Science Stories: Adventures in Bay-Delta Data

  • June 28, 2023

Blog by Rosemary Hartman, Data collated by Nick Rasmussen

Our last post gave you an introduction to the water weeds of the Delta. Invasive submerged aquatic vegetation is taking over the waterways, making it difficult for boaters, fish, water project operations, and scientific researchers (Khanna et al. 2019). As we described in the blog “Getting into the weeds”, they are hard to control too. But how do we collect data on aquatic weeds and what do those data look like?

How do we collect data?

There are two main types of data that we can work with (see IEP Technical Report 92 (PDF) for details). The first, is collected with areal photographs, and is known as ‘remote sensing’ (Figure 1). A specialized camera (sensor) is mounted on a platform (a drone, airplane, or satellite), and it can collect a regular-old photograph, or a hyperspectral photograph that records a lot of wavelengths of light that our eyes can’t see. Because different types of plants reflect different spectra of light (they are different colors) these photographs can be used to map location and extent of vegetation (Figure 2).

Diagram of remote sensing process showing an airplane flying over the water. Lines representing light go from the sun to the ground and are reflected to the sensor on the plane.
Figure 1. Diagram showing how remote sensing works. Light from the sun is reflected by objects on the ground. Different wavelengths of light are reflected differently. The sensor (camera) on the platform (airplane, satellite, drone, etc) registers the different wavelengths and stores them as an image file. Later, experts can classify the images based on which wavelengths of light were reflected.

The UC Davis Center for Spatial Technologies and Remote Sensing (CSTARS) has been mapping vegetation in the Delta using hyperspectral imagery collected with airplanes for most of the last 20 years (like the map in Figure 2). They create maps every year and share their data online via the Knowledge Network for Biocomplexity.

False-color map of Suisun Marsh showing different colors for different types of vegetation.
Figure 2. Hyperspectral image map of Suisun Marsh collected by CSTARS. Colors are used to represent different vegetation types (they aren't really that color).

Hyperspectral imagery is very good for identifying floating aquatic vegetation and terrestrial vegetation, but the water makes it hard to identify submersed vegetation. We can map where submersed vegetation is, but not what kind of vegetation is there. To look at community composition, we need to actually get out in the field and check on the weeds directly. To survey submersed weeds, researchers use a thatch rake (Figure 3) – an evil looking tool with sharp tines on one end and a long handle.

Image of a rake with a long pole and very jagged blades on the end.
Figure 3. A thatch rake being used to sample aquatic vegetation. Photo from the Department of Water Resources.

To measure weeds, researchers either lower the rake into the water and twist it around to pick up the weeds, or they drag the rake behind the boat. When they pull the rake in, they rank the coverage of weeds on the rake head and identify the weeds to species. Several different groups have been collecting these data over the past twenty years– the State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways (DBW), UC Davis (including CSTARS), SePRO Corporation, and the Department of Water Resources. Dr. Nick Rasmussen (DWR) recently integrated all these datasets into one data publication available on the Environmental Data Initiative. He developed the data set because he was helping to write a series of reports about the environmental impact of drought and drought-related management actions. Those reports required rounding up aquatic vegetation data quickly, but at the time, virtually none of it was readily available. He wanted to fix that.

It ended up being a fun challenge for Nick because he got to learn how to create a fully reproducible process for integrating the dataset – including some hard decisions about how best to combine data that was collected in very different ways. He did all the cleaning and formatting in R scripts that are made available in a public GitHub repository.

What do the data look like?

Well, because these data were collected by different programs for different purposes, there are pretty big differences in number of samples and distribution of samples over the years (Figure 4). So it’s a little difficult to detect trends.

Bar graph showing lots of samples taken from 2007-2010, no samples taken 2011-2013, and a lower number of samples taken 2014-2021. The Franks Tract Survey only occurred from 2014-2021.
Figure 4. Graph of number of submerged vegetation rake samples per year in the integrated vegetation dataset.

