From the Tuolumne to the Sea

By Maya Akkaraju

The world’s water systems — from lakes to rivers to the open ocean to the clouds — are deeply interconnected. The Tuolumne River is no different, and these connections only strengthen the case for preserving our beautiful waterway.

The Tuolumne begins in the Sierra Nevada and winds its way down to the Central Valley where it meets the San Joaquin River. From there, the San Joaquin River and the Sacramento River come together to form the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where they feed into the San Francisco Bay and out to the Pacific Ocean. These connections are crucial, and life in the watershed — including us — relies on river-to-ocean networks. The nature of this network means that protecting the Tuolumne has a bigger impact than on the river alone — it helps protect the health of the river’s wildlife and the ocean. 

The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is rich with wildlife. According to The Nature Conservancy, over 750 species of plants and animals rely on the habitats in and surrounding the estuary, including the Tuolumne’s fall-run Chinook salmon. 

After hatching in the river’s gravel beds, where the water is shallow and oxygen-rich, these salmon spend around half a year growing in floodplains (like the ones we’re helping restore at Dos Rios Ranch in Modesto). Once they become smolt, the salmon are ready to migrate out to sea. As a part of their migration, the fish utilize the brackish Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta water to acclimate to a saltwater environment before moving through the bay and out to the Pacific Ocean. 

During their life cycle, Chinook salmon play an important role in the flow of nutrients between the ocean and river. While in the ocean, salmon are a critical food source for important species, such as Orca whales. Salmon spend about two and a half years maturing in the ocean before returning to the river to breed. After making the long journey back upstream — and spawning in the Tuolumne in the fall, the male and female fish both die.

The death of adult salmon is an essential part of what makes them a keystone species in this ecosystem — they fuel the food web, supporting a multitude of species and distributing nutrients they brought back to the river from the ocean. 

When Chinook salmon die, some act as an important food source for bears and scavengers. Others are eaten by aquatic insects, which ultimately become food for the baby salmon once hatched. In this way, the lifecycle of fall-run Chinook salmon is set up in the most beneficial way possible for the propagation of their species and to continue the flow of nutrients between oceans and rivers.

Although salmon aid in nutrient flows from the ocean to the river, in many water systems nutrients primarily flow the opposite way. The nutrients that rivers deliver to oceans include nitrogen and phosphorous, both of which are commonly limited in oceanic surface waters but are necessary for the growth of phytoplankton, or microalgae. This means that when delivering nitrogen and phosphorous to the ocean, rivers are fueling the growth of microorganisms, which are the base of the ocean’s food web. Through photosynthesis, microalgae play an imperative role in sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

The delivery system of nitrogen and phosphorus from the rivers to the ocean is important. But this also means that how we treat our rivers directly impacts the health of estuaries and the sea. 

Excessive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus, or eutrophication, in our water system, can lead to the overgrowth of algae. When the algae dies, it’s broken down by decomposers. The excessive amount of algae requires more decomposers to break down, who use the ocean’s oxygen in the process. This leads to low-oxygen conditions that can suffocate fish, and create “dead zones.”  

This problem is the result of an upset in the balance of the world’s natural cycles. The issue extends from the poor treatment of our rivers that happens when we allow excessive amounts of nutrients to be carried into our waterways, from sources like agricultural fertilizer runoff and wastewater treatment facilities. While the nutrients that are naturally carried to the ocean are important, the human inputs exceed natural levels to a dangerous point.

When we opt to protect our rivers, the impacts are not isolated. Our actions towards the river ripple and spread to the ocean, and affect the entire water system and the life it supports, including yours and mine. The Tuolumne River provides our drinking water, supports wild salmon fisheries, and supports our agricultural system. In addition to all of this, it plays a role in keeping the Pacific Ocean healthy, which is why it is so important to keep it flowing. Join us in protecting our river and our ocean.

 

 

Sources:

https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/delta/

https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/2016GB005483

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28586682

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/phyto.html

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/eutrophication.html

https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/nutpollution.html

Riverside Community Work

Written by Edgar Garibay and Lauren Barnum

Modesto’s riverside communities are disproportionately burdened with environmental injustices that diminish quality of life and exacerbate socioeconomic disparities.

