News & Stories

  • Close to Home: A once in a lifetime chance to restore the Eel River

    November 22, 2018

    Santa Rosa Press Democrat by Curtis Knight AND Brian Johnson

    It’s a familiar story: human activity leaves salmon and steelhead populations clinging to survival by a thread. But all is not lost. In a few places, we have the chance to rewrite how the story ends. One such place is Northern California’s Eel River.

    Most Californians are unfamiliar with the Eel River, which traverses Humboldt, Mendocino, Lake and Trinity counties. Even many Sonoma County residents, whose water comes in part from this watershed, have likely never seen the Eel’s blue-green waters with their own eyes.

    One of California’s first Wild and Scenic Rivers, the Eel is the state’s third-largest watershed. It encompasses 3,600 square miles of mostly undeveloped land used for timber harvesting, farming and ranching. Large swaths are protected as public lands famous for towering stands of redwood trees.

    Tens of millions of public dollars already have been spent in this watershed to preserve redwoods and other sensitive habitat and on river restoration projects — $60 million since 2000 alone. And legislation recently passed would convert an old Eel River canyon railroad right-of-way into a world-class hiking trail. Thanks to these strategic investments, the Eel is poised for a comeback. But two 100-year-old chunks of concrete stand in the way: the dams of the Potter Valley Project.

    PG&E’s Potter Valley Project, located near the Eel’s headwaters, produces a trickle of hydroelectricity and diverts Eel River water into Potter Valley in Mendocino County and Sonoma County’s Russian River. In the Russian, it supplements flows and provides irrigation water to wine producers in the Alexander Valley and for use by ranchers, farmers and Sonoma County residents. The project includes two dams, a hydroelectric facility and a diversion tunnel. It has also completely blocked more than 150 miles of fish habitat since 1908. But that could change.

    Due to federal regulations, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission must issue a new license for the Potter Valley Project by 2022. Relicensing is a complex process that looks at all the impacts of the project. The outcome will set the Eel River’s course for the next 50 years. It is a once in a lifetime chance to bring this infrastructure up to 21st century standards, to benefit both the people and the fish that depend on this river for survival. Doing so would almost certainly require expensive investments.

    PG&E wants out of this money-losing operation and has recently put the project out for bid. Meanwhile, conversations are underway among public agencies, tribal governments, conservationists and others to identify the best path forward to restore this river. One promising option would remove both dams and divert water to Mendocino and Sonoma County users during the rainy season when it is most plentiful. This approach would allow the Eel to flow free while still addressing the need for water in both counties. It would also restore headwaters access for native fish, a critical step for populations to rebound.

    A river healthy enough to support robust fish populations is also clean enough to benefit the people who depend on it. Now is the time to push for a solution that meets the needs of fish and all the people who depend on this majestic river. We have a chance to take a bold step forward toward a truly sustainable future for the region.
     

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  • San Joaquin River salmon make big gains, but don’t call it a comeback yet

    November 22, 2018

    The Fresno Bee By Lewis Griswold

    Fish biologists bringing back salmon runs on the San Joaquin River say a record number of fish nests have been found in the river below Friant Dam east of Fresno.

    The number of nests, called redds, created by spring-run Chinook salmon reached 41 this year, compared to just 13 last year.

    “It’s a vast improvement over previous years,” said fish biologist Don Portz, manager of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. “That’s triple the amount.”

    The numbers are encouraging to fish scientists because they show the restoration program is making progress in re-establishing a wild salmon fishery on the San Joaquin after six decades of absence. But there’s a lot of work to do before scientists can say they’ve done all they can.

    “Right now we’re in the infancy stages of bringing the fish back,” Portz said.

    Last year, for the first time in 60 years, spring-run Chinook salmon successfully reproduced in the river, which made headlines.

    To monitor the fish after they hatch, biologists are installing special nets, called emergence traps, directly on top of nine redds. The nets are designed to catch, but not kill, emerging salmon fry.

    So far this year, no salmon fry have been found, but it’s early yet. It takes a couple of weeks for fish to hatch and a lot depends on water temperature. But when they appear, experts will count them, weigh them, measure them and test for genetics.

    “I think it’s incredibly rewarding work to see how the fish are actually thriving in the sections of the river we are working on,” said fish biologist Stephanie Durkacz, who donned waders and installed several traps over the past two weeks. “There haven’t been spring-run chinook salmon spawning here in 60 years. ... It feels very historic.”

    Turning the ‘spigot’ back on

    The work is being done because an agreement with environmentalists requires the federal government to restore the lost salmon runs. A long stretch of the San Joaquin River dried up and with it the salmon when Friant Dam was built in the 1940s.

    Several fish biologists, lawyers and members of the public recently toured the river with the Water Education Foundation, based in Sacramento. Portz, the river restoration program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, laid out the stakes.

    “This is a river that didn’t have flows for over half a century,” Portz said. “It’s not an easy thing to turn on the spigot and let water start flowing again.”

