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Watching The CFS

The Navarro. Courtesy, Clinton Steeds.
The Navarro. Courtesy, Clinton Steeds.

I’m hooked on a new drama, called the CFS. It’s not a crime show, exactly, though there’s potential tragedy enough. It’s more of a reality show about Anderson Valley, starring the Navarro River watershed. Everyone living or working in the valley plays a bit part. Episodes arrive daily, via the internet.

One of the most dramatic installments was last week, after we finally got some rain. It was short and densely plotted, like they all are. And it contained the first ray of hope in weeks: “Streamflow of 217 cfs exceeds subscriber threshold of 0.05 at 2013-03-06 10:15:00 PST 11468000 00060 NAVARRO R NR NAVARRO CA.”

Translated, the message meant that at mid-morning on March 6th, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) gaging station on the Navarro River was measuring a flow of 217 cubic feet of water per second – or CFS. This was an exciting turn of events, because the previous morning the CFS at the gage was only 55. So the rain was clearly making a difference. The next day, after the rain had soaked the watershed for 36 hours, the CFS had climbed to 377.

Alas, the rain petered out and the flow fell back to 226 CFS on Thursday the 8th. As I write this on March 12th, the flow has fallen to just above 100 CFS. With nothing but sun in the forecast, we’re headed back down to double digits: drought territory.

In the 62 years of records from the gage, the lowest flow in the Navarro ever recorded on March 12th was 46 CFS, in 1977. (Old-timers will tell you the decade of the 1970s is one of the driest they can remember, and now we have a fresh reason to believe them.) The highest flow for March 12th came in 1995, when the river was raging at 5,960 CFS. The average for March 12th over the past 62 years is 1,010 CFS.

I got hooked on the CFS because of a workshop organized by Anderson Valley’s own Navarro River Resource Center, with support from Mendocino County Resource Conservation District (MCRCD). Linda MacElwee, the Center’s sole staffer, collaborated with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) in organizing the workshop, which took place on February 19th at the River’s Bend retreat Center (formerly Wellspring). When I signed up, MacElwee told me about the daily email alerts about the CFS for the Navarro, and I decided to sign up for that, too.

The purpose of the workshop was to bring together a diverse mix of interest groups in our neck of the woods, and give everyone the same information about what’s happening to the Navarro River watershed and its migratory fish populations -- which, after something like a million years of spawning here, are in danger of losing their birthright.

Among the local presenters were MacElwee and her long-time partner-in-conservation, Patty Madigan of MCRCD. Regional players included Carol Mandel, District Conservationist with the NRCS, and Charlotte Ambrose, a Recovery Coordinator for the Fisheries department of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The redoubtable Glenn McGourty, Mendocino County Farm Advisor for the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), was a featured presenter and brought his usual trove of data treasures.

All these folks have been good stewards of the waters and fish for some time now, so the event drew local enviros eager to get an update on the situation. We got some surprises when we settled down to listen.

One of them was a riveting presentation from Mendocino Redwood Company (MRC), the logging company that owns vast swaths of the northern side of the watershed and is paying a hydrologist and a biologist to restore stream flows and fish habitat. Another surprise was the polished speaker from The Nature Conservancy, one of the most deep-pocketed environmental organizations on earth.

If we hear anything around here about the logging industry and big-money NGOs, it’s usually that the former are destroying the environment and the latter are ignoring our pleas for assistance. But here they were, in person on a cold winter morning, hanging with the home crowd and looking to help.

Meanwhile, the home crowd was not just AV greenies worried about their piece of creek. In the audience were people responsible for some of Anderson Valley’s biggest and best-known winegrowing operations (Goldeneye, Roederer and Scharffenberger) and one of the big three orchard operations (The Apple Farm). There were stalwarts with decades of agricultural experience in the watershed, such as Norman Kobler and the Hartlip boys, Tom and Casey. I was also happy to see young winemakers from new wineries, taking time away from barreling and bottling to learn something about the watershed we all share.

So what did we learn?

