Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Letting the Rivers Teach: Of Memories and Science


By Paul Bakke, Geomorphologist, Washington fish and Wildlife Office
All science begins with observation.  Although that statement may seem too obvious to mention, its truth becomes more difficult to hold when we are dealing with rivers, which can look so different from winter to summer, and which can seem to present the same features for years, only to change radically overnight.  After all, the rivers have been here much longer than each of us, so it becomes a challenge to recount their story accurately.  What we see today is merely a snapshot in time.  Change that occurs slowly tends to be imperceptible to us.  And from the long-term perspective, what we remember a river to be like over our short lifetime may not, in fact, be the normal or stable form.
The mark of a good scientist, like Luna Leopold, whom I introduced in a previous post (http://wordfromwild.blogspot.com/2013/08/letting-rivers-teach-leopold-revisited_12.html) is to be able to synthesize a great many observations into a coherent story relating what we see at one point in time, that is, the form of the river, with universal natural processes, which not only act upon this river, but on all rivers, throughout time.  To reiterate, the “form” of a river, that is, its shape, is like a snapshot.    Processes, such as erosion and deposition of sediment, are the forces that act to produce and change that form.   Processes, you will recall, are more like a video than a snapshot.  And to study these forces of change, we need to be patient, carefully documenting the way things change over rather long periods of time, and observing many different rivers to look for patterns. 
Seeking rivers that still had their natural processes of erosion and deposition mostly intact, Luna Leopold and other scientists made careful observations and measurements of channel form, and then put these observations together to create mathematical models like those in the graph, below, that allow us to predict the stable form of a river channel.  For example, in Western Washington, a river with a watershed area of 100 square miles would be expected, on average, to have a “bankfull” width of 93 feet and depth of 4.4 feet, for a water discharge of 2350 cubic feet per second.  “Bankfull” refers to the condition when the channel is full to the top of its bank and just ready to spill over onto its natural floodplain.  Because the floodplain is such a consistent feature of alluvial rivers, the bankfull channel dimensions work well (at least, much of the time) as an index to compare one river with another, and to judge whether a river is in a stable condition or not.

Figure 1.   Average bankfull channel dimensions for Pacific maritime mountain streams, showing observed relationship between drainage area and cross sectional area, average depth, and average width.  Data from Castro and Jackson, 2003.

In natural settings, the channel slope, curvature, width, depth and sizes of rocks making up the streambed adjust together into a configuration that allows an approximate balance between erosion and deposition.  When such a balance exists, the river can persist in roughly the same shape or form for long periods of time.  The channel is stable.  Note that “stable” does not mean “static.” Streambanks will erode, but that erosion will be approximately balanced by sediment deposition.  So “stable” means that the shape, in terms of average width, depth, slope and curvature, persists over time, even though the river may relocate its channel as it continually transports and rearranges the sediment that comprises its banks and bed.  If the form of the river is changed, this balance will be upset. 

The position of “bankfull” can serve as a clue for identifying imbalance.  Excessive erosion causes the streambed to drop in elevation, making it impossible for the moderate floods to reach the floodplain.  In other words, the “top of the streambank” no longer functions to disperse floodwaters and reduce erosive forces.  Alternatively, excessive deposition reduces the capacity of the channel to contain its flow, causing the channel to widen by eroding its banks.  The river no longer is bounded by the “top of bank,” and will flow across the floodplain more often, eroding new channels and depositing sediment in new places.  In both of these examples, the “bankful” channel dimensions have been disrupted.  And there are other ways of disrupting the form of a river, such by dredging it for depth or for gravel mining, or by artificially straightening or confining  it, as in the photo below.

Figure 2.  Walla Walla River near Milton Freewater, Oregon, during the winter of 1964-1965.  The flooding river burst through its dikes, re-creating the meandering pattern similar to the stable form which had existed prior to modification by humans.
Why do we care about this?  A river in balance is self-sustaining, meaning its form and thus its habitat features will remain consistent over time.  A river locked into a form that doesn’t allow a balance of processes will always be at risk of breaking out of its confines, of tearing itself apart.  This instability puts habitat and infrastructure and investment in restoration at risk. 
A river that was modified years ago may fool us into thinking that it is stable.  But the processes of erosion and deposition are relentless.  Eventually, something breaks.  When this happens, it starts the slow process of change back to a form that balances the processes of erosion and deposition.   That form, ultimately, may be quite different from what we remember.   Meanwhile, we have a choice.  Do we let nature take its course, allowing the river time and elbow room to regain a stable form?  Do we put it back into its former modified state, knowing full well that we will be doing that again and again? Or do we intervene by constructing a stable form, speeding up the recovery and giving the river some room for future adjustments?
Scientists have the difficult task of figuring out what the consequences of these choices will be.  For this, it is essential that they collect measurements on rivers that still have their processes intact.  These rivers can serve as models for a resilient, self-sustaining channel form.     A resilient form is capable of surviving disturbances, such as large floods, with few long-term effects.  Recovery tends to be more rapid, and in the direction of known, stable channel forms.  More about what those forms are in a future blog entry!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Pacific Lamprey Geocaching Adventure

