Select Page

A July 10th Mercury News editorial points out Governor Newsom’s tardiness in fulfilling campaign promises to resolve conflicts over our state’s water resources. This current drought year coinciding with a recall election does seem an apt time to debate potential resolutions like the ecohydrological restoration of degraded catchments (aka watersheds) promoted by Rainfall to Groundwater.

My perspective is that I offered the Newsom administration a gift in striving to inform the California Natural Resources Agency (CNRA) about an approach that would benefit both fish and farms in my input to the agency’s Water Resilience Portfolio, completed last year. Was that “pearls before swine”? (No offense intended to the four-legged ones.)

Same result over the past decade-plus I’ve been attempting to point out the opportunities to DWR, so not much difference on that between administrations that I can tell.

One might think the state’s public input processes are just a show and they don’t actually review public input that doesn’t have political power behind it.  I have some evidence to support that in an error that remains in the final 2018 Water Plan Update, that I specifically pointed out to them in my comments on the draft.

 

CNRA Under Newsom Lacks Curiosity – Progressive?

In any case, CNRA completely overlooked even the possibility of catchment restoration as a resilience resolution, apparently not even curious about the potential for this nature-based approach I keep telling them about at every suitable opportunity.

What, not even curious about how catchment storage/ conveyance might be improved naturally??? Given California’s pressing water issues, doesn’t it seem prudent / responsible to at least consider all possibilities?

I have been participating in the current CNRA public input process on “nature-based” solutions and 30 X 30, complementing the federal initiatives, but since they’ve been ignoring my nature-based solution for over a decade, I’m pretty jaded by now, expectations are low.

And imagine my frustration during CNRA Secretary Crowfoot’s July 13th webinar on Drought when he emphasized the importance of increasing groundwater storage, as did two of his three co-presenters during closing “low hanging fruit” responses.

Secretary Crowfoot was actually among the numerous individuals I outreached to, seeking allies in 2018, while he was still with the Water Foundation. Since he assumed his present post, both the California Water Plan 2018 Update (completed in 2019) and Water Resilience Portfolio, ignored, under his watch, my input about what to me is the lowest hanging fruit of all – catchment restoration.

By catchment (watershed) restoration I mean increasing infiltration and detention storage of rainfall right where it hits the ground. And guess what? It hits the ground over a lot more uplands than falls directly on stream channels. How can that not be worth even considering???

To date it seems clear the state only considers “watersheds” with respect to fuels management and reservoirs, that is, in the context of water quality, not quantity. It’s a literally superficial attitude, considering solely surface waters.

While California likes to consider itself “progressive” and Newsom is considered progressive on social fronts, with respect to recognizing and integrating ecosystem services, his administration’s approach to water resources remains stuck in the 20th century “gearhead” era – dominated by mechanistic engineering “fixes”.

 

Salmon Temperature Thresholds to be Exceeded in 2021

As has been noted in several others’ recent blog posts and news stories, native salmon face critical high temperature thresholds this year, as the dam(s), specifically Shasta, which we’ve ironically come to rely on for the cold water salmon need, has apparently been managed without prioritizing those specific needs.

Apparently the only good option now may involve trucking the fish past the thermal barriers – talk about a backward flow of ecosystem services!  (And how does that impact our carbon footprint?)

 

Restore Catchments to Achieve Cold Baseflows

But here’s the thing – restoring the degraded catchments now clothed in nonnative annual grasses with native woody and perennial plant associations will ultimately provide alternative sources for the cold baseflows salmonids need – on all affected salmonids streams, not just the Sacramento River.

History lesson: Boys and Girls, before there were dams, baseflows served California salmon and steelhead thermal needs. So, restore the catchments that provide the baseflows and voila! Salmon and steelhead will no longer be completely dependent on humans’ prioritization of dam management objectives for the cold flows they need.

 

Degraded Catchments Impact Baseflows

Another quick history/prehistory lesson: those “golden rolling hills of California” ain’t natural. Anyone with a trained eye can pick up on this, but the vast majority of folks even reading this doubtless suffer from “plant blindness”.

I was recently reminded of that by a letter to the Los Angeles Times regarding why many Angelinos don’t even notice the faux “trees” designed to mask cell towers, whereas every one I pass causes me to wince, also true for the botanist authors of that letter.

Click image to expand

These images were taken Decemebr 16, 2019 and January 13, 2020 in an area that spans the Stanislaus and Tuolumne River watersheds.  That said, groundwater flows don’t necessary follow watershed boundaries, but those subsurface montaine flows certainly contribute to regional alluvial aquifers.

I have briefly touched on some of the background of California’s nonnative annual grasslands on blog posts #4. Think Outside the Basin and 6. Ball and Chain & Other Links and a more technical discussion is offered on the Alternate Paradigms page,California “ Grasslands” vs. Altered State(s). More will probably have to wait until I publish Rainfall to Groundwater: California and Beyond.

