News & Stories

  • Federal judge orders EPA to protect salmon from warm temps in Columbia River basin

    October 18, 2018

    Seattle Times By Lynda V. Mapes

    A federal court ruled Wednesday that the Environmental Protection Agency must come up with a plan to protect salmon from warm water temperatures.

    The summer of 2015 was a bad one for salmon. Water temperatures spiked in rivers across the Northwest. Fish can die when water temperatures hit the 70s. In the summer of 2015, around 250,000 adult sockeye died in the Columbia and Snake rivers.

    The record-high temperatures and salmon deaths led conservationists and fishing groups to sue the federal government. Now, a judge has ruled the Environmental Protection Agency must develop a plan to protect threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead from dangerously warm rivers.

    The ruling says dams are a big reason rivers get too warm. Waters are predicted to get even warmer with climate change.

    “Because of today’s victory, EPA will finally write a comprehensive plan to deal with dams’ impacts on water temperatures and salmon survival,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, in a statement.

    The Environmental Protection Agency has 30 days to respond to the court’s ruling.

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  • Judge says steelhead need more help in Santa Clara River

    October 2, 2018

    Ventura County Star by Claudia Boyd-Barrett

    Conservation groups are claiming victory in a legal case against United Water Conservation District after a federal court judge ruled the water agency had failed to adequately protect endangered steelhead trout in the Santa Clara River.

    Ruling from the U.S. District Court in Santa Ana on Sept. 23, Judge David Carter declared the Santa Paula-based water agency had violated the federal Endangered Species Act by failing to ensure an adequate water supply and migratory passageway for steelhead through the Freeman Diversion dam. The ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed in June of 2016 by a coalition of environmental groups, including the local Wishtoyo Foundation.

    Constructed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Freeman dam is about 10 miles up the Santa Clara River from the Pacific Ocean, near Saticoy. United Water’s practice of diverting water from the river, together with an ineffective fish ladder at the dam, harms a steelhead’s ability to migrate to and from tributaries in the upper Santa Clara River and the ocean, the judge found.

    “Continued operation of (the dam) … contributes to increase the extinction risk to endangered steelhead by reducing and at times eliminating migration opportunities and success for endangered steelhead, and precluding migration of this species to historical spawning and rearing habitat, leading to spawning failure in the Santa Clara River watershed,” Carter wrote.

    United Water must make sure the river has a sufficient flow of water for fish to swim between the dam and the ocean, and it must replace the current fish ladder with new infrastructure that allows steelhead to pass through the dam, the judge ruled. United has until January of 2020 to design the infrastructure solution, working with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

    Steelhead trout are a unique species of fish classified as endangered in Southern California. The trout are born in fresh water, but some migrate to the ocean where they grow larger, and then return to fresh water to spawn. The fish are vulnerable to environmental threats and degradation.

    Prior to construction of the dam, it’s believed as many as 20,000 adult steelhead swam in the Santa Clara River, according to John Buse with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the case. Since then there’s been a dramatic reduction, he said, with fish counting devices tallying just a handful and sometimes no steelhead in the river each year. It will take a long time for the fish to recover, he said.

    “The decision itself isn’t going to bring steelhead back. It’s the start of things instead of the end of things, but that start is important,” he said. “The steelhead in the Santa Clara River are the key to recovering steelhead throughout Southern California. This is kind of the keystone population. If we can bring back some fraction of the historic steelhead runs that we once saw in the Santa Clara River, that’s good news not just for Ventura County but for other areas of Southern California, as well.”

    Mauricio Guardado, general manager for the United Water Conservation District, said the ruling essentially reaffirms a path that the agency is already on. United Water is already ensuring enough water is in the river for steelhead to swim, he said. Additionally, the agency has been working with the National Marine Fisheries Service on getting a design and permit finalized for the new fish passage infrastructure, he said.

    Guardado said the lawsuit cost the agency about $2 million in legal fees and amounted to a waste of ratepayer money. However, he said the ruling does provide a hard deadline for the fish passage project, which should help spur faster action from the federal government.

