Why I Do What I Do

They say a picture is worth a 1,000 words. This one speaks paragraphs to me but you may require more explanation.

Experimental fish ponds at Knaggs Ranch,Yolo Bypass

There are the experimental fish ponds at Knaggs Ranch in the Yolo Bypass just on the other side of the Sacramento River from the Sacramento International Airport.In the winter these ponds host salmon fry from the Feather River fish hatchery for about 6 weeks as part of an experiment to see how fish will benefit from floodplain habitat. Multiple state and federal agencies cooperate with the rice farmer, John Brennan, and UC Davis Watershed Sciences Center.  I coordinate the public outreach for the project and it is a huge dose of medicine when I can get out there for a couple of hours. It reminds me why I do what I do.

I can imagine what this flood control bypass will look like when the Bay Delta Conservation Plan moves forward and up to 10,000 acres of floodplain are seasonally flooded (with cooperation from the farmers) for native fish--mainly salmon.  It restores a critical habitat for their life cycle that has been obliterated until now.  And it will build some resiliency into the system so the salmon have a better chance of coping with climate change.

Floodplain fatties on the right.

We call them floodplain fatties. The salmon on the right have spent 6 weeks eating zooplankton 24/7. This food is abundant just by holding it in the ponds for a short period. The fish in these experiments (this is year 3) have set new records for weight gain. As a fish biologist with Cal Trout Jacob Katz says, "They are packing a lunch for their trip to the ocean." And they are delaying their arrival in the Pacific to a time when the ocean is ready to provide more food.

It is an honor to be part of this team. I can hardly believe I get paid to do this work!

Satisfying Work

One of my work assignments for my client Metropolitan Water District is to coordinate the outreach and tours for the Nigiri Project.  This is a multi-year experiment to reintroduce salmon fry to seasonal floodplain habitat to measure the benefit.  I am not a scientist, yet I can see with my own eyes, the amazing growth of the fish (especially compared to fish in the river).  It is exciting to be a part of a project that will prove instrumental if we are going to maintain native salmon runs on the Sacramento River.  That feels good. PIT tags in salmon help scientists track the preferred habitat using the same technology as Fastrak

Surrogate wetlands, aka rice fields, provide seasonal floodplain for fish

In California, 95% of the seasonal floodplain that was once available to salmon fry migrating from spawning beds to the ocean is gone due to our hyper-efficient flood control infrastructure.  The historic floodplains provided a relatively predator-free place for small fish to hang out, gain weight, and delay entering the ocean until the upswelling off the Farallon Islands starts the food production cycle for which Coastal California is famous. The bypass system that planners created to deal with frequent flooding can be reconnected to fish and reestablished in their migratory patterns for better fish survival.  Currently the fish start their migration without any energy reserves, entering the fire hose of the Sacramento River, shooting into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta where invasive species (bass) are waiting to eat them, and then entering the ocean before the food supply is activated.  It is not too hard to see why the species is declining.

A part of this project that I also love is that a farm manager, John Brennan, is a key partner and committed to finding a way to make this work with rice production.  It is essential that we find a way to make it compatible with agricultural production. John's vision is that it will be another source of income that will help keep agriculture in our floodplains.  Agriculture is the most effective way to keep the bypass free of trees and other obstructions to flood waters. He points to the partnership between Audubon and Point Reyes Bird Observatory with rice farmers to provide waterbird habitat.  John believes that fish can become part of this mix.

This year the fish have grown like gangbusters: twice as fast as last year.  The warm weather has boosted food production and consequently the fish are already the size in 3 weeks that there were after 6 weeks in 2012.  Pilot 2 - Growth 22 days (1)

I am coordinating the tours--so far over 70 people have visited the site.  We have one more week of tours and then the fish will begin to be measured, counted and released. We will have one more media day coordinated by UC Davis Watershed Science Center and Department of Water Resources.  And then sigh of satisfaction.