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Posts Tagged ‘restoration’

by Eric Ettlinger

Coho smolt

Coho smolt

Salmon in California have evolved to follow the seasonal rhythms of wet and dry periods as they migrate between their natal streams and the ocean, and then back again. The fall rains that swell Lagunitas Creek and herald the return of adult salmon to Marin County also encourage young coho salmon to begin their downstream journey to the ocean. In normal years, winter is the time when many of these young salmon migrate from headwater tributaries down to lower Lagunitas Creek, where they transform into silver smolts in preparation for the ocean phase of their life cycle. These smolts wait in the lower creek until April and May before entering the ocean, just in time to take advantage of the spring plankton bloom.

2013 and 2014 have not been normal years, however. Fall rains were infrequent and light, and January was the driest on record. The drought caused a significant delay in salmon spawning and resulted in a much smaller coho run than expected. The extended dry period did, ironically, seem to benefit the young salmon preparing to emigrate to the ocean. Many coho fry were unable to migrate downstream until the rain finally arrived in February, which meant that they weren’t packed together in lower Lagunitas Creek. The habitat in the lower creek can’t support very many young salmon through the winter, which appears to be one of the principal factors limiting the size of the entire coho salmon population. This year, salmon fry spent the winter spread throughout the watershed, and likely spent little time crowded in the lower watershed.

The result was the largest emigration of salmon smolts yet seen in Lagunitas Creek. Biologists with the Watershed Stewards Project, the Marin Municipal Water District, the National Park Service, and the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network counted coho smolts every day between late March and early June as they migrated past traps on Lagunitas, Olema, and San Geronimo Creeks. In typical years the lower watershed doesn’t appear to be able to support more than approximately 11,000 juvenile coho salmon through the winter. This year nearly 20,000 coho smolts emigrated to the ocean.

smolt chart

Click the image above to view full-size chart

What does this mean for the future of coho salmon in Marin County? In the short term, if food is abundant in the ocean we could see 2,000 adult coho return to Lagunitas Creek in 2015 (the most in more than half a century). On the other hand, this year’s smolts were fairly small and may not survive well. Over the longer term, while we can’t recreate this year and prevent coho from migrating to the lower watershed, we can provide more habitat there. A grant currently being considered by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife would fund the construction of five projects in lower Lagunitas Creek to expand side channels and floodplains for coho salmon winter habitat. Hopefully this grant will be funded and the projects will achieve their goals. As with the seasonal migrations of salmon, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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by Rosa Albanese, Watershed Stewards Project Member

This is the last in a year-long series celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act.

Photo of steelhead trout

Steelhead trout in Lagunitas Creek. Photo by MMWD Aquatic Ecologist Eric Ettlinger.

What better way to end this series than with the enigmatic Oncorhynchus mykiss of the salmonidae family. This species exhibits more survival strategies than any other Pacific salmonid species, including flexible habitat preferences, differences in reproductive biology and adaptability in their life cycle types between generations.  Step into any body of fresh water and the fish you would mostly likely encounter is O. mykiss. However, they are still faced with many of the same threats as other salmon and must be carefully managed to ensure their future success.

When referring to O. mykiss one may be talking about rainbow or steelhead trout. What’s the difference? If they never migrate, they are considered rainbow trout. But if they make the great migration to the ocean and back, they are known as steelhead. However, although rare, it has been reported that the offspring of a steelhead may grow up to be a resident rainbow trout and vice versa.  But, basically, steelhead are anadromous (migratory) rainbow trout.

Steelhead also vary in when they migrate. Steelhead have two principal life history patterns: summer and winter runs. Summer steelhead enter streams as immature fish during the receding spring flows and  spend the summer holding up in deep pools, typically near a stream’s headwaters, where they then mature to spawn in winter or spring. Lagunitas Creek, which originates on Mt. Tamalpais and flows west to Tomales Bay, is home to winter-run steelhead. These fish are similar to coho salmon in that they enter the streams from the ocean during winter rains as mature fish. However, steelhead generally spawn later than coho, between January and April. Also, unlike all other salmonid species, they may spawn more than once throughout their lives, which is referred to as iteoparity.

Regardless of life history path, for the first year or two of life steelhead/rainbow trout can be found in cool, clear and fast-moving streams with ample cover and diverse and abundant invertebrate life.  Although highly variable in color and size, adults can generally be identified as a silvery trout with black spots covering their back, dorsal fins and tail and a reddish band along their sides. They can grow to be 45 inches long and weigh close to 50 pounds, but in Lagunitas Creek adult steelhead are typically closer to 30 inches long. These fish have adapted a streamlined body shape that helps them hold their position and swim in fast-moving water, which may be why they are considered by many anglers to put up a good fight and are so highly sought for sport.

