Keystone Species are Watershed Stewards
“One of the ways we try to restore watersheds is working with keystone species. Beaver are a native keystone species to North America, and they provide amazing ecosystem services through their damming, through their canaling, through their felling of trees and all the different disturbances that they put on the landscape; they create amazing little oases.”
Kate Lundquist, Director of The Water Institute
Beavers: The Original Landscape Engineers
Beavers build dams that create opportune slow-water habitats for juvenile salmon and dozens of other species but are misunderstood and have long been under pressure from human activities.
Beavers’ life cycles inherently enhance ecosystems’ health because they are actively engineering those ecosystems which, to borrow a phrase from biomimic and naturalist Janine Benyus, creates conditions conducive to life.
Kate Lundquist, who is working to reintroduce beavers into California to help rehydrate the landscape in the face of extended drought, explained in a Bioneers interview how beaver dams work: “A beaver dam is like a sieve. It traps sediment. It slows water down. It reconnects streams to their floodplains. It helps attenuate the force of floods, and it creates wet zones that are more resilient in fire.”
Brock Dolman’s permaculture mantra of “slow it, spread it, sink it” was inspired by observing those master landscape hydrologists, Castor canadensis and Castor fiber. In his book Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, Ben Goldfarb writes: “Beavers are nothing less than continental forces of nature, in large part responsible for sculpting the land upon which we Americans built our towns and raised our food. Beavers shaped North America’s ecosystems, its human history, its geology. They whittled our world, and they could again – if, that is, we learn to treat them as allies instead of adversaries.”
Beavers, like so many other native species, became a commodity when they were encountered by the ambitious and rapacious endeavors of the ecologically illiterate European settlers seduced by profit. Prized for their warm, water-resistant pelts, which were turned into hats for fashionable Easterners and Europeans, they were hunted and trapped to near extinction, and the environment paid a hefty price.
Goldfarb describes the cost of that short-sightedness: “The disappearance of beavers dried up wetlands and meadows, hastened erosion, altered the course of countless streams and imperiled water-loving fish, fowl, and amphibians– an aquatic Dustbowl…When we wiped out hundreds of millions of beavers, we also changed the landscape and the waterscape in ways that made it harder for beavers to return to those places. When you eliminate a beaver, you lose all those beaver-built speed bumps, those dams that are pushing water out onto the flood plain and slowing down flows. There’s nothing checking water velocity. You often get erosion and fission, and the stream just erodes to bedrock, and you end up with a firehose-like stream channel that’s a very hard place for a beaver to build a dam. We actually lost a lot of the potential beaver carrying capacity as a result of trapping.”
In an interview with Teo Grossman of Bioneers, Goldfarb extolled the many virtues of beavers’ role in landscapes: “They’re fantastic pollution control agents. They’re basically creating these little settling ponds where nitrates, phosphorus, heavy metals and pesticides can settle out… They create these fantastic fire refugia and firebreaks on the landscape, these wet areas where the vegetation is really lush and thus doesn’t burn. And with climate change reducing snowpack and its valuable distribution function as a slow-release water distributor, thousands of leaky beaver dams could slow the increased and higher velocity flow from the mountains enough to recharge water tables.”
Beavers have made a healthy comeback in many regions, but their population is still a fraction of what it was before colonization. No longer prized for their pelts, beavers are often considered pests by landowners, but a growing number of the most eco-aware of those tasked with the management of the degraded, eroded, arid landscapes of the Western U.S. are working to heal those lands by painstakingly reintroducing nature’s most astute and industrious landscape engineers – beavers.
The Fish That Can Climb Mountains
Salmon is the most well-known of the anadromous fish species, those that are born in freshwater, spend most of their lives in saltwater and then migrate back upstream to spawn at the end of their lifecycle. They mediate the nutrient cycle between the Pacific Ocean and the freshwater rivers and streams of the largest temperate rainforest of the world in the Pacific Northwest. Scientists from Washington State University have identified 130 animal species that eat salmon as part of their diet.
Their bodies carry nutrients from the ocean, including nitrogen, sulfur, carbon, calcium and phosphorus far inland. After spawning and dying, their decomposing mineral-rich bodies help support and enrich a tremendously productive forest biome. Their nourishing influence extends from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains as far inland as Idaho. Salmon DNA has been found in an astounding range of species from the canopy of the majestic western conifers to the diminutive bodies of spiders.
It is no wonder that the Indigenous people of “Salmon Nation” from Northern California to Alaska base their cultures, economies, diets and religious ceremonies around this iconic fish. In a reflection of its role as a keystone species of their ecosystem, these Indigenous peoples revere salmon as one of their cultural anchors without which their traditions, health and lifeways begin to fray and unravel.
Salmon are a Keystone Species
Scroll through to learn about the vital role salmon play in their ecosystem.
Salmon mediate the nutrient cycle between the Pacific Ocean and the freshwater rivers and streams of the largest temperate rainforest of the world in the Pacific Northwest.
