News & Stories

  • Lagunitas Creek Spawner Update

    February 21, 2014

    By Eric Ettlinger, Aquatic Biologist, Marin Municipal Water District

    Coho season is wrapping up, and thankfully it’s ending with more of a bang than a whimper. In late January, at the typical end of the coho spawning season, the San Francisco Chronicle ran the headline “Crisis for the coho” with a couple of pictures showing the extremely dry conditions in the Lagunitas Creek watershed. As if on cue, the rain started falling a few days later and coho spawning took off. Since then spawning activity has subsided and in the last week we’ve seen what are likely the last few coho of the season. Our preliminary watershed totals are 433 coho and 203 redds, which is roughly double the size of the coho run three years ago.

    Steelhead (pictured) have also been spawning in impressive numbers. In the last three weeks MMWD biologists have seen 153 steelhead and 126 redds. Steelhead are likely to continue spawning through at least April, and at this pace we’re looking at a very good year for steelhead. Rain is forecast to return late next week, which should bring up another wave of steelhead spawners.

    Topics: blog

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  • Protecting fish from California's extreme drought

    February 19, 2014

    By NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region

    It seems intuitive that fish need water, but with California facing its driest two-year period on record, water is becoming harder and harder to come by. To ensure California’s threatened and endangered fish populations survive the drought, NOAA is working hand-in-hand with the state and other federal agencies on water, fisheries and wildlife strategies.

    Historically, salmon and steelhead populations were geographically widespread throughout the central and northern California coast. Their habitats were pristine, connected, and better able to withstand natural drought cycles. Today most populations stand at a mere fraction of their historical size due to habitat degradation and other factors. They are more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions than ever before.

    The impacts of the current drought are widespread and include low river flows, reservoir levels, and snow packs. The limited water supply poses challenges for water managers tasked with balancing the needs of ranchers and farmers with bustling urban centers. It also requires fish and wildlife managers, including NOAA, to revisit protections for vulnerable fish species.

    NOAA’s efforts to safeguard threatened and endangered salmon and sturgeon are guided by the Endangered Species Act, typically through two main vehicles: 1) biological opinions, which provide guidance to federal agencies to ensure their actions avoid harming listed species; and 2) species recovery plans, which include longer-term strategies to recover the species to healthy numbers, at which point they no longer need ESA protections. The protective measures contained within both these documents account for inherent variability in annual conditions.

    In the Central Valley, for example, a long-term recovery plan outlines strategies to protect endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead runs so that droughts do not inhibit their long-term recovery. This includes increasing the distribution of the populations into historical spawning and rearing habitats. By doing so, populations are not constrained geographically and thus at greater risk of a catastrophic event, like drought, causing their extinction. For instance, NOAA is currently working with partners to reintroduce a population of spring-run Chinook into the San Joaquin River Basin which, over time, will support a greater geographic distribution of the species and ensure it’s able to tolerate environmental variations.

    Water pumping operations at federal and state facilities impact Central Valley winter and spring-run Chinook salmon and steelhead, as well as other species. A 2009 biological opinion issued to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation prescribes ways in which to operate the water system to minimize harm to these species. Measures included increasing the cold water storage and flow rates to enhance egg incubation and juvenile fish rearing; as well as improving spawning habitat and migration conditions.

    Providing sufficient and cool water flows in warm, critically dry years such as this is difficult. Each year, federal, state, and local agencies examine water conditions, including demands, to modify releases. The federal agencies are coordinating efforts to accelerate water transfers and exchanges, provide operational flexibility to store and convey water, expedite environmental review and compliance actions, and pursue new or fast-track existing projects that might help stretch California’s water supplies. The agencies are seeking maximum flexibility in carrying out water supply operations, investing in conservation measures and coordinating with the California State Water Resources Control Board to implement any new operational standards.

    Operations are also being affected by the drought in the Klamath River Basin. The Klamath Project consists of an extensive system of canals, pumps, diversion structures, and dams capable of routing water to 200,000 acres of irrigated farmlands in the upper basin. Water diversions from Upper Klamath Lake affect river flows downstream of Link River and Iron Gate dams, which in turn affect threatened coho salmon. To protect fish and provide for irrigation, the Bureau of Reclamation manages flows based on real-time climate and hydrologic conditions. During drought years, Reclamation operates the Klamath Project to provide minimum flows at Iron Gate Dam to ensure adequate instream flows for coho salmon.

    Due to the extremity of the current drought, NOAA Fisheries is working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to rescue fish stranded upstream by lack of water. Recently, volunteers took endangered coho, one by one, from Scott Creek near Monterey Bay, and relocated them to a nearby hatchery. The fish will remain there as captive broodstock so their eggs will be available to boost future runs and assure genetic diversity in the population. In this year of extreme drought, other such fish rescues are likely.

