Stewarding Our Change

Emma Zeigler

Emma Zeigler is an AmeriCorps volunteer with the California Conservation Corp's Watershed Stewards Program, placed at California Sea Grant's Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program.

I joined AmeriCorps’ Watershed Stewards Program with a love of being outside and an interest in ecology. Throughout college, I was drawn to environmental studies with intersections of climate change, agroecology, and natural history. I felt intense joy when I was out in field classes observing plants, reptiles and amphibians, mushrooms, and birds. While these things inspire me with a sense of awe and curiosity, the concerns presented by climate change are the true driving force behind my desire to be a part of a program that focuses on environmental stewardship. I am currently serving at California Sea Grant’s Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program in Sonoma County. When I was offered the opportunity to join WSP in Sonoma County, the place I grew up, it felt particularly meaningful. 

Now, as I walk streams collecting environmental data and witnessing firsthand the conditions brought on by the exceptional drought, I can’t help but compare how different this area feels from when I grew up. The swift river I learned to swim in is now the lowest I have ever seen. The lush and dynamic forests that I explored as a child are now scarred from wildfire and are threatened by it each year. The rainy season that I remember frequently causing floods didn’t even bring water levels up to average flow this winter. Weather indeed varies from year to year, but I can’t shake the stark contrast in my mind between current conditions and my former experience in this place. 

This April in Sonoma County, things started to feel tense. The temperatures were unseasonably high and creeks that we would expect to be flowing well were already becoming disconnected. Salmonids in the Russian River watershed include Chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead trout, which are all anadromous. Anadromous fish are born in freshwater, migrate to saltwater to grow to adulthood, and then return to freshwater to spawn. Freshwater tributaries are very important habitat for salmonid spawning and rearing. Drying or disconnected streams are a barrier to their life cycle, as they can prevent adults from reaching their spawning grounds, trap salmonid smolts as they try to migrate out to the ocean, and quickly become hostile environments for the young-of-the-year that need cold, clean water for rearing. 

Juvenile coho salmon need to survive in our small streams for about a year before they become juveniles, also known as smolts, and make their journey out to the ocean. Even if the streams don’t dry completely, disconnected streams mean less exchange of water and contribute to poor water quality. They also leave fish more vulnerable to predators. The current, harsh spring conditions are not necessarily surprising when the winter months that should have been our rainy season had less than half of the average historical precipitation for this area. Even though I still feel joy every day being outside and being a part of the monitoring efforts in the Russian River watershed, it can also feel depressing when the odds of healing our environment under the stress of climate change seem insurmountable. 

Sometimes things look bleak, but my guiding hope is finding resilience in a community that cares enough to do the incredibly difficult work it requires to make change. Each redd (nest) filled with thousands of salmon eggs is the result of an extraordinary journey of perseverance and sacrifice, each decaying carcass of a fish that already spawned brings life to all the organisms that rely on salmon to thrive and instills hope that this cycle can continue to support healthy ecosystems even in the face of hostile climate conditions. 

Small actions that attempt to mitigate the damage we have done to our environment can seem futile at times, but it’s important to start somewhere. If we are not actively trying to build a healthier future, conditions will continue to get worse. Communities that collaboratively work toward ecosystem restoration and stewardship can blossom into the bigger change we need, and true change requires commitment from a complex network of invested individuals. Even though it’s painful to observe worsening conditions and not have the power to fix it, I feel fortunate to be a part of endangered salmon recovery efforts. When I work with the many remarkable people who dedicate their time and efforts to protect and help our environment, my own drive to dedicate my life to building a sustainable future is emboldened. Building a brighter future requires that we all do our part to conserve resources, pay attention to shifting climate patterns, and be committed to healing our environment. I am inspired to continue this work.