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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Anthology: Sacramento River

This article is the first of an intermittent multi-part series to compare, contrast, and describe selected rivers and trout habitats. "Trout" will be interpreted liberally to mean members of the family "Salmonidae" including those with subterminal mouths and gaudy dorsal fins. Habitats will also be treated liberally to include lentic and lotic, natural and artificial. Readers are encouraged to add their own experiences to this chronicle, both by original articles, and by commentary.

On an early fall trip to northern California, we had the pleasure of visiting the streamcourse of the mighty Sacramento River. Draining the high altitude lava fields of northeastern California at the southern edge of the Cascade range, the Sacramento originates with the Pit and McCloud Rivers and flows about 350 miles to the San Francisco Bay delta. Even though it traverses rich agricultural lands, it holds clear water most of the year, with transparencies measured in meters over at least 75% of its course.  We never see water clarity of that kind in the large rivers of the midwest and eastern US, so it is reasonable to ask what are the differences in the origins of silt loads and turbidity between these systems.

Our analysis boils down to only three critical environmental features: flow rate, bedrock characteristics, and soil overburden.

Episodic flows occur only with winter rains and spring snowmelt. Most of the flowage comes from the windward (western) slope of the Sierras and Cascades as the Coast Range provides a rain shadow over the valley. Flow rates in the upper river are further moderated by temporary holding of headwaters in Shasta Lake for hydroelectric power generation and release later in the season.

Bedrock in the upper reaches is basalt or insoluble lava or other igneous rock, leading to very low mineral concentrations in runoff and very poor biological productivity. High gradient tributaries flowing in from the Sierras also drain insoluble granitic bedrock. Percolation is rapid from surface into groundwater aquifers through fractures and lava flow boundaries, including numerous lava tubes.

In this remarkable photo of McArthur-Burney Falls on the Fall River, we see significant flows emerging from the face of the lava wall over which the bulk of the water falls. The subterranean channels whose termini we can see at the falls form a groundwater network of great extent under the lava fields surrounding Mount Shasta.

Soil overburden is generally thin in upper reaches and held in place by evergreen forest and perennial shrubs. High altitude meadows are generally unsuitable for tillage but may support low intensity grazing on perennial grasses. Soil integrity in mountainous areas has been disturbed only by fire, clear-cut deforestation, recently being replaced by more selective logging practices, and hydraulic mining scars left over from the Nineteenth Century.

In the arid high elevations, and in the foothills below the Sierra-Cascade crest down to the Sacramento valley floor, the dominant vegetation is a drought-tolerant assemblage of oaks and evergreens interspersed in vast expanses of chaparral. Significant species of shrubs include rabbit brush, manzanita and buckthorn so entangled as to make foot passage nearly impossible in river canyons.  The density of this vegetation in the Mill Creek and Deer Creek canyons is credited with hiding the existence of Ishi, last of the California Yahi Indians, for fully 40 years in the closing decades of the Nineteenth Century.

From Redding down to the Bay Area delta, the river flows through some of the richest agricultural soils in the world. The gravels underlying modern valley soils are glacial outwash deposits no more recent than the Tioga glacial recession of about 15,000 years ago. The soils themselves are deposits of glacial fines accruing organic matter annually from vegetation cycling.  Agriculture today is mostly stone fruit and nut tree orchards with replacement schedules of decades. In the lower valley, intensive rice culture with controlled flow paddies dominates annual plantings. Further diversion of Sacramento River flows for irrigation and domestic water supplies severely limit late-season fish migration opportunities both upstream and down.

The result of all this is that high sediment loads in the Sacramento river occur only during winter flooding when flows are sufficient to scour riparian surfaces and re-suspend sediments previously deposited in the river valley. For trout and salmon, headwater habitats remain viable but the great mainstem migrations of salmon and steelhead are now gone or mere shadows of those a century ago. Severe water quality problems for over half a century in the San Francisco Bay area, combined with inadequate upstream fish passage and insufficient flows to deliver smolts to the marine environment, make the prospects grim for the remaining threatened and endangered salmonids.

One exception is the near-heroic attempt to protect and sustain the Butte Creek spring run chinook salmon.  Only time will tell if the recent management efforts and habitat restoration programs in the Sacramento River basin will be sufficient to rebuild and restore some elements of the once-great salmon and steelhead runs in the north central valley.

Prominent trout streams in the Sacramento River watershed:  McCloud R., Fall R., Hat Cr., Pit R., Deer Cr., Butte Cr., Feather R., Yuba R., American R., Sacramento R.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spring Springing

Our snow is gone except for the roadside ditches compacted by snow machines and shady wind drifts under towering banks and bluffs. It surely was a winter that came early, stayed late and caused area residents to wonder if they, too, had stayed too long. While challenging in some respects, our changing seasons are also among the wonders that annually renew themselves and our spirits. As mid-day shadows shorten, annual bird lists lengthen until once again the robins, grackles, crows and house sparrows assume their common places sprinkled with the chimes and warble of bunting, bobolink, oriole, and crane.

Curious about the flow of CamelCreek, I took the country road behind the village, over the ridge and down past the tree where, several years ago, my friend pointed out the only dickcissel that I have ever identified. At the bridge, the water was at least a foot above early summer flow, and discolored; about the maximum turbidity that trout could tolerate in following a brass spinner.
Proceeding up the creek, the dog thrust her nose into every receding snowbank, professing great interest in things that I could not see, hear or smell. The icicle stalactites, mere shadows of their bulk a month ago, but still hanging like dragons' teeth from ledges of limestone revealing the terminus of lateral aquifers on strata below the crest of the bluff.