However, when we look at the relative abundance of different species that have shown up in the rake sample data (Figure 5), we can really see an expansion in Potamogeton richardsonii (Richardson’s pondweed, black bars in figure 5) and Najas guadalupensis (southern naiad, brown bars in figure 5) after 2014. It’s not clear whether these species, both native to California, were recent invaders in the Delta or whether early surveys didn’t know how to tell the difference between them and similar looking species such as Potamogeton crispus (curlyleaf pondweed, red bars in Figure 5).

Bar plot showing relatively consistent communities of vegetation over time, except for increases in Potamogeton richardsonii and Najas guadalupensis after 2014. The enlarged image shows the stacked bar plots for each species.
Figure5. Graph of relative abundance of each species across all rake sample surveys by year. No sampling occurred 2011-2013. Click for a version that shows separate plots for each species.

To make the story a little more complicated, these species aren’t found evenly throughout the Delta. Both Potamogeton richardsonii and Najas guadalupensis are found chiefly in Franks Tract (Figure 6) and not in any of the other regions of the Delta. SePRO and DBW conduct extensive sampling every year within Franks Tract (see Caudill et al. 2019 (PDF)), but not as high an intensity in other areas, so high abundance there throws off the Delta-wide data if it is not weighted by location.

Map with pie charts in each region showing relative abundance of vegetation across all years. Most pie charts show mostly Egeria and Ceratophyllum, but Franks Tract also has Potamogeton richardsonii and Najas guadalupensis. The enlarged image shows the stacked plots for each species.
Figure 6. Average relative abundance of different types of submerged vegetation by region of the Delta for the entire dataset. Click for a version that shows separate plots for each species.

We can also look at the hyperspectral maps to give us a record of total coverage of submerged weeds by year (Figure 7). We can see that total coverage of weeds really increased between 2008 and 2017, then remained about the same from 2017 to 2022.

Bar graph showing coverage of vegetation across all Delta waterways. Coverage is about 15% from 2007-2020, then jumps to 18-25% between 2017 and 2022.
Figure 7. Graph of percent of waterways in the Delta covered with submerged vegetation by year. Triangles indicate missing years.

However, it is often more interesting to look at a smaller area of the Delta and see how vegetation shifts from year to year (Figure 8, 9). For example, distribution of weeds in Franks Tract – a large, open-water area of the Delta – changed dramatically when a barrier was installed in West False River in 2015 and 2021-2022. The open-water area in the middle of the tract filled in during 2015, but the area on the eastern side of the tract started to clear out during 2021-2022 (see Hartman et al, 2022 (PDF) for more information).

Map showing the location of the Delta in the central valley of California and Franks Tract in the center of the Delta.
Figure 8. Map showing the location of Franks Tract - a large, open-water area with extensive vegetation and the site of many vegetation surveys by DBW and SePRO. Maps of vegetation in Franks Tract through the years are in Figure 9, below.

Maps of Franks Tract for 2004-2008 and 2014-2022 showing shifts in vegetation over time.
Figure 9. Hyperspectral image of Franks Tract showing installations of a barrier in West False River during 2015, 2021, and 2022, and resulting changes in distribution of submerged aquatic vegetation. Click to enlarge.

Between all these surveys, we’ve collected a lot of data on weeds, but we haven’t done an extensive analysis. There are lots more questions waiting to be asked! How does the distribution of weeds change with floods and droughts? Which species of weeds grow in shallow versus deep water? Are any species expanding in range? Download the dataset yourself and take a look!

Further reading

Categories: General, Underappreciated data
  • June 15, 2023

By Shruti Khanna and Rosemary Hartman

CSTARS field crew member sampling submerged aquatic vegetation using a thatching rake in the southern edge of Little Frank's Tract. Azolla and water primrose in the background, Egeria densa on the rake.
Figure 1. The hard-working staff of the UC Davis Center for Spatial Technologies and Remote Sensing survey water weeds using large thatch rakes. Image credit: UC Davis.

