Science Spotlight

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  • June 20, 2018

Birds eye view of waterways and land

Birds eye view of waterways and land masses

In the heart of California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta lies a 3,000-acre flooded island called Franks Tract.

Before humans diked and drained Franks Tract to grow potatoes, grains, asparagus and corn, the island was part of a vast freshwater marsh. Breaches in levees flooded Franks Tract in 1937, and farmers never reclaimed the island. Franks Tract today is a nexus point of many delta uses, ranging from duck hunting and bass fishing to fresh water supply for California cities and farms.

But the island is also a hot spot for invasive plants and predatory fishes, as well as a conduit for saltwater intrusion into waterways used to convey freshwater supplies to cities and agriculture in the Delta and other parts of California. For these reasons, Franks Tract is considered a strong candidate for partial restoration.

“Franks Tract is a microcosm of many of the larger problems pervading the inner Delta, said Carl Wilcox, Delta policy advisor to the director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Some native fishes are in serious decline, improving the quality of available habitat in the Delta and increasing resilience to drought and climate change could support their persistence and recovery.”

Various partners, led by CDFW, are proposing to restore about 1,000 acres of Franks Tract to tidal marsh. The proposed restoration is consistent with the Delta Smelt Resiliency Strategy, state goals for the Franks Tract State Recreation Area, and state water quality control plans for the San Francisco Estuary. The effort also aligns with the multi-agency Delta Conservation Framework and the Central Delta Corridor Partnership.

The proposed restoration could shrink waterweeds, grow fish food, create habitat for Delta smelt and other declining species, and prevent salinity intrusion into the south Delta. It may also improve recreational opportunities for residents and visitors.

Results of hydrodynamics modeling indicate the proposed restoration would provide more fresh water to the central Delta shielding regions upstream from ocean saltwater intrusion. A 2017 UC Davis survey documented year-round use of Franks Tract and surrounding channels by locals, visitors and researchers, and seasonal use by hunters, anglers and boaters. Many survey respondents were concerned about changes in access to the water and effects on the local economy and sport fishing, which is dependent on that access. The survey yielded useful information for the next, more detailed, planning and design round including a locally proposed alternative design.

“We will continue to work with stakeholders to not only address habitat and water quality priorities, but also enhance recreational and sport fishing opportunities,” Wilcox said.

A recently released report, Franks Tract Futures: Exploring Options for Multi-Benefit Restoration and Increased Resilience in the Central Delta Corridor, summarizes the technical studies and stakeholder input that’s been collected relative to the potential restoration of Franks Tract.

If approved for further development, the Franks Tract restoration proposal would enter a second phase of planning, design and environmental review with a target end date of December 2020.

CDFW Photos.

Categories: General
  • April 6, 2018

Bow of kayak floating on calm lake with foggy mountains in background
Brush habitats were created and put into Lake Perris to provide fish with habitat to feed and reproduce. The habitats will be completely submersed when the lake is filled to capacity.

Barren earth with large piles of large rocks distributed throughout
The exposed lakebed gave CDFW fisheries biologists the opportunity to safely construct different kinds of habitat for the fish in Lake Perris.

Landscape covered in gravel and piles of large rocks
Rock Reefs and Spawning gravel areas have been created and placed in more than 100 places around Lake Perris that will be utilized once the lake is returned to full capacity.

Calm lake facing a pile of large rocks partially submerged with mountains in the background
Rock Reefs constructed along the shore of Lake Perris, most about 1,000 square feet provide cover for juvenile fish and forage species.

Lake with partially submerged pile of rocks with trees and mountain in the background
135 Pipe Caves were constructed from PVC pipe and will provide spawning habitat for catfish.

Landscape of lake with overgrown vegetation in foreground, land peninsula with piles of large rocks in midground, and trees and mountains in background
Biologists created about 1,500 brush habitats in hundreds of locations on the banks of Lake Perris and in accessible locations further into the lake.

lake with partially submerged vegetation and mountain in the background
Biologists created about 1,500 brush habitats in hundreds of locations on the banks of Lake Perris and in accessible locations further into the lake.

More than a decade ago, Southern California freshwater anglers were disappointed to see a tried-and-true fishing spot dramatically affected by an emergency lake drawdown. Due to seismic concerns with the Perris Dam, California Department of Water Resources (DWR) officials deemed it necessary to reduce the water level at Lake Perris near Riverside by several thousands of acre-feet.

The drawdown exposed about 25 feet of bank around the perimeter of the lake. Since water was not going to be available for years while the dam was assessed and repaired, CDFW embarked upon a fisheries habitat mitigation project (funded by DWR) to create new fish habitat in the remaining water and the now exposed lakebed.

