Physics to Fish: Understanding the Factors that Create and Sustain Native Fish Habitat in the San Francisco Estuary

Open-File Report 2023-1087
Water Availability and Use Science Program
Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation
By: , and 


Executive Summary

The Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) operates the Central Valley Project (CVP), one of the nation’s largest water projects. Reclamation has an ongoing need to improve the scientific basis for adaptive management of the CVP and, by extension, joint operations with California’s State Water Project. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) works cooperatively with the Bureau of Reclamation to provide scientific support for the management of Reclamation’s CVP project. Major habitat restoration efforts and a new water-diversion point are planned to benefit delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) and other species of concern while ensuring the reliability of water supply. In addition, various flow actions and management activities have been identified as possible methods to increase populations of delta smelt and salmonid (Oncorhynchus spp.) runs of concern. The overarching goal of this cooperative project was to provide Reclamation with the scientific information needed to evaluate the efficacy of ongoing and future adaptive management actions and to improve the scientific basis for more flexible CVP operations that would achieve water-supply reliability and fish protection. The research and monitoring described in this report comprises the period 2015–19 and focuses on management issues related to native fish species of concern, especially delta smelt. Conserving the delta smelt population while providing a reliable water supply is a primary management and policy issue in California.

Our approach for this cooperative project is based on the “physics to fish” concept, the idea that high-quality habitat is generated and sustained by the interaction between physical processes and the landscape. These interactions create a template for chemical and biological processes that can change across a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Following this concept, this project (hereafter referred to as “the physics to fish project”) included monitoring and studies of water flows, sediments, water quality, and invertebrate and fish dynamics across a range of spatial and temporal scales and in regions relevant to resource managers tasked with managing water supplies and ecosystem health in the San Francisco Estuary. The intent of this approach was to document the habitat conditions, important processes, and interactions among them that create high-quality habitat for native fishes so that the likely effects of future management actions (for example, habitat restoration) can be objectively assessed at the local (site-specific), regional (within subregions of the estuary), and landscape (across the entire estuary and beyond) scales.

Hydrodynamically, the upper estuary (landward of Carquinez Strait) is characterized by a fixed volume of tidally exchanged water (for example, tidal prism) that interacts with the existing channel network and bathymetry to create regions with differing hydrodynamics. Our results indicate that careful study of construction or reoperation of existing infrastructure to perform management actions can help (1) improve the accuracy of hydrodynamic models; (2) further understanding of ecological effects; and (3) enhance abilities to predict ecological outcomes. At the local scale, we developed a new concept called the Lagrangian to Eulerian (LE) ratio that can be used as a tool for understanding the importance of various hydrodynamic processes in specific channels or channel networks and for forecasting transport dynamics. Channels with LE ratios<1 in a channel network or in a dead-end slough are hydrodynamically able to develop an exchange zone between two parcels of water that may have different chemical and physical properties. In a dead-end channel, there is a landward region with long residence time (no-exchange zone) and a seaward region with short residence time (high-exchange zone) that are well mixed with seaward waters. At the transition (exchange zone) between the high and no-exchange regions, a gradient will form in water-quality constituents that differ in concentration between the landward and seaward waters.

Turbidity affects fish habitat and has declined through time in the San Francisco Estuary. Average turbidity across the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta (hereafter referred to as “the Delta”) is dependent on annual hydrology. In dry years, the region around Cache Slough (known regionally as the “Cache Slough Complex”) in the northern Delta is generally more turbid than Suisun Bay and the lower Sacramento River. When the Yolo By-Pass (known regionally as “Yolo Bypass”), a large flood bypass that runs parallel to the Sacramento River in the northern Delta, is not flooding and river flows are lower, sediment is usually transported into the Cache Slough Complex because flood tides dominate ebb tides, resulting in transport of suspended sediment from seaward areas of the upper estuary into the Cache Slough Complex. These hydrodynamic conditions also favor the formation of turbidity maximums (TMs) in the Cache Slough Complex. The TMs are areas of higher suspended-sediment concentration, providing higher-turbidity habitat favored by some fishes, including delta smelt, and they can also concentrate other constituents, including phytoplankton and organic carbon that can be important in food webs.

Pelagic primary production by phytoplankton is the basis for Delta food webs supporting pelagic fishes such as delta smelt; however, phytoplankton abundance in the Delta has declined during recent decades. We examined how nutrients, hydrodynamics, and other factors affect phytoplankton blooms. Based on our results, we developed three new concepts of phytoplankton bloom formation in the Delta, each associated with a distinct set of hydrologic conditions. First, productivity cascades highlighted how local processes can contribute to phytoplankton blooms observed at the regional scale. Second, we observed phytoplankton blooms in the upper San Francisco Estuary that were associated with transport out of Yolo By-Pass (transport blooms). Third, we also documented a series of phytoplankton blooms that were in the confluence area at the landward edge of Suisun Bay. The conditions leading to creation of confluence phytoplankton blooms are not yet understood, but the confluence region connects the Cache Slough Complex with Suisun Marsh. Therefore, blooms in this area have the potential to spread to large areas of the Delta.

