought. “You want to talk about a drought that has economic impacts and moves markets, causes the price of food to increase, the 2012 drought that affected 10s of millions acres in the center of the country was that kind of drought.”
“One thing that stands out about our drought here in California compared to these other disasters on the NOAA website is that we probably had the most warning and time to prepare and adapt of anything on the list,” he said. “Most of these disasters, you might have a couple days before you could see them coming; the forecaster says there might be a tornado outbreak, five days before a hurricane might hit, fires, even freezes. For this drought, we have a system that is built to deal with climate variability. We see it coming a long way in advance and that’s a big reason why we might have $4 billion from a drought here and $31 billion there.”
Another interesting comparison are the different types of agricultural disasters in California, Dr. Michael said. “Freeze events that come along every so often actually have had higher economic costs than the drought on agriculture,” he said. “Those freezes, they come and they hit the high value permanent crops; farmers aren’t able to say, ‘just kill my corn with the freeze and protect my fruit’; it works the other way around. They are also sort of unexpected, so that helps put things in a bit of a perspective.”
We learned a lot from the 2009 drought, he said. “It wasn’t as severe hydrologically as this,” he said. “It was probably more severe in terms of bad news coverage and overinflated rhetoric. We’re fortunate that we have reporters around for this drought that were around for that one and learned through the process and we’re doing a lot better as a society discussing these issues this time around and in a more severe situation.”
He then presented a chart of unemployment for both Fresno and California. “Our forecasts come in a little under 10% this year, and if it does, that will be the fourth year in the past 25 years that it has single digit unemployment, so unemployment has cyclical and structural factors there,” he said. “We see Central Valley areas are actually closing the gap of unemployment that it’s had with the state of California. It’s lower now than it was during a much wetter period in the mid to late 90s.”
Dr. Michael then turned to the question, is bringing more irrigation water to a community a solution to unemployment? Using census data from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, he put together a time series for Mendota, the largest town in the Westlands Water District. Westlands was connected in 1968, but it wasn’t until the 70s when they started to receive significant deliveries which affected the economy. “You can see that unemployment has been on the steady march up; 2000 census found 32% unemployment, the highest of all of California’s nearly 500 towns during a period of pretty good water supplies. More recently, a little bit below it. So it’s undoubtedly a huge problem, but it’s not something that was just created when Judge Wanger in 2005 made a ruling about the Delta smelt.”
There are a couple of ways to approach determining the economic impacts of agriculture. Dr. Lund’s group has approached it with modeling, but there are some econometric ways to approach this, he said. A model that seems to do a pretty good job forecasting bigger changes called the SWAP model, although the employment estimates can be a little bit problematic that come out the other end.
“There are some advantages to using models for estimates,” he said. “It’s forecasting, so this is hazardous occupation, but you get an early estimate of what kind of impacts you get. You’re just changing one variable in your model which is water supply and so you’re focusing specifically on the water supply effect. Now it’s not a controlled experiment, it’s a model, so your answer might be wrong, and that’s the hazard of it. … I’ve been wrong on these things too … I think this is something that is hard to do and they are getting better at it all the time.”
There are disadvantages to using model estimates as well. “It can be hard to interpret, and it actually isn’t interpreting overall economic welfare, which I think as policy makers is where you need you keep your eye on the ball a bit more,” he said. “Let’s make sure we keep the focus on welfare.”
Another approach is to track economic indicators. Dr. Michael said he favors this approach because it uses real data. “It really does answer better, how is the sector doing, how are farmers are doing, and how are the workers doing; I think it’s important to focus on that. But the problem is that there’s a whole lot of other factors in there they aren’t controlling for – markets go up and down, and so if you look at that and say the drought has had no impact, you can have a bit of a problem.”
He then presented a graphic showing acres harvested over time in vegetable crops, fruits and nuts, and field crops. “Field crops tend to be those lower valued annual crops such as animal fodder,” he said. “Fruit and nut crops are the highest value crops and vegetables are pretty high value. So our current drought is the last data point here; we see a big decline in field crops, fruits and nuts continues to grow, vegetables are pretty much unchanged.”
