Kern River between the bluffs with wildflowers and riparian habitat
Kern River between the bluffs with wildflowers and riparian habitat (Marcia Wolfe)

By Marcia Wolfe, Biology/Ecology Contributor, Valley Ag Voice

Marcia Wolfe with her dogs
Marcia Wolfe, Valley Ag Voice Contributor

Trickling from a small rocky tarn (small lake) in the talus of a high shoulder of Mt. Whitney, the tiny Kern River wends its way downhill and around to the south headed our way. The channel gets larger and larger. When there is a lot of water in it among the boulders, water rafters and canoers play on its surface. Along its banks, fishermen try to lure fish to their bait. Swimmers play in its pools in spite of the possible dangers of being sucked under downstream through a rapid trench. The channel gorges downhill as it turns to reach the valley, falling steeply among huge boulders.

Upon reaching the valley, the channel flattens out. A great blue heron is hunting in a swale downstream as the flow slows among the flatter channel and sand bars on the east side of the valley. Sycamore trees and a narrow band of willows line the banks. Large western fence lizards are foraging on the bark of the sycamore tree trunks. A hawk sits high on a tree branch, enjoying the warmth of the sun and watching for prey. A small band of wood ducks are paddling around the end of a gravel bar. Boy Scouts had installed a nest box for birds on the end of the gravel bar.

The subject of beautiful sunset and cloud photographs. Reflections in water in the dimming light, a renown subject of beauty. But the river is far more than a complex subject of recreation and beauty or simply a place to recreate with boats, rafts, or relax and dangle your feet in the water while watching minnows or tadpoles.

Our surface and groundwater here, our soils, fish and wildlife, and humans, our air even, are all dependent upon having and maintaining all aspects of our environment in a healthy condition. We and all aspects of our environment are all interconnected and dependent upon all parts of the environment, and our groundwater and surface water, air and wildlife are hurting. The water table along the river has fallen deeply, which is why so many of the beautiful cottonwood trees along the floodplain have died or deteriorated to their current state. Both drought and water use exceeding groundwater recharge have contributed to the death of the trees. Lack of recharge also adversely affects groundwater recharge which is desperately needed. Our air quality is suffering, and birds have been disappearing by the billions in the last 50 years. Even though some of the birds eat fruits and nuts, we are dependent upon our birds to help with insect control! Interestingly, their predation on insects also helps with disease control.

Forest ecosystems are the largest terrestrial carbon sink on earth. Forest and tree management have been recognized as a cost-effective strategy for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. In the United States, forestland represents nearly one-third of total land area. Forest trees store more than three decades of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from fossil fuels. In the United States, the amount of emission offsets contributed by trees has been relatively stable since 2005 despite a steady decline in carbon dioxide emissions over the same time period. This reflects a comparable loss of forest trees in the United States. You must know trees are very important to us. The forest trees of the Amazon jungle were recently documented to provide 20 percent of the oxygen the entire world depends upon.

The environment of the world is changing. No doubt about it. But the climate of the world has always been changing. On the ranch where I lived and worked in New Mexico, I found on the ground surface in ponderosa pine forest at about 7000 feet elevation, hunks of petrified palm tree fronds. Palm trees would never be able to grow there now! It is way too cold and way too dry! But it proves that the climate there has not always been like it is now. We know that, but we seem to be ignoring existing climate change. Many scientists think it is simply happening faster now than it used to. I think that may or may not be an accurate assumption. We could have simply been ignoring it and other adverse effects we are imposing upon the environment, like the incredibly large loss of bird populations. For the most part, the large loss of bird populations has been of common birds, not only endangered species. The causes of the bird population losses could be many, including the use of poisonous herbicides and pesticides, the loss of their insectivorous prey to pesticides, collisions with automobiles. Collisions with glass windows in homes, offices and skyscrapers cause an immense population loss. Not to mention feral cats apparently cause an annual loss of about 9 million birds. Oddly, feral house cats often simply kill birds for “fun” and not necessarily to eat.

Wildlife are dying because of the trash and litter we throw on the ground. I wrote about that a couple months ago. Someone criticized my article implying it was a people issue, not an environmental or agricultural issue. But it’s not just trash or litter; its plastics, metals, paints, glues, dyes and print, oil and gas and other chemicals. Much of it contains toxins that are bad for soils, wildlife, surface water and groundwater aquifer quality that affects everything, including humans. The presence of trash and litter on the ground is not just a case of bad manners and lack of caring. It ignorantly is creating widespread environmental problems. I had a good friend whose dog died from eating a sandwich in a plastic baggie that someone walking by had thrown to him. It happened in the owner’s front yard. These things are not “rare.” We just mostly do not see them, or we are choosing to ignore the adverse impacts of our actions.

People, wake up! The climate is changing. A lot of that change is because of us and our own actions. But we also can do things to help maintain and improve environmental quality. Along the river we can stop bulldozing off the floodplains and making vertical walls on the banks that are normally gently sloping. Plant native shrubs, trees and vegetation on the floodplain, road shoulders and adjacent riparian areas. They do not require irrigation. Their roots help to enhance groundwater recharge and maintain soil quality. Planting riparian trees also help carbon sequestration, enhancing air quality for all species that breathe by removing carbon dioxide from the air. Although recharge ponds are popular, the evaporation transpiration rates in the region along the Kern River is about 1.24 inches, which equates to about 50,000 gallons per acre in a year.

Restoring native vegetation where possible has been documented by field tests to help to reduce ground squirrel and other rodent populations along a water way without poisons by about 90 percent. Similarly, owl nest boxes help to reduce rodents and halt degradation of surface and groundwater quality from toxic pesticides and rodenticides. Now it does cost a little to build or purchase a nest box and install it, but maintenance is generally minimal. Reports from growers say that those who use them find how well they work – so well, in fact, they do not want to let their competitors know!

We can beat the adverse effects of climate change and all its implications. We simply must work together. Starting with water, we need to restore the floodplains and riparian habitats along the Kern River with native species. Another idea is to use natural approaches to control rodents; partner with your native raptors! There are so many ways to help improve water quality and availability. You just must start!