News & Stories

  • Caltrans studies Carneros highway bridge project to benefit drivers, fish

    November 6, 2017

    Napa Valley Register By Barry Eberling

    Caltrans is completing plans to replace a small bridge on a major thoroughfare — Highway 121 linking south Napa and Sonoma counties — while keeping traffic running without a detour.

    The $13.9 million Huichica Creek bridge project could begin construction in 2020 and last for two years. The stated goals are to make the highway safer for motorists and to make the creek easier to navigate for fish.

    Caltrans intends to demolish an old bridge, build a new one and still allow an average of 32,000 vehicles daily to keep crossing the creek under Highway 121, which is also known as Highway 12 and the Carneros Highway. The idea is to do the project in phases, with the new bridge overbuilt initially and the extra width removed during the last phase. Traffic will shift as a section of the new bridge is built and a section of the old bridge is removed.

    Nighttime work is to be minimized for environmental reasons. Daytime motorists and bridge construction workers will have to co-exist.

    “There is going to be a little slowdown to improve the highway,” Caltrans spokesman Vince Jacala said.

    Caltrans released a 164-page report on the proposed Huichica Creek project bridge at, which is still in the design phase.

    “Everything isn’t set in stone yet,” Jacala said.

    Two-lane Highway 121 runs through the rolling, vineyard-covered hills of the Carneros region. A new Huichica Creek bridge will be the final piece of a bigger project that improved virtually all of a 1.7-mile stretch from Duhig Road in Napa County to the Sonoma County line.

    This section once saw higher rates of fatal accidents than comparable highways, a Caltrans report said. In 2011, Caltrans finished widening the road, adding shoulders and smoothing curves. Accident fatalities dropped from eight from January 2001 through December 2003 to none from July 2012 through June 2015, statistics show.

    But Caltrans didn’t replace the Huichica Creek bridge along this stretch of Highway 121 to fit in with the rest of the wider roadway. The reason was proposed fish passage improvements associated with the proposed bridge didn’t satisfy various state and federal environmental agencies, officials said.

    Huichica Creek flows for about 16 miles from the southern Mayacamas mountains to Napa Slough, which empties into the Napa River. Steelhead trout are in the stream. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife considers the portion of the creek at the bridge to be a fish barrier to upstream spawning grounds.

    Downstream of the bridge is a six-foot to eight-foot drop that fish have trouble passing. The creek crosses under the bridge in three 78-inch-wide metal culverts built in 1968, when environmental laws were laxer.

    “It’s like a broken leg of the stream,” Jacala said.

    A new-and-improved Huichica Creek bridge would have no culverts, but would be a free span bridge clear of the creek. Caltrans proposes to remove paved portions of the creek channel near the bridge, create a gentler slope in the channel and build eight step-pools that fish could travel between with a maximum half-foot jump. Fish passage improvements are to extend 300 feet downstream of the bridge and 130 feet upstream.

    “Water will flow better and it will be a better watershed,” Jacala said.

    The new bridge will even allow more light to penetrate to the bottom of the creek. That should allow for natural physical and biotic conditions, the Caltrans report said.

    Meanwhile, motorists will see an altered landscape. Workers will have to remove oaks, sycamores, Oregon ash, white alder and other trees to complete the project, perhaps as many as 100, though Caltrans said it will make efforts to avoid or prune trees instead.

    But motorists won’t see the loss of one of Napa County’s famous, historic stone bridges. The Huichica Creek bridge has no charming stone sides, but metal guard rails.

    The new, concrete bridge is to be 44 feet wide, nine feet wider than the current version.

    Read the article at the source »

  • Partnership with state-run Nimbus Hatchery helps correct wayward 2017 fall-run Chinook salmon that strayed off course when they returned to spawn

    November 2, 2017

    Fish and Wildlife Service By Steve Martarano

    California may have experienced record rainfalls this past winter, but negative impacts due to the unprecedented five-year statewide drought continue for Chinook salmon produced at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery.

