Comment: California needs bold new strategies to save remaining freshwater species

This comment was published in CalMatters on May 28, 2024.

Californians are blessed with a staggering variety of freshwater species. I should know: I've experienced much of that diversity firsthand while exploring the state's mountains, rivers, lakes, valleys, bays, and coastlines.

As a child, I spent so much time in the water that my family joked that I was half frog.

I have turned my passion for nature into a career: As a biologist by training, I worked for decades for the California Department of Water Resources. As a senior scientist, I have gained a better understanding of the many challenges facing our waterways and the species that call them home. Working to improve conditions for these species has been the privilege of a lifetime.

At the same time, I have witnessed a frightening and heartbreaking decline in native freshwater species. During my 30 years working in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, I watched in dismay as an entire fish population disappeared, resulting in six different fish species (including the winter-running Chinook salmon) being placed on the state and federal endangered species lists.

We now live in a world where a few extreme events—a few heat waves or a major wildfire—could wipe out some of California's native freshwater species. And climate change, which is happening faster than predicted, is making it even more difficult to save these species.

Many ecologists, agency officials, and others have worked for decades to improve conditions for California's native species. But our efforts have not been enough. The window of opportunity to save these species is closing faster than we'd like to admit. Despite many laudable programs and well-intentioned efforts, California lacks a full-fledged statewide strategy to protect native freshwater species in the face of climate change.

This has inspired a new report from the Public Policy Institute of California detailing what is needed to address the crisis. In the report, we explain why the worst impacts of climate change on our freshwater species are unlikely to be averted if we continue on the same path—or even do better.

California needs a new approach. We have to take risks.

Much of what we are currently doing to improve aquatic habitat is important to help species adapt to changing conditions. To be successful, we need to significantly diversify our actions, including through bold new approaches.

It is time to develop a portfolio of measures to protect these species.

This approach should go far beyond simply restoring habitat. Focusing on habitat alone has not helped California's unique freshwater species, and threats are increasing with climate change. We must use existing and new technologies to support and replenish populations, restore connections to historic habitats, and even relocate species when necessary. And we must take action to improve genetic diversity, an underappreciated but necessary prerequisite for responding to climate change.

We must also have the courage to admit that some species may disappear from their historic ranges despite our efforts. Therefore, immediate investment should be made in a historic species conservation programme, including tissue archives, genetic libraries and seed banks of native species to facilitate future reintroductions.

Finally, climate-smart conservation planning must be embedded in all efforts to protect native freshwater species. Any action must not only help restore and protect biodiversity today, but also consider the future.

Having spent my entire life enjoying, studying, and trying to protect California's remarkable freshwater species, I've seen firsthand how quickly conditions change and how difficult it is for us to respond.

Saving this vital resource will require bold new approaches to conservation and the courage to take risks – not just for biologists like me, but for all Californians and for generations to come.

Anna Harden

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