Elder Creek

To discuss the history of Elder Creek or any California creek or river without some understanding of the climatic history since the last ice age would be inadequate. For example, this past century was wetter than most in California in the last 7000 years1. Even more relevant, California was industrialized and its natural waterways re-engineered to suit agriculturalists and urbanites during the wettest 120-year period in the last 2000 years. And climate scientists say we are overdue for a long, dry spell.

South Fork of Elder Creek, August 2012

Elder Creek, compared to what it was 150 years ago, is a desertifying watershed. That may sound dramatic, but historical evidence and data supports this statement. Of the entire 65-year period for which records have been kept, at the measuring station near the confluence of its main forks, the creek has gone dry nine times, but three of those were in the last eight years. Additionally, the creek reached low levels (near stagnation) 23 of those years, but seven of those were in the last 13 years. Almost all of the springs that existed in the 1800s went dry even before the current drought. In most years, seasonal drainages feeding the creek that previously flowed for months in the rainy season, now only flow intermittently following storms. In the last two decades or more, valley oaks dependent on creek groundwater have been dying at ages and sizes 1/8 to 1/4 of what they used to achieve, and the rate of death is accelerating.

The headwaters of the creek in the Yolla Bolly mountains have been heavily logged, starting in the 1940s. The only official water flow data we have for Elder Creek begins in 1948, near the end of the first decade of logging. That means that we have no data clearly showing the effects of logging on hydrology or sedimentation on aquatic life in this watershed. However, the destructive effects of logging are well-documented elsewhere, and the resulting sedimentation of the creek has become the new norm, one that causes a steady decline in the aquatic life in the creek.[i]. So we can deduce that 70 years of logging means 70 years of deterioration of biotic integrity. We know that logging has greatly decreased since the 80’s, but the recovery seems unlikely given the drier period we seem to have entered.

Our Indigenous Sacramento Valley section gives many details of the abundance of life from the era of first European contact with indigenous Californians, but for a quick summary, consider that when Europeans first arrived in this region, springs were common throughout Nomlaki territory. The headwaters of all three forks of Elder Creek were surrounded by intact forests containing many old-growth stands, and at the lower elevations, valley oaks matured to massive sizes. Most native plant and animal populations were tens to hundreds of times greater than they are today. Salmon were so plentiful they filled the Sacramento River when returning from the ocean, venturing at least 15 miles up the main creek.

Dying valley oaks, South Fork of Elder Creek, August, 2012

All of this abundance existed even though two severe droughts lasting a century or longer happened twice in California in the last 1100 years. These droughts totaled about 400 years out of a 450-year period (c.900-1350)[ii] followed by a severe 33-year long drought in the second half of the 1400’s.[iii] And compared to the 20th century, the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were also dry. So somehow, with significantly less water for most of the 1000 years prior to European arrival in the Sacramento Valley, this region was far more vibrant with life and abundant with water than it is today.

According to some climatic models, a third mega-drought may now be upon us. It will be “permanent” from our perspective and that of at least the next three generations of humans. Tree ring records and descriptions of the “paradise” that this region was prior to European arrival, indicate that these mega-droughts are endurable by stable, unpolluted biological communities. But our watershed today is far from that, and the big drought has just begun. For all life in this watershed, including us humans, this is a crisis.

Aside from the way humans have treated the land in the last 165 years, what else could explain why this watershed seems to be desertifying when, given the climatic history, it ought to be more fertile than ever and easily capable of enduring a century-long drought? If human practices are causing the creek’s demise, common sense tells us it is way past time to change those practices. We’ve come up with this list of the most destructive activities responsible for the decline of Elder Creek: logging and its associated road-building in the headwaters, deforestation of oak woodlands, genocide of indigenous people and their traditional land care practices, local extinction of elk and antelope, local near-extinction of beavers, the replacement of perennial bunch grasses with annual non-natives, unlimited access by livestock to the creek, set-stock grazing of livestock during the growing season, intensive development and agriculture, pumping from the creek, drilling wells close to the creek, blocking salmon migration at the Corning Canal Siphon, diverting water from the creek to Oat Creek, and herbicide and pesticide use.

Freshwater snail shells in dry creek bed, South Fork of Elder Creek, September, 2012

Given the crisis and that the mega-drought is only just beginning, we believe all inhabitants, human and non-human, would benefit by setting and adhering to some water extraction and use parameters that require the basic necessities for all life in this watershed be met. We have changed our behavior and encourage others to do the same because business as usual will continue to drive the life right out of the watershed. Global climate change may transform this region into a desert regardless of our actions, but as we see it, we may as well do whatever we can to improve the chances of survival of the watershed’s plants and animals—and our place among them.

i ” . . . Soil experts of the Department of Agriculture have shown recently that the silt now carried by the Mississippi River greatly exceeds in volume that which was carried by this same river only a few years ago,… The silting-in overwhelms the bottom fauna faster than it is able to adjust itself, with a result that many species are being eliminated or greatly reduced in numbers.” from THE INFLUENCES OF INORGANIC SEDIMENT ON THE AQUATIC LIFE OF STREAMS, CALIFORNIA FISH and GAME, VOLUME 47 No. 2, APRIL, 1961.

ii Megadroughts in North America: placing IPCC projections of hydroclimatic change in a long-term palaeoclimate context, Cook, Seager, Heim, Vose, Herweifer and Woodhouse, Journal of Quaternary Science, 2009.

iii Central Valley Droughts Over Last 1,000 Years, David M. Meko, Ph.D., Associate Research Professor, Tree-Ring Laboratory, University of Arizona.