A peripheral movement a hundred yards ahead, flash of tawny fur, pricked ears, tail full and horizontal as he glided silently over the old iron bridge.  He stopped broadside and watched us for a moment, the dog's nose buried in a snowbound burrow, my concentration on him as I fumbled for the camera in my pocket. Then, unhurried, he ascended the farm road to the west. The dog and I proceeded to the road where she suddenly lifted her nose and charged ahead to the full extent of her leash, straining to hold the lingering scent. I anchored her to a sturdy oak, found his prints in the snowmelt mud and recorded the track for later assurance that this was not a ghost or shadow, but a coyote, as we were, out to savor a fine spring day.

Cross-posted to The Renaissance Post

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spending Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Funds

The recent introduction of House File 1073 in the Minnesota legislature raises the spectre of decreasing citizen involvement in decisions about how to spend revenues generated by two amendments to the Constitution of the State of Minnesota. Among the measures proposed are establishing a Legislative Environment Commission; eliminating the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council, the Clean Water Council, and the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources; and eliminating the water system improvement loan program.

This is a perfect example of an attempt to fix something that has not yet broken. No justification for these changes has been offered by the co-authors of this bill, nor has there been any statement of dissatisfaction with how the existing councils conduct their business. Proponents of this bill have not addressed how the members of the proposed "Legislative Environment Commission" will be soliciting expert advice to guide their recommendations to the legislature. This is surprising since one of the main reasons for replacing the Legislative Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCMR) with its more recent incarnation, the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources (LCCMR), was to relieve the embarrassment of having poorly chosen funding proposals decided on a purely political basis, rather than by rigorous technical review of the merits of proposals. The conditions of appointment of citizen advisors to the LCCMR are clearly spelled out in the enabling legislation:
Per M.S. 116P. 05 as amended ML 2006 Chapter 243. (1) Have experience or expertise in the science, policy, or practice of the protection, conservation, preservation, and enhancement of the state's air, water, land, fish, wildlife, and other natural resources; (2) have strong knowledge in the state's environment and natural resource issues around the state...
Proponents of the new bill argue that this "streamlines" government in Minnesota by simply requiring legislators to make the decisions they were elected to make. This specious argument simply avoids acknowledging that the LCCMR and the other citizen-legislative councils, act only in an advisory capacity to the legislature, thus, the legislators still make all final funding decisions. And, they need to be held accountable for their votes, especially when they fly in the face of informed opinion.

In the headlong nationwide rush to "make government more efficient" we are preparing to throw the baby out with the bath water. We are demonizing unions and civil servants because they have legally negotiated contracts that provide a living wage for essential services. We have reinforced claims of government inefficiency by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy wherein agency workloads are increased beyond the capacity of existing staff while positions authorized but vacated by retirement, deaths and resignations remain unfilled.

More and more these government efficiency pronouncements are being exposed as fa├žades to cover a philosophy of "don't confuse me with the facts", cronyism, anti-intellectualism, and irrational legislation. By the refusal of elected officials to acknowledge the real costs of responsible governance, state agencies have been strangled and educational systems have been financed on the backs of an alcohol and gaming-addicted public, while the infrastructure essential to a prosperous business environment crumbles around us. Mystical mantras such as "no new taxes" and "invisible hands" are merely smoke and mirrors that substitute for carefully considered planning and legislation.

Surely, Minnesota, its citizens, and its natural resources deserve better.

Cross-posted to The Renaissance Post

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pink Squirrels and Golden Retrievers

Both have demonstrated their character in yesterday's foray to CamelCreek in quest of the wily winter trout.  We're not talking about cocktail recipes here, rather, a history of results for a well-known and variously tied trout fly.

Dawns a perfect winter fishing day: air temperatures hovering around 38°F while the water, revealing some snowmelt, was just a trifle off-color, with temps of 43°F.

Long known to Driftless Area fishermen, the Pink Squirrel, first tied by Wisconsin fly fisher John Bethke, has proven itself time after time as a reliable "attractor" nymph pattern.  No one really knows why attractor patterns attract fish since they don't imitate any known species or life stages of particular aquatic organisms. But, attract fish, they certainly do, indiscriminately duping browns and rainbows alike, in summer and winter, testifying to their appetites for squirrels or dogs.

The original tying recipe has been modified innumerable times with variations in the dubbing and collar. All seem to work, but the fox squirrel dubbing and pink chenille may challenge the fly tyer's supply house.  Yarn in colors from cream through pink to fluorescent orange will suffice for the collar, but a variation on the fur dubbing has also proven effective by my good friend and master rod builder, Dave Norling, of Minneapolis.

Dave, who breeds and trains golden retrievers (who also attend his fishing forays), ties his pink squirrels with a masterful blend of fibers salvaged from his own genetic line of loyal, faithful, true, and golden retrievers. Just as Whiting hackle attests to the value of prudent breeding in producing chicken necks, so do the photos here attest to Dave's perspicacity in dog breeding and fly tying.

So, the next time I'm out on CamelCreek or some other incarnation of karst geological drainage, perhaps it would be appropriate to raise a toast to John, Dave, trout, pink squirrels, and a continuing line of Rough (Ruff), Ready (Reddy), and all the rest--with a Pink Squirrel, of course!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Temperature Dropping

Beautiful sunny day in the driftless region of the midwest. Air temps from 10-20°F over the region at mid-day. Fishing was non-productive for me, but larger streams are producing some nice browns for other folk.  Lots of snow still on the ground but some melting obvious on south-facing slopes. Stream temperature was 43°F at 3 pm on a small tributary to the Root River near Preston, MN. This is down about 3° from last week, and the creeks, while still clear, are running about double the volumes of last week as snow melt trickles in. Expecting another major storm before next Tuesday. Stay tuned!