Skip to main content
Open Access Publications from the University of California


SFEWS provides credible scientific information on California's complex water issues, linking new science to policy with great effect. SFEWS retains a regional focus on the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, also known as the Bay–Delta watershed. At the heart of open access from the California Digital Library, SFEWS's scholarly output ranks #1 for the UC Davis Institute  of the Environment and ranks #3 campus wide.

Volume 22, Issue 2, 2024

Issue cover
Cover Caption:A small waterway in the California Delta lined with Tule, a grasslike perennial herb that grows in marshy conditions. Photo taken in Solano County, California in the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area by Kelly M. Grow, California Department of Water Resources, public domain.

Research Article

Climate Change Scenarios for Air and Water Temperatures in the Upper San Francisco Estuary: Implications for Thermal Regimes and Delta Smelt

Climate projections and their effects in the San Francisco Estuary have been evaluated as part of the US Geological Survey’s CASCaDE2 project. Understanding the ecological effects of climate change can help manage and maintain the ecological health and productivity of the San Francisco Estuary. In this study, we assessed downscaled air temperature data from 10 global climate models (GCMs) under two representative concentration pathway (RCP) trajectories for greenhouse gas concentrations for three regions of the San Francisco Estuary: Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, Suisun and Grizzly bays, and Suisun Marsh. We also used previously derived regression models to estimate future water temperatures at 16 locations in the upper San Francisco Estuary. We used a thermal regime approach to summarize water temperature projections to investigate changes to the thermal regime of the upper San Francisco Estuary, and used the Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) to demonstrate the effects that a warming climate may have on the habitat needs of this fish species. Our results suggested there were no major differences in the extent of air-temperature warming among the three regions. Annual average air temperatures were projected to increase approximately 2.0 °C and 4.7 °C by the end of the century for the low and high RCP scenarios, respectively. We found timing, frequency, and magnitude metrics varied by period and RCP scenario, while duration and variability metrics varied by space for water-temperature thermal regimes. For example, the spawning window for Delta Smelt (thermal-regime duration metric) is projected to expand in the future, with spawning starting earlier for both RCP scenarios for most sites. Although our thermal-regime analysis focused on the life history of Delta Smelt, similar approaches could be used to assess climate-change threats to a wide array of native and invasive terrestrial and aquatic species found in San Francisco Estuary.

  • 1 supplemental PDF

Spatial Patterns of Water Supply and Use in California

Spatial and temporal patterns of water supply and consumptive water use were analyzed from 475 Detailed Analysis Units by County (DAUCOs) spatial units across California during 2002 through 2016 to evaluate spatial and temporal variability and how it might associate with precipitation variability and other factors. Many, but not all, DAUCOs have relatively low total water supply variability compared to that of state-wide precipitation. Such low variability, in DAUCOs having sufficient diversity of water supply sources, is the result of switching between sources as needed to maintain a reliable total water supply. We used multiple approaches to explore these variations which involved four categories of water supply (local, groundwater, imported, and other) and two categories of water use (agricultural and urban). First, a cluster analysis of the volumetric water balance data identified a small set of clusters having similar magnitudes and proportions of water supply sources and water use—some of them composed of only a few DAUCOs but accounting for a disproportionate amount of the state’s water use. Second, a principal components analysis identified leading modes of anomalous water supply and water use among the 475 DAUCOs, capturing most of the time variation during 2002 to 2016. The most prominent mode exhibits a multi-year trend, most strongly involving increasing groundwater supply and agricultural water use, and decreasing urban water use and imported water supply. Over the study period, trends in both supply and use were pronounced, but differed considerably across California DAUCOs. One predominant subset of DAUCOs grew their agricultural water use with increased groundwater supply; in contrast to a widespread group of DAUCOs which reduced their urban water use. An important result for planners is our finding that variation in precipitation—itself important—is amplified by the human response to water supply availability and regulatory policy.