Geocaching enthusiasts and friends of Pacific Lamprey, please join us in a new adventure. Travel bugs have been launched in the Pacific Northwest in four different locations. One lamprey travel bug is hiding in a geocache somewhere along the mouth of the Columbia River at a historic site in Washington. Another is hiding somewhere in a culturally-significant and historical site on Yakama Nation land in Toppenish. Two more are soon to be adventuring around the Portland area and Clearwater Basin in Idaho. (Check here for new information.) Please help them migrate. Don't forget to take your picture with the bug and log your entry into geocaching.com.

Pacific Lamprey Travel Bug

For more information:

Pacific Lamprey Geocaching Fact Sheet
Pacific Lamprey Geocaching Project News Release

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Connecting Children with Nature

There’s no doubt that fishing and camping as a child had an influence in my career choice and implemented a lifelong conservation ethic in me.  In particular, my dad and my oldest sister’s-husband fished with me from a very young age and through my teenage years and family camping excursions occurred often.  Some of my best memories growing up are fishing trips with my Dad in western South Dakota. 

Now that I have a family, spending time outside, camping and especially fishing are activities we want our girls to experience while they’re growing up.  They’re at ages where their curiosity is sky-high and it’s just a matter of getting them out to experience nature and explore.

They both have been fishing before but this year we bought both of them fishing poles in the winter and told them they should get used to using them for the summer during our camping and fishing trips.  After the girls endured an excruciating 5-second introduction of casting by me, the poles were immediately snatched from my hand for their own attempts with a sponge fish or a bobber on the end of the line so nobody gets hurt.  Frustration ensued but after a short period of coaching and correction they both figured it out.  Periodically over the next few months, I would see one or both of the girls with their poles outside casting toward the tree in our front yard, or even the neighborhood kids having a turn at casting.  A few times we had to establish that casting was not something that needed to occur in the living room near breakable items but could happen in the driveway or yard anytime they wanted to practice. 

I was cleaning out our garage this spring and had our camping gear strewn about but was able to capture some of their spontaneity with the poles and excitement for our two big summer camping/fishing trips.  Notice the excellent technique!


Our first trip this summer fishing and camping was a big success!  First I should define success ….. getting the girls out in nature and getting a pole in their hands.  We didn’t catch fish on the trip but here’s some of what we did and talked about:

·        Will we eat what we catch?  This was discussed on the way to the lake with our poles and was a fairly in-depth and long discussion almost exclusively between the girls but they decided that they should if it was big and would not if it was a “kid” fish.  Our youngest had pointed out to me that in the movie Brave that Merida and her mom, Elinor, caught and ate fish together when Elinor was turned into a bear.  I said that our fishing would be similar but different.   

·        Salmon eggs vs. worms vs. lures.  What are lures and how do they look attactive to eat? Our oldest compared lures to earrings like Grandma wears but not the same thing.. a good observation, I thought.

·        Osprey  and what they are doing flying above the lake (we also saw them dive on fish and carry their meals back to eat).  Very exciting!  The girls deducted fish were present in the lake and the potential to catch something was palpable with the osprey successfully “fishing”.    

·        What are those things swimming by the shore? (Newts) Are those fish? (Amphibians) So they are frogs? (Similar). Why aren’t they fish? (scales vs. skin and terrestrial and/or aquatic lifestyle). Will we catch them?  (maybe).  We followed them along the shoreline watching them swim, pop their heads up and search for food.  What do they eat? (good question).  What’s that? (A crayfish)  Is it alive? (after a stick invesitgation by the girls it was determined dead).  Can we touch it? (Sure).  Are there more? (Likely).  Will we catch them? (Maybe).  I said bigger fish likely eat them in the lake which got our older daughter staring into the distance to paint that mental image, which appeared enthralling by her expression.
Anyway, a small snippet of our excursions and all told and we probably fished for a total of 3 hours over our entire camping trip before rainy weather, cold or wind played a role for deciding to move on.  Not as much time fishing as we had hoped but still a huge success and a lot of fun for them. 


