Fish Out of Water

Scary-low snowpack may spell disaster for some California wildlife and ecosystems.

Photo: Peter B Moyle

Peter Moyle was filled with trepidation as he set out in the Sierra Nevada foothills late last summer. The University of California, Davis fish biologist was on the hunt for the Red Hills roach, an endangered minnow that lives only in a single small stream near the western border of Yosemite National Park. Entire stretches of Horton Creek had been bone-dry for months, and Moyle worried that the species might have gone extinct. 

He was surprised and relieved to find a nearly 800-foot-long stretch of creek burbling with water and a thousand lucky minnows.

“The tiny springs that feed the creek must have a deep source of water to keep flowing under such dry conditions,” says Moyle, who’s planning to make a return trip this summer—and already preparing for a less-than-happy outcome. “This year conditions are likely to be worse.”

He’s got every reason to believe so. Springs are recharged by surface water, and that’s in especially short supply, as California enters its fourth year of drought. As of April 1, the state’s snowpack is a scary-low 5 percent of normal, and only the highest of the normally white-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada have even a dusting. In “normal” years, the snowpack supplies some 30 percent of California’s water.

Photo: Peter B Moyle

“We're not only setting a new low; we're completely obliterating the previous record,” said Dave Rizzardo, chief of the California Department of Water Resources snow surveys section, during a news conference on Wednesday. The dire situation spurred Governor Jerry Brown to announce a sweeping executive order that requires, for the first time, towns to cut water use by 25 percent, and also that groundwater removal be monitored. (About time.)

The previous low record, 25 percent of the average, was set during a drought in 1977, with a repeat performance last year. The state officially began tracking snowpack in 1950, but Rizzardo said some records go back to 1909.

The one bright spot was two winter storms, in December and February. The precipitation fell as rain instead of snow because it was so warm, but it did help replenish northern California’s Shasta reservoir, the largest in the state. “That’s saving us a little bit,” said Rizzardo. But reservoirs to the south didn’t benefit from a similar influx.

“The drought is already having far-reaching effects that will intensify over coming months,” said Heather Cooley, director of the water program at the Pacific Institute. “In rural areas, conditions are so bad that communities are in danger of running out of water, or they already have.”

The dwindling snowpack doesn’t bode well for wildlife or ecosystems, either. Smelt numbers are already dangerously low in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, where the fish are considered an indicator species that reflect the health of the watershed at large. The combination of drought and warmer waters will make life even more difficult for already suffering salmon. And to save California’s only native freshwater turtle from dehydration and starvation, scientists have brought dozens of southwestern pond turtles into captivity.

Photo: Peter B MoyleThe Red Hill roach.

On land, extended dry conditions are bringing rattlesnakes and bears out of hibernation early and into contact with people more often—which doesn’t bode well for any of the parties involved.

And let’s not forget that drought can also bring fire. In the Sierra Nevada, stressed trees are easy target for pine beetles, which can kill large stands and create enormous amounts of kindling. As Cooley points out, concerns about wildfire are at an all-time high, and firefighters began training this week, two months ahead of schedule. He’s concerned that the coming blazes might make their way into sensitive areas like wetlands that have already gone dry.

Without water to power hydroelectric facilities, California will also probably also spew more emissions from energy generation. Hydropower production over the last three years has comprised less than 12 percent of the state’s energy, compared to 18 percent in normal years. According to the Pacific Institute, burning more natural gas to make up the difference led to an 8 percent rise in CO2 emissions from the state’s power plants.

Given everything that’s at stake, experts say it’s time to buckle down and make serious changes to water management. Some are already underway, with farmers slowly switching to less water-intensive irrigation (agriculture draws a whopping 80 percent of California’s water), municipalities investing in recycling and desalination programs, and more financial incentives to replace thirsty lawns with drought-resistant landscaping.

And there are a growing number of efforts to ensure aquatic ecosystems don’t go dry. Winegrowers in Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley have teamed up with the Nature Conservancy to make more informed decisions about pulling water from the Navarro River, an essential waterway for coho salmon and steelhead trout. Wildlife managers are also teaming up with rice growers to restore floodplains along the Sacramento River to give dwindling Chinook salmon a boost.

“We need to recognize that things are different now,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. He and colleagues reported last month that climate change is making the drought situation worse by causing warm and dry periods to overlap more often. Another study earlier this year found that California is one of several Southwest states poised to endure a megadrought starting this century, unless global greenhouse gas emissions drop.

In this dry new world, as early as this year, “we will experience extinction events for some species,” said Brian Stranko, California water program director at the Nature Conservancy, at a press conference on Thursday.

The Red Hills roach could be the first to blink out, which would make it the first fish to go extinct in the state since the High Rock Spring tui chub disappeared in 1989. All Moyle, the UC Davis fish biologist, can do is wait and see. “We don’t know if the spring will keep flowing this summer or not.” 


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Join Us