Simply stated, where you live determines how long you live. On average, residents in the East Central Modesto (Airport/La Loma neighborhoods) riverside communities can expect to live 5 years less than those who reside in the Southeast side (e.g. Waterford and Hughson). This is due to air quality, access, and infrastructure issues.  In the absence of sidewalks and bike lanes (active transportation) that connect residents to open spaces, schools, or stores, residents opt for sedentary activities that contribute to high rates of diabetes, obesity, and heart risks. Another contributing factor is unhealthy air quality — Stanislaus County has one of the most severe air pollution problems in California and Modesto ranks 7th in the nation for ozone pollution.

To address these environmental injustices, we have been working alongside leaders from the Airport Neighborhood and various community partners through a variety of forums that encourage and support residents as they get involved in public processes to improve their neighborhoods and quality of life.

A major victory came to fruition last year, when the Airport Neighborhood received a nearly $5 million Active Transportation grant from the State that will provide much needed sidewalks and safe bicycle and pedestrian routes in the neighborhood and the river parks. This grant also includes $500,000 for a new river pavilion, learning theater, and trail leading to the Tuolumne River.  

These types of successes in the Airport Neighborhood provide an opportunity to expand our collaborations that will bring much needed investment and positive change for riverside communities. It takes collaboration, trust, and determination to keep fighting for these victories. We could not continue this work without the many partners we work with daily, and are grateful for the foundations, businesses, organizations, and individuals that support this work.

Voluntary Agreements

By Peter Drekmeier

On December 12, 2018, the State Water Board adopted new flow standards for the lower San Joaquin River and its three major tributaries, including the Tuolumne. In the real world of competing interests for water, we were pleased the Board approved the staff recommendation of 30-50% unimpaired flow between February and June, starting at 40%. This culminated many years of hard work.

Also at the December meeting, the Water Board left the door open for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and Department of Water Resources (DWR) to continue exploring voluntary agreements (VAs) between the State, water agencies and a few environmental organizations. If the Water Board determines the VAs could achieve the environmental objectives they are obligated to enforce, they could adopt them in lieu of the unimpaired flow approach.

In March, the state agencies released a framework for the VAs that relied heavily on non-flow measures, such as habitat restoration and predator suppression. In response, TRT joined several other environmental and fishing groups in releasing an analysis of the proposal. Among other things, we found that the VAs:

  • Double-count habitat restoration projects that are already required or planned using existing funds.
  • Fail to provide sufficient flow increases to protect and restore the Bay-Delta estuary.
  • Fail to include restrictions on Delta pumping that are necessary to prevent the Central Valley Project and State Water Project from diverting additional flows from the San Joaquin’s tributaries.
  • Fail to include investments in water supply reliability that would help cities and farms adapt to a future with less water diverted from the Bay-Delta estuary.

To read the NGO analysis, type “Smoke and Mirrors” in the search bar on our website. 

The VA proposal for the Tuolumne relies heavily on the suppression of non-native predators, such as bass. However, in licensing proceedings for Don Pedro and La Grange Dams – which are happening in parallel with the Bay Delta Plan – the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission determined, “We do not recommend the permanent barrier/counting weir or implementing a predator control and suppression plan because they would not likely be effective and could have adverse effects on federally listed steelhead. Similar predator removal efforts by the California Department of Water Resources did not noticeably reduce salmon mortality, and the permanent barrier/counting weir could act as a migration barrier to salmonids.”

Clearly, a lot more work needs to be done.

From The Desk Of The Executive Director

By Patrick Koepele

As I reflect on the progress TRT has made since its founding in 1981, I see wonderful people dedicated to ensuring that the Tuolumne River remains healthy with abundant fish and wildlife; and a river that is able to provide unique recreational experiences to diverse communities. As a world-class river that transects world-class regions from the sublime wilderness of Yosemite to the most dynamic and productive farmland in the Central Valley, to the world’s tech-hub in the San Francisco Bay Area, this river binds us together despite our differences.

