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Goats on Mt. Tamalpais

Goats on Mt. Tamalpais

As a direct response to the drought, the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) is dramatically increasing its efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the communities adjacent to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed by adding extra crews of people and, this year, goats. A 12-person crew began the first week of September and will continue working into October grooming the existing fuelbreaks bordering the communities of Fairfax, San Anselmo, Ross, Kentfield, and Mill Valley. The work is funded by an $80,000 drought relief grant from PG&E, with administrative support from FIRESafe MARIN.

Later in the fall, MMWD will also receive an additional $75,000 in fuel-load reduction work, courtesy of the Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB). Funding for this work is part of a $678.4 million drought relief package approved by the state legislature. The CCNB crew will concentrate their work in the hills above Bon Tempe Reservoir where sudden oak death has negatively impacted forest health and increased the risk of wildfire.

In partnership with Marin County Parks, MMWD is conducting a six-week trial using a herd of 30 goats to reduce fire fuel loads in the hills above Deer Park in Fairfax. The trial period began the first week of September. The goats will be grazing native fuels and invasive weeds on both MMWD and Marin County Parks land. Staff will be monitoring the goats’ productivity rate, long-term ecological effects, and cost. The goal is to evaluate the role of goats in MMWD’s integrated pest management program.

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by Charlene Burgi

Rumor has it that we are in for an El Niño winter. I am not certain what that means since every report comes up with various predictions that span from getting drenched to mild inclement weather to continued drought.

Predictions are something to approach with a discerning ear. The fall/winter season would be better met with preparedness. Preparedness comes with paying attention to the indicators that surround us and acting prior to an event.

For example, a friend reported attending the Ready Marin program. When the earthquake struck in the wee hours this past Sunday, she was prepared with flashlights and necessary tools at hand (if needed) to turn off gas and water supplies. Yet others reported they woke up in a half stupor and attempted to collect their thoughts as to where they would even find a flashlight.

This week the news reported a water main break in San Francisco. One gentleman was capturing this precious commodity by the bucketful before it disappeared into the cavernous storm drain. He was prepared with whatever collection method he could find and conserved as much as he could.

Conserving water is more than turning the faucet off while brushing your teeth and exchanging high-water-use for high-efficiency fixtures in the house. It is more than switching to a smart controller or adjusting your controller to reflect the current ET loss for the week. These steps are extremely important for saving the water in our reservoirs, but by being prepared and making the best use of the water sources at hand we can conserve even more.

Each winter we anticipate rainfall, but are we prepared to utilize the falling rain? If we live on any kind of slope, we can create multiple bioswales running across the length of the slope to slow down the runoff. A bioswale requires some trenching, compacting the lower edge of the bioswale for erosion, and backfilling with porous material, such as bark. Planting two of my favorite deep-rooted shrubs—Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) and red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)—will help penetrate the clay soils above the swale and move the water deeper than the trenched bioswale.

Aster novae-angliae

Aster novae-angliae

Another idea is to collect the water from the downspout into trenches to carry water to a rain garden or meadow at least 10 feet away from the house foundation. Choose plant material that will thrive on the abundant rainwater that will collect there in the winter. Use rain garden plants such as Aster novae-anglaie or Lobelia cardinalis that attract butterflies and bees and provide nectar in the summer months.

Try designing a dry creek bed to capture the precious liquid from our rains. Wind the bed through the garden to deliver water to your trees or shrubs along the way. Tuck native grasses and wildflowers along the edges or plant some color into the dry creek bed. This task requires preparing now for winter.

These suggestions will take more than a shovel and wheel barrow. It will take planning and a list of equipment as follows:

Flowers in dry creek bed

Dry creek bed color (photo courtesy of Marie Shepard)

    • Soil, sand, clay, organic mulch
    • Building materials and construction (if built)
    • Organic compost
    • Tools (tractor, rakes, shovels, gloves, etc.)
    • Vegetation (seeds, plants, trees)
    • Gravel, rocks (large and small)

Are you prepared for the task at hand or will you watch the precious wet stuff disappear into the local storm drain this winter?

