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Future of Water: California conservationists forced to choose between habitats, species

Series: Future of Water

KPCC's Future of Water series looks at how California's relationship to water is likely to change in the hotter, drier, more populous state of the year 2040.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #CAwater2040.

Nick Stanley drove through the Kern Wildlife Refuge in early September, cruising slowly over the gravel track so that his tires wouldn’t kick up too much dust. Dry conditions reigned.

Stanley, the project leader at Kern, has had to delay releasing water into the man-made wetlands -- essentially a patchwork of berms and basins --  for two months now due to the drought. For the second year in a row, he has had to make do with just 65 percent of the water this critical stopover for migrating waterfowl typically gets.

At this time of year, the refuge is usually alive with ducks such as northern pintails, green-winged teals and mallards.  

“None of the birds are here now, because we’re dry," he said. "That’s an effect of the drought. We’re just not supplying any habitat right now.” 

Kern's strategy to stretch water resources reflects wider woes. The drought is forcing California wildlife managers, researchers and conservationists to shift species protection strategies.

With a warmer and drier climate expected in the future, those strategies — often developed when cooler, wetter conditions were the norm — are giving a glimpse of what conservation will be like going forward.

Choosing between critical habitats

Right: Kern National Wildlife Refuge in January 2012 when the refuge was was receiving 100 percent of its allocated water. At left: The same area in January 2015, when it was down to 65 percent. 

Not only has the Kern Wildlife Refuge had to shorten its wetlands season, managers have had to pick and choose which areas to flood.

Stanley and his staff have used some water to irrigate basins to grow plants for migrating ducks to feed on. At some point in October, he'll flood those basins. To pick precisely when, Stanley consultants regularly with managers at other refuges further north along the Pacific Flyway. Once the leading of edge of the migration hits, he'll open his taps -- but not a day sooner.

“What this drought has done is it’s brought us together to try to communicate as a whole on what they’re doing in the Sacramento Valley, what they’re doing in central, southern San Joaquin Valley and then what we’re doing down here,” he said.

Nick Stanley, project leader at the Kern National Wildlife Refuge Complex, stands in an area that is normally  irrigated to encourage the growth of swamp timothy, a major food source for birds that visit the refuge. (Susanica Tam/KPCC) 

The San Joaquin Valley was once a vast wetlands area, but those lands have been drained to make way for agriculture and development. Kern Wildlife Refuge sits in the southern end of what was once Tulare Lake. It is the southernmost in a chain of refuges for migrating waterfowl in California. 

It also provides essential habitat for other wildlife, including the tricolored blackbird. Once one of the most common birds in California, the species has dwindled from millions to a population of about 145,000 in 2014. 

A tricolored blackbird. (Marcel Holyoak / Flickr Creative Commons)

“If we don’t continue to provide habitat for the tricolor blackbirds, then that is a bird that’s at risk of going extinct,” said Andrea Jones, director of bird conservation for Audubon California. 

Jones said Audubon scientists have estimated that about half of North American bird species will be at risk of extinction by 2080, as a result of habitat loss and climate change. She said researchers are working to determine which areas will be most used by species and thus most important to conserve. 

Jones said refuges are low on the priority list to receive water but play a pivotal role for migrating birds.

"They’re stopping in here to gather their resources, rest, eat, gather fat resources and then continue on their journeys," Jones said. "So without these refuges, there would be a huge piece of the chain missing in the Pacific flyway.”

Even so, problems occur as refuges' water supplies dwindle and habitats shrink.

“You get a lot of crowding. So a refuge that is still getting some water — the birds are crowding in there, and then you have disease outbreaks,” she said.

Creating artificial habitats

As suitable habitat has dwindled, conservation groups have worked to provide alternative nesting and feeding spots for birds. Some have paid rice farmers to keep their fields flooded long enough to last through nesting seasons for different species. 

Those artificial wetlands are at risk from the costs associated with providing water, however. Many rice farmers are choosing to fallow their lands. In its 2015 rice harvest statement, the California Rice Commission said this year's crop would be the lowest since the early 1990s. 