    The many challenges salmon face this year also affect their out migration to the ocean, where they will continue to grow for two to three years. We will only feel the full impact of the drought in several years when the fish are due to return as adults, and when the ocean fisheries would take place. At this time, it is difficult to predict exactly how the drought while shape future commercial and recreational fishing.

    Responding to the year’s drought requires federal, state, and local partners to work together in a coordinated manner. Many of the actions to protect salmon will also benefit other fish and wildlife species. In addition, NOAA’s expertise in weather forecasting and climate monitoring allows state and federal fishery managers to make well-informed decisions using the latest observations of river levels and mountain snowpack gathered by satellites, radar, on-land and offshore systems.

    To view current drought conditions, visit NOAA’s drought portal—www.drought.gov.

    Topics: drought

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  • Saving California’s salmon during a severe drought

    February 17, 2014

    California is in one of the most severe droughts in recent years. This means water agencies are under great pressure to sacrifice river flows meant to sustain fish and wildlife for increased water delivery to farms and cities. Here are some questions decision-makers should consider in the tradeoff.

    Why save native fish?

    The answer lies in a value judgment: how important is it to save species and ecosystems special to California?

    Today, 82 percent of California’s 122 native freshwater fishes are found only or mainly in this state. Without these uniquely Californian species, our streams and lakes would have the same carp, bass, sunfish and other homogenized fauna found in much of North America.

    Our California populations of steelhead trout and Chinook salmon are uniquely adapted for local conditions. If spring- and winter-run Chinook were to disappear from the Central Valley, we could not replace them with salmon from Alaska. They simply could not survive here.

    Even without drought, most of our native fishes are in trouble. More than 80 percent of them are headed for extinction by 2100 if present trends continue (Moyle et al. 2012). This includes most of our 32 kinds of native salmon and trout (Katz et al. 2013). Our federal and state endangered species laws essentially say it is the policy of the United States and California to not let species go extinct. The current drought will put this policy to a severe test

     

    Topics: blog, drought

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  • Saving California’s salmon during a severe drought

    February 17, 2014

    By Peter Moyle, UC Davis

    California is in one of the most severe droughts in recent years. This means water agencies are under great pressure to sacrifice river flows meant to sustain fish and wildlife for increased water delivery to farms and cities. Here are some questions decision-makers should consider in the tradeoff.

    Why save native fish?

    The answer lies in a value judgment: how important is it to save species and ecosystems special to California?

    Today, 82 percent of California’s 122 native freshwater fishes are found only or mainly in this state. Without these uniquely Californian species, our streams and lakes would have the same carp, bass, sunfish and other homogenized fauna found in much of North America.

    Our California populations of steelhead trout and Chinook salmon are uniquely adapted for local conditions. If spring- and winter-run Chinook were to disappear from the Central Valley, we could not replace them with salmon from Alaska. They simply could not survive here.

    Even without drought, most of our native fishes are in trouble. More than 80 percent of them are headed for extinction by 2100 if present trends continue (Moyle et al. 2012). This includes most of our 32 kinds of native salmon and trout (Katz et al. 2013). Our federal and state endangered species laws essentially say it is the policy of the United States and California to not let species go extinct. The current drought will put this policy to a severe test.

    How capable are our native fish of surviving severe drought?

    Yes, California salmon and other native fishes have survived much worse droughts. Their evolution has been shaped by the state’s isolation and Mediterranean climate, which has meant persisting through extraordinarily long dry spells. The fishes have adaptations that reflect this history.

    Chinook salmon in the Central Valley, for example, have four runs that are each keyed to a different season and habitat but overlapping in both. Adults can return from the ocean at 2 to 6 years of age. Juveniles can head to sea at various ages — lingering in rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or making a beeline for the Pacific in a few days. They also can take refuge in the constant, cold flows of spring-fed streams or take advantage of ephemeral flows from rain and snowmelt.

    But water development has largely robbed the salmon of their ability to use this amazing adaptive resiliency.

    Dams have blocked more than 1,000 miles of critical cold-water refuges such as the snowmelt streams feeding the San Joaquin River and the spring-fed McCloud and upper Sacramento rivers near Mount Shasta. The impoundments were particularly devastating to winter- and spring-run Chinook, which depended on high elevation habitats.

    The Delta and channelized rivers are no longer suitable for young fish to linger and grow. They are now ecological traps full of alien predators.

    Commercial fishing takes the largest and oldest fish, reducing the ability of a population to outlive drought conditions. Meanwhile, hatcheries are simplifying life histories, changing behaviors and otherwise diluting wild stock. As a result, entire populations can become maladapted to natural conditions, inhibiting recovery (Katz and Moyle, 2012).

    What can we do to ensure native salmon persist through severe drought?