Within California, native populations of coastal steelhead have experienced declines similar to those of other local salmonid species. The reasons are complicated but are largely due to competition with humans for habitat, dams and other alterations of landscapes, overfishing and introduction of foreign species as predators and competitors. Due to their diverse life history, management of steelhead is somewhat complicated. Steelhead stocks are placed into groups based on broad geographic distributions, plus run-timing, and many local populations are granted different taxonomic classification. For example, here in Marin County steelhead are classified as part of a Central California population and are federally listed as threatened, while populations further south are listed as endangered. Regardless of the terminology, steelhead are at risk.

There are many important reasons to protect such a unique fish species. Not only are they indicators of stream health, but preserving their wonderfully complicated diversity will allow them to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Steps to the recovery of steelhead and other salmonids start with support for projects that restore watersheds, ensure sustainable stream flows, reduce migratory barriers and minimize competition from non-native species. Protecting California steelhead and other andromous fish ensures that our fresh water and ocean habitats remain intact for future generations and a remarkably diverse species continues to adapt and thrive.

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Photo of Chinook salmon in Lagunitas Creek

Chinook salmon in Lagunitas Creek. Photo by Madeline Cooper, a member of the Watershed Stewards project.

by Eric Ettlinger

Salmon spawning season has returned to Lagunitas Creek, and so has one of its more sporadic and uncommon visitors. Chinook salmon, commonly known as king salmon, have been seen spawning in the creek for the first time in five years! The first sign of Chinook this season was a redd discovered on October 24, which would be exceptionally early for our resident coho salmon to spawn (a redd is a gravel nest where salmon lay their eggs). Their presence was confirmed on November 13 when three Chinook spawners were seen on that very same redd. Since then MMWD biologists have documented a total of seven Chinook salmon in Lagunitas Creek, which is the most seen since 2006. These salmon probably weren’t born in Lagunitas Creek but may have gotten lost as they tried to migrate back to their natal streams in the Central Valley.

One of the most perplexing aspects of our Chinook observations this season has been the presence of very small salmon (less than a foot long) sharing redds with very large Chinook. These small fish behave like “jacks,” which are small but sexually mature salmon that return to spawn a year earlier than full-sized salmon. The adult male salmon chase the jacks like they were competitors, but we’ve never seen jacks this small. We’ve only seen two so far, but ruled out trout or other fish species as candidates. A little research turned up a Chinook life history variant called the “mini-jack,” which migrate as fry to estuaries for only a couple of months before swimming back upstream to spawn. If these little fish are indeed mini-jacks, then Chinook salmon must have spawned in Lagunitas Creek last year without being observed. We did find a few redds in October and November last year that looked like Chinook redds, but without seeing the fish we couldn’t assume that Chinook had returned. Now it looks like the King may have returned a year ago.

To date we haven’t seen any coho salmon in Lagunitas Creek, but that’s not unusual. The first coho tend to show up in late November after heavy rains increase stream flows. Last week’s rain hardly increased flows, so the coho may be waiting a little longer to migrate upstream. Rain or no rain, we’ll probably start seeing coho within the next couple of weeks. Once the rain really starts falling, we’re expecting more coho salmon to return to Lagunitas Creek than we’ve seen in at least seven years.

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Introduction by MMWD Volunteer Coordinator Suzanne Whelan

For 16 days in October the federal government ceased all but the most essential operations. But our lands and the creatures that inhabit them do not curtail their operations when we humans hit a budget impasse. Luckily for MMWD, interns from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, who unexpectedly found themselves with free time, volunteered with MMWD for two days in October helping with habitat restoration and vegetation monitoring on the watershed. We were so happy to provide meaningful work and training for them and to benefit from their enthusiastic assistance.

The following summary of the two-day event is by Jaimie Baxter, a former MMWD Americorps intern and watershed aide. She is currently the trails stewardship manager for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy Joins MMWD for Two-day Habitat Restoration and Vegetation Monitoring Event
by GGNPC Trails Stewardship Manager Jaimie Baxter

Photo of GGNRA Intern pulling yellow star thistle

GGNRA intern pulling yellow star thistle.

On Wednesday October 9, more than 15 Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) Park Stewardship interns and staff congregated near the top of Mt. Tamalpais at the Rock Springs area. This oak woodland and grassland area is known for its epic views, slabs of serpentine outcrops and hordes of rare plants. MMWD Volunteer Coordinator Suzanne Whelan and her two watershed aides explained the district’s mission of providing clean drinking water to their customers in south and central Marin County and protecting the 21,635 acres of watershed lands under their management. Director of Park Stewardship Sue Gardner then discussed the burgeoning Mt. Tamalpais Collaborative and the goals of all natural resource agencies in the area to join forces in the Mt. Tamalpais region.

