Welcome Aaron Zettler-Mann, Watershed Science Director

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Aaron Zettler-Mann, joined the SYRCL staff last March, as our Lower Yuba River Restoration Manager. Since then he has stepped into the role of Watershed Science Director, taking the helm of our science department and its many projects throughout the watershed. Learn more about Aaron below, and if you see him around town (or on the Yuba), please offer him a warm welcome (from a safe distance).

Q: Tell us about yourself. How did you come to love rivers?

Like so many people I know who work in conservation and restoration, I grew up playing outside in the creek behind my house. Even as a kid, I’ve always been drawn to water and been curious about the world around me. Water has been a driving force in so much of my life; moving to Santa Cruz to surf, working ski patrol, and nearly a decade guiding whitewater rafts throughout the Sierra Nevada front range. When I eventually decided to go back to school and finish my BA (at CU Boulder) I knew I wanted to be able to continue working outside and on rivers but was looking for a career that was easier on my back and shoulders (and liver) than being a raft guide. I was able to do field work with a professor and his Ph.D. student at the time and was hooked. I’d found a way to be outside, around water, learning about and protecting places in the world that mean so much to me. Once I figured out what I wanted to do, it was easier to stay motivated to go to school where I eventually earned my Ph.D. from the University of Oregon.

Q: What upcoming projects are you excited about?

We have so many exciting projects coming up. We plan to break ground on a 50-acre restoration project at Long Bar this summer which will construct lots of new habitat for juvenile salmon and steelhead. We just started collecting our baseline hydrologic data for some meadows in the upper portions of the watershed. We’ll collect a couple years of data before installing some beaver dam analogues and doing some other restoration actions. I’m excited about that project and optimistic that next summer we will be able to engage more with the SYRCL volunteer community as well.

Q: What recommendations do you have for folks who might be interested a career of protecting rivers?

To students, I would say don’t feel rushed or pressured by college (sorry parents). It took me 8 years to finish my BA. A lot of that was because when I first started, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I took time off to work, explore, and learn what I enjoyed and what I didn’t. Then, when I was ready to go back to school I had enough ‘real-world’ experience to have a better sense for what I wanted to study. And, if you already enjoy school, take lots of classes outside of your major. I’m a Geographer at heart so I will always encourage classes in your Geography department. I think it’s a great lens through which to think about the world. Lastly, there’s the saying “it takes a village to raise a child”. It also takes a village to protect and restore rivers, and natural spaces generally. If what you love is math or engineering, all restoration projects need engineers, and any group that is serious needs people to track and manage budgets. Plant, wildlife, and fish biologists are all crucial to restoration and conservation as well. I’m a fluvial geomorphologist which is a fancy way of saying I study human-river-landscape interactions. But, if what you love is communications, film, or other art you don’t have to look very far to find the inspiring stories about conservation and restoration that are crucial to showing why natural places are worth fighting for.

I think the hard part is figuring out what you want to learn about and become an expert in. Once you know what skills you want to develop, finding a way to use those skills for conservation and/or restoration is easy.

Q: What do you most appreciate about your current work?

There’s so much I really like about my work. A lot of it comes down to the idea of diversity in work. I’m fortunate that I get to work on large, 50-to-100-acre restoration projects moving millions of cubic yards of gravel in the lower Yuba River. I get to walk around and talk about coniferous tree removal and beaver dam analogues for meadow and aspen restoration. I also get to work on water quality monitoring throughout the watershed. Not only are the types of projects exciting, but I also really enjoy all the people I get to collaborate with to protect and restore places across the watershed. Especially the amazing volunteer community SYRCL has – unfortunately due to Covid-19 restrictions, I couldn’t work with them on water quality monitoring this year, but I look forward to it next year.

This job really facilitates my excitement about what I think of as “big-S” and “little-s” of science. Big-S Science is a way of look at and thinking about the world. This is where I get to work with people and visit locations and try to figure out why a habitat is degraded and how we can try to restore the landscape within the natural processes and constraints present. Little-s science is what we do to answer those questions. What types of information do we need? Wow can we collect that information? How can we use it to make the next project event better?

Q: Do you have a favorite Yuba River location? Tell us about it.

That’s a tough one. I started at SYRCL three days before the first round of stay-at-home orders went into effect in March 2020 so I haven’t been able to do quite as much exploring as I would have liked. I have been to Edwards Crossing a few times and have enjoyed hiking and swimming there. I’m also an avid whitewater kayaker. Last spring, I was able to paddle the Summit Run of the South Yuba which starts upstream of Rainbow and follows I-80 to about Cisco. I’m excited about getting out onto the Edwards to Purdon run and maybe Hwy 49 to Bridgeport this winter as well.

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