    In a unique partnership that hasn’t been utilized in 40 years, the state of California has stepped in to help out.

    The Coleman hatchery, located in Anderson, California is the only federally operated fish hatchery in the state with an annual production of 12 million fall-run salmon smolts that are typically released into nearby Battle Creek each spring. This allows them to complete the imprinting cycle during their outmigration to the ocean.

    Salmon smolts were deposited into net pens in 2015 at Rio Vista and taken out to the ocean for release. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

    In 2014 and 2015 however, due to extreme drought conditions which prevented release into Battle Creek, most of those 24 million fish were driven almost 200 miles by truck (about 280 river miles) and released into locations near the San Francisco Bay, including Rio Vista, Mare Island and San Pablo Bay.

    As a result, a good portion of the Chinook salmon smolts that were released in 2014 - about 8 million of the 12 million were trucked that year -- strayed off course when they returned to freshwater to spawn. In 2015, poor conditions persisted and all 12 million of those smolts ended up being trucked. These fish are returning to spawn primarily during the current year.

    California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Nimbus Hatchery, located near Sacramento on the American River, opened its fish ladder early on Oct. 9 to accommodate the arrival of those straying fish. Beginning Oct. 10, twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, hatchery workers from Coleman arrived in Sacramento to help CDFW spawn fish that originated in Battle Creek.

    The eggs collected at Nimbus will be returned to Coleman to prepare for the planned spring release, to help augment what could be the lowest Chinook salmon return ever, said Brett Galyean, project leader for the Coleman hatchery complex.

    In typical years, Coleman will see a return of around 30,000 fish and since 1996, as many as almost 143,000.

    This year, however because of the drought-caused trucking, only about 3,000 are expected to return to Battle Creek.

    “It’s pretty spectacular the way the state has stepped up to help us out,” said Galyean, adding that the last time Nimbus and Coleman hatcheries worked together in a similar fashion was in the late 1970s. “I’ve never seen anyone open their fish ladder three weeks early before and we really appreciate it. It’s definitely not normal operating procedure for them.”

    Before release, Coleman marks 25 percent of its salmon by clipping off the adipose fin—the small, fleshy fin on the fish’s back between the dorsal and caudal fins. These clipped salmon also have coded wire tags the size of pencil lead, inserted into their nose. Under a microscope, biologists can read the code etched on the tag to determine where and when the fish was hatched, and where it was released.

    Fall-run Chinook from Battle Creek live three to four years and typically spawn in October and early November, compared to fish from the American River that spawn in November and early December.

    When the salmon reach the Nimbus Hatchery, staff then separate the fish that have had their adipose fin removed, indicating that they carry the tiny coded tag. Fish identified as being of Coleman origin will be spawned with one another, and their fertilized eggs returned to Coleman. Fish that have not had their adipose fin removed will be spawned and their eggs will be reserved, ready to be used to meet Coleman’s production goals.

    Those fish that are not yet ready to spawn will have a colored tag attached to their dorsal fin and will be returned to the American River, where they will be available to anglers until they either spawn naturally or climb the ladder again to spawn at the Nimbus hatchery.

    Marc Provencher, a fish biologist at Coleman for eight years, has been working out of Nimbus most Thursdays during the collection process, collecting eggs from the females and milt from the males that will be mixed with the eggs to fertilize them.

    “Today was probably the best day we’ve had,” said Provencher, while on his way back to Coleman on Oct. 26, noting they had collected 140 fish that day.

    “We’ve collected close to a million eggs since we started this. Every one of them helps,” he said.

    “We’ll be working at Nimbus until the marked fish stop showing up; probably in early November,” Galyean said.

    Coleman’s production goal is to collect roughly 14 million eggs at the hatchery, Galyean said.

    Each spawning fish produces about 5,300 eggs on average, and about 190 spawning pairs have been collected so far from Nimbus.