    Drastic times may require desperate measures such as these:

    • Emergency trucking: Fishery agencies may be hauling adult winter-run Chinook to the cooler McCloud River this winter if it appears that Shasta Reservoir will run out cold water in the summer. This would be a rescue measure of last resort as the odds are stacked against adult salmon surviving the transport, let alone spawning a brood for capture and return to the Sacramento River. Alternately, winter-run juveniles could be reared in the spring-fed Mount Shasta Trout Hatchery.
    • More policing: Stepping up warden patrols of key salmon streams such as Deer and Mill creeks in Tehama County to prevent poaching of spring- run Chinook and illegal water diversion of water such as for pot farms.
    • Fishing bans: Managing ocean salmon fisheries to allow more fish to grow to larger and older.
    • Spring relief: Finding ways to maximize cold-water flows from springs to benefit fish. For example, Shasta Valley farmers could be paid to reduce water use, resulting in less runoff of warm irrigation drainage into the cold, spring-fed Shasta River.
    • Triage panel: Convening a panel of state and federal fishery scientists with authority to decide which species are in greatest need of the “environmental flows” reserved for imperiled fishes. Should this water, say in Oroville and Shasta reservoirs, be released to benefit winter- and spring-run Chinook salmon or delta smelt?

    What should be done after the drought to recover salmon and salmon fisheries?

    We need to acknowledge that persistence of salmon depends on integrating them into human-dominated ecosystems. Protecting salmon and other native fishes for the future in reality requires a comprehensive strategy/program resembling the efforts once made to solve California’s water supply issues and resulted in our present, largely successful hydraulic system. Such a strategy might include:

    • Salmon sanctuaries: Stretches of rivers and streams or watersheds dedicated to salmon conservation. First proposed by Livingston Stone in 1872, in response to mining and logging destruction of California rivers, the idea has received wide acceptance as a reasonable conservation step – but little traction in California. One exception is Blue Creek, a tributary to the Klamath River. Thanks to the Western Rivers Conservancy, the Yurok Tribe is acquiring land along the creek to continue managing it as a salmon sanctuary. Other obvious candidates are: Shasta and Smith rivers and Battle, Deer and Mill creeks.
    • Reoperation of dams: Identifying how operators can economically manage the timing, volume and temperature of flows beneficial for salmon and other fish. Many of the more than 1,400 large dams on California rivers fall short of providing adequate flows for fish. California explicitly requires dam owners to release enough flow to keep fish “in good condition” (Fish and Game Code, Section 5937). Stricter rules apply on waterways important to threatened and endangered species.
    • Removal of dams: Sediment has filled the reservoirs of many small dams in California, making them useless. Accelerated and selective removal of dams below suitable habitat could significantly increase the likelihood of salmon and steelhead persistence. One prime candidate for removal is Matilija Dam on the Ventura River.
    • Re-operation of fish hatcheries: They should be managed to favor wild salmon. Numerous studies have found that the planting hatchery salmonids has impaired the health and resilience of wild populations. Yet hatcheries in California continue to pursue the goal of both supporting commercial and sport fisheries and supporting recovery of wild populations. They generally fail at the latter, often damaging wild populations instead of helping them (Katz and Moyle, 2012). The dual mission results in publicly funded fish hatcheries undermining publicly funded wild fish recovery efforts, a problem exacerbated during drought.

    Such a strategy can work only if well funded. Saving our native fishes will require considerable water and effort from Californians. While this may seem too much to ask during a severe drought, California history shows that water crises are a great motivator (Lund, 2014). The timing for instigating a statewide fish conservation strategy couldn’t be better.

    Topics: blog, drought

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  • Salmon in the Middle - As conservation efforts begin bearing fruit, drought conditions threaten local fisheries

    February 13, 2014

    The schools of large adult Chinook salmon swimming back and forth in most pools of the lower Mattole River from November to mid-January offered a powerful testament to both the resilience of these remarkable fish and to the challenges they now face in light of climate change and California's pernicious drought.

    Many people still remember the dry years of the mid-1970s — especially 1976-77, the driest water year (July 1 through June 30) on record up to now. One bright warm day followed another that winter and the night skies were filled with stars. Loggers complained of having no work-stopping rainy days to give them a little winter's rest. Many smaller creeks and springs simply stopped running as the warm season progressed. Salmon returning in the fall were, like this year, stuck in the pools in lower rivers, increasingly vulnerable to poaching. The rainfall total that year, at 25 inches in the lower Mattole Valley, was then the lowest on record, lower than the dry year of 1929.