Suffice it to say, these nonnative annual grasslands represent degraded catchment functions – graphically summarized in the two slides at the top of the Rainfall to Groundwater Front Page and also in the 2021 Executive Summary, p. 14.

Note in the Winter graphic the indication of increased erosion on annual rangelands. Observe the historical erosion down to protruding bedrock in the below examples.

Click image to expand

But restoration of catchment functions offers promise not only for baseflow dependent salmonds, but also for farmers pumping groundwater.

The point is to restore subterranean detention storage – slowing, not stopping the progress of seasonal runoff – a strategy that really should capture more attention as counterpoint to diminishing snowpack that melts/ evaporates faster with climate change.

While the greatest expanses of nonnative annual rangelands occur in northern and central California, the exotic annuals have also been expanding in the southland, typically in response to shorter fire intervals.

 

MAR Reminiscent of Rube Goldberg, Sisyphus

To date, all the agency focus is on Managed Aquifer Recharge (MAR) a.k.a. Flood MAR and Ag MAR. As noted in my 10th post, “How Does Groundwater Get There?”, two years ago, that approach is reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine.

Bypassing all the prerequisite caveats to make that approach work that I won’t go into here, once you do apply this conveyed “excess” water to the selected site – assuming it’s not also inundated at this time of flooding – how does that limited input compare with the ongoing downdrafts of the respective aquifers by water users? ‘Seems a Sisyphean task in that context. Worth the infrastructure costs???

And it does nothing for fish, wildlife or anyone other than farmers! Maybe some drinking water supplies, depending on numerous variables.

 

Counterforce to Subsidence?

Furthermore, If amelioration of groundwater subsidence is to ever occur, it will happen more profoundly through below-ground hydrostatic pressure under the influence of gravity, within geological formations that feed those alluvial aquifers from “upstream” (subsurface), than through “point” applications to the alluvial aquifers that we are continuously drawing the most water from.

While we perceive groundwater flow as slow, especially depending on strata/ depth, flow through fractured bedrock aquifers is relatively fast, as it moves through advection, whereas flow through alluvial aquifers is slower, moving by diffusion (Ponce 2021). So inflows from bedrock aquifers into alluvial aquifers exert greater pressure than can direct percolation into alluvial aquifers.

 

Systems Thinking Would Be a Progressive Approach

Can’t anyone at CNRA recognize that they are putting all their attention on the sinks, rather than the source??? Does no one at that agency understand systems dynamics? See Reductionism vs Holism

Restore the SOURCE lands and the sinks will benefit naturally!

And Managed Aquifer Recharge is hardly a new concept. Valley Water, then Santa Clara Valley Water District, began doing it in the 1960s, as I recall. The recent permutations are just that – a “dressing up” of an old approach in new clothes. A desperate strategy in desperate times. Hardly progressive.

Degraded Rangelands – the Biggest Potential Bang of Catchment Restoration

Although there is surely a need for forest management, the most expansive degraded zones of catchments, thus the greatest opportunities for improvement, are the nonnative annual rangelands that tend to lie just upstream of over-drafted groundwater basins in northern and central California.

My take on this has always been that water users should pay for restoration and management of catchment functions, just as they have for the much more costly engineered approaches that have apparently passed their pinnacle (depending on how much taxpayers/ water users are willing to fork over for MAR).

While restoration will certainly take a community effort, I have no doubt that California rangeland managers can respond to a change in management objectives – that is, change from managing for “grass” to managing for catchment functions.

If the Newsom administration was paying attention, they would recognize this approach as a potential bargaining chip with respect to the mythical “voluntary agreements” they once touted.

Value Riparian Zones for Their Water Quantity Functions

I emphasize the degraded rangeland uplands because 1.) they are so spatially expansive and 2.) they are so far off seemingly anyone’s radar beyond my own.

But, strikingly, despite noticeable enthusiasm for the ecological values of riparian zones in the decades since popular perception switched from viewing them as water thieves, their water detention functions have gone completely overlooked in policy prescriptions.

As noted in my R2G Executive Summary, I first became aware of this oversight when I presented a poster at the 2008 CALFED Science Symposium and noticed that none of the papers or sessions on riparian zones even considered their water quantity, a.k.a. detention functions. While I’ve not really been following the Bay-Delta science since then, it’s a good guess that remains the case today.

But it’s been over three decades since the quantitative value of streambank storage was pointed out as helping to prolong the runoff season in favor of steelhead (Kondolf and colleagues 1987) and in general, in depth (Ponce 1989, Ponce and Lindquist 1990 a,b,c). Just how long does a “progressive” state need to act on vital news like this???

