Vernal pools conference highlights some of the valley’s harshest environments (and coolest species)
The fairy shrimp is a kind of invincible superhero. The tiny crustaceans live in vernal pools, those seasonal wetlands that are actually dry most of the year, throughout California. Yet, despite inconsistent habitat, the fairy shrimp survives.
“You can drop [fairy shrimp] into boiling water, and turn the heat off, and that water is 212 degrees, and they will swim away,” laughed Bob Holland, geobotanical phenomenologist and a leading researcher on Central Valley vernal pools.
“Somebody put them in liquid nitrogen, left them there overnight, and then put them in water the next day, and they swam away! They’re absolutely incredibly resilient animals,” he added.
Holland recounted tales of 200-year-old fairy shrimp eggs hatching, and of NASA leaving them in space for seven years to be exposed to space radiation and solar flares, and discovering them alive upon return. “It just makes you shake your head in awe,” he admitted. “There’s not an organism that grows in vernal pools that doesn’t have something like that working for them.”
The creatures living in and around vernal pools have evolutionarily prepared themselves for the slim window of spring rain-filled puddles, followed by months of brutal dry heat. Those fairy shrimp, the common name for several species that live in vernal pools, swim in the short-lived puddles, and lay eggs before the heat dries up the water.
Here in Chico, they live in the vernal pools just east of Marsh Junior High on Humboldt Road, in what many people consider empty lots. That 42.5-acre parcel, privately owned with a conservation easement that is maintained by the Chico-based California Open Lands land trust, is called Meriam Park Preserve, and is currently flush with flowers like tidy tips, clarkia, frying pan poppies, and Butte County meadowfoam, an endangered flower. Like the ecosystem they inhabit, the creatures endemic to vernal pools are decreasing in numbers; several of the fairy shrimp species are federally listed as endangered. So what is the fairy shrimp’s kryptonite? Agricultural and housing development.
Holland will address the state of West Coast vernal pools as the keynote speaker during day one (today, at the Sierra Nevada Big Room) of the year’s vernal pools conference, Vernal Pools in Changing Landscapes: From Shasta to Baja, presented by AquAlliance.
“Vernal pools are so unique to our state—a precious remnant of a landscape that was so much larger,” said Barbara Vlamis, executive director of AquAlliance and organizer of the event. The conference, held every four years since the mid-1990s, will bring together students, academics, researchers, consultants and government agencies, and is open to the public.
Holland has been tracking Central Valley vernal pools since the 1970s, when he mapped the roughly 1.2 million acres of pools scattered throughout the valley. His initial mapping was the first of its kind and has served as a baseline for Central Valley vernal pools ever since. His most recent survey in 2012, the data of which he has not yet released, pinpoints roughly 750,000 remaining acres, most of which are on privately owned lands. Between 2005 and 2012, habitat destruction slowed, likely due to the economic collapse, Holland surmised, but the overall number of acres of California vernal pools continues to decline.
Holland’s most recent research shows that, around Chico and other urban areas, habitat loss continues to be a result of “urbanization and land use pressure,” but, “in the larger valley picture, it’s ag,” Holland stated. His research concludes that “more than 80 percent of the habitat loss in that period, which includes a major recession, was due not to urbanization … but to agricultural conversion.”
The type of conversion varies according to location: “In Stanislaus County, it’s almonds. In Fresno County, it’s pistachios,” he offered.
Butte County has “some of the most significant vernal pool habitat in the state, and a lot of it is still vulnerable” to development, said Jenny Marr, senior environmental scientist (specialist) with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. In conjunction with a number of other agencies, Marr has been developing the Butte Regional Conservation Plan that will help address vernal pool vulnerabilities, which should be open for public review in the fall. Currently, when developing over an acre of vernal pools, developers must pay for the conservation of a similar acre of nearby pools. The BRCP would change that concept, by looking at larger blocks of habitat, which is more effective for maintaining a healthy ecosystem than 1 acre of habitat surrounded by development.
“The plan itself would provide for differences in soil, hydrology, species of each vernal pool habitat,” said Marr, who will be a moderator at the conference.
The first day of the conference is dedicated to presentations on new research, conservation efforts, management techniques, and legal cases regarding vernal pools. The second day sends conference goers on field trips to local vernal pools, including Meriam Park Preserve and Vina Plains Preserve, which occupies 4,600 acres in Tehama County. The Vina Plains Preserve is a key piece of the larger Lassen Foothills Project, which covers 900,000 acres between Chico and Redding.
Scientists believe that at least 90 percent of California vernal pools are gone, and possibly up to 98 percent. “So it’s absolutely vital that we try to protect what remains,” Vlamis said. She cited their importance for migratory waterfowl, since the birds stop at vernal pools to load up on protein-rich insects, and for the myriad plants and animals endemic to vernal pools that are rapidly losing habitat.
Holland took a simpler position on the importance of the pools. “To put it into as few words as possible: vernal pools are cool.”