“Field crops is where we see the hit; it’s where we’ve seen the hit in previous droughts, in 1991, and 2009,” he said. “As we interpret the data, it’s also important to understand sort the underlying trend in the market, which is that the field crops are on a downward slope and the fruit and nuts are on an upward slope. Now it looks like 2015 may be a milestone for agriculture – field crops harvested this year may drop below 3 million acres in California. It may be a bit more than that, but it looks like it might be less than fruit and nuts crops for the first time.”
When looking at the acreage lost, there are differences between the model estimates and the data estimates. He presented a table with the UC Davis modeled estimates and Dr. Michael’s calculations using data from USDA reports, noting that the USDA reports are issued monthly so the tabulations might change.
“The USDA acreage is showing all the decline in field crops, where the model estimate is sort of looking at the change from what would have been there were it not for the drought,” he said. “I think they might be a little bit high on these estimates, but it’s certainly within the range of reason. Overall, fallowing’s a little higher with the USDA because I think, not every acre of land is in their model, but what is left out is mostly the lower value field crops.”
Farm receipts overall increased 5% during the first year of the drought in California which is a pretty remarkable performance of economic resilience, he said. “You can see from the graph that the last five years have been some of the best five years for California agriculture that I’ve seen. The farmers were shifting into permanent crops, they make the right shift. You step right and the market steps with you and you do really well, and that’s sort of what agriculture has done. It’s growing.”
“But it probably would have been a billion dollars more without the drought – they would have grown more,” he said. “So it’s important to understand that it’s not that the drought has had no impact, but it’s also true that in terms of economic welfare, it’s a sector that’s doing very well.”
Not all the counties have their crops report out, but the Tulare basin, one of the more water troubled areas of the state, has actually seen the biggest increases in revenue. “They are 10% above the state average. The only county I’ve seen so far that’s down is in the Sacramento Valley where they’ve lost a lot of rice acreage.”
Farm employment in 2014 grew by about 4000 jobs, Dr. Michael said. “There have been real positive trends in both in employment and wages in the agricultural sector in recent years, so we’ve actually got more jobs,” he said. “The prediction from Jay’s group are a little high on the employment projections; I think some of this data has suggested that impact models can be problematic, but I’m not going to debate economic assumptions at a science conference, but the point that they would be higher if not for the drought is a valid one.”
“I would take issue dramatically with, ‘you can’t fallow 500,000 acres without increasing unemployment,’” he said. “I would say actually you can because of what unemployment is, but you can’t fallow 500,000 acres without eliminating some jobs is true.”
Dr. Michael then listed four reasons why the agriculture has been able to weather the drought so well, listing them from most important to least important:
Favorable Markets: “Markets have been great for them.”
Heavy Groundwater Withdrawals: “They have tapped into the groundwater in a huge way.”
Millions of acres of “low-value” crops are still available to be fallowed: “They are smart; they fallowed the low value crops. We’re fortunate in this state that we have millions of those available to be fallowed. Some people want to eliminate all these low value crops in this state, but I find them to be a very useful buffer in these situations, and some of them aren’t that easy to eliminate.”
State Water Board has repeatedly relaxed environmental standards to boost water supply. “The State Board has relaxed environmental standards to boost water supply; in terms of water supply for the ag sector, probably less than this, but it has helped them.”
So are these sustainable strategies for the next drought? “Jay’s group shows us great plots of where groundwater is going and we’re very concerned about that,” he said. “I just showed you a plot about where annual crops are going; I don’t think we’ve hit the point of worry about that, but if we extrapolate that trend 20 years, we’re going to have less of that buffer available as well. So I like low value crops, I don’t throw that around as an insult – we need to appreciate them.”
Dr. Michael then gave a few brief remarks about the Delta tunnels. “We learn from drought; it’s a good natural experiment. How would the state cope with a large shortage of surface water?” he said. “I hear it from the business community, they say, ‘We have to build the Delta tunnels as it’s just too risky for our water supply; we can’t take this risk if we had an earthquake and these levees collapse.’ I’m not going to argue about whether the levees are going to collapse or not, I’m just saying, what if they did. The current drought is over 10 million acre-feet loss in urban and agricultural water supplies for the state. Some of that’s north of the Delta, most of its south, so what will be our loss in surface water from this much feared Delta earthquake, with and without the tunnels?”