Well, if you have a nagging sense that it just doesn’t rain like it used to, you’re right. The USGS began keeping precipitation data in Ukiah in 1950, the same year it put the gaging station in the Navarro. Since it began recording, average annual rainfall hereabouts has declined 7%. So there’s less water falling from the sky, on average, than there was 60 years ago.

The watershed is also soaking up more water than it once did, for a whole host of reasons. Some are natural, such as bigger and older trees now that people have got the notion to leave them alone rather than cut them down for firewood and nicer views. Many other factors must be related to human activity, such as building more homes and planting more stuff that needs irrigation. The end result is that average annual CFS in the Navarro River has fallen 13% since 1950.

That’s a bigger bite than the rainfall dropoff, but it still doesn’t explain why Central Coast coho salmon in the Navarro have dwindled to the point that they face extinction here.

The fact is that fewer fish are entering their historical spawning creeks that feed the Navarro. The main reason is that there’s not enough water for the recently hatched fingerlings to survive through the spring, summer and fall before the rains return. At that point there used to be enough water for them to safely swim out to sea and become adults. But with less and less cool deep water, especially through the dry summer months, fewer fingerlings are surviving the cycle. As this repeats each year, there are progressively fewer fish to migrate back up the creeks and lay eggs, which means fewer fish are born. It’s a slow death spiral.

Dave Ulrich and Kirk Vodopals from MRC shared their recent counts of migrating fish in the North Fork of the Navarro, much of which lies within lands owned by MRC. The numbers were sobering: they counted only about 400 coho and 800 steelhead heading out to sea in 2012, and biologists generally expect only half of those to survive the trip. It was a similar story for the fish migrating in. MRC counted 244 coho and 401 steelhead in the North Fork in 2012, including live fish, carcasses, and nesting areas. According to Vodopals, it will take more than ten times these numbers to sustain the populations in the North Fork.

To help achieve that, MRC is clearing creeks that are blocked and decommissioning roads that could erode into them. They have succeeded in lowering stream temperatures over the past five years, which is important, though is much more to be done. Listing to Ulrich and Vodopals, I wondered why we have not heard these smart, likable guys making presentations to more local gatherings.

For one thing, their efforts are critical. Ambrose from NOAA Fisheries made it abundantly clear that there’s still a chance to save the coho here. The Navarro watershed is not dammed, like many other California coastal river systems, and there are no large conurbations either. There appears to be enough water based on rainfall and CFS, at least on an annual basis. “If we really want to keep Central Coast coho from disappearing in our lifetimes,” she said, “we need to keep them from disappearing from the Navarro.”

Apparently the Navarro’s fighting chance to keep the coho alive is what drew The Nature Conservancy to Anderson Valley, and led it to provide funding to UCCE so McGourty could finish a landmark study of agricultural water use in the Navarro watershed.

That study was clearly a big draw for the winegrowers in the workshop audience. They’ve taken plenty of grief around here for planting vineyards where there used to be sheep and orchards, even though the best of them patiently explain to anyone who will listen that they are good stewards of the watershed. They use drip irrigation. They don’t take water directly from the creeks or the river, even though they own the rights. They don’t cut trees near watercourses, so the shade will keep the water cool for fish to hide out in. They use water for frost protection only as a last resort, and many of the new vineyards are planted at altitudes that go decades between hard frosts anyway.

Yet the perception persists that with thousands of acres of vineyards, local growers must be sucking up a lot of water. So it was with bated breath that we listened and watched while McGourty worked through his slides.

One revelation was how technology now makes it possible to see all those winery ponds from the sky, measure their size, and calculate how much water they’re holding. Another was how McGourty’s data-gathering teams spread out through valley vineyards to measure the efficiency of their irrigation systems. He combined this information with water usage data volunteered by vineyard owners representing about 40% of the 3111 acres under vine in the Navarro watershed. The goal was to work out a reasonable calculation of how much water the local wine industry is taking out of the watershed each year. (He did the same for the orchard industry, which is far smaller.)

