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Water, Ponds, and Drought

Ben Weise

Agriculture Conservation Manager

If you've lived in or worked in California recently, you've no doubt heard about our capital D Drought. It will impact the entire state in some form or fashion, and everybody has a story about it.

Recently, I came across this story courtesy of NBC Bay Area, "California Drought Killing Frogs, Salamanders in the East Bay."

The grim picture it paints is one that we are very well living. As I've toured our rangelands here in Contra Costa county and seen many a pond, the question always comes up, "When did this pond go dry?" followed quickly by "When does this pond normally go dry?" The answers are all different, but by and large, they currently dry in February/March/April when they historically went dry in July/August/September.

A pond in Shell Ridge, completely dry by mid-March 2020.

This presents a host of problems for wildlife and for livestock grazing. For the livestock, more water spread throughout our rangelands in the form of ponds, springs, and troughs increases the area they can graze, and reduces our fuel load and wildfire potential. For the wildlife, these ponds while mostly man-made, represent significant sources of water across an otherwise dry landscape in the Summer. For our federally threatened California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii) and our state threatened California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense), these ponds are crucial breeding habitat. Centuries ago, these species used vernal pools all over these rangelands and throughout the Central Valley to breed. As humans developed the land and "tamed" the rivers and creeks, the wetlands and pools dried up, leaving them to make use of what was available, ponds constructed to supply water to livestock.

California tiger salamander, courtesy of

The plight of these salamanders and frogs, is dire, but there is also reason for hope!

While we can't control drought or rainfall, we here at Contra Costa RCD can help improve the water holding capacity of these ponds, working to make sure that they last through summer and provide water for livestock and wildlife. Through our Voluntary Local Program, we partner with volunteer ranchers and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service to assess and potentially remediate potential pond issues that cause them to no longer hold water. This could be for a number of reasons including: failing or eroding spillways, filled with sediment after 30-40 years of normal soil erosion, failed dam structures, and many more. Through this program, Contra Costa RCD works to handle the regulatory burden, specifically species permits for the California red-legged frog and the California tiger salamander. Through our streamlined permitting process, we're able to complete these projects significant faster than if a rancher had decided to go it alone. Additionally, through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQIP, the NRCS is able to provide financial assistance to fix these ponds and provide important resource conservation value.

This coming Fall, we'll be working to fix three ponds, one of which is known to contain California tiger salamander. Through our best management practices, we'll safely and securely fix this pond while greatly reducing the potential to take or harm one of these important species. Additionally, we'll be working with ranchers to install 8 separate livestock watering systems all over Contra Costa rangelands, greatly increasing grazing distribution and reducing wildlife potential. We look forward to these projects as we work to protect our natural resources here in Contra Costa county and adapt to our changing climate.

For more information on the Voluntary Local Program, please contact Ben Weise at

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