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Preserving Sacramento Valley's Vernal Pools

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(Sacramento, CA)
Monday, May 9, 2011

Try to imagine what we call today the Sacramento Valley say 150,000 years ago. Before there were man made levies, rivers meandered and stretched ten miles across, there were some riparian forests, but mostly there was prairie

One way to envision that prehistoric landscape is to hang out with biologist Eva Butler on the grounds of the former military base at Mather field where there are thousands of acres of preserved prairie grasslands.

EVA BUTLER: "Kind of secretively placed within that are these ponds and pools of various sizes. And vernal pool prairies are part of California's heritage. This pool we are sitting by has probably been here about 100,000 to 150,000 years.  And every time it rains and fills with water in the winter time and then dries in the summer its bringing with it this whole sort of cast of characters. The aquatic creatures that live here when it is wet and then when it dries it will fill with the most amazing display of California wildflowers you will ever see." 

The Mather field airbase was decommissioned and handed over to Sacramento County in 1992, and with it the biggest contiguous area of vernal pool prairies in the region.  Butler and the non-profit organization she started called Splash serves as a kind of an unofficial guardian of the vernal pools.
Butler says she thinks the biggest thing keeping the vernal pools from being developed is the presence of kids the splash program brings out like these fifth graders from Mary Tsukomoto Elementary in Elk Grove. Today's visit is the culmination of three months of classroom study of vernal pools. As part of the curriculum the students become expert in a critter which inhabits the vernal pools.
MARY TSUKOMOTO STUDENT: "My animal is the aquatic beetle. He eats chorus frogs…"
Kids who visit the pools start out at the splash headquarters housed in a former bank on the base. The drive up teller is now a nice picture window. Inside are vibrant photos of flowers and scary looking insects,  kids peer into microscopes and visit rescue animals like king snakes, turtles, and frogs.
The Splash program is popular,  more than 25,000 fourth and fifth graders have taken part over the years. And there is a two-year waiting list of schools hoping to get in the program. Carmen Cujito, the fifth grade teacher visiting with her class today says it's worth the wait. 
CARMEN CUJITO: "One of the wonderful things about is it goes across the curriculum, within the splash program we have a little bit of math, reading, writing oral presentations. We look through the microscopes and they identify animals, critters they call them.
After a visit to the Splash center, the kids heads out to see some of the critters in their natural environment first hand. Besides the space age looking defunct radar towers looming in the distance, its prairie as far as the eye can see,.  The kids head for a large vernal pool, Along the way what seems like just a grassy plain reveals its more than that.  A great egret flies over head.
The highlight of the trip for most kids is dipping plastic containers into a vernal pool. Leaning over a dock they seem lost in exploring the critter soup of tadpoles, ferry shrimp and a water tiger larvae they have scooped up.
NAT SOUND KIDS: "I see it, I see it. It's there, it's got it's pinchers and….
EMILY BUTLER: "One of the critical messages at Splash is teaching kids how interconnected all of these species are.
Splash founder Eva Butler's daughter Emily grew up around the vernal pools. After high school she went to  Canada to study environmental science. But after traveling the world she has come home to Sacramento to be the Executive Director of Splash. She says it's as meaningful as anyplace she has traveled. 
Emily Butler: "When you start to learn science and you get a feel for biology and ecology you realize it's this dance. All of these critters are connected together through thousands of intricate, you know intricate web of life. And if you pull one of those little critters, even if you don't think it matters that much the whole thing starts to collapse.
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