And, getting back to the rangelands, try to visualize the detention storage lost when rangeland riparian zones have been degraded, as is true in the examples below and far too many other cases – probably most..

Click image to expand.

Upper six photos taken December 16, 2019 in Stanislaus-Tuolumne River watershed.  The next two were taken July 14, 2021 in Merced River watershed., bottom two in Tuolumne River watershed.

 

Riparian Zones Degraded by Cumulative Human Impacts

But rangelands hold no claim on degenerate riparian zones, which occur throughout the state, degraded by an array of human land uses, including dams that change seasonal timing of flows and culminating in channelization.

As depicted in my Front Page concept drawings, many riparian zones have been artificially constricted to make more room for agricultural uses and other land development.

Mine tailings from 19th century enterprise have left bizarrely altered landscapes around gold country rivers and streams.

While out taking photos of typical rangelands the other day I was unquestionably reminded of that as I drove downstream alongside the lower Merced River between historic Merced Falls and Snelling – miles and miles of 20 to 30 foot piles of rock line the bank, while the remnants of historic floodplain forest span both sides of the road there, indicating further disturbance. Didn’t think to take photos there, but it’s hard to capture and the impacts really hit you when you keep seeing it for miles.

I imagine many folks have seen tailings along the American River near Sacramento (at Effie Yeaw Nature Center, as I recall, for one). I’ve noticed smaller patches in the mid- Merced watershed, in Moccasin Canyon in the Tuolumne watershed, and I have vague memories of them along Yuba River tributaries, maybe elsewhere, during my undergrad days at UCD. As I said, pretty much everywhere in “Gold Country”.

Several years ago, at a workshop, I talked with a chap who, as I recall, worked for California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. I can’t recall for certain now specifically which Sierra-draining stream he was working to restore habitats on, but he was dealing with seemingly hopeless mountains of mine tailings.

‘Told me he finally had to purchase sand and gravel mining equipment to process the mess. Seems to me there are so many places where this would be applicable it would be cost-effective for the state to bulk-purchase such mining equipment. And then get at it!

Remember, this is our state’s water that’s being prematurely shunted to the ocean because of degraded catchment functions.

Clearly, California has no claim to progressivism on catchment restoration. And the Newsom administration has not moved the needle on this past the point it was at in the previous, Brown administration, with its obvious, familial links to the “hydraulic brotherhood”.

Governor Newsom will likely survive the recall, and indeed this weekend the Mercury News opined that voters should reject the recall. But will this administration show the leadership on water resources their editorial last week called for by the next regular gubernatorial election?

Please download the newly updated Rainfall to Groundwater Executive Summary!

Verna Jigour, PhD.

ps.  The lightning has not been dry here today at 3500 feet in Mariposa County – we are getting poured on as I post!

pps.  It was only enough to wet the bottom of the rain gage, but still – refreshing!

ppps.  ‘Turns out the lightning that day did spark a fire on the next ridge, about a mile from here.  Firefighters got it out quickly, doubtless thanks to the downpour, which had significantly dampened the ground and plant surfaces.

References

 Jigour, V. J. 2008 (2011). Watershed Restoration for Baseflow Augmentation. Doctoral dissertation. Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences: Conservation Ecology. Union Institute and University.

Kondolf, G. M., L. M. Maloney, and J. G. Williams. 1987. Effects of bank storage and well pumping on baseflow, Carmel River, Monterey County, California. Journal of Hydrology 91:351-369.

Ponce, V. M. 1989.. Baseflow augmentation by streambank storage. Environment, Health, and Safety Report 009.4-89.13, Pacific Gas and Electric Company Department of Research and Development, San Ramon, California.   http://ponce.sdsu.edu/baseflow_augmentation.html

Ponce, V. M. and D. S. Lindquist. 1990a. Management of baseflow augmentation: a review. Water Resources Bulletin 26:259-268. http://ponce.sdsu.edu/baseflowaug259.html

Ponce, V. M. and D. S. Lindquist. 1990b. Management strategies for baseflow augmentation. Pages 391-396 in Proceedings, ASCE Hydraulics Division, International Symposium on Hydraulics/Hydrology of Arid Lands, San Diego, California. http://ponce.sdsu.edu/aridlandsbaseflowaug391.html

Ponce, V. M. and D. S. Lindquist. 1990c. Management strategies for baseflow augmentation. Pages 313-322 in Proceedings, ASCE Irrigation and Drainage Division, Watershed Management Symposium, Durango, Colorado. http://ponce.sdsu.edu/watershedplanbaseflowaug313.html

Ponce, V. M. 2021. Effect of groundwater pumping on arid vegetative ecosystems. Visualab, San Diego State University, California.
http://ponce.sdsu.edu/youvideo/video_effectgwpumping.html

 

 

 

UA-110478905-1