Holiday Lake, in the western part of the Antelope Valley, isn't a rice field, but it has become a regular breeding spot for tricolored blackbirds. The recreational lake is filled by groundwater pumped by the West Valley Water District. Scott Harris, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said spots like these have become critical habitats for threatened species. 

“In some years, this pond has produced the largest number of tricolored blackbirds for the whole Southern California population, which isn’t saying much. You’re talking about a few hundred to a few thousand birds out here," Harris said.

Holiday Lake in the Antelope Valley is a manmade recreational watering hole, fed by pumped groundwater. It has become important habitat for Tricolored blackbirds, which nest in the reeds. (Jed Kim/KPCC)

This year, the water district was unsure it would be able to handle the cost of pumping the water. Harris said conservation groups had to fundraise to cover the $10,000 bill. Harris said it's unclear such a strategy can work over the long haul. He said the future viability of the site as blackbird habitat will depend on guaranteeing a continued source of water for it.

“I’m an optimist. I’ve been coming here for the last 15 years. So they’re still here, and this hasn’t changed appreciably. So I’m hoping that there’ll be more of a willingness on the public and resource agencies to protect these kinds of places,” Harris said.

Changing thinking

Along with securing water and strategizing how best to utilize it, experts said successful conservation will depend on setting aside lands that connect a variety of habitat types. 

“We have designed our conservation strategy in terms of preserves, networks of preserves and corridors between preserves based on today’s world. And what we’re finding in many cases that the animals and plants that we think we’re protecting today may need to shift to other areas, may need to move up mountains, may need to move further north," said Cameron Barrows, a research ecologist with the Center for Conservation Biology's Desert Studies Initiative at UC Riverside.

"Unless we have thought that through very carefully, we may not have created the opportunities for them to do those shifts," he added. "And so sometimes the protections that we do today are not going to be good enough for the future.” 

As climate and habitats change, species that are not currently threatened could be at risk, especially ones that cannot readily move.

Barrows said the pinyon pine is seeing declines because of increased wildfires and warmer winters that are no longer controlling pest beetles. 

"We don’t want this species in particular to be lost, but this is one that seems to be at one of the greatest risks of what we’re seeing so far,” Barrows said. “In the future, as the Pinyons become more and more restricted, we will probably see [threatened species] petitions for things like the Pinyon jay and Clarks nut cracker and some of the other birds that really tend to focus on Pinyons as one of their primary food sources.”

Saying goodbye to some species

Scientists have set up a temporary sanctuary for western pond turtles in the Santa Monica Mountains. (Jed Kim/KPCC)

The fight to preserve biodiversity in the future could be overwhelming. About 80 percent of California's freshwater fish are either already extinct or threatened with extinction if trends continue. Conservationists who are already having to go to extraordinary lengths to save species from the drought are getting a clearer picture of the effort future work could entail. 

The western pond turtle is the only turtle native to the West Coast, but its numbers have taken a big hit during the drought. Low levels of water in ponds have made their food more scarce and the turtles easier targets for predators.

"The population as a whole in Southern California is in very dire straits. From the Ventura County line to the Mexican border, there’s estimated to be somewhere between five and 15 populations remaining, and each one of these populations is very small,” said Rosi Dagit, a senior conservation biologist for the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Dagit monitors a population of 300 tagged turtles. Fifty of the individuals died last year. Last summer, in an effort to save the population, she organized volunteers to hand-carry 200 gallons of water each week for months up to some of the turtles' smaller pools. She had previously tried filling their main pool using 20,000 gallons donated by firefighters as part of a training exercise. That water quickly disappeared into the parched aquifer beneath the pond. 

She said those efforts weren't sustainable strategies. This year, she set up a couple of makeshift sanctuary pools for the remaining turtles, designed both to keep predators from getting at them and to keep the turtles from wandering out. She'll keep the turtles in the pools until sufficient rain returns. It's a strategy she wishes she didn't have to take.

