CNPS State Home   |   Local Chapters   |   Publications     Join CNPS Donate to CNPS
Print

vernalpools-graphicVernal Pools:
More Than Just "Rain Puddles"

Long before man, long before the dinosaurs even, our planet was ageing, and not always gently: Volcanoes spewed forth fiery portions from the contents of our planet. Earthquakes swallowed up parts of our planet and returned them to the boiling cauldron from whence they came. Huge rocks from outer space flashed through our protective atmosphere and crashed into our planet, reshaping anything and everything they crashed into and beyond. Mountains rose and fell. Oceans filled and drained. Earthquakes made some things tall and some things deep. As our planet and Nature constantly reshaped itself into the only world you and I and countless other species can call home, one huge continent surrounded by an immense ocean broke apart and became the several we recognize upon our globe today. Storms beyond belief blew in and blew out.  As old minerals cooked and compressed into new rocks and mountains in one place, old mountains and rocks crumbled and dissolved back into minerals in another place.

Bomb20Pool205 0000After ages and ages of rain and floods, in one very special place that would become a paradise of temperate climate and nurturing topography--some of those nomadic minerals slowly washed and sifted down through the barren dirt to collect and compress into platter-like hard layers in different locations and at different depths beneath the soil surface.

As eons of Nature's cataclysmic events shaped the part of our planet we now call the Central Valley region of California, they scooped out a virtual valley-utopia nestled between the ever-disintegrating Coastal Mountain Range and the ever-disintegrating Sierra Mountain Range. In our Cental Valley region (which used to be an inland ocean), those scattered platters of hardened minerals beneath the soil helped to trap rainwater in temporary ponds on the surface, stretching from north to south of California.  As life began to appear on our planet, certain delicate species of flora and fauna evolved to adapt to only one kind of habitat: those temporary but annually re-occurring ponds that we call vernal pools.

Many short-sighted and special-interest groups nowadays portray vernal pools as easily expendable "rain puddles" or "buffalo wallows"--hindrances to PROGRESS-- but, in truth, they are a legacy of California's dimming natural heritage and some of the last vestiges of Nature's desperate struggle for survival. Despite the fact that scientists have deemed our little corner of the globe as one of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots, there are those among us who, for their own greedy purposes, strive to make the rest of us forget that we all are a part of Nature, and that all of Nature is a part of us.

School20Pool201 0000Only about 10 percent of California’s ancient vernal pools remain to us and the rest of the world today. Many of these remaining few temporary wetlands, and the plant and animal species which grace them, are imperiled for the world of tomorrow. As our population is inexorably shepherded out from urban centers and we encroach upon what little remains of our agricultural and rural areas, vernal pools get scraped up, plowed under, polluted, or asphalted over--never to be seen again.  Although these kaleidoscopes of life seem to come alive for only a few short, wet months of the year, a plentitude of creatures and plants (many of whom saw the dinosaurs come and go), thrive in, and rely upon, these seasonal rain puddles and their surrounding grasslands.  Sadly, many of these plant and animal species can live nowhere else, and are doomed to certain extinction.

We have but two federal laws which are supposed to protect our vernal pools: the Clean Water Act (CWA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The CWA is supposed to regulate the junk that gets dumped into our wetlands and waters. The ESA is supposed to regulate the preservation of endangered vernal pool species.  But, neither of these two laws actually prevent destruction of vernal pools --they seem satisfied only to regulate their decline, and, properly record their destruction.

Under the CWA, projects that will destroy vernal pools can be approved—provided that the impacts are mitigated.  Mitigation entails creating a fake vernal pool landscape somewhere else, or, paying for protection--an easement--on another vernal pool somewhere else. Under the ESA, species facing extinction can be killed and their habitat destroyed, as long as a project is mitigated and doesn’t clearly cause the extinction.

cts001 0000Given that most of the creatures who inhabit these pools are not very large, it is perhaps easy to see how some people might conveniently overlook their importance in the larger scheme of things concerning our industrious population today. Less than half of these crawlies and critters have ever been properly named, and most live nowhere else on our planet.  Yet, larger organisms—ourselves included—of which some pseudo-conservation-ethic politicians grudgingly profess concern, actually depend upon this particular primary link in life's complex food chain for their, and our own, very survival.  Early native peoples made documented good use of vernal pool resources for their livelihood and survival before they too were bulldozed aside by those who have seemingly lost their sense of connection with our natural world, its wonders, and, more importantly, its requirements.

thomes 0000Given that most of the over 200 species of plants that grow in and around vernal pools bloom with their dazzling array of color and vitality in rings and ribbons for just a brief display each year, those who have trained themselves not to see can easily overlook their beauty and importance in our daily lives. Despite their aesthetic contribution, despite the iintegral role these plants also play in the complex food-web of life, some people would have us forever turn our backs on them and the pools with which they live in and around. About half of these plants exist nowhere else on our world.  Such a shame too, in that, for example, the oily seeds of one species of vernal pool flower possess the potential ability to end the needless slaughter of sperm whales for their blubber to render into lubricating oil.  As with our diminishing rainforests, who knows what lifesaving plant-derived medicines we carelessly overlook and destroy each time one of our few remaining vernal pools becomes a parking lot? Like the introduced invasive weeds and the non-native plants which now choke much of our grasslands and wetlands, developers and brain-washed followers of some outdated Manifest Destiny doggerel greedily encroach upon what little remains of our central valley paradise with its beautiful and mysterious vernal pools to forever devour that delicate life which is visual evidence of a perfection mankind sadly lacks.

NeostaphiaMost vernal pool experts will relate to us how these temporary wetlands have three distinct phases: A “wet phase” usually during the winter, when the rains come and fill up the leak-proof, shallow depressions with life-giving water. And give life, it does. Healthy pools are brimming with aquatic, bird, and new plant life.  The aquatic life is in a frenzy to hatch, feed, grow and mate to secure a future generation; the birds are feeding on the aquatic and plant life for their long migrations and future broods; and the plants are beginning to sprout.  Next comes the “flowering phase” in the early spring.  The flower displays are constantly changing, from week to week: ribbons and rings of yellow, white, pink, blue, and purple. The aquatic life is pretty much gone or beginning to fade away, as the water in the pools begins to evaporate, but, not to worry, they have left a promise in the form of eggs and cysts bound into the muddy bottom of the pool, along with many of the plants’ seeds until next year. Next, comes the “dry phase”, in which the hot summer sun and desiccating wind does its work.  The vernal pool becomes almost indistinguishable from the brown, dried grassland surrounding it. Creatures still come to the pools to feed upon what they can find, and other creature come to feed upon them.

sundogThose three phases provide a short, but beautiful and bountiful season. Until recently, these miracles of Nature's grace have been re-appearing--like a promise--for hundreds of thousands of years.

But with its degenerating mild Mediterranean climate; with its housing-developed, gently rolling, excavated verdant hillsides; with its shipped-somewhere-else bubbling brooks and powerful yet lazy rivers; with its shopping-mall-potential grasslands, wetlands, and wild places, there are still those who refuse to respond to the plain truth that there's just too many of us, with more and more coming everyday, to follow that American Dream ideology in our central valley.

Precariously sheltered within our equally misused, misunderstood and endangered grasslands and watersheds--which are our natural flood-control, water-purification, and, mosquito abatement systems--too many of our ancient California vernal pools are doomed to become just another precursor of Nature's fate as they face a permanent "fourth phase". --Slow