    The operation at Nimbus ended Nov. 1, and both hatcheries will continue with their fall spawning public viewing schedules with Nimbus returning to its normal Monday-Thursday schedule through mid-December.

    Coleman is open to public viewing Tuesdays and Thursdays, 8 a.m. to noon, through mid-November.

    Read the article at the source »

  • As climate change threatens a California tribe’s ‘Jerusalem and Mecca,’ a model deal could save the day

    November 1, 2017

    California Forum By Jane Braxton Little

    Before rushing to join the Klamath River, the waters of Blue Creek pause in a turquoise pool beside a bed of stone-gray cobbles. Salmon pause here, too – coho and fall Chinook, basking in the cool-water refuge to rally for the upstream swim to spawning grounds.

    The journey up Blue Creek takes them past groves of redwoods and Douglas firs, over boulder-strewn cascades in a 4,000-foot climb to the misty Siskiyou Mountains. This ascent leads to what Yurok People call the “high country,” a hallowed place where they have gone for millennia to gather medicinal and ceremonial plants, and to commune with the sacred.

    “Blue Creek is Jerusalem and Mecca for us,” says Amy Cordalis, general counsel for the Yurok Tribe.

    Today the entire 47,000-acre watershed near Redwood National Park is poised for protection under an ambitious partnership between the tribe and Western Rivers Conservancy. Along with returning some of the Yurok homelands and safeguarding critical habitat for endangered salmon, the arrangement offers a model for conserving rivers and forests at a scale that can buffer them against climate change.

    Despite its cultural and spiritual significance to the tribe, and its importance to the survival of anadromous fish returning to the Klamath River, the Blue Creek watershed is far from pristine. The headwaters enjoy protection as a federal wilderness area, but in the lower reaches logging, road construction and grazing have incised the channel. Feral cows forage on the banks and stray hatchery fish breed with wild salmon.

    After watching the degradation for decades, the Yuroks realized the only way to protect their ancestral territory was to own it. “These are spiritual lands,” said Cordalis. “We have always been a salmon people and centered our way of life around the Klamath.”

    For Western Rivers, protecting Blue Creek has been a conservation requisite. Along with cold waters essential to salmon survival, the watershed harbors rare Pacific fishers, northern spotted owls and marbled murrelets. “This is one of the most biologically rich areas on Earth,” said Sue Doroff, co-founder and president of Western Rivers.

    Conserving a landscape triple the size of Manhattan challenged the tribe and the conservancy to reach beyond the ordinary. They began by reaching out to one another in a 2008 partnership agreement. Western Rivers would buy the land within the Yurok ancestral territory from Green Diamond Resource Co., they agreed, and then help the tribe acquire it.

    The $60 million project also pushed the partners to find innovative funding mechanisms. Among them is California’s greenhouse gas reduction program.

    As owners, the Yurok will shift forest management from heavy industrial logging to restoration and rejuvenation that allows trees to get older before harvesting them, and in places, eliminates logging altogether. That change escalates the amount of carbon stored in trees and soil. These increases are generating credits through California’s carbon market, which the tribe is selling to help pay for the land.

    Along with a combination of public and private sources, donations and foundation grants, the partners also tapped New Market Tax Credits. Designed to spur revitalization of low-income neighborhoods, the program allows big corporations to earn tax credits on their investments in communities. Western Rivers will hold the final 8,600 acres purchased with tax credits for seven years, then turn them over to the Yurok Tribe, Doroff said.

    The tribe is committed to sustainable stewardship “over the next 100 years and forever,” said Cordalis. That includes managing 14,790 acres as a salmon sanctuary, and the rest as a community forest focused on restoration. The 47,000-acre acquisition, which more than doubles the Yurok land holdings, will generate dozens of new jobs for the tribe and its 6,000 members.

    The Blue Creek project is clearly unique but the creativity and persistence that are driving it can be replicated. Wherever critical habitat is threatened, wherever a community is committed to saving it, this pioneering partnership should serve as a model to encourage and inspire.