The project had two phases. The first was to immediately create fisheries habitat in the drawn-down portion of the lake in order to maximize use of the remaining water. The second was to build new habitats on the temporarily exposed areas, with the hope of benefitting both sport-fish species and anglers when the lake is eventually refilled. 

After 12 years, both phases are nearly completed.

After the initial water level reduction, teams from CDFW and DWR began working to prevent the immediate collapse of the lake’s fishery. The initial work, which took three years, involved the creation and placement of about 400 fish habitats made of recycled Christmas trees and citrus limbs. The man-made shelters ensured the fish would have places to hide and reproduce.

After the initial triage, CDFW biologists began to place additional habitats into the remaining water of Lake Perris. These habitats, made of thousands of tree trunks, citrus limbs and whole tree stumps would eventually give the lake’s fish an additional 1,500 refuges for safety. 

The citrus limbs were drilled with a ½” hole in the base and multiple limbs were tied together as compactly as possible and attached to a concrete block with polypropylene ropes to weigh them down. They were then placed strategically in different parts of the lake. These citrus habitats should provide cover for the warm water fish for at least 10 - 15 years.

Due to their bulk, increased buoyancy and weight, the single tree stumps were placed individually around the lake and weighted down with concrete blocks to keep them anchored.

Because the lake will be refilled to capacity once dam repairs are complete, it is important that the scientists are able to carefully track each habitat location. They worked in quadrants, placing 20 - 60 bundles into each to create “communities.” The grouped communities increase localized productivity of the warm water fish native to the lake and contribute to maintaining the warm water fisheries while the lake is in its reduced capacity. Each of the quadrant’s corners was marked with GPS, enabling scientists to record and monitor data specific to each location. 

The second phase of the project was the implementation of a Fishery Habitat Plan for the exposed lakebed above the drawn-down area. The implementation of the plan is a requirement of the Lake and Streambed Alteration Agreement between CDFW and DWR.

As with the below-water work that had already been completed, CDFW scientists carefully planned what kinds of habitat to create, what materials to use and where to place them in the open, exposed lakebed in order to provide the best environments for fish when the lake was fully restored. Areas were selected for habitat placement based on accessibility, proximity to existing natural habitat directly affected by the water reduction, avoidance of areas utilized for construction activities, distance from swimming areas and consideration of boating hazards.

Multiple types of habitats were designed and installed in Lake Perris, including:

  • Brush habitats. Similar to the citrus branch habitats already placed in phase one, these brush habitats add to the terrestrial vegetation growth that has thrived in the lakebed since initial triage efforts began in 2006.
  • Pipe caves constructed from 12” diameter PVC pipes. Approximately 4 feet long and capped at one end with concrete, these will provide spawning habitat for catfish that was lost when the lake was drawn down. A total of 135 pipe caves were placed around the rock reefs and terrestrial vegetation and will allow the young catfish to disperse into favored rearing habitat.
  • Rock reefs were created from 226 dump truck loads of material stockpiled by DWR from a nearby rock quarry. These rock piles cover about 110,000 square feet of the lakebed -- about the size of two football fields. Staff created 109 rock reefs, each about 1,000 square feet (about the size of an average home lot). These provide cover for juvenile fish and forage species (such as crayfish) as well as spawning habitat and foraging areas for adult fish. Their placement is designed to allow fish to transition from deeper waters to shallower waters -- and vice-versa -- when the lake returns to normal operating levels.
  • Spawning gravel areas. Thirty of these were created from suitable bottom composition for sunfish, bass, bluegill, etc. to spawn on and around. Almost 200,000 square feet of gravel bed habitat are now in the shallowest areas of the lake, adjacent to rock reefs or terrestrial vegetation that will be covered once the lake refills.

    After years of cooperative work Lake Perris is nearly ready to be refilled and with the thousands of new and improved habitats local anglers will be shouting “fish on” for decades to come. 

CDFW Photos. Top Photo: Citrus tree stumps, weighted down with concrete blocks to keep them anchored were placed individually around Lake Perris to create small habitats called communities.

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Categories: General
  • August 23, 2017

a California golden trout in a creek
a California golden trout in a blue net
two men carrying buckets in a vast, green mountain meadow
Three men cross a high desert on horseback under a bright blue sky
fingerling trout in a bucket with air hoses in it

Two men carry buckets through a wide valley surrounded by mountains

This summer marked the end of an incredible journey for four dozen of California’s designated state freshwater fish, the golden trout, as they returned home after 10 months away. The fish traveled more than 500 miles in tanks and buckets, by hand and by mule, en route to their native waters 9,000 feet up in the Sierra Nevada range.

