Turtle Emergency Water Delivery

By Rosi Dagit, Sr. Conservation Biologist, RCDSMM
By Rosi Dagit

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Turtle Emergency Water Delivery
Photos by RCDSMM Stream Team Volunteers Isaac Yeltsin and Steve Engelman in lower pool to test water quality before filling.
The drought and extreme heat have been tough on many critters, but you can help save one of our last remaining reproducing populations of southwestern pond turtles in the Santa Monica Mountains. These turtles require ponds for food and safety, so when their pond and pools go dry, they go hungry and are easy prey for predators such as ravens, raccoons, and dogs. With so little rain this year, the last refugia turtle pools were going dry. A team of 25 volunteers led by the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains (RCDSMM) decided it was time to help. On Saturday, September 4, the team deployed twenty 100-foot-long hoses, carrying them up a steep 200-foot ravine to get water to the last refugia pools left supporting native pond turtles. Manzanita School/Cali Camp donated water, and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (SMMC) provided extra hoses to help. Thanks to our engineering Call Firefighter volunteers Ken Widen, Joshua Widen, and Chris Walley, we were able to manage sufficient water pressure to get the water up the hill. Overseeing the repair of hoses that blew out with the pressure, were Delmar Lathers and Jayni Shuman. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) biologist, Chris Dellith and his wife Melissa, helped make sure that the water was de-chlorinated and well aerated before it gently hit the pools. It took all day to deliver more than 2,000 gallons of water, almost filling both refugia pools. Five turtle hatchlings, several juveniles and small adults immediately took advantage of the improved habitat! Now that we know this can work, we are seeking $11,000 to purchase the materials to set up a more permanent solution so that we can fill the pools as needed if the rains fail to come this winter. Southwestern pond turtles are the only turtle native to southern California and their populations are in such decline that USFWS is considering a petition to list them as endangered. They are presently listed as a California Species of Special Concern. Since 2002, the RCDSMM has been monitoring turtle populations throughout the Santa Monica Mountains, working with the National Park Service, CA State Parks, and the SMMC to identify and protect the small populations that remain. During the extended drought in 2015, 50 individuals died of starvation and another 15 lost limbs and had to be moved into captivity in a handicapped turtle pool. Three surviving females found a home with two males at the Santa Barbara Zoo, where it is hoped their offspring can recolonize habitat destroyed by the Thomas and Woolsey Fires. While setting up a turtle water delivery system is definitely a last-ditch effort to sustain this population in the wild, we hope that it will allow these long-lived turtles to survive as the climate shifts. We know that Patty (named when she was tracked!) and three other adult females initially tagged in 2002, joined several adult males, 16 new juveniles, and 6 hatchlings in these pools seeking food and shelter this past summer. Now they can enjoy a good feast before heading up into the chaparral to aestivate and wait for the rains to come. To help ensure these turtles’ survival, a tax-deductible donation to the RCDSMM Turtles (rcdsmm.org) will help make it happen. n

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October 1, 2021