    With climate change and wholesale dismantling of federal regulations mounting threats to critical habitat, the inspiration can’t come too soon.

    Read the article at the source »

  • Scientists shocked: Where did ocean salmon go?

    November 1, 2017

    KTVZ Portland by Brian Burke

    PORTLAND, Ore. - The Blob, the warm-water anomaly that spread across the North Pacific Ocean for the better part of the last four years, disrupting the ocean food supply for juvenile salmon and steelhead and bringing warm-water predator fish farther north than normal, appears to have dissipated, but this year a new and possibly related problem developed that shocked scientists.

    Juvenile salmon, observed in near-normal numbers in the Columbia River estuary, seemed to disappear in the ocean, NOAA Fisheries scientist Brian Burke reported at a meeting of ocean researchers this month.

    The Blob, named for its appearance on maps of sea surface temperatures – an angry-looking red mass spreading across the otherwise blue Pacific like a menacing slime – upset the normal marine ecosystem and led to some unusual, even lethal consequences. Fish including predators normally found in warmer waters to the south were caught off Alaska, and there was a shift in the food supply that resulted in less available nutrition and greater competition among species.

    While the Blob has dissipated and sea surface temperatures are returning to normal, satellite imagery can’t show what’s going on under the surface, and that’s where the problems appear to continue. This year the abundance of juvenile salmon in the lower Columbia River and estuary was about average but, mysteriously, NOAA researchers found almost no juvenile salmon in their June survey of the near-shore ocean. In 2008, the June survey brought in 422 juvenile salmon, the most in recent years; this year the number was only 16. Catches of smelt, herring, and anchovy, forage fish for birds and other species, also were also low.

    “Chinook and coho just weren’t there,” Burke said. “Our best guess is that sometime between the estuary and the near-shore there was a really big predation event. This shocked us.” In seeming confirmation, a researcher in Alaska who normally catches juvenile Columbia River spring Chinook and coho smolts in the summer caught none this year, NOAA salmon researcher Lauri Weitcamp said.

    Following the surveys, NOAA issued a memo in September suggesting the low numbers may have resulted from an increase in salmon predation by birds in response to the low abundance of forage fish, or from poor ocean conditions or both. “We did catch a lot of predator fish, “Burke said. “It could be that there are more around this year than normal.”

    As scientists learn more about how fish behave in the ocean in response to constantly varying conditions – where they start their migration, where they go, what they eat – the results will help inform management decisions from forecasting run sizes and setting harvest seasons in the ocean and in freshwater, to hatchery operations, and decisions about where to focus money to improve freshwater spawning habitat for wild fish.

    “There is a lot of data to assimilate, but 2015, 16, and 17 were not good for salmon, due to the presence of the Blob,” Burke said, adding “there is a lot of information we don’t have, but need.” This includes information about predators on juvenile and adult salmon, from hake to birds to sea lions, and also about the abundance of salmon prey including forage fish like anchovies, herring, and crabs.

    Read the article at the source »

  • Two Years After California’s Biggest Dam Removal, Fish Rebound

    October 30, 2017

    News Deeply By Enrique Gili (Tommy Williams)

    At a time when California was suffering from a record-breaking drought, removing a dam would have seemed counterintuitive. But that’s what happened in 2015 on the Carmel River when the 106ft San Clemente Dam was torn down in the name of public safety and for the benefit of an iconic fish.

    Now, two years later, scientists are evaluating just how big an impact the dam removal has had on steelhead trout, which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. So far, the results are promising.

    “Steelhead trout are crafty,” said Tommy Williams, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) tasked with surveying the river for their presence. Like many piscine-oriented people, he holds the anadromous species in high regard. An oceangoing version of rainbow trout, steelhead can migrate in their first, second or third year of life, return to their birthplace to mate and can spawn more than once.

    Prior to European settlement, steelhead had survived and thrived through California’s countless droughts and wildfires. Yet despite their tenacity, by the early 21st century they were on the verge of disappearing from the landscape.