    “This gives us momentum,” he said. “There’s been a lot of science, a lot of analysis, a lot of meetings, and I think we’re at a point now finally with this court order that we actually see a light at the end of the tunnel and for us and our ratepayers that’s a good thing.”

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  • Yurok tribe revives ancestral lands by restoring salmon runs, protecting wildlife

    October 1, 2018

    San Francisco Chronicle By Peter Fimrite

    HYAMPOM, Trinity County — The giant Douglas fir hit the water with a great splash just as a powerful gust of wind from the Chinook helicopter rotors blew across the river, forcing Aaron Martin and his fellow workers to hold their helmets and turn their backs against the gust.

    “That’s exactly where we want it,” yelled Martin, a habitat restoration biologist for the Yurok Indian tribe, holding up two thumbs as the chopper released the 150-foot-tall tree from its cable and thwap-thwapped away to pick up more timber.

    The charred trunk, weighing as much as 25,000 pounds, was one of 300 fire-damaged trees that the tribe and its partners strategically placed in the South Fork of the Trinity River this past week in an attempt to alter the current, scour out accumulated sediment and restore long-lost salmon habitat in the river.

    The 92-mile South Fork is the longest un-dammed stream in California and a primary tributary of the Klamath River, which used to froth yearly with spring-run chinook, a staple of the Yurok diet for thousands of years until European settlers arrived in North America, logged the forests and built dams that nearly wiped them out.

    The project, on this wild and scenic stretch of the Trinity, is outside the Yurok reservation, which stretches 44 miles from the mouth of the Klamath, but the two rivers converge at the edge of Yurok land and together support the largest salmon run in California outside of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta system.

    “We’re trying to help restore balance to the river,” Martin said of the plan, developed over the past three years with help from the Watershed and Research Training Center in Hayfork (Trinity County), the U.S. Forest Service and local land owners. “We’re adding a natural element and letting nature take its course.”

    The wood placement project, which is being paid for using about $800,000 in grants, is not only the largest river restoration ever undertaken by the Yuroks, but also an important part of their effort to bring back a culture and heritage that was largely taken away over the past two centuries.

    Spring-run chinook, “Nue-mee ney-puy” in the Yurok language, are so named because they head up the Klamath in the spring — between late March and early June — to complete their three-year life span by breeding in cold tributaries, preferably high in the mountains. The species, also known as king salmon, live in the river throughout the summer, storing up fat, and are highly prized for their rich flavor.

    More than 12,000 spring-run chinook once migrated annually up the South Fork of the Trinity, where it wasn’t unheard of for people to reel in 200 fish from a single pond. Then, in 1964, a catastrophic storm and flood caused mud slides on the surrounding hills and filled the river with vast quantities of sediment.

    The dirt was loose because loggers had clear-cut the surrounding forests in the 1950s and early 1960s, leaving nothing to hold the steep ridges next to the river in place. Silt poured into the river, choking off the salmon spawning grounds and filling up the cold pools salmon need to survive. Fishery biologists said water diversions and pollution from illegal marijuana farms have made the situation worse.

    Last summer, only 12 chinook were seen in the river, and the year before only 15 fish were counted by surveyors. The spring salmon run as a whole is less than 1 percent of its former size. The wild coho and steelhead runs are not doing any better.

    “We’re at the brink of extinction for this species, so it’s critically important that we do something,” said D.J. Bandrowski, project engineer for the Yurok. “The tribe relies on the spring chinook to help feed their families. This is widely important for the tribe and its people.”

    Engineers and biologists used thousands of aerial photographs to map the river. Bandrowski said a degraded 5-mile stretch was chosen for the restoration project. A computer model was used to figure out where woody debris would do the most good.

    Columbia Helicopters used one of their aptly named Chinooks to carry the logs to the project site and lower them by cable into place.

    The idea, Bandrowski said, is to position the logs so that they divert water, spread out the sediment, create gravel bars, wetlands on the banks and deep cold-water ponds where juvenile fish can shelter during the hot summer months and fatten up on bugs.