Photo of Park Stewards

The thistle-pulling team of GGNRA and MMWD.

After all that talking, it was time to get to work! MMWD and the Park Stewardship team strategized their assignment for the day — removing invasive, non-native yellow-star thistle (Centaurea solsitialis). Spreading out like a fan, the group surveyed the area for this invasive species, pulled and eventually bagged the prickly plant. The group was later joined by MMWD Vegetation Ecologist Andrea Williams, who discussed the interesting geology and ecology of serpentine soils, what makes a plant rare and ways that MMWD manages invasive species. And this was just the first day Park Stewardship collaborated with MMWD!

The following day the same team plus a few Park Trails interns jumped to the north side of Mt. Tamalpais to the Sky Oaks Ranger Station. Thursday’s mission was to identify and map the non-native, perennial grass species in Sky Oaks meadow. This meadow ecosystem, which has been heavily managed in the past, is a good example of an oak woodland ecosystem. The meadow is relatively healthy as it is mostly free of French broom, has woody species that do not overcrowd each other and has at least three species of oaks.

However the meadow is not without its problems, including Sudden Oak Death (Phytophthora ramorum) and non-native, perennial grasses. Our crew learned how to identify a multitude of these species including velvet grass (Holcus lanatus), sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), wild oat grass (Avena fatua) and many more. The team then split into groups and headed off to map the non-native grasses using GPS-enabled cameras, compasses and datasheets. The team worked all morning and after lunch until they became cross-eyed from looking at SO many grasses! The day ended with a hike to Alpine and Bon Tempe lakes where much of MMWD’s drinking water is stored.

The Park Stewardship team is grateful to have a partner such as the Marin Municipal Water District. Thank you, MMWD, for your time, expertise and hosting Park Stewardship during the federal shutdown. We welcome any opportunity to join you in your efforts on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed!

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Students volunteers on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed

Student volunteers on the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed show off the results of their hard work—a mountain of non-native broom.

The Marin Municipal Water District honored 40 volunteers at a special recognition lunch recently for contributing their valuable time to the protection and preservation of the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed during fiscal year 2012/13. These volunteers donated nearly 7,500 hours—the equivalent of $185,625 in labor—to activities like trail maintenance, habitat restoration and endangered species protection on watershed lands between July 2012 and June 2013.

MMWD manages more than 21,600 acres of land on Mt. Tamalpais and in west Marin and counts on its volunteer workforce to help maintain and restore these lands. The Mt. Tamalpais Watershed is home to more than 900 species of plants and 400 species of animals, including 77 rare, threatened and endangered species. This abundance of life is threatened by many factors, including increased recreational use, invasive species and global climate change.

Begun in 1995, MMWD’s volunteer program recruits individuals, students and entire classes to help improve trails and habitat; greet and educate visitors; restore habitat and collect biological data; and map native and non-native plants, sudden oak death and aquatic species.

The 2012/13 fiscal year’s 85 volunteer events resulted in the following accomplishments:

  • Dozens of trails were improved for visitor safety and erosion control;
  • More than 700 school children and their parents removed acres of invasive broom, young Douglas-fir trees and other invasive plant species;
  • 140 hours were spent monitoring native western pond turtles and educating the public about this species;
  • More than 200 hours were donated to keep people and their dogs out of the breeding grounds of the native foothill yellow-legged frogs;
  • One third of the 900 plant species on the watershed were surveyed; samples will be housed at the herbarium of the California Academy of Sciences.

Without the help of volunteers, many of the important preservation and stewardship projects on the watershed would not be possible. For more information about our volunteer program and to find volunteer opportunities, visit our website.

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National Public Lands Day 20th AnniversaryMMWD and Mt. Tamalpais State Park are pleased to host a volunteer habitat restoration event in celebration of the 20th anniversary of National Public Lands Day on Saturday, September 28, from 9:00 a.m. – noon. REI of Corte Madera is donating raffle prizes!

National Public Lands Day is the nation’s largest, single-day volunteer event for public lands. 2012 was the biggest NPLD in the history of the event. Let’s help make their 20th anniversary even better!

Volunteers will help restore shrinking native grassland and chaparral habitat along the Matt Davis Trail by removing outcompeting, young Douglas-fir seedlings. Grasslands provide habitat for native plants and animals and hunting grounds for birds of prey. Chaparral provides shelter for birds, foxes and small mammals.

