Ecologists believe beavers can make California wet again


Beavers are often regarded as pests, but they could also be the solution to a major environmental issue in the west.

The state of California is now in its fifth year of a record-breaking drought, which has been dubbed the worst in 1,200 years. As lakes and reservoirs continue to shrink, the state needs to find creative ways to preserve water, and some believe a buck-toothed critter can help.

Research published by California’s Department of Natural Resources revealed that beavers once inhabited various regions in California, and some ecologists think repopulating the state’s central coast could be the key to its water issues.

“Beavers aren’t actually creating more water, but they are altering how it flows, which creates benefits through the ecosystem,” Michael Pollock, an ecosystems analyst and beaver specialist, told Water Deeply, an independent media project dedicated to covering California’s water crisis.

The Bring Back the Beaver campaign, launched by the WATER Institute, aims to educate the public about the importance of beavers. According to the Institute’s website, beavers can improve water quantity and quality, increase late-season flow, and reduce the impacts of flooding. And based on a 2006 study, they don’t just provide benefits for the environment surrounding their dams, they also play a critical role in maintaining healthy ecosystems downstream.

Researchers found that ponds created by beaver dams raised downstream groundwater levels in the Colorado River valley, keeping soil water levels high and providing moisture to plants in the otherwise dry valley. The authors also suggested that an extremely large natural flood would be the only other way to get the moisture levels found in the soil surrounding the dams.

Water Deeply also points to Washington’s success in restoring damaged watersheds by reintroducing beavers. The Methow Conservancy relocated more than 300 beavers into the headwaters of Washington’s Methow River system, and was recently awarded the Riparian Challenge Award for doing so.

But not everyone is sold on the animals’ benefits.

According to Kevin Shafer, a fisheries biologist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the solution for the state might not be so simple. He said that although they can have benefits for a watershed that is temporarily deprived of rainfall, he doubts beavers can reverse the effects of long-term drought or climate change.

“As the drought gets worse, their ponds will dry up and the animals will just move somewhere else,” he said. “They won’t stay, because there is no more water.”