If you’re thinking about how to get a kid out fishing or into nature this year there’s always opportunity to be had.  The Service has a great introductory website to just getting kids out in nature here.  Also coming up September 6th from 8:00 am - 1:00 pm is Kid's Fishing Day at Carson NFH (information will be posted  here).  This event is great in that all the poles and gear are provided for the kids, Service staff will help them fish, they are nearly guaranteed to catch something in minutes, the catch is cleaned and bagged, and you might even get a momento like this.
The States of Washington and Oregon do a fantastic job organizing kids fishing events (Oregon and Washington) as well as outlining fishing tactics and locations (Washington and Oregon).   Some of the fishing events require kids to register so it’s best to try and plan a little bit ahead.  
We plan on meeting some of my family in Glacier National Park later this summer for a week of camping, hiking, fishing and just exploring nature.  I know the girls are going to have a great time and we can make some memories. 
Submitted by Rod Engle


Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Connecting Kids to Nature: Skyline Crest Youth Come to the Columbia River Fish Office

Sally Jewell, the Secretary of the Interior Department, announced a national initiative earlier this year to engage and inspire young people to connect to nature.  She confirmed her commitment to “welcome a new generation of young people into public land stewardship, into science”.

The Pacific Northwest Region of the Service provided a little funding in “mini-grants” to help deliver on this promise.  So, we partnered with Vancouver Housing Authority Community Family Resource Coordinator Sharon Linn and Skyline Crest Community Health and Wellness Advisor Sara Angelo to help connect underserved inner city kids to nature. 

Our “Take Time to Connect to Nature” project aims to add an innovative component to an inner city low income housing facility by providing hands-on and in the field nature experiences. Using a nearby neighborhood greenspace and field trips to other Pacific Northwest destinations, mentors and volunteers lead youth groups in activities such as a FWS hatchery visit and guided nature bike rides or hikes.  The project is a great collaboration – New Season’s grocery store even teamed up to help provide the kids with healthy, delicious lunches on some of the field trips!

In early July, 20 Skyline Crest youth from ages 7 to 15 came to a three-hour Nature Day at our Columbia River Fisheries Program Office.  Ten of our staff members led the kids through a variety of activities to give them hands-on experience with nature, native species, and scientific methods. 

We were impressed and inspired by how much fun the kids had learning about salmon, owls, and radio telemetry.  They showed so much natural curiosity and a love of science….they had a blast picking out rodent bones from barn owl pellets and dissecting big spring chinook salmon!

They grasped the salmon life cycle, from freshwater to ocean and back again, and made bracelets with various beads representing each life stage.  Creativity and artistic flourish were present as they made “gyotaku” Japanese-style fish art prints to take home.  

The day really underscored that every child is a naturalist…given the opportunity, time and access to the natural world they will apply curious and creative minds to interact with and explore nature.  Who knows what effect these early experiences might have or where they might lead a child to later in life …our job is to make the connection so they have the opportunity to forge their own path.

 Submitted by Amy Horstman and Donna Allard

Monday, July 7, 2014

Working with the City of Portland to Restore Urban Stream Habitat

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services to evaluate the success of aquatic habitat improvements in Tryon Creek.  In 2010, the City of Portland completed a 900-foot off-channel aquatic habitat enhancement along the Willamette River.  Habitat improvements included floodplain connectivity, removal of invasive species, and installation of root wads and boulders. 

In 2012, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service began an intensive monitoring program to assess community, relative abundance, and temporal use by fish in the improved area.  Sampling occurred monthly throughout the year and weekly in the spring, sampling will continue in July 2014 at the same frequency.  Backpack electrofishing and seining is used to sample from the confluence to the Oregon State Highway 43 culvert.  All captured fish are identified, checked for external markings, measured, and tagged with a passive integrated transponder (PIT) tag.  Genetic samples collected from salmonids are transferred to the City of Portland.  To determine temporal fish use of the confluence habitat, two PIT tag antennas are installed at the mouth of Tryon Creek.  All PIT tagged fish moving over or through these antennas have the opportunity to be detected and identified before entering or exiting the Willamette River.

