River Runs Through It
Banks of the Historic American River, Professors and Students Keep Watch
Over California Waterways
your campus borders the legendary American River, you cant help
being a nosy neighbor. Sac State researchers are looking into the good,
the bad and the uglyfish, floods and freonin not only the
river next door, but waterways throughout California. Right here in River
City, CSUS programs are encouraging healthy salmon habitat, warning citizens
of flood risk and stemming road runoff pollutants statewide.
Leaky pipes provoke humans to call the plumber. Leaky streams may provoke
salmon to spawn.
Sac State hydrogeology professor Tim Horner and a team of grad students
are looking at the physical and chemical conditions that Pacific salmon
need for spawning. Its an issue of great concern throughout the
West, because spawning numbers in many Western streams are only 10 percent
of what they were historically.
By now, were familiar with the salmons Herculean efforts to
return to familiar
spawning grounds, but Horners research indicates they may also be
picky. Year after year they go back to the same place on the same
gravel bar, Horner says. Why do they like some areas and not
Salmon swim past stretches of river that seem to be comparable in water
flow, velocity, depth, the grain size of the gravel, and surface water
content only to spawn in a similar gravel bar.
Horners hunch points to leaks in the river. Working
on gravel bars on the American and Cosumnes Rivers, Horner and his students
measure the amount of water percolating through the sandy bottom of the
Though Horner admits hes not a fisheries person, the
work he and his students
are doing may directly impact salmon survival. Working with the Department
of Fish and Game, CalFed and the USGS, he is focusing specifically on
He presented his preliminary findings at the Geological Society of America
meeting last fall.
answers are important because state and federal agencies are spending
a lot of money on habitat restoration. Horner says they need to consider
the habitat should be in when the agencies are finished.
The findings so far: Leakage is a bigger issue than wed thought,
Horner says. If
there is a lot of leakage, the salmon seem to like it. If theres
not much, they dont.
Leakage varies from month to month and year to year. Horner thinks the
fish pick up chemical signals from the gravel bar that could be influenced
by the flow through the underlying ground. To determine whats sending
the research team takes measurements of the flow and leakage from as far
as 18 inches below the surface. They also check for concentrations of
common chemical components.
One area they study is a gravel bar on the American River near Hazel Avenue
where salmon consistently spawn. The bar has both a downwelling
area, where water leaks through the streambed, and an upwelling
area, where water is percolating up from the water table into the stream.
Heres where chemical makeup enters the equation.
The researchers looked at the dissolved oxygen content at various spots
on the popular spawning site. In the upwelling areas of the bar, the oxygen
values were much lower than expectedeven at relatively shallow depths
in the gravel. Downwelling areas maintained a high oxygen content to depths
of at least two feet.
Eggs need oxygen and nutrients, leading Horner to wonder if the low oxygen
content in upwelling areas is preventing some eggs from hatching and surviving.
This spring Horners team returns to the areas it looked at prior
to last falls spawning season to see if the theory holds water.
Rolling on the River
While Horner is concerned about the rivers occupants, another CSUS
group is looking out for those who live on land.
Water supplytoo much or too littleis a favorite topic during
winters. Lack of water helped spur the current energy crisis when hydroelectric
power supplies were threatened. At the same time, some areas are still
recovering from the devastating floods of 1986 and 1997.
Efforts to predict, or at least track, water flow and water supply are
supported by a massive network of streamflow sampling stations throughout
California which funnel information through the U.S. Geological Survey
Water Resource Division, housed on campus since 1997. The gaging stations
monitor discharge and water quality every 15 minutes, giving continual
assessments of the water flow from hundreds of rivers, creeks and streams.
The USGS operation at Sac State serves as a clearinghouse, publishing
results from about 700 stations, most of which are operated in cooperation
with state agencies, counties, water districts and utilities. All the
data from gaging stations scattered throughout Californias river
basins are fed to a lab in Placer Hall where updated information is posted
on the Web hourly. Readings from the website are used by emergency officials,
water districts, utility companies and even recreational water users like
fishermen and kayakers.
The stations arent much to look atone on the American River
visible from the Guy West Bridge resembles a rusty shedbut inside
theyre stocked with high-tech equipment including computerized sensing
equipment, multiple recording devices and a satellite platform.
In addition to keeping tabs on the campus closest water neighbor,
the USGS employs a small army of students. In addition to geology students,
USGS also hires chemistry, environmental studies, geography, biology and
even English majors.
The agencys unique relationship with the University allows at least
30 students to work on top-level research projects. While the USGS has
a presence on other college campuses, the scale of the CSUS Graduate student
Noel Bush with Professor Tim Horner operation is unusual, says Michael
V. Shulters, California district chief of the USGS, Bringing an
entire district office on campus was a first.
Some of the students are looking at pesticide runoff in local creeks and
streams. Its a critical issue in what happens to the Delta.
And students are essential cogs in that wheel, says Walt Swain,
a USGS hydrologist.
Pictures of the USGS gaging station next to Sac State are available online
To see the latest stream gage data, visit http://s601dcascr.wr.usgs.gov/Sites/
Water Under the Bridge
states water supply often runs afoul of products from another California
staple the automobile.
When does a transportation agency need a water watchdog? When the roads
you manage are the source for trash and chemicals that end up in rivers,
even the ocean.
In the mid-1990s, the California Department of Transportation, the statewide
organization that oversees Californias highways, found itself with
an environmental headache on its handsit had been successfully sued
for violating the Clean Water Act. To the rescue came Sac States
storm water research group.
The group, part of the Office of Water Programs, has been the brains behind
an all-out assault by Caltrans on water-borne road pollutants. Solutions
have included studies on herbicides in North Coast streams and measuring
the trash carried by storm-swollen rivers onto Southern California beaches.
Theyve steered Caltrans toward construction techniques that are
better for the environment. And theyve helped establish new approaches
to controlling polluted runoff such as detention basins and drain inserts.
Water pollution from roads may seem like a drop in the bucket compared
to all the other environmental problems the state faces. But the number
of buckets warrants attention.
year, millions of gallons of water wash across the 15,000 miles of freeways
and highways Caltrans maintains. The research group fills an important
niche for Caltrans, says Ramzi Mahmood, founder of the storm water group.
After all, the agency is charged with developing highway and mass transit
systems, not protecting water.
Were trying to help Caltrans find out how big a problem they
have and then to find cost-effective ways to control it, Mahmood
says. The storm water group began with a $20,000 grant and now has an
annual budget of $2.3 million, all through contracts with Caltrans.
Current projects include researching methods of detecting pathogenic organisms
in storm water, testing different methods of reducing soil erosion, inventing
new treatment technologies and evaluating the cost and benefits of storm
To learn more see www.dot.ca.gov/hq/env/stormwater.
at Sac State received a shot in the arm this academic year with the addition
of a new masters degree program in the geology department.
program, which got underway in the fall, is finding a willing audience
of undergrads seeking advanced degrees, as well as previous graduates
already working in the industry.
the departments strong reputation for water programs, much of the
demand for classes is in the booming field of hydrogeology, says geology
professor Tim Horner, who coordinates the masters program.
a great market for students. If I had three times the students, they could
still all get jobs, he says.
One of the
appealing aspects is the opportunity to get involved in research projects.
For example, two masters students are working with Horner on his
salmon research, while others are employed as research assistants with