The journey began last fall after CDFW scientists observed that ongoing drought conditions were severely impacting the rare trout’s mountainous habitat. A decision was made to rescue 52 fish – a representative population that could repopulate the stream and save the species if drought conditions worsened.

Golden trout are one of California’s most iconic trout species. They are native to only two stream systems in the southeast Sierra Nevada – Golden Trout Creek, and the South Fork Kern River in Tulare County. Volcanic Creek, which is home to the rescued fish, connects with Golden Trout Creek during runoff and high-water level years.

The journey began in September 2016, when fisheries biologists made the two-day trek into the mountains to gather the trout. The captured fish were transported to the American River Trout Hatchery near Sacramento, where technicians monitored them, often around the clock. After nine months at the hatchery, the fish were ready to start the long trek back to their home waters. Crew members transferred the fish from the hatchery to a fish tanker truck and hauled them more than seven hours overnight to the trailhead at an elevation of 10,000 feet in the southern Sierra.

The crew met up with a CDFW team that would escort the fish on horseback, 16 miles into the Inyo National Forest. Federal laws forbids motorized vehicles on wilderness land, which left the team no option but to transport the fish by mule train in fish cans.

The operation took tremendous teamwork from multiple divisions in CDFW and the National Forest Service. Ultimately, the CDFW team successfully returned 48 fish to their natural element. Four died in captivity over the winter. CDFW officials consider that a normal mortality rate. Scientists remain optimistic that these iconic fish will continue to thrive and perhaps even be on-track for a brighter future.

link opens in new windowSee related VIDEO.

Categories: General
  • August 8, 2017

A woman in a marsh holds a turtle
Two men in a marsh, one holds a turtle
Gloved hands hold a pond turtle with long claws
A man throws a trap into a marsh slough
A pond turtle in a marsh pond
Pond turtle's face, close-up
Gloved hands hold a pond turtle as someone neasures its height
Hands hold a six-inch pond turtle with long claws

Does the Western pond turtle (Actinemys marmorata), a freshwater species native to the Pacific Coast, hold secrets to survive climate change and adapt to rising sea levels? CDFW biologists want to know and have partnered with UC Davis and the Department of Water Resources to conduct a long-term study in Solano County’s Suisun Marsh to better understand the aquatic reptiles.

Officially, the Western pond turtle is a Species of Special Concern in California because of declining populations brought about by habitat loss, degradation and competition from that pet store favorite – the non-native, red-eared slider. The pet slider turtles are often released into the environment by their owners after outgrowing or outliving their welcome. They also outgrow and out-compete the medium-sized western pond turtles for food and critical basking spots. Western pond turtle populations are faring even worse in Oregon and Washington.

And yet in the Suisun Marsh, with its brackish water and high salinity, the Western pond turtle appears to be thriving. The Suisun Marsh, ironically, may now be home to one of the strongest populations of Western pond turtles on the West Coast.

“It’s just a really unique population in a place where we didn’t expect to see a freshwater species,” said Mickey Agha, the UC Davis Ph.D. student leading the link opens in new windowuniversity’s turtle research with Dr. Brian Todd, an associate professor in the UC Davis Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology.

As if to underscore the point, researchers this summer collected a turtle with a barnacle attached to its shell – a testament to the marine-like environment to which the Suisun Marsh turtles have adapted.

Researchers also have been impressed with the age, health and size of the individual turtles. At 1 ½ to 2 pounds and with an upper shell that stretches up to 8 inches in length, researchers are discovering some of the largest Western pond turtles ever recorded in California.

“Looking at the ones we’ve collected, we’re seeing a lot of healthy turtles in good body condition,” said Environmental Scientist Melissa Riley, who is leading CDFW’s efforts.

The research began in the summer of 2016 with scientists trying to get a basic sense of turtle population numbers. The turtles are trapped in baited, floating hoop nets, their size, weight and age recorded. Before being released, each turtle is marked by filing a unique pattern of small notches along the edges of the upper shell. More than 125 turtles have been recorded in the project’s database.

Turtle trapping is taking place on three sites at the Suisun Marsh in and around the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area. Biologists are particularly interested in turtles at the Hill Slough Wildlife Area along Grizzly Island Road as 500 acres there will soon be restored to tidal marshland. Biologists plan to affix tiny, solar-powered, GPS tracking devices to some of the turtles to study their movements and see how they respond to the increasingly saltwater environment at Hill Slough and other parts of the marsh.

“That’s one of the many questions we have,” Agha said. “If sea level rise occurs, what happens to these turtles?”

Categories: General