He presented a slide showing the predicted shortages from an earthquake in the Delta as compared to the shortages experienced from the drought. “We could quibble about the numbers, but I think those bars are about right, but the point is that this would be a bad thing economically, but the water shortage that the tunnels would save us from in this low probability earthquake event is something that we could certainly manage. If you look at the drought that we’re dealing with right now, you should have a lot of confidence in our ability to manage something like this without completely derailing the economy. … People don’t understand that because they hear the fear about the great water shortage, so I’ve tried to use the drought as a learning thing that other people can understand that we can manage water shortages.”
“There are reasons to build this project,” Dr. Michael said. “I don’t’ find them particularly compelling, but this is sort of the leading reason that you’ll hear proponents and the Governor talk about and it’s not a good reason. It’s got be based on the other ones.”
“My conclusion is California is can afford to protect fish species from extinction, and so I thank you for your attention,” Dr. Michael concluded.
DR. PETER MOYLE: Drought Impacts on Native Fishes of the Delta and Central California
Dr. Peter Moyle then picked it up from there, saying that he really appreciates Dr. Michael’s last slide, as he will be talking about the sector that received the “D” grade, as opposed to the “A” and “B” grades.
He then reviewed the basics. There are 131 species of freshwater fish in California, 79% of these fish are endemic to the state. “That means this is our problem, nobody else is going to solve this problem for us by conservation up in Alaska or someplace,” he said. Over 80% of California’s fishes are in decline.
Dr. Moyle is the lead author on for the Department of Fish and Wildlife on fish species of special concern. “That report now contains 63 species, describing why these species are in trouble and why they are in general decline, and that is on top of 30 species that are already listed under the state and federal endangered species acts,” he said. “You know how hard it is to get a species listed, but at the same time we know there are a lot of fish in trouble in the state, and this is the documentation of it.”
Dr. Moyle pointed out it’s more than just fish. “Fish get all the attention because of the court battles, but in fact, there’s a report that just came out in PLOS 1 showing that it’s the entire aquatic fauna of the state is in serious trouble.”
The fish are in trouble for five reasons, he said: competition for water, climate change, drought, habitat change, and invasive species invasions. Dr. Moyle focused on the factors related to drought, as that was the focus of the panel.
“First off is competition for water,” he said. “We are the main competitors of fish for water and we’re winning, there’s no question. Good demonstration of this is that there are these 1400 large dams in the state, and these are what catches most of the water that comes down into our streams, and takes it away from fish and delivers it to people.”
It’s the fourth year of the drought and a lot of streams are dry, he said. “It’s really dry, especially from a fish perspective because they need flowing water in the streams,” he said. “Obviously the water stored in reservoirs has fallen and that means there is less water available for releases for environmental flows below the dams. It’s also warmer which is a severe problem. And over 40% of the stream gauges in California now are recording flows that are in the lowest 10% of historic flows. The environment really is in trouble. I wish I could give the kind of report we’re getting from the ag economy, but we’re seeing just the opposite trends in our natural streams.”
Drought is really the warm up act for climate change, he said. “This is what’s going on in the streams now; we can predict more of this in the future. The rises in temperature, increases in variability in the climate, more big floods, longer droughts – this especially hits the fish really hard.”
One way to look at this is vulnerability to climate change, Dr. Moyle said. “This is a paper that came out last year in the San Francisco Estuary and Watershed Science with our analysis of what’s the future of native fishes in the Bay Area, in the estuary and in the streams feeding the estuary under climate change scenarios,” he said. “It basically suggests that 60% of these fish are facing extinction in the next 50 to 100 years if action is not taken.”
Dr. Moyle noted that the PPIC produced a report that both Dr. Lund and he were coauthors on titles, What if the drought continues? “It’s really worth reading because El Nino’s out there, but it isn’t really going to end the drought. Remember we can have an El Nino event and the next year it will be dry again.”
There are species at risk that are likely to disappear if the drought continues without specific action, Dr. Moyle said. He then discussed the case histories of three species: winter-run Chinook salmon, Delta smelt, and longfin smelt.