It is Labor Day weekend. Why not take a ride to the Mt. Tamalpais Watershed and glean ideas for imitating nature in your own garden?

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by Andrea Williams, Vegetation Ecologist

This is installment seven of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.

Serpentine reedgrass (Calamagrostis ophitidis) is rare. We have tons of it.

Such seemingly incongruous statements happen quite a bit on Mt. Tam, through the magic of the “Matrix of Rarity.” It depends on the scale at which you look. The California Native Plant Society (CNPS), which reviews the distribution of and threats to California’s flora, keeps an inventory of plants and the degree of rarity they display. So statewide (and worldwide), there may be fewer than 100,000 individuals, but if all those individuals are in a three-square-mile area they may seem abundant in that spot.

  Abundant where found Few plants per population
Broadly distributed Common species, e.g. purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra) Often rare, e.g. semaphore grass (Pleuropogon)—next month’s topic!
Narrowly distributed Often rare, e.g. serpentine reedgrass Nearly always rare

Almost half of our rare plants are restricted to serpentine soils; like wetlands and beaches, these habitat types are finite. Often, rare plants in these spots will be quite common and you may wonder why they’re considered rare at all. Mt. Tam manzanita is actually so common it’s the dominant plant over most of our serpentine soils. Serpentine reedgrass is pickier still, preferring to grow at the edge and in the interstices of serpentine chaparral.

Serpentine reedgrass

Serpentine reedgrass (Calamagrostis ophitidis)

Unlike Mt. Tam manzanita, though, serpentine reedgrass can be found outside Marin in Sonoma, Mendocino, Napa, and Lake counties, although we do have the bulk of it. This handsome perennial grass raises fluffy, open spikes one to three feet above clumps of deep green upright leaves. Some of the finest serpentine reedgrass grassland—a rare vegetation type—can be found along Pine Mountain Road opposite Azalea Hill.

Another factor feeding into a plant’s status is the threat to its populations. Serpentine reedgrass populations on Mt. Tamlapais are pretty stable: No one is bulldozing populations to build things, they don’t need fire to germinate, their habitat isn’t being taken over, no diseases are wiping them out. But in other counties that may not be the case. Like with the drought, we need to consider ourselves lucky that we are where we are and have what we have (90% of average water storage and 40 rare plant species), and continue to conserve.

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This is the first in a series of posts by MMWD’s interns, summer helpers, and watershed aides about their experiences at the district.

by Philip Shea, Information Technology Intern

As a lifelong Marin resident, growing up in close proximity to the MMWD watershed has always provided me with ample access to abundant habitat away from freeways, cars, and traffic. I learned to mountain bike at a very early age. I’ve hiked miles upon miles of access roads surrounding just about every community and township in the central Marin areas.

Throughout all of this time, I had never considered MMWD as a potential workplace until seeing a job posting for a summer intern. Being here now has brought me back to doing the work I love after earning my Associates degree at College of Marin last May. As an Information Technology intern, I’m assisting anyone at the district using computers (meaning everyone at the district).

I came here in June, a few months after voluntary water-use reductions were requested by our Governor Jerry Brown and MMWD’s Board of Directors. With the education provided by our knowledgeable Water Conservation Department here at the district, I’ve learned that with planning and a little modification of my daily routine, using 25% less water throughout my day really isn’t too difficult and makes me feel like I’m making an important difference.

I’m not a homeowner (yet). But, if I were, I would absolutely take advantage of the education and rebates the district is offering to residents who want to use less water. Even in the lobby of the district offices here, I’ve seen free supplies for testing for toilet leaks, changing showerheads, and learning better water practices, as well as 20% off coupons to Fairfax Lumber & Hardware for outdoor irrigation supplies.

With all of the resources offered, it seems to me we could go above and beyond the 25% voluntary reduction requested by the board, which benefits not only your household, but all of Marin.

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by Andrea Williams

This is installment six of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.