    The razing of the Sam Clemente Dam served a dual purpose. The sediment-choked reservoir blocked access to the ocean for steelhead and the dam was at risk of catastrophic failure due to earthquakes. Rather than face the prospect of a wall of mud, trees and rocks squashing homes located downstream, the decision was made by the dam’s owner, California American Water, in consultation with federal and state agencies, to demolish the decrepit structure, making it the largest dam-removal project in California’s history.

    The project began in 2013 when engineers rerouted a half-mile section of the river above the dam. Remnants of the dam were removed and a series of cascading pools were installed to enable oceangoing fish to swim upstream to the tributaries where they spawn.

    Prior to demolition, the prognosis for the steelhead residing in the Carmel River was dire.

    Historic steelhead runs on the Carmel River used to be around 20,000 but that number had dropped to fewer than 800 by 2015. NOAA scientist Williams, who has conducted steelhead surveys along sections of the river prior to and after the dam’s demolition, compared their decline to a “death by a thousand cuts.” He attributes their losses to the rise of human habitation in California and to the subsequent demand for water to cultivate crops and for use by cities for the sake of economic development. “We’ve pushed them to the razor’s edge by modifying their habitat,” he said.

    Monterey County was no exception. The demand for water led to the construction of the San Clemente Dam in 1921. In turn, the dam blocked the Carmel River’s flow, undermining its ability to support steelhead. And for decades, the steelhead had to climb a fish ladder to swim above the dam, a challenging task made even more difficult during times of flood and drought.

    After two years, the river is messy and messy is good. Prior to demolition, the structure had not only blocked steelheads’ ability to swim upstream, but also deprived the river of qualities necessary for their survival. Among them, the river lacked the ability to transfer debris downstream. This is a necessary factor in creating the variety of freshwater habitats young fish require to mature, prior to entering the Pacific Ocean.

    Post-dam removal, Williams has seen a mix of fish at various stages of development, both above and below the site of the dam, which is a positive sign that steelhead populations are on the rebound. After surveying numerous sites along the river multiple times, “there’s no cause for concern, and reason for optimism,” he said. He’s upbeat, but he will have to withhold his judgment until NOAA issues its final report, due next spring. With the demolition of the dam, the fish counter used to calculate their numbers was also removed. In turn, the steelhead population is harder to calculate, he explained.

    However, the river system is coming back to life. “I’m surprised at how fast the river has responded,” Williams said.

    The epic winter storms of 2016 helped speed up the recovery process. Large rocks, fallen trees and tons of sediment located above the dam were swept downstream. And in turn, the debris created ample nooks and crannies for fish to dwell in. As a result of the demolition and subsequent flooding, the river is more complex. “We’re seeing a fish habitat consisting of ripples, runs and pools and not just long runs,” he said. This diversity in habitat is beneficial for fish.

    The decision to remove the dam came to a head after state officials decided the dam had outlived its usefulness. Engineers determined the structure was seismically unsafe in 1991, and by 2002 it was full of sediment and no longer supplied water to Monterey residents.

    Trish Chapman, the regional manager for the California Coastal Commission, said the decision to remove the dam made sense for the residents of Monterey County and for the fish. Now, the river is linked to the beach and in terms of ecological services, “the most important aspect of taking down the dam is that it reestablishes sediment supply, and with sea level rise we need that everywhere,” she said.

    California American Water could have retrofitted the structure for $49 million, a stopgap measure as the dam aged and weakened. Instead, they coordinated with state and federal agencies to raise additional funds for habitat restoration with a total estimated cost of $84 million upon completion.

    At this point, the river is in the process of redesigning itself and it’s “super-exciting” to observe, Chapman said. In 2017, the river has the building blocks for a healthy ecosystem, sediment flows downstream and steelhead can move upstream. “Honestly, the river can build a far better river than we do. It’s so much more complex,” she said.

    Read the article at the source »