Sampling the mouth of Tryon Creek
Resident fish such as adult and juvenile cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, and hybrids of the two were identified in the confluence habitat along with outmigrating juvenile steelhead, Chinook, and coho salmon.  Native fish were more abundant than nonnative fish and coho juveniles were the most abundant species observed.  Coho and Chinook were detected emigrating after an average 37-44 days suggesting the habitat serves as a refuge for outmigrating juvenile salmon from elsewhere in the Willamette River basin.  PIT tagged Chinook and coho salmon (originating from upstream locations in the upper Willamette River basin and Eagle Creek) utilized the Tryon Creek confluence as part of their migration.

The Tryon Creek Confluence Habitat Enhancement Project improves aquatic habitat in the lower Willamette floodplain and provides refuge for native fish species.  Information collected from this assessment will aid the City of Portland in determining if the project is meeting its goals, gauging if the site is achieving desired function over time, and improving the design of future projects. 

This project is relatively small compared to the Willamette watershed overall, however, the combined efforts of habitat improvement and fish monitoring lead to a larger product.  This collaboration improves the design of future projects benefitting the entire Willamette River and supports the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s mission to work with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people. 

 For additional information, please see this factsheet from the City of Portland:

Submitted by Brook Silver

Monday, June 30, 2014

CRFPO Carbon Footprint

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Columbia River Fisheries Program Office (CRFPO) convened a Carbon Footprint Team in 2013.  The goal of this team is to quantify, track, and make recommendations toward reducing the office carbon footprint.  To this end, we established a process that involved establishing objectives, meeting regularly, establishing contacts outside of CRFPO to collect information, conducting an energy audit, adopting a carbon footprint calculator, quantifying the office carbon footprint, and developing recommendations to reduce that carbon footprint.  The energy audit was conducted by Clark Public Utilities and provided some insight to ways we could easily reduce our carbon footprint.  The carbon footprint calculator was adopted from Seattle Climate Partnership, and provided a platform to easily input data so that the office carbon footprint could be quantified.  The CRFPO carbon footprint for FY 2013 was approximately 350 metric tons of CO2.  Recommendations developed included ways of reducing the person commute between home and office, changes to the office vehicle fleet, and reducing electricity usage, all of which represented the biggest sinks to the CRFPO carbon footprint.  This approach developed and implemented by the CRFPO Carbon Footprint Team identifies a way that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service field offices can easily quantify and track their carbon footprint, and can be a meaningful step toward making changes that decrease the carbon footprint for the agency.
 Read the CFT Carbon Footprint Report

Submitted by Michael Hudson

Friday, June 20, 2014

Finding More Than You Are Looking For

This has been a fun spring because I had the opportunity to get out with a student intern and coworker.  They were continuing a project that our Office started a few years ago, which was to investigate reproductive timing of the western pearlshell mussel.  The project was conducted in a local stream, and involved inspecting adult mussels for signs of spawning and drift samples for larval mussels (i.e., glochidia, see previous blog for more on the life cycle of mussels).  Because glochidia are really small, around 1/20th of a millimeter, we use a very fine-mesh net to collect drifting material that is then preserved in alcohol.  The real work starts in the lab where we look for glochidia by picking through all the preserved material under a dissecting microscope.  Although this is often like “looking for a needle in a haystack” when a needle may not be there, the net collects other organisms, which makes the work interesting.

Below is what the material typically looks like magnified 20X.  Where’s “Glochido,” and can you identify some of the other organisms?

This is an early instar (i.e., stage) of a mayfly (Family—Baetidae).  These insects will grow a lot and emerge as winged adults that live for just a couple days or so.

This is the larvae of a small fly called a midge (Family—Chironomidae).  Midges are an extremely diverse group.  Because they are usually very abundant, larval and adult midges are a major source of food for aquatic and terrestrial predators.

The oval object with a black dot is actually a seed shrimp (Class—Ostracoda).  Seed shrimp are crustaceans (large group that includes crabs, crayfish, shrimp, and barnacles) whose two-part shell makes them resemble miniature mussels.

Here are two types of fly larvae, a midge (upper left) and black fly (lower center; Family—Simuliidae).  Black fly larvae have mouth parts with fan-like structures that are used to strain microscopic food particles from flowing water.

There’s “Glochido” (lightest object slightly up and left of center, no stripes or glasses).  This glochidia is about 0.06 mm long and appears small even when magnified 40X (same magnification used for all photos except the first one).  A key characteristic is the faint line appearing horizontally on it at this angle.

Submitted by Sam Lohr