Monday morning my Ocean Conservancy calendar proclaimed that today is World Water Day. A quick peek at Wikipedia reveals that WWD on March 22 every year was established by the United Nations for the purpose of using the day to “…advocate for the sustainable management of freshwater resources.” Each year has a different themed focus and if one is to remember that coronavirus was probably not an issue when the UNers came up with a 2020 theme you might be able to guess what it is. Think of the one major existential challenge, crisis, threat facing both our planet Earth and humanity itself today. Got it? The 2020 World Water Day theme is “Water and Climate Change” and it is intended to point out how the “… two issues are inextricably linked”. Beside Wikipedia there is a United Nations WWD website which encourages with linked illustrations on how to “Learn – Share – Act” concerning fresh water’s relationship to Climate Change. As an add on bow to Covid-19, directions on how to wash your hands properly is provided.
Here in Anderson Valley Climate Change has expressed itself in ongoing drought like conditions for at least the past eight years which is documented by USGS recorded flow rates for the Navarro River. As I write the USGS puts the River’s cubic feet per second (cfs) at 58.6 cfs .4 cfs below the 1988 record low of 59 cfs. That would have the Navarro River of Mar. 22, 2020 setting a new record in the 69 years on record. Just for comparison the median value is 419 cfs and the average is 1000 cfs.
Since the river is kept flowing in the absence of rain by groundwater springs, low river flows are an indication groundwater levels – low river, low water tables (plural because there are myriad water tables in the Navarro River watershed and basin, not one single aquifer). Back in the early days of the 21st century domestic wells scattered throughout the Valley were experiencing unusual outages. People were reporting not being able to take a complete shower after coming home from a hard day’s work. The Pic-N-Pay laundry shut down for lack of water. And the famed Valley Boontlinger and water witcher Bobby Glover, aka Chipmunk, declared that he had to agree with the voices challenging the invasive wine industry’s wanton use of that sacred element because his long standing well had begun running dry.
I haven’t heard much about problems with domestic wells but it is obvious that the fish in the river are being challenged. All indigenous fish are important to a balanced ecology but in the Navarro River the two big ones steelhead and salmon are most studied – both are listed under the Endangered Species Act. Salmon are rare and truly Endangered. Steelhead while a bit more abundant are still very much Threatened. Both species are anadromous meaning that they annually enter the river from the ocean to spawn and then return to the ocean. For most of us humans it is always an exciting experience to see these big fish in the river and streams. When the river flows low and the finicky river mouth is closed due to a sand bar, fish conscious observers get anxious and when the fish do show up and they want to keep it hush-hush so that the poachers won’t set out upon them. But the truth is that the poachers know far more about the habits and presence of these marvelous swimmers than just about anybody. And besides we have a local F&W warden who keeps a pretty good eye out for shenanigans.
About four weeks ago gatherings of steelhead began showing up in several pools along the upper Navarro River. Apparently the low water conditions held them for three weeks just hanging out waiting for more rain before completing their journeys up the streams to their spawning grounds. Because steelhead can make the ocean-river spawning runs seven times or more during their lives they are unwilling to beat themselves up too much over extra shallow riffles so they wait and maybe even pray for more rain and better conditions. The small amount of rain over the March 14-15 weekend brought the river flow up a tad on Monday and, voila, on inspection the Steelhead in my neck of the river were gone. The question was, since the rise in river flow was not that exciting, did they head upstream or make a dash downstream to try to gain safety in the ocean before low flow and rising temperatures make the river unsurvivable?
On the third day after their disappearance there again in the upper most pool of the Navarro River maybe 45 more large steelhead. Wow! I decided to walk up Rancheria Creek to see what might be found. The trek was rewarding and enlightening. Upstream there were now big steelhead where they had not been two weeks before but instead of being in big schools they had mostly paired up, a big guy maybe 22, 24 inches and a smaller one maybe 20 inches. Over a pretty good stretch I would them as I approached but when I sat down back a bit from the creek to watch they went about their business undisturbed. I found only one depression that could have been a fish nest, a redd, yet these pairs of fish were moving both up and down the stream. For the most part that area of the stream was not very suitable spawning gravel or flow. As the fish moved about I got to recognize some of them by distinguishing markings such as white marks or coloration and size, paired or not paired. Most were gray but some had a hint of orange which when alone wouldn’t be noticeable, but when paired side by side with another stood out. Two days after on a second journey up creek there were decidedly fewer fish, though still in pairs, and practically no up and down movement but still no redds. Who knows what this coming piffle of rain might bring.
Things along and beside the river are a bit different lately. In some areas more fir trees seem to be dying. The swallows that showed up for a day or two and in the past have always hung around this time didn’t. There are ducks both mergansers and mallards but not near as many as usual and always together in pairs which means they haven’t nested yet. A large antler-less buck deer lay dead in the middle of the stream but Fish and Wildlife were not interested. There are no noticeable amounts of the usually abundant Navarro roach and three spined stickleback nor any lamprey eels for that matter.
The turtles are back and there even seems to more small frogs, though unseen, making their feeble croaks that sound more like creeks. The blackberries seem challenged but it’s early, The poison oak abundantly shooting up. And for sure this year’s mushroom crop was miserable. Oh yeah! Two weeks ago down river by the old Wellspring Renewal Center three Canada geese swam slowly by undisturbed as I and my grandkid’s dog stood at water’s edge. I’ve seen them fly overhead many times in larger flocks or gaggles honking away but this is the first time I can remember ever seeing them on the river.