Steelhead trout lose out when wine country water is low

May 07, 2012
By Sarah Yang, Public Affairs

The competition between farmers and fish for precious water in California is intensifying in wine country, suggests a new study by biologists at the University of California, Berkeley.

The findings, published in the May issue of the journal Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, link higher death rates for threatened juvenile steelhead trout with low water levels in the summer and the amount of vineyard acreage upstream.

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Juvenile steelhead trout, shown here in a small stream pool, are hit hard when water levels are low. (Ted Grantham photo)

The researchers found that juvenile steelhead trout are particularly at risk during the dry summer season typical of California's Mediterranean climate. Of the juvenile steelhead trout present in June, on average only 30 percent survived to the late summer. In years with higher rainfall and in watersheds with less vineyard land use, the survival of juvenile trout over the summer was significantly higher.

The researchers pointed out that summer stream flow has been inadequately addressed in salmon and trout conservation efforts. Previous studies have highlighted other limiting factors such as habitat degradation and water quality, but here researchers documented the importance of water quantity for restoring threatened populations.

"Nearly all of California's salmon and trout populations are on the path to extinction and if we're going to bring these fish back to healthy levels, we have to change the way we manage our water," said lead author Theodore Grantham, a recent Ph.D. graduate from UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM). "Water withdrawals for agricultural uses can reduce or eliminate the limited amount of habitat available to sustain these cold-water fish through the summer. I don't suggest we get rid of vineyards, but we do need to focus our attention on water management strategies that reduce summer water use. I believe we can protect flows for fish and still have our glass of wine."

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