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Wildlife refuges grapple with California drought's impact

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

"Salmon are among the hardiest creatures on Earth. They survived the California mega-droughts of the Middle Ages. Yet they are dying in California’s rivers."

June 12, 2015

Hundreds of White-faced Ibis take off at dawn while Greg Jackson, Engineering Equipment Operator at Merced National Wildlife Refuge drives past on his way to check on a well April 16, 2015 in Merced, Calif. The refuge is a restored wildlife area that reflects the habitat that used to be found in the Central Valley and provides much-needed breeding and wintering habitat for thousands of birds. Because of the drought, the refuge received no surface water allocation and were forced to pump groundwater to keep up the wetlands and the crops they grow for habitat. Leah Millis/The Chronicle

Like farmers throughout the San Joaquin Valley, managers at the Merced National Wildlife Refuge are pumping groundwater just to survive.

“We were told we’re not getting any surface water this year, so we have to rely on deep well pumps,” said Greg Jackson, who used to grow rice and now “farms” native plants and wildlife for the refuge. The 10,258-acre site near Merced is one of a handful of refuges that make up what’s left of the Central Valley’s wetlands — about 6 percent of the original 6 million acres.

The Merced refuge was able to flood only half its wetlands this year. It has been completely cut off from its main source at Lake McClure reservoir. Groundwater levels have been dropping, and land just south of the refuge has sunk several feet because of farmers’ pumping.

The refuge is the winter home of 20,000 lesser sandhill cranes and 60,000 Arctic-nesting Ross’s geese, the largest populations of both species along the Pacific Flyway.

Wildlife “can always find a place to go, until there are no more places to go,” said Madeline Yancey, the refuge’s visitor specialist. “If they don’t have the water, they perish.”

Rene Henery, California science director for the conservation group Trout Unlimited, is experimenting with salmon restoration at the refuge. The populations of at least half a dozen native fish once common in Central Valley waterways — two runs of salmon, delta and longfin smelt, steelhead trout and sturgeon — are plummeting and could soon be gone forever.

Farmers blame municipal sewage and invasive species. Some also say extinctions are a natural part of evolution. They say the environment should bear its share of suffering during the drought.

From the viewpoint of wildlife scientists, there’s not much left to give. Salmon are among the hardiest creatures on Earth. They survived the California mega-droughts of the Middle Ages.

Yet they are dying in California’s rivers. Already, about 80 percent are raised in hatcheries.

“If salmon can’t survive in your river, that should tell you something,” said Jon Rosenfield, a fish biologist at the Bay Institute, an environmental group. “They are telling us that our system is moving beyond its limits. They’re like the guardrails on the side of the highway. When you hear that screeching sound, you don’t just keep turning into it.”

Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead

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