    “What we’re building is a complex architecture, an arrangement of individual wood pieces that are interlocking together (and) will evolve over time,” Bandrowski said, pointing out one crisscrossing log pile wedged between rock outcroppings that he dubbed “Downtown.”

    The ambitious project is one of many in the area spearheaded by the Yurok people who, as much as any other American Indian tribe, have dedicated themselves over the past decade to the restoration of their ancestral homeland, including the wildlife that once thrived along the Klamath River basin. They are key players in the planned removal of four dams on the Klamath.

    The Yurok are the largest tribe in the state, with 5,600 members living in and around the reservation, which encompasses 57,000 acres. They have a small casino with only a few dozen slot machines, a hotel and restaurant, but opioid addiction has plagued the tribe, which sued 20 drug companies this year for pushing on the tribe their habit-forming wares and causing a national epidemic.

    At one time, there were more than 50 Yurok villages covering about 500,000 acres and 50 miles of coastline. The tribe members, who called themselves Oohl, or Indian people, were renowned for fishing, canoe making, basket weaving, story telling and dancing.

    The Yurok were first visited by the Spanish in the 1500s and later by American fur traders and trappers, including Jedediah Smith, who raved about the abundant wildlife along the 250-mile-long Klamath River. In 1850, gold miners moved in, bringing with them disease and violence. The Yurok population declined by 75 percent, and the remaining Indians were forcibly relocated to a reservation in 1855.

    Besides efforts to restore their traditional dances, preserve their historic regalia and revive their language, the tribe has recently accelerated a campaign to revitalize the natural landscape, introduce fire and protect the wildlife on their ancestral lands, including a proposal to reintroduce the California condor.

    It is the fish, however, that tribal biologists say are key, not just for the Yurok, but also for the Karuk and Hoopa Valley tribes, which hold traditional fishing rights on the Klamath. The three tribes have long been part of the fish-versus-farms battle that has raged as reduced rain and snow has cut the amount of water available for spawning fish.

    The steady degradation of the watershed and fish is why the Yurok started a salmon restoration project 10 years ago on the main stem of the Trinity and expanded it this past week into this remote, scenic stretch of river.

    “Spring chinook are a valuable species and highly prized by all the tribes, including the Yurok,” Martin said. “This is a very natural way that we can try to help. It’s a start, a step.”

    Read the article at the source »

  • Fishing the North Coast: Klamath River seeing good return of kings

    September 26, 2018

    Eureka Times Standard By Kenny Priest

    In case you haven’t heard, the Klamath River is chocked full of salmon. And it has been for quite a few weeks now. What makes this story remarkable is this is coming on the heels of the river being completely closed to fishing after Aug. 15 last year due to the projected low returns. The CDFW predicted roughly 93,500 fall-run adults were set to return this year, and it appears they may have been right. On average, 122,000 adult fall-run kings return to spawn. In 2017, only 18,410 were predicted, which was the lowest on record.

    Turns out 31,838 actually returned, which provided some hope for this year. The first sign that we knew this could potentially be a good year was back in June. Towards the end of that month the estuary was loaded with kings, likely a mixture of springers and early fall-run salmon. The fishing was as good as I’ve ever seen for about six weeks straight. Around the middle of August the fall run started to push upriver, and that’s when the real party started. And it’s been happening ever since.
    I’m sure there’s all kinds of scientific reasons for the season we’re having, but a couple stand out.

    First, the number of jacks that returned to the Klamath last year was sizable, 21,903 to be exact. History tells us when we have a good return of jacks, the following year should see a healthy return of three year-olds. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing. The condition and placement of the river mouth was much improved this year. It has started to move back towards the north and was much shorter. This allowed for the channel to remain deep and not sand over. Another factor that could have played a part is the extra water coming down from the Trinity. Flows went from 450 to 700 cfs back in July due to emergency releases out of Lewiston due to the Carr fire. Flows were just recently adjusted back down to 450. Whatever the reasons, the Klamath has made a tremendous recovery. And all the signs are pointing towards some epic fishing in the coming years.