After he presented his raw data, McGourty laid out some qualifiers. For example, the 40% sample size is an order of magnitude higher than the sample size behind most of the polling results you hear on TV during an election, so it is “statistically substantial.” Even so, it was a voluntary survey so it could represent the 40% of good guys who are careful with their water and exclude the 60% who are real water wasters. To balance for that, McGourty and his colleagues kept their assumptions and other variables conservative and were subjecting their calculations to rigorous scientific evaluation by other researchers.

His punchline, however, was unmistakable: “When we analyze the data we can gather to a fairly high level of confidence, the result is clear. The vineyards are not guzzling water here. They’re sipping.”

By that he meant that out of the annual average of 350,000 acre feet of water that flows down the Navarro these days, less than 3,000 acre feet is used to irrigate vineyards in the watershed. Orchards consume far less than that.

After McGourty’s presentation, MacElwee called a break and the room began buzzing. If there’s plenty of water available and no smoking gun -- er, water pump -- in the hands of local winegrowers, who or what is threatening the fish with extinction?

A big clue to the mystery came in the presentation by Jason Pelletier of The Nature Conservancy. After running through the same data on rainfall and CFS that McGourty and others had presented, he showed us a different set of statistics: water in the Navarro by month of the year. “It seems that the problem for the fish is not the amount of water in the river for the full year,” he said. “It’s the amount of the water in the river in September.”

With that, he drew our attention to a graph showing that since 1950, the average CFS in the Navarro in September has fallen by an eye-popping 70%. MacElwee herself reported that late last summer, the Navarro was flowing at less than 1 CFS – in other words, barely at all.

That one month of slow trickle could be death to countless young fish, as their pools dry up, the leafy camouflage above the pools thins out, and hungry predators become more determined.

So I began to wonder. No vineyard is running frost protection in September – and if it is, it’s from ponds filled up the previous winter. Except for the weekend of the County Fair and a few extra picking crews in the vineyards, the population of the valley doesn’t go up in September. What other factor has arisen in the past couple of decades that could explain such a precipitous drop in stream flow during the summer?

One of them has to be wine production. In times past, a lot of Anderson Valley and Yorkville Highlands winegrapes left the valley in trucks, and were made into wine somewhere else. These days, more of the grapes are crushed, pressed and bottled here. Wine-making consumes water in a ratio that reliable sources peg at around 5 gallons of water to one gallon of wine. That sounds like a lot, but then again, local wineries don’t produce that much wine compared to other places, and something like half the wine brands that print “Anderson Valley” or “Yorkville Highlands” on their labels are not based in the watershed at all.

Some day, perhaps, we’ll get hard facts in this area. But there’s an even bigger factor looming in the watershed’s future – and that of its fish – and we may never get a fix on it.

I’m thinking of the huge illegal pot plantations I saw up in the hills while working as a firefighter during the lightning fires in 2008. The mile of plastic piping some friends had found laid across their property, connecting a clandestine woodland grow to a lovely little natural spring above Indian Creek. The dozens of huge pot plants I once stumbled onto, jammed into the bank above Anderson Creek near Boonville, without the property owner’s knowledge or consent. The many busts and CAMP raids reported in the local press every September.

Could our local marijuana farmers be sucking a significant amount of water out of the watershed during the critical dry months of summer? Needless to say, no one from that community attended the workshop or volunteered any water usage data to the UC Extension. But more than one presenter raised the point: we’ll never know how much water is being taken by undocumented agriculture, and that’s yet another reason why everyone else has to take special care to help preserve the watershed.

The workshop closed with Mandel of the Natural Resources Conservation Service explaining to the legal agriculturalists in the audience how they could get state and federal funds to conduct watershed preservation and restoration efforts. McElwee thanked everyone and promised more workshops to come. There were rounds of applause. Then everyone spilled out outside to share impressions and catch some warming sunshine after a frigid morning. It had rained a bit during the workshop, but hardly enough to make a difference in the CFS.

(To subscribe to regular email alerts about the CFS on the Navarro River, click here.

To see how NOAA Fisheries ranks the threats to coho and steelhead in the Navarro and other watersheds, click here.

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