Field notes: rain and watersheds

Salmon returning to Redwood Creek. Created by Robin L. Chandler. Copyright 2010 National Park Service.

In early January 2011, we participated in what is becoming a beloved annual ritual: naturalist guided creek walks in the Lagunitas watershed seeking glimpses of Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout who have come home to spawn.  The Marin County based Salmon Protection and Watershed Network (SPAWN) is committed to restoring habitat, building community partnerships, and passing legislation supporting the survival of endangered Coho Salmon and Steelhead Trout in California and the Pacific Basin. Thankfully SPAWN is not alone; all along the Northern California coast educational, research and non-profit organizations are engaged in activities to save endangered fish species. In Marin county, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy is engaged in restoring salmon habitat along Redwood Creek and the river’s mouth at Muir Beach. While in Santa Cruz, increasing numbers of steelhead smolts are making their way along the San Lorenzo River back to the sea. Scientists attribute these rising numbers of Steelhead to increased rainfall and the efforts of citizens to reduce urban runoff and improve habitat.  These inroads are so important because some efforts in Southern California are foundering; recently the California Coastal Conservancy’s was forced to abandon’s its work to restore the Steelhead to San Mateo Creek in San Diego County.

For the past few years, we have been blessed with observing a pair or two of Salmon – their bodies touched with crimson – swimming upstream and building nests — called Redds – in preparation for laying eggs. But seeing these beautiful creatures is a rarity. Typically annual counts on the Lagunitas and San Geronimo creeks number only in the 60s.  Writing about Steelhead in The Sespe Wild, Bradley John Monsma described California a few centuries ago when “thousands of fish, fattened from the ocean, pool near the mouths of rivers…before dashing upstream to gravel spawning beds in the mountains.” Rain and healthy watersheds are essential for the survival of Salmon and Steelhead; rain provides easy passage for the journey upstream to lay eggs, and give birth to fry. Rain emboldens rivers and creeks to break the sand barriers to the sea permitting smolt to begin the ocean phase of their life.

People make a huge difference in building healthy watersheds. We need to care, we need to understand that our lives are better because these animals are part of our world. We need to grasp that we are living in a biodiversity crisis that can only be resolved by our understanding the power of our different interdependent lives.  Monsma quoting the human ecologist Paul Shepard writes “with the loss of species, we may be losing something essential to our humanity. It may be that we can approach the depth of ourselves only in relation to a diverse and healthy ecosystem” suggesting that mature societies are those that are “characterized by a view broad and forgiving involving a sense of the larger gift of life, a realistic sense of the self and other, a sense of the talents of generosity and circumspection.”

In the shadow of the ancients

The Topatopa bluffs are part of the Condor Sanctuary in the Sespe Wilderness; the sanctuary is a space where the Condors can mate, breed and raise their chicks undisturbed by humans.  At sunset seen from the Ojai Valley, the bluffs glow “pink” from the last rays of the setting sun.

Topatopa Bluffs near Ojai. Copyright 2010 Robin L. Chandler

With their nine foot wingspan, Condors glide at fifty-five miles per hour ranging three hundred miles a day on the look for expired creatures that will sustain them.  Bradley John Monsma in The Sespe Wild writes “attempting to see the lay of the land through the eye of the condor quickly turns a wide-angle wilderness into a lesson in the limitations that we impose on other species.”  The Sespe is a crucial link in the foraging habitat used by the Condor for thousands of years ranging from the the Ventana Wilderness through the Sespe and Tejon Ranch to the Sierra Nevadas. Humankind continues to encroach upon the condor’s “home” as rolling oak grasslands situated along I-5 north of Los Angeles too often become real estate development opportunities.  But sometimes people do get it right.  In May 2008, a coalition of conservation groups – the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society of California negotiated a conservation easement to preserve 178,000 acres in Fort Tejon that will supplement the public lands forming the condor habitat.  There are approximately seventy condors in the wild and space and water are key to their survival.  I marvel at the condor’s ability to daily traverse a “u-shaped” area from Big Sur to the Range of Light.

Mt. Whitney and the Range of Light. Copyright 2008 Robin L. Chandler

Their need for habitat, fires my imagination contributing to my personal geography.  As Stephen S. Hall writes in his essay I Mercator in the book You Are Here, “I have roamed across state lines and oceans and continents, backwards in time, each thought colored according to a personal legend, corresponding to the elevation and depressions of my private humors: pride, wonder, sadness, remorse.”  We are here, now, navigating our personal maps, facing the emptiness of our  intelligence in a space and time where nature balances precariously between our greed and our benevolence.