We will meet at 9:00 a.m. at Bootjack parking lot, located on Panoramic Highway above Mill Valley. Please wear close-toed shoes and long pants and dress for variable weather. Mt. Tamalpais State Park will provide breakfast snacks. Bring your lunch and a reusable water bottle. MMWD will provide water and tools. Habitat restoration events are generally suitable for ages 8 and up. Volunteers under age 16 must be accompanied by an adult.

For more information about this event, contact the district’s Volunteer Program at (415) 945-1128 or e-mail volunteerprogram@marinwater.org. For possible cancellation and fire closure information, call after 7:30 a.m. on the morning of the event.

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by Robin McKillop

Believe it or not, the school year has already started in many areas throughout Marin—and that means it’s time to roll out another exciting year of MMWD’s water education programs. If you’re a busy teacher, be sure to reserve your place today. If you’re a busy parent, remember to encourage your child’s teacher to participate in MMWD’s water education programs. They’re fun! They’re free! They’re educational!

Mt. Tamalpais Watershed field tripLast year, MMWD’s Water Wonders environmental education programs provided outreach to thousands of students at public and private schools in Marin. Through MMWD’s programs, students learned all about water—from source to supply to conservation. Many students had the chance to reinforce classroom concepts by visiting our beautiful watershed lands and participating in restoration and conservation activities. High school students were also invited to visit MMWD’s Water Quality Laboratory where they learned about current drinking water regulations, analyses and instrumentation, as well as the specifics of water quality here in MMWD’s service area. Elementary school students continued to learn about the importance of clean water and fish habitat by hatching and releasing trout through the “Trout in the Classroom” program, offered in partnership with North Bay Trout Unlimited, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards Project.

The Water Wonders brochure provides detailed information about all of our programs. This year, we are excited to introduce some new educational opportunities while continuing to offer long-term favorites. Hot off the press is our “Marin Municipal Water District” poster—a great addition to any classroom, providing a fun and informative overview of MMWD’s watershed, reservoirs and treatment plants, as well as the people, plants and animals who share our water supply. Be sure to order your free copy today. Also new this year is our expanded school bus reimbursement program. Now, all schools that book an MMWD-guided field trip to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed can apply for a reimbursement for travel costs. A limited number of reimbursements, up to $500, are available on a first-come, first-served basis—so book your field trip today! Finally, don’t miss out on our exciting new classroom presentation, “The History of MMWD and Preservation of Mt. Tamalpais,” given by Jack Gibson, author of Images of America: Mount Tamalpais and the Marin Municipal Water District. This presentation can be tailored to the needs of your students and is a great way to enhance your students’ understanding of local history and the rich tradition of environmental protection in Marin.

Programs are offered on a first-come, first-served basis and fill up quickly. All programs are offered free of charge and are designed to support California education standards while fostering water conservation and environmental stewardship. Bilingual (English-Spanish) classroom presentations and assemblies are available. We hope you will join us this school year in educating Marin’s students all about water. Jump in and make your reservation today! Click here for contact information.

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by Ariana Chiapella

It is truly amazing how much work a group of motivated, enthusiastic and hard-working volunteers can achieve in just a few short hours. On June 29, my site partner Michael Paccassi and I organized a salmonid habitat enhancement event along San Geronimo Creek. This project, called an Individual Service Project (ISP) in AmeriCorps lingo, was a requirement during our term of service with the Watershed Stewards Project (WSP). On paper, this event seemed like only a small piece of our mandated work for the ten months we’ve spent at MMWD, but in reality it was a perfect snapshot representation of everything we have done throughout our time here.

The majority of our work has been “stream restoration,” which at the water district includes spawner surveys, smolt trapping, snorkel surveys, analysis of engineered woody debris habitat, and the ensuing data entry. As a result, we in a way have been inducted into the fragile lives of the endangered coho salmon and have formed an intimate relationship with all of the factors that they depend on for survival. Consequently, the work our volunteers completed during our ISP was directly related to these important aspects of a salmonid’s habitat.

Another large piece of our required work has been community outreach and education. We developed and taught a six-week curriculum to third and fifth graders at a Title One school. The lessons were based in environmental science and included the relationships between watersheds, the water cycle, fish biology and human activity. The key messages of this curriculum were also shared at multiple outreach and community volunteer events throughout the year.

The skills we gained by engaging with the public and communicating WSP’s mission were crucial in our recruitment of over 30 volunteers for the San Geronimo Creek project. Of course it certainly helped to already have so many dedicated MMWD volunteers! We were so excited to see such a strong community turnout at the event. In addition to some familiar friendly faces from other MMWD volunteer events, we also had a great turnout of new volunteers.