    Decades later, Humboldt County is coming off its driest December and January ever recorded. Nancy Dean, meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Eureka, said this year's two-month total of 1.91 inches has replaced 1976-77 as the lowest combined total for the two months since the National Weather Service began keeping track. And that bleak measurement comes on the heels of last calendar year's anemic rainfall total of 16.6 inches in Eureka — a total that set a new single-year record, coming in more than 23 inches below normal. Stream flow in the Mattole River at its driest in January of 1977 was 89 cubic feet per second (cfs). Comparatively, on the same day in 2014, the flow was just below 54 cfs, a level far more common in late August. Before the rain began falling on Feb. 5, only 6.3 inches of precipitation had been recorded in the lower Mattole since July 1, about 12 percent of seasonal average.

    Statewide, the water content of the rapidly waning Sierra snowpack has fallen to 15 percent of normal, forcing officials to cut off water allocations from the State Water Project to local agencies that serve 25 million residents and 750,000 acres of farmland throughout the state.

    Though the droughts of 1976-77 and 2013-14 are remarkably similar in terms of the timing and amounts of rainfall, changes have taken place since 1977 that affect local watersheds profoundly, making them both more vulnerable to droughts and more resistant to them. In 1977, fewer people inhabited the Humboldt countryside. At the same time, our once-bountiful salmon runs were in rapid decline, victims of over-fishing, habitat damage and two great floods.

    A migration of people out of cities and back to the land has combined with the marijuana boom to steadily increase populations in Humboldt's remote watersheds. Deleterious effects on the land, though, and an increased demand for water have been partly balanced by strong commitments to watershed restoration and sustainability on the parts of many newcomers and established ranch families alike.

    Thanks to improved freshwater habitat, fairly moist spring seasons and good offshore feeding conditions, the fish have started to respond. Even the great, dam-congested Columbia to the north had its strongest return this year — over 1 million spawners — since 1936.

    Locally, the Eel River Project estimates that 30,000 to 50,000 chinook returned to spawn in the river last year. "We had an absolutely banner year in 2012-13," said Patrick Higgins, a biologist working with the project. This year's numbers are below last year's, "but were still good," he said.

    Sara Bolock , an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, reports that over 320,000 chinook, the highest number since 1978, returned to spawn in the Klamath in 2012-13. Less than half that — about 140,000 — came back this year, according to Taz Soto, head of the Karuk Tribe fisheries program in the middle Klamath. "Fewer spawners showed up this year, but the run was still better than average," he said.

    The Smith River, too, had its banner year recently — in 2011-12 — according to Fish and Wildlife's Justin Garwood.

    These improved returns should be providing a sense of hope for the future of salmon. Unfortunately, the river systems they're returning to are wrung almost dry. Fry (very young salmon) hatched out low in the rivers miss the sheltered rearing habitats they normally encounter on their long migrations from headwaters. They'll be more vulnerable to hunger, predation and infestations common in over-warm lower rivers. There is also a danger that, if heavy rains break the drought, high flows could wash eggs or tiny fry out of the mobile gravels that are found in lower rivers.

    Reginald Kennedy, hydrologist with the National Weather Service office in Eureka, points out that common culprits for extreme weather aren't around this year — no El Niño or La Niña. There is only this "tenacious high pressure ridge" locked firmly over the eastern Pacific from the tip of Baja to northern British Columbia, he said.

    Normally, Kennedy said, the high pressure off the coast during the warm months gives way in fall to the powerful low-pressure systems formed in the Gulf of Alaska. Instead, this winter — not unlike in 1976-77 — the low-pressure disturbances are being forced north, "over the top" of the continent and into Canada, where they literally gather cold. The frigid lows then move with a looping jet stream down into the Midwest and the Eastern Seaboard, where they've been wreaking havoc. This year's deep freeze in the east is the other face of California's drought.

    Gordon Leppig is the newly designated climate change coordinator and long-range planner for Fish and Wildlife on the north coast. Leppig, an avowed optimist, said in a recent interview that, "while it's impossible to point to any one weather event such as the drought and say, 'It's climate change,' this event fits all the predicted patterns: more intense, faster-moving droughts; less snowpack; lower springs and stream flows; extreme danger from wildfire."

    Leppig's office is enjoined with the task of figuring how to reduce emissions in all areas of Fish and Wildlife resource management. At the same time, as a long-range planner in a drought-prone environment, he has to be concerned about land-use practices that impact water. He posed an old question for Californians, now newly urgent: "Is there enough water for agriculture, domestic use and for fish?"

    In other words, we are facing new challenges to the coexistence of people and salmon just at a time when salmon seem to be showing signs of recovery. Can we adapt to these realities? Can salmon? Leppig painted an ominous picture. "Current research shows that if present population trends continue," he said, "we should anticipate 78 percent of California's 32 distinct native salmonid populations will likely be extinct within the next century."

    While the rains that commenced earlier this month proved a welcome relief in our parched communities, Todd Flackus, a research analyst with the Department of Water Resources, said they do not impact California's drought status. "Even if we had above-average rainfall for the rest of February and March, we'd still be behind."

    Topics: drought

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