    Klamath/Trinity quotas:

    As a reminder, the fall Chinook quota was met on the lower Klamath River on Wednesday, Sept. 12. Fishing is still open from the Hwy. 96 bridge in Weitchpec to the estuary, with the daily bag limit being two jacks (Chinook less than 22 inches) Fishing is
    closed from 100 yards around the river mouth (spit area). The quota on the Upper Klamath should remain open until Oct. 10. Closing dates for the Trinity have yet to be determined. Anglers may keep track of the status of open and closed sections of the
    Klamath and Trinity rivers by calling 800-564-6479.

    Read the article at the source »

  • Threatened spring-run chinook salmon are sparse this year

    September 24, 2018

    Chico Enterprise Record By Steve Schoonover

    The rare spring-run chinook salmon is rarer than usual this year, according to counts in the three streams that support the bulk of the wild fish left in the Sacramento River system.

    In Butte Creek, a snorkel survey counted 2,118 fish this year, according to Colin Purdy, who supervises the count for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. That’s less than half the average since 1989 of 4,427 fish.

    “It is low unfortunately,” he said, “but it’s better than last year.”

    In 2017, only 950 fish were counted.

    The record was in 2001, when the carcass survey turned up 18,312 fish.

    The carcass survey is the second count Fish and Wildlife does of the salmon in Butte Creek, and is made possible by the lifecycle of the fish.

    The spring-run fish return from the ocean in spring, almost always to the streams where they were born. They head far upstream into the foothills and spend the summer in deep, cool pools of water, before spawning in the fall. After they spawn, they die. Their offspring will later head downstream and out to the ocean, spending two or three years there before returning to complete the cycle.

    As a result of the lifecycle, the creeks are full of dead fish after the spawning cycle ends. The nutrients of their bodies sustain a number of birds, animals and other fish, and enrich the food value of the water in the creeks.

    The dead fish are also easy to count. Fish and Wildlife technicians will walk the creek after the spawn and count the carcasses, marking each one so it isn’t counted twice.

    Purdy said in years when there are a lot of fish, the carcass count is far more accurate than the snorkel count. But in a low year like this one, the snorkel count is probably pretty accurate.

    He said as of Friday, spawning hadn’t started in the creek, but he expected this week to see the female fish building the redds where they will lay their eggs. Male fish will then spray their sperm on the egg masses, and the new generation will begin.

    The spring-run used to be the largest of the chinook runs in the Central Valley. But construction of dams like Shasta and Oroville blocked access to the higher-elevation cool water the fish need to survive the summer, and the numbers dropped. The spring-run is now listed as threatened on both the state and federal endangered species lists.

    Deer and Mill creeks

    Two eastern Tehama County creeks support most of the spring-run salmon that don’t head up Butte Creek, and this year, their numbers are terribly low.

    In Mill Creek, just 51 salmon were counted, according to Fish and Wildlife environmental scientist Matt Johnson. That’s the worst ever, in a count that goes back to 1970. In Deer Creek, there were 159 fish, about the third lowest on record.

    “I think we are seeing the continued effects of the severe drought we were in,” Johnson said.

    He explained that when the fish returning this year were born, they had really poor conditions in the fresh water, with low levels of warm water. Then when they got to the ocean, the water there was warmer than usual, which isn’t good for the fish. “It was basically a double whammy.”

    If there is good news in Tehama County, it’s that the new fish ladder around Lower Deer Creek Falls appears to be a success.

    The falls, about 35 miles upstream from the Sacramento River, are a 15-foot barrier to fish moving upstream. A fish ladder was built around the falls in the 1940s, but it was steep and didn’t work well. Johnson said most of the spring-run in Deer Creek spawned in areas below the falls.

    However in 2016 and 2017, a new, longer ladder with more, shallower steps was completed, and this year the snorkel survey found about 73 percent of the spring-run in the creek were upstream from the falls.

    The counts are done differently on Deer and Mill creeks. The official count is done by video taken at a station the fish swim past on their way upstream.

    Johnson said he was hoping for a recovery in the number of fish next year. “The conditions for next year’s returning fish look better,” he said.

    Read the article at the source »