The landowners’ property that we worked on was the perfect fit for a volunteer project such as this, not only because of the manageable projects it presented, but because it showed community members how they can make a difference on their own properties and most importantly because of the graciousness of our hosts.

We all banded together to tackle the invasive plants that were growing throughout the riparian corridor and squelching the vital native species that contribute to the habitat that salmonids need for survival. After eradicating the vinca, cape ivy, English ivy, Japanese knotweed and others, our group replanted the entire riparian area with fast-growing native trees, shrubs and perennial plants that, if all goes well, will take hold and restore the biodiversity needed for complex habitat and stable, non-eroding stream banks.

San Geronimo Creek habitat restoration

Before, during, after: Volunteers did a fantastic job of eradicating the Japanese knotweed and squelching the English ivy.

Thanks to a donation from Good Earth for breakfast, lunch from MMWD, and cookies and watermelon from the landowners, our volunteers were rightfully rewarded for their hard work. We could not have asked for a better group of volunteers!

In all honesty, I at first doubted the point of an ISP at the beginning of the WSP term. It seemed so unrelated to the overarching basis of our work here in MMWD’s Fisheries Department. In retrospect, it encompassed everything: endangered species protection, community outreach and education. Not only were we working to improve riparian habitat for the benefit of the coho salmon and steelhead trout, but we were doing so through community organization and action. These principles are laced within WSP’s mission, and we strongly believe that they also will be carried with anyone who has been involved with our program during the past ten months, whether through our education curriculum, field surveys or volunteer events.

Check out MMWD’s Facebook page for more photos of the event!

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by Michael Paccassi and Ariana Chiapella

San Geronimo Salmon Habitat Enhancement Project flyer

Click the image above to view the event flier

As AmeriCorps members with the Watershed Stewards Project, we have had the unique opportunity to work with MMWD biologists in helping to protect, monitor and educate the public about the importance of salmonids like the coho salmon and steelhead trout. Though we aren’t all given the opportunity to work so closely with these beautiful and unique fish, as members of the community and stewards of the land we all share the responsibility of ensuring the survival and well-being of these endangered and threatened species.

Guess what? You’re in luck, because we’ve organized an event that will provide the community of Marin with the opportunity to do just that!

MMWD and the Watershed Stewards Project want to welcome you to a special riparian habitat enhancement project happening along the San Geronimo Creek. Come out and join us this Saturday, June 29, from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. to show your support for the salmon you all know and love!

To encourage habitat recovery and reduce stream bank erosion, we will be removing non-native and invasive plant species along a section of the San Geronimo Creek. We also will be replanting with native California plant species and using tree shelters to encourage the growth of larger trees to provide shade and habitat for our finned friends in the creek.

We will meet a little before 9:00 a.m. across from the Two Bird Cafe at 625 San Geronimo Valley in San Geronimo. All ages are welcome, so please bring the whole family. Tools, water, snacks and lunch will be provided. All you need to bring is a pair of sturdy boots, some sun protection, a reusable water bottle and your enthusiastic, hard-working self.

To pre-register or for more information about this unique opportunity, contact us at volunteerprogram@marinwater.org or (415) 945-1188.

We look forward to seeing you out there!

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Big Trees Footbridge

Completed bridge over Little Carson Creek. For more pictures, see our Facebook album.

Over a three-week period in February, crews from MMWD’s Watershed Maintenance staff and Conservation Corps North Bay built a beautiful log footbridge over Little Carson Creek on the east side of Kent Lake. The new bridge, located at the foot of Little Carson Trail in an area called Big Trees Grove, was built to keep foot traffic out of the creek. It is part of a larger project designed to improve water quality and fisheries habitat while creating a safer and more sustainable hiking trail. Other future elements of the project include converting a 100-year-old logging road to a trail and removing two culverts to minimize road-related sediment delivery to Little Carson Creek and Kent Lake.

The base and footings of the footbridge were made from a large, 48-inch diameter, 50-foot long redwood tree that had fallen many years ago near the work site. Based on the tree’s rings, MMWD Watershed Maintenance Supervisor Carl Sanders estimated its age at over 300 years old when it fell. Using ropes and cables, the crews were able to drag the tree 200 feet upstream without damaging the stream and its banks.

The handrails, made from a smaller redwood tree, are attached to the log base by mortise and tenon joinery. The completed bridge enhances the natural beauty of the grove and allows hikers to cross the stream safely without damaging the stream and its banks.

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