Long before there were strip malls and farms, the face of California’s central valley in springtime was defined by vernal pools. Today only five percent remain. One local biologist is playing a key role in preserving them.
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
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
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
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.