The Drought Could Harm Research At Farallon Islands

April 24, 2014

As you might imagine, life out on Southeast Farallon Island is pretty rustic for the half dozen or so research scientists who live out there.

“We only shower every four days. There’s a schedule,” said Russ Bradley, the Farallon program manager and a senior scientist at Point Blue Conservation Science.

Situated 27 miles offshore, the research station has to be largely self-sufficient. More than 90 percent of the power comes from solar panels. And the scientists rely on rainwater for household use that is collected in a large cistern with a 100,000 gallon capacity. They use about 25,000 gallons a year, roughly one-quarter of the use of the average family home. Gray water is collected, filtered and used in toilets.

California’s drought is certainly not making life easier. In fact, another year of measly rains could shut down the research station, Bradley said.

“The rains we got in February helped us get back to the bottom end of where we’d be comfortable with. It’s lower than where we wanted to be,” Bradley said. “But in January it was pretty scary in not being able to collect significant water at all.”

The large pad is the catchment pad, the small hexagonal tank is the settling tank, and the square shaped structure is the cistern. Photo: Mike Johns/Point Blue
The large pad is the catchment pad, the small hexagonal tank is the settling tank, and the square shaped structure is the cistern. Photo: Mike Johns/Point Blue
A redwood tank on a hill above the research station brings water by gravity feed. Photo: Sean Fisher/Flickr.
A redwood tank about halfway down the hill below the lighthouse brings water by gravity feed. Photo: Sean Fisher/Flickr.

The dependence on rainwater is not a new thing. In the late 1800s, commercial harvesters of murre eggs sustained their operation from rainwater collection, and a fog horn relied on cistern water to cool its coal-fueled boilers.

When the Coast Guard took over in the mid 20th Century, it shipped water out to the island and temporarily ended the reliance on what fell from the skies. Scientists went back to collecting rainwater after the Coast Guard stopped delivering freshwater in the late 1990s.

But Bradley said he hasn’t seen water levels this low in a decade, and there are not a lot of alternatives to what nature brings.

“The prospect of having to move all our water onto the island — it would be difficult to think we could sustain our operations out there if we didn’t have the water that we collect.”

The researchers monitor the largest seabird colony in the contiguous U.S. (more than 300,000 birds of 13 species), as well as five species of pinnipeds and an accompanying swarm of white sharks and other species. They are also collecting long term data on climate change and its effects on the marine ecosystem.

“We have been conducting research and monitoring efforts on the Farallon Islands every day since April of 1968 — that’s 46 years of continuous effort,” said Bradley. “[We have] some of the longest term datasets on wildlife in the world – disrupting that  could have major negative implications.”

A western gull and chicks. Photo: KQED Quest
A western gull and chicks. Photo: KQED Quest

And by the way, the humans there are not the only ones impacted by the drought. The growth in vegetation is about six weeks behind schedule, and that impacts breeding birds.

Lasthenia around an auklet nesting box. Photo: Annie Schmidt/Point Blue
Lasthenia around an auklet nesting box. Photo: Annie Schmidt/Point Blue

Lasthenia, commonly called maritime goldfields or the Farallon weed, is a primary nesting material for western gulls and Brandt’s cormorants.

“We have some of that coming back now, which is great,” he said. “But we don’t really know what the effects are going to be with the reduced availability of nesting material. The birds really count on this to build their nests.”

Also, an endemic salamander, the Farallon arboreal salamander, emerged three to four months later than normal, Bradley said.

Alison Hawkes is the online editor of Bay Nature.

About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.

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