Saving California’s Delta fish requires daring latest strategies

Californians are blessed with a staggering number of freshwater species. I should know: I've experienced much of that diversity firsthand while exploring the state's mountains, rivers, lakes, valleys, bays, and coastlines.

As a baby, I spent a lot time within the water that my family joked that I used to be half frog.

I actually have turned my passion for nature right into a profession: As a biologist by training, I worked for a long time for the California Department of Water Resources. As a senior scientist, I actually have gained a greater understanding of the various challenges facing our waterways and the species that decision them home. Working to enhance conditions for these species has been the privilege of a lifetime.

At the identical time, I actually have witnessed a daunting and heartbreaking decline in native freshwater species. During my 30 years working within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, I watched in dismay as a whole fish population disappeared, leading to six different fish species (including the winter-running Chinook salmon) being placed on the state and federal endangered species lists.

We now live in a world where just a few extreme events—just a few heat waves or a significant wildfire—could wipe out a few of California's native freshwater species. And climate change, which is occurring faster than predicted, is making it even tougher to avoid wasting these species.

Many ecologists, agency officials, and others have worked for a long time to enhance conditions for California's native species. But our efforts haven’t been enough. The window of opportunity to avoid wasting these species is closing faster than we'd prefer to admit. Despite many laudable programs and well-intentioned efforts, California lacks a full-fledged statewide technique to protect native freshwater species within the face of climate change.

This has inspired a brand new report from the Public Policy Institute of California detailing what is required to handle the crisis. In the report, we explain why the worst impacts of climate change on our freshwater species are unlikely to be averted if we proceed as we’re—and even do higher.

California needs a brand new approach. We must take risks.

Much of what we’re currently doing to enhance aquatic habitat is very important to assist species adapt to changing conditions. To achieve success, we want to significantly diversify our actions, including through daring latest approaches.

It is time to develop a portfolio of measures to guard these species.

This approach should go far beyond simply restoring habitat. Focusing on habitat alone has not helped California's unique freshwater species, and threats are increasing with climate change. We must use existing and latest technologies to support and replenish populations, restore connections to historic habitats, and even relocate species when mandatory. And we must take motion to enhance genetic diversity, an underappreciated but mandatory prerequisite for responding to climate change.

We must even have the courage to confess that some species may disappear from their historic ranges despite our efforts. Therefore, immediate investment must be made in a historic species conservation programme, including tissue archives, genetic libraries and seed banks of native species to facilitate future reintroductions.

Having spent my entire life having fun with, studying and protecting California's remarkable freshwater species, I actually have seen firsthand how quickly conditions change and the way difficult it’s for us to reply.

Saving this vital resource would require daring latest approaches to conservation and the courage to take risks – not only for biologists like me, but for all Californians and for generations to return.

Ted Sommer is a fellow of the Public Policy Institute of California-CalTrout Ecosystem on the PPIC Water Policy Center. He previously served as a senior scientist on the California Department of Water Resources. He wrote this column for CalMatters.

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