Winter-run Chinook salmon
Winter-run Chinook are in the news recently because of problems with the fish population in the river, but long-term population levels are at record lows, Dr. Moyle said. “Last year, virtually no wild fish survived in reproduction, and virtually all the production now of winter-run Chinook is through hatcheries and one hatchery in particular below Shasta Dam.”
A variety of factors have affected the winter-run Chinook, Dr. Moyle said. “First, the cold pool at Shasta Reservoir is small, and from a fish perspective, it’s the result of very poor management of that water,” he said. “There are some very poor conditions in the river for outmigration and rearing; there’s been no floodplains for the last four years, which as it turns out is more important to salmon than we’d ever dreamed.”
There is adult mortality, both in the fishery and from stranding, Dr. Moyle said, presenting a slide with temperature and flow graphs for below Keswick Dam from April through September of 2014. He noted that the top graph shows the temperatures, which naturally increase during the fall months when the juveniles are out.
“It’s the end of their rearing stage, but temperatures are going through the roof, much higher than these fish can withstand, given the conditions there,” he said. “But notice the bottom graph which is flows. Essentially a lot of water was released primarily for farming, but was released in the early summer months when the winter-run Chinook were moving up to spawn.”
Those higher flows essentially attracted them to this area, said Dr. Moyle. “They spawned in areas that were flooded by these higher flows – then we drop down the flows,” he said. “That’s called an ecological trap, for those of you that are into ecological literature, where you bring the fish in and then you strand their young in the gravels.”
There was a rainstorm in December which brought fish up into the Yolo Bypass and many were stranded, winter-run as well as late fall run salmon. “These precious adults are being lost due to, you could argue, due to poor management,” he said.
The Delta smelt is a species which is likely to become extinct in the wild, said Dr. Moyle. “I’m not giving up hope yet – there’s still some hope out there, but every day that goes by, that hope diminishes,” he said.
He presented graphs showing the population of Delta smelt and how the numbers that declined to record lows. “It’s one of the best studied species in the system; we have multiple studies that go on tracking their numbers and all of them show this decline, including the spring Kodiak trawl which is designed specifically to look at Delta smelt in the areas that they are spawning.”
“These small populations of Delta smelt are increasingly vulnerable to stochastic events such as a spill of some sort or a low DO event- all the kinds of things you can imagine happening in a very limited area where the smelt happen to be can be the final blow to them, so they are very vulnerable to extinction. Then the four year drought comes along, really making all conditions worse for the smelt.”
There are several likely contributing factors: further reduced food supply, microcystis blooms, reduced freshwater outflows, reduced habitat, warmer temperatures, invasive species, contaminants, and random factors, he said. “There’s probably no one thing you can point to, no legendary smoking gun … It’s a whole bunch of things working together. I’ll just mention a couple of them … ”
The Delta smelt and the longfin smelt have lost most of their habitat already. “When the 1996 report came out for the Delta native fishes recovery team, we talked about the entire Delta as habitat for these fish,” he said. “No longer. Really the only habitat left for Delta smelt is in this arc of habitat going from Suisun Marsh up into the North Delta through the Sacramento River. They are no longer present in most of the habitat where they were and that really reduces the resilience. We tend not to remember that. Memories are short, but they used to be throughout the Delta.”
The lost habitat is primarily occupied by largemouth bass, blue gill, Brazilian water weed, and other nonnative fish; it’s too warm and there isn’t enough flow through it to be good for smelt, Dr. Moyle said. “There is a freshwater population which is where a lot of people are pinning their hopes – a small population that seems to be hanging on up in the ship channel and the Lindsay slough area that may be able to sustain the fish, so especially if we get a wet winter, there’s some hope for these fish and that placement.”
The Mississippi silverside is a species which invaded the Delta in the 1970s. He presented a graph of the populations in the Suisun Marsh area, noting the steady increase in the abundance of silversides over the decades. “In recent years it dropped down, but now it’s popping up again, and it’s especially abundant in the very areas where Delta smelt are spawning,” he said. “This is a very abundant fish; it hides up in the shallow waters along the edges and it hangs out in the places where if you’re a Delta smelt, you’re likely to be spawning. This is a species which has larvae which can be very easily consumed by silversides and other predators.”