If you’ve ever tried to take a boat across one of the large, flooded islands in the Delta, there is a good chance you’ve gotten your propeller snagged on water weeds. Submersed aquatic vegetation (which is the fancy, scientific term for ‘water weeds’) have been getting worse and worse in recent years, with invasive species taking over areas that were previously open water. Most of these weeds are introduced species from South America, but even some of our native species have been expanding rapidly. Weeds were the subject of several papers in the most recent State of Bay Delta Science, they were the subject of a recent paper synthesizing many years of herbicide data to look at weed control effectiveness at a landscape scale, and data on aquatic weeds in the Delta has been published in several different datasets. Classification maps are now available for all aquatic plants in the Delta for most of 2004-2022 (with 2023 in the works) and there is a new, integrated dataset made up of vegetation samples from four different programs. Together, these data and publications are increasing our understanding of where weeds are a problem and what to do about it.

The recent paper “Multi-year landscape-scale efficacy of fluridone treatment of invasive submerged aquatic vegetation in the Sacramento San Joaquin Delta”, published earlier this year in Biological Invasions, was an excellent example of how many datasets could be integrated and used to answer a major management question. Water weeds have been managed with herbicides by California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways for years, but its always seemed like a Sisyphean affair – constant use of herbicides and mechanical removal while weeds just keep growing back (for more info, see recent special issue of the Journal of Aquatic Plant Management). This gave lead author Dr. Shruti Khanna the idea that someone should look at whether the treatments were working. So she enlisted the help of Dr. Jereme Gaeta – statistician extraordinaire, Dr. Edward Gross – an expert in hydrodynamic modeling, and Dr. Louise Conrad – who could provide both scientific and policy advice.

For Shruti, the best part was working with the other members of the team: “Honestly, what I enjoyed most was working with Jereme on this project. He brought methods of analysis to the table that I couldn't have dreamed of when I was doing my PhD. I just didn't have the know-how. So, it was a very complementary effort - my remote sensing and geospatial skills to extract spatial information and integrate it with diverse other datasets, his statistical skills to create a nuanced GAM model to explore the data, and Louise's expert knowledge on the treatment program, its history, and management perspective made the publication a lot stronger. It was Jereme's idea to add Ed's hydrodynamic modeling of water speed to our analysis. Incorporating speed gave a whole new perspective to our study and turned out to be critical to understanding why treatment is sometimes not effective."

They gathered data gathered in the field on when and where weeds were treated, annual maps of weed distribution collected with hyperspectral imagery, and predicted current speed based on hydrodynamic models. The final integrated dataset was made of five diverse datasets with field data tables, rasters, vectors, and model output. They then created a statistical model to see whether multiple years of herbicide treatment resulted in lower probability of weeds. They found that when high levels of herbicide were applied there was a lower probability of weeds being there, but only at low current speeds (See figure 2). If the water was moving quickly, all the herbicide would be washed away and there was no effect of treatment (See figure 3).

Graph showing how the probability of vegetation presence decreases with increasing current speed. However, effectiveness of fluridone treatment also decreases with increasing current speed. Figure 2. Graph of model results from Khanna et al. 2023 showing probability of vegetation presence versus current speed. At low current speeds, fluridone decreased the probability of vegetation being present. But at high current speeds, there was no effect of fluridone. Graph reproduced from Khanna et al. 2023, with permission of the authors.

In a complicated, tidal system like the Delta, it is extremely difficult to control weeds when the herbicides get washed away by the tides more often than not. New tools are currently under investigation by members of the Delta Region Areawide Aquatic Weed Project, including the Division of Boating and Waterways, US Department of Agriculture, UC Davis, and others to get a better handle on this sticky problem.

Conceptual diagram showing how fluridone pellets sit on the bottom of the water. At low current speeds, water sloshes back and forth by the fluridone stays in place. At high current speeds, the fluridone washes away. Figure 3. Diagram of what is going on at herbicide treatment spots in the Delta. Fluridone comes in pellets which slowly release into the water column. When current speeds are low, water ‘sloshes’ back and forth a bit, but fluridone concentration remains high and weeds are killed. When current speeds are high, all the fluridone washes away before it can be effective. Image credit: Shruti Khanna, CDFW.


Categories: General