By Daniel Potter
As Californians look to the sky, fingers crossed for a wet winter, three brutally dry years are harming millions of animals that depend on rivers, streams and wetlands for survival.
They range from salmon and snakes, to birds that migrate from as far away as the Arctic.
For untold millions of migrating ducks and geese, California wetlands serve as a crucial rest stop along a kind of freeway known as the Pacific Flyway. Dave Shuford, senior biologist for Point Blue Conservation Science, says irrigated farmlands are also crucial.
“We’ve lost 90 percent of all the wetlands in California," Shuford says, "and these birds used to depend on that.”
In places like the Sacramento Valley, rice farmers would normally flood their fields after the harvest to break down leftover stalks. But this year, both farmers and birds have been forced to deal with less.
“They’re going to be concentrated in much smaller spaces, more likely to have disease transmission," Shuford says, "and there’s also just less food resources for them for them to overwinter.”
Already, an outbreak of botulism that officials say was exacerbated by drought has killed thousands of ducks, mostly mallards, near the Oregon border. A meager winter could also leave many birds frail as they head into next year’s breeding season.
And in the rivers and streams that lace the flyway, the drought could leave a dent in populations of salmon, according to John McManus, who heads the Golden Gate Salmon Association. That’s a coalition of fishermen, restaurants, businesses and tribes that rely on salmon for sustenance. McManus says more than 10,000 jobs in the state depend on salmon.
He paints a dire picture: salmon eggs need cold water, ideally 56 degrees or less. But the lower flows coming down the streams this year have been heated by the sun to near-fatal temperatures.
“Many of the eggs that are laid in river gravels this year are not expected to survive,” McManus says. “We expect we’ll see fewer salmon out in the ocean in a few years, when these fish would be adults.”
Trickling streams have also been unusually clear and slow-moving this year. McManus says that’s a deadly combination for baby salmon trying to dodge predators en route to the ocean.
“We don’t have high flows that are moving them rapidly,” he says. “We have very slow flows that are clear as a bell and make these salmon targets of predatory fish.”
Environmental scientist Eric Kleinfelter, of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, saw a die-off of other fish in a small pond at the Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento. Hiking through tall, bristly grass near the edge of a marsh, Kleinfelter says as water levels dropped, the pond “obviously had issues with low dissolved oxygen,” essentially suffocating the carp there.
“It was pretty dramatic. I remember looking over at that dead tree in the distance there,” he says, pointing. “There were at least 25 vultures sitting in that tree, waiting for their morning meal of carp.”
The preserve is also home to the giant garter snake, which is listed as a threatened species.
At five feet long, it’s no anaconda, but it’s plenty big as garter snakes go. And it needs water -- to find fish and frogs to eat, to hide from predators like coyotes and bobcats, and to help thermoregulate its cold-blooded body.
“They’re definitely dependent on water, which is what made this project so urgent,” Kleinfelter says.
In late summer, to help protect the rare snake, state wildlife crews actually piped in water from a nearby well. Other animals also appreciated the $72,000 delivery service.
“There were birds that were using the water there,” Kleinfelter says. “You could see animal tracks coming up to the ditch and drinking out of the ditch.”
Before and after shots of the snake marsh at Cosumnes River Preserve, south of Sacramento, where water was pumped in from a nearby well to help protect the giant garter snake. (Eric Kleinfelter/CA Department of Fish and Wildlife)
And in some places, you can actually hear the drought. Bioacoustician Bernie Krause records animals in nature. For years, he’s taken audio snapshots at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma County.
Up until recently, Krause’s recordings featured dense layers of birdsong: white-crowned sparrows, juncos, towhees and woodpeckers, all with the steady hiss of a nearby creek underneath. But in his recording from this year, the creek is absent, an uneasy silence punctuated by a few lonely chirps.
“In 2014, not only did the stream drop off,” Krause says, “but the bird density and diversity is way, way down.”
It’s a stark decline, but the number and variety of birds were already dwindling, so Krause is reluctant to pin that solely on the dry weather.
Researchers are still gathering data in the effort to assess the impact of the drought on wildlife -- so far.