Californians may have felt the pinch of the ongoing drought. But native fish species face a bigger crisis: as waterways grow drier, the fish could die off from local rivers and creeks as a result. Now, Santa Clara County officials are deciding whether to hold back some water from their human customers in drought years to help the fish stay alive.
Native steelhead trout and Chinook salmon use the county’s Guadalupe River, Coyote Creek, Stevens Creek and Upper Penitencia Creek as breeding grounds. The fish are born in a river or creek, then swim out to the ocean, where they live until they return to fresh water to spawn. Each fish returns to the same river where it was born using its sense of smell, which is sharper than a dog’s. If a fish’s river goes dry, the fish — if it can’t find an alternative — would have to wait until the following year to breed.
If that happens for multiple consecutive years, it could mean drastic population drops as fish miss their opportunity to spawn. Steelhead can wait to spawn, whereas salmon only have one year during which they can breed, so multiple drought years can result in quicker population drops.
That’s where the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board is considering stepping in. In July, the board’s Environmental and Water Resources Committee recommended that during drought years, the board prioritize releasing water into rivers over non-essential human uses like watering lawns and washing cars. District staff are currently asking cities that buy their water how they feel about asking their residents to conserve extra water for the fish.
Nancy Smith, chair of the Environmental and Water Resources Committee, thinks there isn’t time to waste. “Honestly, if we can’t save our fish, I think that’s a failure of our community, because the native fish are part of our community too,” she said.
Smith says there is some dispute over whether the water board has the authority to protect the fish and is concerned that the board will ultimately scrap the plan.
The board’s lawyers interpret the water district’s District Act to mean that the board can’t embark on environmental projects unless they’re incidental parts of other projects, like flood control measures, she says. Smith and fellow committee members have challenged that assumption, but so far, they’ve gained little traction.
Meanwhile, things haven’t been looking good for Santa Clara’s steelhead and salmon populations. Water flow has fallen dramatically: during 2014’s steelhead breeding season, the Guadalupe River’s average flow was one-fifth to one-third the minimum flow the fish need to spawn, according to numbers from the water district and San Jose State University Associate Professor Jerry Smith. Recent heavy rainstorms helped boost water levels somewhat but didn’t do nearly enough to fix the problem. Likewise, steelhead populations have dropped drastically: at one monitoring site in Upper Penitencia Creek, the number of steelhead that scientists found dropped from over 70 in 2011 to zero in 2014. (Scientists only recorded one steelhead at a second monitoring site in 2014. No fish were seen at the other nine.) Smith says low flows of water can keep fish from being able to swim into rivers from the ocean to spawn and can strand them when riverbeds dry up, leaving them to die.
Scientists don’t monitor Chinook salmon populations in Santa Clara County, but the salmon and the steelhead are categorized as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
That isn’t how things used to be, said Richard Tejeda, a wildlife educator with the Guadalupe River Park Conservancy.
“Historically, we have people tell us that the salmon here [in the Guadalupe River] were so thick that you could walk on their backs, and the trout were so thick, you could walk on their backs,” Tejeda said.
Dwindling steelhead and salmon numbers aren’t only a problem for those two species themselves. They are two of the most important species in a river ecosystem, Tejeda says. That’s partly because of the fact that when salmon, and sometimes steelhead, die after spawning, their bodies provide nutrients from the ocean that wouldn’t otherwise be available in freshwater rivers. These nutrients feed not only their newly hatched young but also trees, plants and animals like foxes and hawks. What is at stake, Tejeda says, isn’t just a beautiful fish — it’s an entire ecosystem.
Besides the fact that dropping water levels can kill the fish outright, another problem is that drought conditions favor invasive fish species and make it harder for steelhead and salmon to escape their predators. Nonnative bass, carp and catfish, which the government added to the Guadalupe River in the 1930s for fishing purposes, prefer warm, stagnant water — the exact conditions droughts tend to bring about. Steelhead and salmon, on the other hand, prefer cool, flowing water: both the fish and their eggs are more likely to survive under those conditions. And the fact that the drought has made rivers and creeks shallower means that steelhead and salmon have fewer deep pools in which they can hide from predators like raccoons and bass.
The proposal before the water district board would set up a hierarchy of priorities when it comes to doling out water in drought years.
The top priority would be essential human uses, like drinking water. After that would come releasing enough water from the reservoirs into the county’s creeks and rivers to preserve native species.
The lowest priority would be less important human uses like washing cars and watering lawns. In years when conservation is needed, the first cuts would be made to this third category.
The plan may face opposition from the cities the water district serves. In an October meeting with water district staff, local water utilities expressed concern “that there was not going to be enough [water] to give to their customers given the historic drought that we’re in,” said John Tang, vice president of government relations and corporate communications with the San Jose Water Company.
Tang and representatives of other utilities said the district hasn’t told them yet how much water they would need to forgo.
Water district staff will meet with the city utilities once more before they bring the proposal back before the board, likely within three months.
Bay Area residents have already made deep cuts to the amount of water they use: new data released by the state water board say they used 15 percent less water this October than last. If those cuts aren’t enough to protect fish populations, more drastic cuts could be required of consumers in future drought years under the proposed water-use priorities.
Whether or not the board approves the current proposal, Tejeda thinks it’s important to keep native species in mind when drafting policy. Recently, during a Boys and Girls Club field trip he led to the river, Tejeda explained to the children part of the reason he was teaching them about the drought’s effect on steelhead and salmon. “In the future … you may just be the mayor of San Jose … you may be on the city council, or maybe even working for the Santa Clara Valley Water District,” he said. “It’s very important for you to be informed on what’s living in the Guadalupe River … so that if you are in that position, you can make a more educated decision about what should happen with the river.”
(Homepage photo of Chinook salmon in Lower American River courtesy of Dan Cox via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/NCTC Image Library.)