  • 1 supplemental PDF

Managed Wetlands for Climate Action: Potential Greenhouse Gas and Subsidence Mitigation in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta

In the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta (Delta), widespread drainage of historical wetlands has led to extensive subsidence and peat carbon losses, as well as high ongoing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Large-scale wetland restoration and conversion to rice fields has the potential to mitigate these effects while conferring flood protection and creating habitat for wetland species. To explore the scale of these potential benefits, this study evaluated the effects of seven Delta-wide land-use scenarios on carbon stocks, land-surface elevation, GHG emissions, and habitat. Peat mapping and data from peat cores indicate that soil carbon stocks have decreased between the early 1800s and 2010s from 288 ± 15 to 145 ± 14 million metric tons (Mt) of carbon (C). If existing land uses continue, the Delta could lose an additional 8.3 Mt C during the coming 40 years, equal to average GHG emissions of 1.2 Mt CO2 equivalents (CO2e) yr-1. Future restoration and rice-farming scenarios indicate that wetland restoration could theoretically halt GHG emissions, converting the Delta from a large GHG source to a weak net source or sink. Across three future scenarios based on existing restoration targets, wetland creation and conversion to rice fields reduced GHG emissions by 0.39 to 0.67 Mt CO2e yr-1, with per-area benefits of 16 to 28 t CO2e per hectare (ha) yr-1. Differences among scenarios in extents of wetland types influenced their relative benefits for different management goals. Tidal restoration and conversion to rice fields enhanced habitat benefits and offered a source of agricultural income, but with reduced GHG mitigation compared with conversion to peat-building wetlands. This highlights the importance of clear objectives when developing land-use plans. A strategic land-management portfolio that includes rice fields and both impounded and tidal wetlands could be designed to provide GHG and subsidence mitigation while offering a diverse suite of benefits for ecosystems and people.

Regional Diversity Trends of Nearshore Fish Assemblages of the Upper San Francisco Estuary

The loss of biodiversity and biotic homogenization are on the rise in ecosystems around the world as a result of species invasions, habitat degradation, and the effects of climate change. In the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, non-native species make up the majority of the fish community, and declines in native species have been well documented; however, little is known about whether these trends have resulted in biotic homogenization. In this study, we used data from a long-term beach seine survey to analyze regional beta diversity trends of nearshore fish assemblages in the Delta from 1995 to 2019. Overall, we found no evidence of regional biotic homogenization occurring over the study period. Regional beta diversity increased moderately over time and was significantly influenced by the high interannual variability of freshwater inflow. These beta diversity patterns were driven by the non-native Mississippi Silverside that has proliferated in the system in recent years, but also by a handful of native fish species such as the Sacramento Sucker, Tule Perch, and Splittail. Overall, our results offer a contrast to other highly invaded ecosystems around the world and suggest that despite the near extinction of some native fish species, there remain pockets of suitable habitat in the Delta that may play a key role in the conservation of remnant native fish diversity.

  • 3 supplemental PDFs

Sub-Lethal Responses of Delta Smelt to Contaminants Under Different Flow Conditions

The Delta Smelt is a largely zooplank­tivorous, endangered fish endemic to the San Francisco Estuary (the estuary). High flows increase the availability of fresh and brackish water habitat for Delta Smelt, but also may mobilize contaminants, potentially increasing toxicological stress. Here, we examine the association between contaminants and Delta Smelt health across contrasting water year types and flow-related management actions. Our study spanned the fall season of three years: 1 dry year (2018) bracketed by 2 wet years (2017 and 2019) and coincided with several management actions meant to benefit Delta Smelt. We collected field water from six sites in the estuary that encompass the freshwater and low-salinity habitat of Delta Smelt and analyzed the water for contaminant concentrations. After a 96-hour exposure to the field water, we assessed cultured Delta Smelt survival and the histopathological condition of the gill and liver. Insecticides, particularly fipronil metabolites, were the most prevalent contaminants detected in 2017 and 2018, and a variety of contaminants associated with the rice harvest were detected in 2019. No acute toxicity was observed during any exposure, but we observed negative effects in the livers of Delta Smelt exposed to agricultural water from the Toe Drain and Cache Slough during a 2019 pulse flow action, which coincided with elevated detections and concentrations of organic pesticides. Other noteworthy sub-lethal effects, likely occurring in response to contaminant mixtures, included severe gill lesions in Delta Smelt exposed to Decker Island water in 2019. In the drier year of 2018, lesions were generally mild or absent. Thus, the trade-offs between increased habitat availability and contaminant loading may provide one explanation for why Delta Smelt abundance does not consistently respond positively to outflow.

  • 2 supplemental PDFs