Even though I’m a cat person, every February I love to watch the two-day spectacle of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. I’m just a taxonomist at heart, and I enjoy spotting the subtle differences between the American foxhound, Harrier, and English foxhound; or how the different groups came to be and why the Non-Sporting group is such a mish-mosh of breeds. But there are also the subtle cautions offered by announcer David Freese that make me think of gardening: Know your breed and pick the one that’s right for you, and don’t buy into the “fad” or “popular” breeds (e.g., dalmations after “101 Dalmations” came out, or whatever breed wins the WKC). And that brings me to pampas grass (Cortaderia sp.).

Jubata patch in slide area off Hoo-Koo-E-Koo on Mt. Tamalpais

Jubata patch in slide area off Hoo-Koo-E-Koo on Mt. Tamalpais

California’s pampas grasses are two very similar-looking but reproductively different species, and just like irresponsible breeders can churn out sick dogs to capitalize on a fad, irresponsible or ignorant plant breeders can inadvertently introduce pest plants or diseases in trying to create or capitalize on a fad. According to this excellent article in the 2004 Cal-IPC news, pampas grass (C. selloana) was originally brought up from the South American pampas for its striking inflorescences. The white, fluffy plumes are only produced by the female plant; the male plant’s plumes are darker and thinner. So for a while, only female plants were planted and exported, and no spreading could happen without the males. But fads catch on, and inevitably the male plants made their way into the world, as did the similar-looking purple pampas grass (or as I prefer to call it, jubata grass, C. jubata). Jubata grass, nearly opposite the outcross-dependent pampas grass, is apomictic—seeds form from the female ovules without fertilization. This allows it, like the also-apomictic and wind-dispersed dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), to establish new colonies over long distances and take advantage of disturbances.

Most of what we have in Marin is jubata grass; proper pampas grass is mostly strictly coastal, and found in San Mateo and Southern California (although the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge corridor is an excellent spot to see both species side-by-side). Because of its need to outcross, pampas grass can be slower to establish since the winds of chance need to blow both male and female plants within pollination distance. But that also means it may be able to adapt to changes and eventually invade more areas. The hare to pampas’ tortoise, jubata grass quickly covers disturbed and difficult-to-reach sites such as roadcuts and landslides. We try to keep on top of our populations on Tam, and have managed to mostly keep it contained in a few sites and prevent seeding. The good news is, although the seeds are numerous and far-slung—over 1,000,000 per plant traveling many miles on the breeze—they are short-lived, usually only a year. So once the adults are treated and re-invasion of bare ground is minimized, the follow-up is minimal. Better, though, if we’d had an ounce of forethought and prevention a century ago, and not introduced such an aggressive breed.

Don’t plant a pest: Ornamental grasses of the Bay Area region (California Invasive Plant Council)

An aside/post-script: Speaking of capitalizing on fads, a recently invading ornamental (Erigeron karvinskianus) that used to be called “Mexican fleabane” is now being called “Santa Barbara daisy” and people are buying and planting thinking it’s a California native … which it’s not!

 

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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 Andrea Williams

This is installment five of a 12-part series on grasses. Read the previous installment here.

blue wildrye

Blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus)

I know I should like American robins, but I don’t. It’s just that they’re so common. And I kind of feel that way about blue wildrye (Elymus glaucus).

I first learned blue wildrye in Oregon, during those formative summers on a coastal grassland overlooking the mouth of the Salmon River. Being new to grass ID, I really appreciated how obvious it was—four-to-six-foot-tall spires in a foot-wide clump, usually a bluish-green color with short upper blades flagged straight out from the stem. The inflorescence was nice and simple, too, a narrow, bristled spike. No branching, or sterile florets, or measuring or counting veins to worry about. Just blue wildrye, plain and simple. And then I started monitoring grasslands, and I was so over blue wildrye.

Because it was everywhere. So common. And easy to collect, and easy to grow. Just bend the flowering stalks into a bag and “milk” the seeds and the ripe ones slide right out. Then scatter the seeds over a site and next growing season it will be lousy with wildrye. And these are all good things. Like robins. Sharp red breast, jaunty hop, cherry-dew song. But they’re everywhere. So common.

And so it is sometimes: The need for the new, the value we give to rarity overshadows the basic merits of a thing. I just have to remind myself to appreciate and celebrate the common, to see with new eyes instead of wanting my eyes to always see the new.

 

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