Dr. Moyle presented a graph of the abundance of the longfin smelt, and pointed out that it is also in decline. “It hasn’t gotten the attention of the Delta smelt perhaps, because it’s a state listed species, not a federal species, but the indices of this keep dropping down and down,” he said. “It’s also in severe trouble, and you can argue that this is a species which has more resiliency because it depends partly on ocean conditions, it’s mainly in the San Francisco Bay, but I wouldn’t count on that.”
He presented graphs from the Fall Midwater Trawl survey and the Winter Kodiak survey. “These are the sampling programs that are most likely to give you representation of what the longfin smelt is doing because it encompasses more marine habitats. Obviously the smelt are in extremely low numbers in these trawls. There are populations that seem to be hanging out in other parts of the bay, but this is not a species we can depend on to make it back on its own.”
Like the Delta smelt, there are numerous contributing factors to its decline, but the smaller the population is, the more random factors can play a role in extinction, he reminded. “One thing about the longfin smelt that’s quite remarkable is that they are one of the species that has a very strong relationship with Delta outflows, and we don’t completely understand why this is,” he said, presenting a graph depicting the Fall Midwater Trawl index versus freshwater outflow. “It’s pretty much a linear relationship. This shows before and after the clam invaded, which reduced the food supply. That clearly had a major effect on the population, it dropped down, but at the same time, the relationship with freshwater outflow has been maintained.”
He noted how 2014 fits in with the rest of the graph. “The very low Delta outflows that we have seen because of the drought and the heavy level of diversions suggests that the smelt has been greatly affected by the cumulative effects of drought,” he said.
The longfin smelt, the Delta smelt, and the winter-run Chinook salmon are indicators of a general decline in the fish populations, Dr. Moyle said. He presented a slide showing graphs for the pelagic organism decline species, noting that they are all in record low numbers in recent years. “There are a lot of species nobody’s paying much attention to, and most of these fish are not doing all that well in the system. They are all relatively uncommon, compared to what they used to be.”
The drought basically is making bad conditions worse, and there are numerous things out there that can affect fish populations, he said. Temperatures are warmer, there is less outflow, less dilution of contaminants, increased water clarity, and microcystis blooms. There’s an increase in invasive species abundance – Dr. Moyle noted that a lot of the non-native species that are so troublesome now either invaded or spread during the drought in the 1980s.
Dr. Moyle said that there are things we can do. “One thing we do need is a statewide strategy for protecting our native fishes as every species has its own problems and its own solutions,” he said. “I recommend looking at Managing California’s Water, it’s a book that’s published by PPIC as a start. We need to maintain a home for every species; we need to figure out what each species needs and find those places where they can persist.”
“We need environmental flows below dams,” he said. “We are not doing a very good job right now of providing flows below dams for our fish, and that’s crucial these days. That’s where most of the water is coming from that protects our fish. We are going to need to reconcile floodplains, get the Yolo Bypass and other places like this working again as habitat for fish. And we need more emergency rooms as fish are going to be experiencing drastic conditions.”
“So the basic conclusions here are that native fishes are in severe decline, climate change is making things worse, and more extinctions will happen if we don’t act fairly quickly,” Dr. Moyle said.
He then gave some parting thoughts on Delta smelt. “This coming winter may be critical for their survival,” he said. “We have to hope for a wet winter, hope is not a strategy, as Jeff Mount is fond of saying, but it is one thing that is likely to make things better for this fish is more water and cooler temperature. We need to develop some criteria for extinction for these: how do we know when the Delta smelt’s actually extinct, how do we use that captive population for recovery, how long do we keep our options open for these smelt, and if they are extinct, how long do we have to go before we say we give up on them? I hope it’s a long time, but again, hope is not a strategy.”
Randy Fiorini began the discussion period by noting that nobody mentioned Australia and the lessons learned there. “I think one of the things that occurred there over the Millennium drought was that the federal government stepped in and acknowledged they needed to enhance instream flows in support of the fisheries. They paid for water. It’s a completely different system than we have here in California. Would any of you care to comment on that as a way to try to achieve a more reliable supply for the ecosystem?”