Salmon spend most of their lives in saltwater and then migrate back upstream to spawn at the end of their lifecycle.
Throughout their journey, they are an important source of nutrients for at least 130 animal species, including bears, eagles, otters, kingfishers, and wolves.
At sea, salmon feed on algae, which contains nitrogen, sulfur, carbon, calcium and phosphorus, making them a nutrient-rich meal for whales, sea birds, orcas, sharks, halibut, tuna, seals, and people.
Photo © Matt Mais/ Yurok Tribe
Photo © Matt Mais/ Yurok Tribe
Photo © Matt Mais/ Yurok Tribe
After spawning and dying, their decomposing mineral rich bodies also help support and enrich a tremendously productive forest biome.
When bears, wolves and eagles drop partially eaten salmon carcasses that decompose on the forest floor, they distribute nitrogen and other nutrients throughout the forest.
Salmon DNA has been found in an astounding range of species from the canopy of the majestic western conifers to the diminutive bodies of spiders.
“The Winnemem Wintu leaders were very concerned about what was happening to salmon, and they had seen what happened to the beaver and what happened to many of the other animals, and in fact was happening to Indigenous people. Our belief is that we are so connected to salmon that if something happens to salmon, it happens to us.”
Caleen Sisk, Chief of the Winneman Wintu Tribe of the Cloud River
MORE FROM CALEEN SISK HERE
California and Pacific Northwest salmon populations have been declining for more than a century-and-a-half, ever since the massive environmental degradation brought about by the Gold Rush. That decline continues today with overfishing, dams, habitat degradation, and urban and agricultural pollution.
The attack on salmon began with the voracious exploitation by settlers who dramatically depleted salmon stocks. By 1883, canneries had become the major industry on the Columbia River, with 1,700 gillnet boats supplying 39 canneries with over 15,000 tons of salmon annually. The infamous 49er gold miners used hydraulic pumps that eroded hills and mountains and dumped silt into tributaries of the Sacramento River, destroying salmon habitat as far as the San Francisco Bay, the West Coast’s largest estuary. Estuaries play a critical role in the life cycle of salmon. When they leave fresh water as juveniles – and again when returning from the saline conditions of the ocean as spawning adults – salmon must go through hormonal changes to adapt to their new environment. The brackish water of estuaries provides the ideal conditions for those transitions.
The proliferation of dams that were built throughout the West also radically reduced water flows, blocked salmons’ ability to migrate upstream to spawn, and raised critical water temperatures, further challenging salmon survival. Water diversions for agriculture, especially in times of severe drought and climate change, have often left insufficient river flows for salmon.
This confluence of insults and abuses to the totemic species of Salmon Nation has depleted West Coast salmon runs, in some cases by up to 99%.
Working with Farmers to Find Fish Friendly Solutions
“Environmentalists have to realize that farmers are part of this solution, and the farmers have to realize that conservationists are not the enemy.”
Journalist Mike Dunbar in the film: California Water: Until the Last Drop
This section is an edited, adapted excerpt from Mary Ann King’s presentation at a Bioneers Field Day on Water and Agriculture.
When Mary Ann King, California Water Project Director for Trout Unlimited, helped start the California Coastal Stream Flow Project (CCFP) to make the ecological health of watersheds the guiding principle for how water is managed on the landscape, there was a contentious, ongoing struggle over water allocations for farms versus fish. She and her colleagues understood that the tenor of the conversation had to change, and that they would have to find ways to work cooperatively with the agricultural community if they were going to be able to restore flow in dry creeks and reconnect disconnected streams to rivers. Without the cooperation of landowners and farmers, it wasn’t going to be possible to make the changes needed to protect threatened and endangered fish populations. Many people were understandably skeptical that they could convince farmers to participate in projects designed to benefit fish.
The streams where CCFP worked drain directly into the Pacific in a region with a Mediterranean type of climate (wet winters and very dry summers), and their flows follow rainfall very closely. It is not a snow-melt-dominated system in which water gets released slowly and can sustain stream flows through the summer and fall. Salmon very often depend heavily on smaller tributaries, which serve as their nursery streams, and these small waterways are seriously affected by even small water diversions. We tend to think of large infrastructure such as dams as being the major impediment to fish migrations and survival, but constant decentralized small water diversions by many people dependent on creek flows in the dry season also pose a serious problem.
Juvenile and spawning coho salmon, chinook salmon and steelhead trout have evolved in these coastal streams and climate, and they’ve adapted their life cycles to its conditions over millennia. When coho salmon become three-year-old adults, they move upstream to spawn. When their eggs hatch, the resulting juveniles have to make it through the entire summer until the next spring in that watershed. They have to survive through the dry period in the streams to be able to migrate out to sea once water flows pick up. Juvenile fish are especially vulnerable during the low-flow summer season, and water diversions for various purposes (as well as the dramatic alterations humans have made to the landscape the last two centuries) seriously impact different parts of the life cycles of these fish, depending on the timing and extent of those diversions.