“I think the best strategy would be to try to keep these species going in their own environments and support those environments as best we can, rather than taking them out of those environments,” Dagit said.

She said captivity, even temporary, raises issues of cost and the appropriateness of sustaining a population outside of its natural environment. 

“In the bigger picture, with climate change and drought coming our way, I think these are really hard questions that we, as a society, have not spent any time thinking about how we want to answer them. And doing this kind of reactive, emergency, oh my gosh the turtles are going to disappear if we don’t do something right now, today, is not quite as good an idea as sort of planning ahead,” Dagit said.

Even so, she said she was grateful a private property owner was willing to volunteer a portion of land to house the turtles. The parcel has the benefit of a pool already naturally utilized by the turtles as well as a source of water, should levels dip too low. An electric fence surrounds the pool, protecting it from raccoons and other predators. 

Dagit said such a find was lucky and that it put off having to make the decision of whether the effort to save the population was feasible. She said many similar decisions will have to be made with other species as California's climate changes. 

"It may be that there are places that we don’t, where they blink out, and where we can’t support them anymore. How sad would that be? It just makes me so depressed," she said.

A partial list of California species threatened with extinction

Below is a partial list of animals thought to be particularly at risk of extinction if drought conditions persist in the state. You can find a full list of threatened and endangered species in California at the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife's website

Endangered animal Habitat location More info
Amargosa Vole Mojave Desert Calif. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife 
Cascades Frog Northern California Calif. Herps 
Central coast coho salmon Central Coast US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Central Coast steelhead Central Coast National Oceanic & Atmospheric Admin.
Central Valley late fall Chinook salmon Central Valley US Fish & Wildlife Service
Central Valley spring Chinook salmon Central Valley US Fish & Wildlife Service
Central Valley winter Chinook salmon Central Valley US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Clear Lake hitch Sacramento Center for Biological Diversity 
Delta smelt Central Valley US Fish & Wildlife Service  
Eulachon North Coast and Klamath National Oceanic & Atmospheric Admin. 
Giant Garter Snake North Coast, Central Valley Calif. Herps 
Giant Kangaroo Rat Central Valley US Fish & Wildlife Service
Goose Lake red-band trout Northern California California Trout 
Jemez Mountains salamander Jemez Mountains US Fish & Wildlife Service   
Klamath Mountains Province summer steelhead Klamath US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Klamath-Trinity Chinook salmon Klamath California Trout 
Little Kern golden trout Kern County Calif. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife
Long Valley speckled dace Owens Valley US Fish & Wildlife Service  
Lost River sucker Klamath US Fish & Wildlife Service   
McCloud River redband trout Central Valley US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Northern California coast summer steelhead North Coast US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Quino checkerspot butterfly San Diego and Riverside Counties US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Red Hills roach (fish) Central Valley Calif. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife  
Sacramento perch Northern California UC Davis
San Joaquin Kit Fox Central Valley, Northern California Defenders of Wildlife 
San Joaquin Valley steelhead San Joaquin Valley State Water Resources Control Board 
Santa Ana speckled dace South Coast US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Santa Ana sucker South Coast US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Santa Cruz Long-toed Salamander North Coast US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Shay Creek stickleback Sacramento area UC Davis
Shortnose sucker Klamath US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frog Sierra Nevada mountains US Fish & Wildlife Service 
South-Central coast steelhead South Coast National Oceanic & Atmospheric Admin. 
Southern California steelhead South Coast Center for Biological Diversity 
Southern Mountain Yellow-legged Frog Central Valley, South Coast US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Southern Oregon Northern California Coast coho salmon North Coast and Klamath US Fish & Wildlife Service 
Unarmored threespine stickleback South Coast US Fish & Wildlife Service
Upper Klamath-Trinity spring Chinook salmon Klamath US Fish & Wildlife Service
Western Pond Turtle Statewide US Fish & Wildlife Service 

Source: The above list comes courtesy of the California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, the Public Policy Institute of California and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This story has been updated