At the landscape scale, the distribution of the invasive clams (Potamocorbula amurensis and Corbicula fluminea, hereafter referred to as “Corbicula”) is driven by salinity. At smaller spatial scales, the distribution of either species is sensitive to multiple factors affecting survival and reproduction, complicating efforts to predict distribution and abundance without considering local-scale conditions across the area of interest. In the Cache Slough Complex, the area landward of the exchange zone in regions with LE ratio<1 were characterized by low abundances of Corbicula probably because recruits from seaward areas are not transported past the exchange zone and because there are no landward tributaries with adult Corbicula to provide an upstream source of recruits. Corbicula biomass was highest near or downstream from the exchange zone consistent with Corbicula grazing on phytoplankton produced in the exchange zone or transported from the no-exchange zone. The severity of Corbicula grazing could be reduced by manipulating the hydrodynamic characteristics of waterways; however, the beneficial and harmful effects on the organisms meant to benefit from increased phytoplankton production, including zooplankton and fish species of concern, should be thoroughly examined before manipulating hydrodynamic characteristics.

The distribution of fishes at the landscape scale is generally driven by the position of the salinity field in the estuary. The physics to fish project compared distributions of fishes at Ryer Island, a tidal wetland in Suisun Bay and a region of variable salinity, with fish distributions at the Cache Slough Complex, a freshwater region. At Ryer Island, there was an absence of freshwater invasive species and an abundance of native species, such as Sacramento splittail (Pogonichthys macrolepidotus), tule perch (Hysterocarpus traskii), and Sacramento pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus grandis). The native species were almost exclusively captured in wetland and nearshore shallow-water habitat regardless of water-quality conditions. In the Cache Slough Complex, our regional scale objective was to elucidate how hydrodynamic-physical habitat interactions drive fish-community structure. Our studies showed that dendritic channel systems were better able to support native species, while intertidal habitats supported those species best able to exploit the transient character of the habitat. Habitats upstream from the exchange zone were especially important in supporting high numbers of native fishes relative to within or downstream from the exchange zone. Many of the native species were associated with tidal marsh in the no-exchange zone. More pelagic-oriented, mobile species, such as Striped Bass (Morone saxatilis), threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense), and Sacramento pikeminnow, were more affected by water-quality conditions, such as turbidity.

The physics to fish concept developed in this project provides a framework for designing individual projects and for considering the cumulative effects of multiple projects in a region, using the LE ratio as a guiding metric. The physics to fish concept may also provide a suitable framework for coordinating management actions. Tidal wetlands can function in several ways in the hydrodynamic framework. Relatively small tidal wetlands with short channel networks and with LE ratios>1 are not able to maintain a landward no-exchange zone or an exchange zone. This likely means that any contributions to pelagic food webs would be limited to resources derived from wetland vegetation, which can include dissolved and particulate organic matter (detritus) and populations of consumers that can increase in abundance based on those resources. The fate of the contributed production from these channels depends on the characteristics of the receiving waters seaward of the tidal wetland. If these channels join a large system such as Suisun Bay, then any contribution is likely to be rapidly dispersed in the larger volume; however, the channel junction might provide a focal point for consumers, such as fishes, to congregate and feed on material leaving the wetland on ebb tides before it is dispersed in the larger volume. Fishes might also access these resources by entering the wetland.

The physics to fish project has established a foundation and several new concepts for understanding how habitat restoration can benefit native fish populations at the local and regional levels. Many of the ideas regarding habitat restoration and channel modifications outlined in this report could help guide management actions that could improve conditions for native fishes at little or no water cost beyond water already dedicated to other management actions. A complete list of products originating from this work is provided in appendix 1.

Suggested Citation

Brown, L.R., Ayers, D.E., Bergamaschi, B., Burau, J.R., Dailey, E.T., Downing, B., Downing-Kunz, M., Feyrer, F.V., Huntsman, B.M., Kraus, T., Morgan, T., Lacy, J.R., Parchaso, F., Ruhl, C.A., Stumpner, E., Stumpner, P., Thompson, J., and Young, M.J., 2024, Physics to fish—Understanding the factors that create and sustain native fish habitat in the San Francisco Estuary: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2023–1087, 150 p.,

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgements
  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Sediment
  • Nutrients and Phytoplankton
  • Clams
  • Fishes
  • Discussion
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Products Completed as Part of the Physics to Fish Project
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Physics to fish—Understanding the factors that create and sustain native fish habitat in the San Francisco Estuary
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2023-1087
DOI 10.3133/ofr20231087
Year Published 2024
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center, National Research Program - Western Branch, Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center, WMA - Earth System Processes Division
Description xiv, 150 p.
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial San Francisco Estuary
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details