But the reverse is also true: sometimes a very small addition of water can make a significant difference. Putting a little bit of water back in streams at strategic times can reconnect pools and result in much higher rates of over-summer survival for the fish. Changes in how water is managed even in small amounts can make a huge difference for fish.
Agricultural water diversions for frost protection can be especially impactful on the ability of young fish to migrate to the ocean. As frost sets in, cold air sinks, and grape growers use a few strategies to protect against frost. One of them involves using a lot of water: overhead sprinklers spray water on the vines, and the heat released as the water freezes protects the grapes from freezing overnight. This can be detrimental to fish because a lot of growers in one place doing that at the same time creates a diversion rate that radically lowers stream flows during particularly vulnerable periods.
CCFP worked with some vineyard owners on Grape Creek, a small stream in the Dry Creek Valley of Healdsburg, California, to develop an alternative strategy. Some of the vineyards installed fans to protect grapes from the frost instead of using water. At one vineyard where fans weren’t viable, CCFP helped construct an off-stream pond, filled from a well. That eliminated about half of the water diverted from the stream for frost protection. The pond also helped that grower make it through a drought. He was skeptical at the beginning, but ultimately said that he wouldn’t have made it through the drought with his previous set-up, a constructed in-stream dam.
A major challenge is that rainfall patterns and stream flows don’t dovetail with human needs that often require more water when natural flows are at their lowest. Fans and well-fed ponds are examples of smart interventions that can help reduce water diversions during the short critical time periods during which fish migrate to the ocean.
CCFP works on a range of projects that benefit fish from San Luis Obispo to Sonoma County, adapting the project to property owners’ needs and conditions. As part of The Morro Bay Estuary Program, in partnership with California Polytechnic State University, CCFP installed water holding tanks at a number of schools, camps and conference centers.
They also worked with Jackson Family Wines to modify infrastructure that was impeding fish passage on Yellow Jacket Creek in Sonoma, helping open up two miles of aquatic habitat, and, in the process, reducing Jackson Wines’ summer water use.
With the help of CCFP, the town of Bodega, California, in the Salmon Creek watershed, installed rainwater harvesting systems at its fire department and in residents’ homes. CCFP also worked with a small water district and three farmers in the Russian River watershed to release water from ponds to improve water flow and boost oxygen levels in the local creeks.
There is No Substitute for Water
By Arty Mangan, Director of Restorative Food Systems, Bioneers
Some years ago, I visited Earth University in Costa Rica, where students study sustainable agriculture as applied to the humid tropics. As part of their field studies, the students work with local farmers for a year. I traveled to a rural village where some of the students were doing their fieldwork. The village had just installed a plumbing system that for the first time delivered running water just outside of people’s modest homes. Now the drudgery of having to haul water from a community well was a thing of the past. As a farmer proudly turned on the valve to display the marvel of flowing water from the faucet, tears flowed down his face. The confluence of the symbolism and the reality were striking; it was an emotional moment and a revelation for me. As a middle-class person who grew up in the suburbs of New York, I never had the slightest notion of how precious a gift water is. I took the convenience of running water in my home for granted.
In the article, “Women Still Carry Most of the World’s Water,” Bethany Caruso describes a harsh reality surrounding water in poorer nations that is radically different than what most people in the “developed” world experience: “In Asia and Africa, women walk an average of 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) per day collecting water. Carrying such loads over long distances can result in strained backs, shoulders and necks, and other injuries.” That’s what some people have to endure because there is no substitute for water. Water is life! But we have blindly mismanaged our most precious resource.
“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.”
Agriculture is often criticized for using the bulk of the global freshwater supply, and industrial agriculture is indeed profligate in its use of water, but it is misguided to treat food production as just another business competing for resources in the capitalist marketplace. Food is also life. Nevertheless, agriculture needs to adapt to the changes that the times in which we live demand.
Industrial agriculture is a major contributor to a number of crises – soil erosion, pollution of air and water, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss and more. It no longer makes sense to allocate 70% of available water to a system that has such devastating consequences. But crisis can be the wake-up call that compels us to work more in harmony with nature and to design and manage human-serving systems that respect other species and the limits of local ecosystems.
Water conservation strategies such as tanks, drip irrigation, healthy soil practices, rainwater catchment, the stewarding of keystone species, etc. are readily available and cost effective. Recycled water at the municipal level is a great opportunity and a worthy investment in community water security. Soil managed properly is paramount to eliminating life-destroying agricultural chemicals and harnessing the power of water on farms. In this era of saltwater intrusion, over-drafted aquifers, and mega-droughts, every drop of water counts.
“Thinking like a watershed” is not an abstract concept; it is a real-world, pragmatic approach to how we live on the land. We now have no choice but to increasingly harmonize our activities with natural systems. Our own survival and the survival of many other species depend on it.
When it comes to water, we must, as Brock Dolman, co-director of the WATER Institute, says “live within the water budget that our local ecosystem provides, and embed in our designs, our everyday decisions and our work, ways that slow it, spread it, sink it.” And above all, care for it, because our lives depend on it.