“When the Australians were four years into their 12 year drought, they would have received the same environmental report card, but they really revamped and they came up with a strategy for picking out what they really wanted to keep, and then figured out how to invest and actively went and did it to keep those species going,” said Dr. Jay Lund.
“I did read the PPIC report that 1 million acre-feet has been reallocated to water users from the environment through temporary urgency change petitions for free, so I think the idea of paying for greater flows is great, but I think we have one million acre-feet that’s been taken for free that probably needs to be corrected first before we start talking about that as a solution,” pointed out Dr. Jeffrey Michael.
“Fish have always gotten the short end of the stick with water in California,” said Dr. Moyle. “When these big dam projects were built, at least for salmon, the fishermen were basically promised that they would be able to continue to have fisheries, so the water for the environment is not free. Water has a lot of economic value in itself, as well as aesthetic values and other things, so trying to put a price on that water is a mistake. What I think we need to do is put as much water into the environment as we can do in a balanced basis. There are ways to work these things out, but work with the water in a smart way to do it so it’s really good for fish. There are some examples of doing that right but they are all typically local examples and we need to have a statewide strategy that uses water in a smart way for the environment.”
Randy Fiorini said that one of the good things that has come from the drought is the public’s awareness of water conservation. “I fear that once the snow returns and we begin discussing the potential for floods, as we move out of this drought, there will be a snap back to traditional conditions and the way people have used water. What should we be thinking about now to instill ongoing permanent changes in the way people conserve water?”
“I think some of it will come back, and to some extent, that’s okay – our ability to adapt and change our use is how we cope with the drought events,” said Dr. Michael. “I think incentives for conservation are good. I think probably the best incentive for conservation would be better pricing of water that reflects its value and its scarcity. It doesn’t necessarily have to mean water markets; it can be different pricing in the way utilities operate, or it can mean fees and taxes like we put a price on carbon, so there’s a lot of ways to incentivize it and a lot of models that can be pursued.”
“The streams in California are a lot less resilient than the economy,” pointed out Dr. Moyle. “A lot of the streams are dry. A lot of streams that I sampled in the 70s and 80s during drought periods were flowing. These streams are dry, the fish are gone, and the fish will take a long time to come back to a lot of these streams, so we have to figure out how do we manage the environment in a way that allows some of these streams to recover their historic ecosystems.”
“For some parts of California, this drought is going to be very long-term,” said Dr. Lund. “Certainly with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, there are a lot of parts of California, particularly down in the southern part of the Central Valley that are basically going to be in a permanent drought for as long as we can imagine. We’ve got a tremendous amount of groundwater overdraft that they rely on, even in wet years, and so there’s going to be a lot of pressure on the statewide grid even coming from that, including the Delta, and including environmental flows for fish that are going to have to be made up, so the pressure is going to be on for a long time, except for unusual flood years.”
For the last question, Mr. Fiorini asked that is the biggest surprise they had observed as it relates to the drought?
“I don’t know if it’s actually a surprise or not, but it was just the sheer extent to which the streams in this state have been drying out and the extent to which the native fishes have been taking a hit in these years,” said Dr. Moyle. “I’ve certainly never seen anything like it, and I’ve been sampling these streams now for 40+ years, so the severity of the drought and the severity of the environmental problems is perhaps the biggest threat. I’m the eternal optimist, so I always expect we’re going to get some rain at the right time, and we didn’t.”
“The agriculture industry,” said Dr. Michael. “As an economist, it’s performed better than I projected over the drought, never expected an epic disaster and knew that it was very resilient, but I have to admit, even I have been surprised at some of the growth that we’ve seen in the face of the drought.”
“To me the biggest surprise is that we have groundwater legislation, and I think that’s got to be a game changer,” said Dr. Lund. “I would not have expected it from my models or time series analysis or data, so good miracles can happen. We’ll see if we can implement it.”
“I may be the only farmer in this room, and I will tell you that the groundwater legislation was twenty years overdue,” said Mr. Fiorini. “And we’re twenty years away from finding a balance but we’re headed in a better direction.”
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Maven’s Notebook remains only half-funded for the year.