Applied Research

DWR staff weigh and tag 50,000 fingerlings from the Oroville Feather River Fish Hatchery before releasing them into a rice field. 2013/DWR

The Division of Environmental Services applied research projects seek innovative solutions for the water management and environmental challenges faced by DWR. Projects are conducted in coordination with partners to optimize resources and expertise.

We aim to improve our understanding of the ecological interactions between key species and their habitats; food webs; contaminants; and the advancement of new scientific tools. Applied research findings also help improve approaches for the division’s monitoring, assessment, compliance, and restoration responsibilities.

Contaminants and harmful algal blooms pose serious concerns for both human and ecosystem health in the Delta. Contaminants in the system originate from various sources, including wastewater effluent, historic mining byproducts and agricultural and urban runoff.  Harmful algal blooms, abbreviated “HABs”, occur when colonies of certain species of aquatic algae proliferate and produce toxins harmful to animals, including humans.  Contaminants and HABs may have direct visible impacts to organisms (e.g. tumors, lesions, death) or indirect impacts (e.g. behavioral changes, depressed reproduction, decreased growth).  Both have important effects on the Delta ecosystem and the people that recreate and live within it.

Contaminant and HAB applied research in the Division of Environmental Services seeks to understand the causes and consequences of these constituents to organisms and ecosystems in the Delta.  Specific areas of investigation include:

•             What conditions cause and affect blooms of the cyanobacterium, Microsystis in the Delta

•             Local sources and movement of mercury in the system

•             Impacts of contaminants and HABs on zooplankton and fishes

All organisms need enough food in order to survive and reproduce. Thus, understanding the Delta food web is critical to support the foundation of the ecosystem. In the Division of Environmental Services, applied food web research seeks to understand how the complicated, interconnected and changing Delta food web functions, how it is affected by the surrounding environment, and how science-based management may alleviate human impacts.

Specific research includes:

•  How the productivity and species composition of phytoplankton (microscopic aquatic plants), zooplankton (near-microscopic aquatic animals), clams and other invertebrates vary in different habitats and under different water conditions (e.g. flow, chemistry, salinity, tides, organic content)

•  How management actions may influence food web productivity

•  The effects that one species or species group has on another population by grazing or predating on them.

•  How food availability and predation affect vulnerable and listed species, including Delta smelt and Chinook salmon.

Quality habitat is a critical component of the Delta ecosystem, and key for the survival and long-term persistence of species living within the estuary. Understanding how organisms interact with and depend upon their surroundings for rearing, feeding, shelter, and reproduction is therefore essential to create sustainable landscapes. Applied research in the Division of Envrionmental Services focuses on understanding how organisms utilize habitats, and how changes to those habitats affect populations. This research helps DWR meet its habitat restoration mandates by informing project design with the best available science. Findings also help the department craft innovative management solutions that may avoid or alleviate negative impacts from human activities.

Research projects include:

  • How listed and vulnerable species, such as Delta smelt, Chinook salmon and green sturgeon use different habitats (e.g. open water, riverine, floodplain, tidal wetlands).

  • The impacts of of droughts and floods, anticipated to occur more frequently with climate change, on key habitats and the organisms that use them.

  • How to improve management of tidal wetlands and floodplain agricultural land to balance both species (e.g. waterfowl, fishes, plankton) and human uses.

Non-native or “invasive” species are organisms that are transported by humans to a region where they do not naturally occur. Once in a new location, invasive species can change the new environment, altering food webs, structural habitat, and the ecological community.  Moreover, the Bay-Delta is perhaps the most invaded estuary in the world.  In the Delta, invasive species often negatively impact native organisms and can cause serious problems for human use and water operations. 

Applied research on invasive species in the Division of Environmental Services seeks to understand the life history of non-native organisms in the Delta, how they impact important native organisms and ecosystems, and how these impacts might be alleviated or avoided through management and restoration.


Technology and Tool  Development

New scientific technologies and analytical tools enable researchers to improve the quality and quantity of environmental data collected in the Delta. These can allow for the collection of field data on species that are difficult to find, or sensitive to traditional methods of capture, such as Delta smelt. Hence, new tools and technologies can provide new insights that were not feasible with traditional techniques. In some cases, new technologies allow for the collection of more information using the similar amounts of resources and manpower.

Applied research on new technologies and tools in the Division of Environmental Services seeks to find novel ways to maximize resources and allow DWR to address its environmental responsibilities while meeting human needs in the Delta. Research topics include:

• Genetics: Testing and refining genetic techniques to: 1) Detect very rare species in the wild; 2) Identification what races of Chinook salmon are present and; 3) Identify what species are eaten by predators.

• Observation: Evaluating and refining new camera and sonar technologies to quantify and identify fishes and plankton quickly and often without the need for capture or handling.

• Modeling: Developing and testing computer models to anticipate how organisms may distribute themselves under different environmental and flow conditions in the Delta

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