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Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5041

Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation and Interagency Ecological Program

Synthesis of Studies in the Fall Low-Salinity Zone of the San Francisco Estuary, September–December 2011

By Larry R. Brown, Randall Baxter, Gonzalo Castillo, Louise Conrad, Steven Culberson, Gregg Erickson, Frederick Feyrer, Stephanie Fong, Karen Gehrts, Lenny Grimaldo, Bruce Herbold, Joseph Kirsch, Anke Mueller-Solger, Steven B. Slater, Ted Sommer, Kelly Souza, and Erwin Van Nieuwenhuyse

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (10.9 MB) Abstract

In fall 2011, a large-scale investigation (fall low-salinity habitat investigation) was implemented by the Bureau of Reclamation in cooperation with the Interagency Ecological Program to explore hypotheses about the ecological role of low-salinity habitat in the San Francisco Estuary—specifically, hypotheses about the importance of fall low-salinity habitat to the biology of delta smelt Hypomesus transpacificus, a species endemic to the San Francisco Estuary and listed as threatened or endangered under federal and state endangered species legislation. The Interagency Ecological Program is a consortium of 10 agencies that work together to develop a better understanding of the ecology of the Estuary and the effects of the State Water Project and Federal Central Valley Project operations on the physical, chemical, and biological conditions of the San Francisco Estuary. The fall low-salinity habitat investigation constitutes one of the actions stipulated in the Reasonable and Prudent Alternative issued with the 2008 Biological Opinion of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which called for adaptive management of fall Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta outflow following “wet” and “above normal” water years to alleviate jeopardy to delta smelt and adverse modification of delta smelt critical habitat. The basic hypothesis of the adaptive management of fall low-salinity habitat is that greater outflows move the low-salinity zone (salinity 1–6), an important component of delta smelt habitat, westward and that moving the low-salinity zone westward of its position in the fall of recent years will benefit delta smelt, although the specific mechanisms providing such benefit are uncertain. An adaptive management plan was prepared to guide implementation of the adaptive management of fall low-salinity habitat and to reduce uncertainty.

This report has three major objectives:

  • To provide a summary of the results from the first year of coordinated fall low-salinity habitat studies and monitoring.
  • To provide a synthesis of the results of the fall low-salinity habitat studies and other ongoing research and monitoring, to determine if the available information supports the hypotheses behind the adaptive management of fall low-salinity habitat as set forth in the adaptive management plan.
  • To begin to put the results from the fall low-salinity habitat studies into context within the larger body of knowledge regarding the San Francisco Estuary and, in particular, the upper San Francisco Estuary, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Suisun Bay, and associated embayments.

The basic approach of this report is to evaluate predictions derived from the hypotheses included in the conceptual model developed within the adaptive management plan. All available data from studies and monitoring conducted in fall 2011 and similar data from fall 2006, which was the most recent wet year preceding 2011, were considered. Data from 2005 and 2010 were also considered, to include the conditions antecedent to those years.

Many of the predictions either could not be evaluated with the data available, or the needed data were not collected. Most of the predictions that could be addressed involved either the abiotic habitat components (that is, the physical environment) or delta smelt responses. In general, the fall low-salinity habitat investigation has been largely inconclusive as of the writing of this report. This is not to be unexpected in the first year of what is intended to be a multi-year adaptive-management effort. This report can be viewed as the first chapter of a “living document” that is to be continually updated as part of the adaptive management cycle. The results of this report, especially predictions with insufficient data for evaluation, indicate a number of science-based approaches to improve the fall low-salinity habitat investigations:

  • Develop a method of measuring “hydrodynamic complexity.” This concept is central to a number of the predictions that could not be evaluated.
  • Determine if wind speed warrants a stand-alone prediction. The wind-speed prediction is directly related to the turbidity predictions, and wind is only one of several factors important for determining turbidity.
  • Determine the correct spatial and temporal scale or scales necessary for monitoring and for studies to address the predicted abiotic and biotic responses. Many of the assessments in this report were based on monthly sampling of dynamic habitat components, such as phytoplankton and zooplankton populations, that can change on daily scales.
  • Address the nutrient predictions as part of developing a phytoplankton production model that includes nutrient cycling and other important processes, if feasible. At a minimum develop a mechanistic conceptual model to support more processed-based interpretations of data or design of new studies, rather than making simple predictions of increase or decrease.
  • Determine if studies of predation rates are feasible in areas where there are delta smelt.

First posted July 30, 2014

For additional information, contact:
Director, California Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
6000 J Street, Placer Hall
Sacramento, CA 95819

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Suggested citation:

Brown, L.R., Baxter, R., Castillo, G., Conrad, L., Culberson, S., Erickson, G., Feyrer, F., Fong, S., Gehrts, K., Grimaldo, L., Herbold, B., Kirsch, J., Mueller-Solger, A., Slater, S., Souza, K., and Van Nieuwenhuyse, E., 2014, Synthesis of studies in the fall low-salinity zone of the San Francisco Estuary, September–December 2011: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5041, 136 p.,

ISSN 2328-0328 (online)




Purpose and Scope



Evaluation of Predictions


References Cited


Appendix 1. Dayflow

Appendix 2. Surface Area and Maps of the Low-Salinity Zone

Appendix 3. Delta Smelt Habitat Index

Appendix 4. Fall Midwater-Trawl Survey

Appendix 5. U.S. Geological Survey Sediment Monitoring and Analysis

Appendix 6. Environmental Monitoring Program

Appendix 7. U.S. Geological Survey Water-Quality Monitoring

Appendix 8. California Department of Fish and Wildlife Fish Sampling

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