TRT has been working hard to engage communities across this landscape in river stewardship. One such group are residents of riverside communities in Modesto, including the Airport Neighborhood, South Modesto, and West Modesto. These are the people who live closest to the river and, arguably, have most to benefit from its health. Despite their physical proximity to the river, these communities have not been well-represented in discussions about river protection and restoration. We have been working tirelessly for more than 10 years to change that dynamic.

In 2005, TRT commissioned a focus group of residents of these neighborhoods to better understand their views of the Tuolumne River and how they feel connected or disconnected from it. While many participants in the focus groups described the river as a dangerous place, most could envision it becoming a vibrant and important focal point for the community, given enough time and care.

A walkable and bikeable trail system has been constructed from Gateway Park to Carpenter Road. Dennett Dam has been removed. And importantly, residents from these neighborhoods are speaking up in support of the river! They have argued for better parks, improved sidewalks, and bike lanes to connect to the park, and better policies to care for the river through the Bay Delta and dam relicensing proceedings.

We believe that these neighborhoods have a symbiotic relationship with the river: the health of one depends on the health of the other. Thus, we must continue to bridge the connection between residents of riverside neighborhoods and the river and its parks. As the river and its parks improve, residents will have better places to enjoy with their families and friends. As the neighborhoods improve, safety and other concerns will subside. Not to mention youth from these neighborhoods are becoming tomorrow’s river stewards and protectors by engaging in this work through our various programs.

Fast-forward to today and, thanks to TRT supporters like you, we see a river and neighborhoods that are changing. Monthly river cleanups by volunteers and local businesses are encouraging citizen stewardship through the Adopt-Our-River program.

We look forward to strengthening this work – it’s essential for the health of the river and our communities. I hope you’ll join us at a river cleanup, tree planting workday, or for a bike ride along the beautiful Tuolumne River to see how far we’ve come!

Smoke And Mirrors

Voluntary Agreements Purport to Add Water and Habitat, But Might Actually Worsen Conditions for the Bay-Delta Estuary, Rivers, and Native Fish and Wildlife

California’s Bay-Delta estuary is in crisis. Climate change and unsustainable water diversions from the watershed are leading toward the extinction of winter-run Chinook salmon, Delta Smelt, orcas, and other endangered species. This crisis threatens thousands of fishing jobs and decreases water supply reliability. The best available science makes clear that significant increases in water flowing into and through the Delta in most years are necessary to restore our native fish and wildlife. The time to act is now.

Saving the Delta will require a Portfolio Approach that pairs state investments in new water supply projects outside of the Delta to improve water supply reliability, floodplain habitat restoration projects, and significant increases in flow through the estuary and into San Francisco Bay. Many environmental and fishing organizations believe that voluntary agreements (VA’s) can be effective tools to implement new water quality standards and help restore the Bay-Delta. But any durable solution, regulatory or voluntary, must be supported by scientifically credible analysis that it will prevent extinction and achieve the salmon doubling objective required by state and federal law. The VA’s outlined by the Brown Administration in December 2018, and the additional partial project descriptions presented to state regulators on March 1, 2019, purport to be a package of flows, habitat and other measures that will protect the estuary without the need for new regulations.

Unfortunately, these VA’s will not protect and restore the Delta. Our organizations strongly oppose these VA outlines because they:

1. Double-count habitat restoration projects that are already required or planned using existing funds, and that would occur without such an agreement;

2. Fail to provide sufficient flow increases to protect and restore the Bay-Delta estuary, its native fish and wildlife, and the thousands of jobs that depend on it;

3. Fail to include any restrictions on Delta pumping and other operations of the Central Valley Project (CVP) and State Water Project (SWP); such restrictions are necessary to prevent the water projects from diverting any additional flow provided from upstream farms and cities and to prevent the Trump Administration from gutting Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the Bay-Delta;

4. Fail to include carryover storage requirements in upstream reservoirs to ensure water supplies for future droughts and adequate water temperatures for salmon;

5. Fail to use the transparent approach of flow standards based on a percentage of unimpaired flows, and instead uses the failed approach of State Water Board Decision 1641;

6. Fail to ensure that Bay-Delta standards will be enforced and will respond to new scientific information; and

7. Fail to include investments in water supply reliability and economic development projects that will help cities and farms adapt to a future with less water diverted from the Bay-Delta.

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