    But hatchery-raised adult salmon released into the San Joaquin River are making redds and spawning, giving fish scientists hope for success.

    A major goal of the restoration program is for salmon eggs laid naturally in the river to hatch and for juvenile salmon to swim to the ocean, reach sexual maturity, then return as adult salmon to spawn and die — and for the cycle to start all over again as it did for time immemorial.

    That’s how it was until Friant Dam blocked the river in 1948 and the water stored in Millerton Lake was diverted to farms on the Valley’s east side as part of the federal Central Valley Project.

    But under California fish and game code, dams must release enough water to keep fish alive downstream.

    In 1988, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the dam, and all of the irrigation districts that use the water for farming. A federal judge sided with the NRDC.

    At the judge’s urging, the parties in 2006 hammered out the San Joaquin River settlement mandating that both spring and fall salmon runs be restored, from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River a distance of 153 miles.

    Seeking a self-sustaining salmon population

    There are two kinds of salmon in the San Joaquin River — fall run and spring run salmon.

    Spring run salmon evolved to take advantage of spring pulses of snowmelt rushing down from the Sierra Nevada. Historically, the fish swam up from the ocean and lived in deep pools of cool water during the summer, then spawned in the fall.

    By contrast, fall run salmon arrived in late November to early December and quickly spawned. Both spring run and fall run juveniles swim to the ocean in the late winter and spring.

    “If you can’t bring them both back, we’re supposed to focus on the spring run,” Portz said.

    The fish that hatched in the river late last year are spring run salmon. It was considered a major milestone.

    The work has been slow to ramp up, but Portz says they’ll have all the necessary work completed by the end of 2024 so both spring and fall run salmon can swim unimpeded from the ocean to Friant Dam.

    The Natural Resources Defense Council is keeping a close watch on developments.

    “Progress is slower than required, and that is disappointing,” said NRDC lawyer Doug Obegi in an interview with The Bee. Still, he said, “we should have a fully functioning river, and that’s encouraging ”

    The effort is funded by state and federal governments. Eastside farmers pay a “Friant surcharge” for their irrigation water, and the collected funds, about $8 million a year on average, is paid to the federal government.

    Portz said the original cost estimate for the restoration work was $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion, but program managers gave the budget a “haircut” to cut costs. “It still came to $648 million for just phase one,” he said.

    Costs include a new fish hatchery near Friant Dam, which is behind schedule but should open next year. The hatchery will eventually produce 1 million salmon fingerlings annually. An interim hatchery on the river now produces 200,000 fish per year.

    The hatchery is needed because naturally producing salmon on the river won’t be enough to restore the salmon runs, at least at first.

    “We want a naturally reproducing, self-sustaining population, but you need a supplement,” Portz said.
    What’s the next milestone?

    So far, returning adult Chinook salmon have not yet been seen in the San Joaquin River. But Portz and the other scientists have their fingers crossed that salmon will start showing up on the San Joaquin next spring.

    When that happens, “the returning adult spring run salmon will be the next milestone for the program,” he said.

    Because of physical barriers still in the river that stop the migrating fish, the fish will be netted downstream and trucked to the waters below Friant Dam, he said.

    There currently isn’t enough water in the river to support a fully functioning salmon fishery, Portz said. Levees will be built where needed so the channel can contain more water, he said.

    The long-term goal is to have tens of thousands of returning salmon — 10,000 fall run and 30,000 spring run.

    This year, 168,000 juvenile hatchery fish were released into the river and last year it was about 150,000. Similar numbers have been released since 2014. It takes two or three years for them to return as adults.

    There’s also a need to build “fish passages,” man-made structures allowing fish to swim around dams and get upriver on their own, which biologists call “volitional passage.” The fish passages will be built by 2024 as required by the settlement, Portz said.

    But it’s water temperature that is the crucial factor for salmon survival, he said, especially for juvenile fish going out to the ocean. That’s why cool water at the bottom of Millerton Lake must be sent downriver.

    “We have to time our releases effectively,” Portz said. “We need to have planned pulses to move the juvenile fish and start their migration to the ocean.”

    The settlement requires water in the river all year long. That leaves less irrigation water for farmers — about 15 percent to 20 percent less per year on average than before the settlement.

    But the farmers are banking on there being no more reductions and support bringing back salmon on the river.

    “Friant Water Authority continues to be invested in the long-term success of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement and program,” the water delivery agency said in a statement. “We believe the terms of the settlement were fair and we’re working with our partners to fully implement it.”

    One major unknown, meanwhile, is the effect of climate change on the San Joaquin River salmon. Spring run salmon would probably do better than fall run salmon in an era of global warming, Portz said.

    “Because they spawn earlier in the fall, they move out earlier in the year: February, March, into April,” he said. “Water temperatures are still cool.”

    But it means managers must make the right calls so the adult salmon will return despite climate change, he said.

    “People are going to say, ‘This can’t be done,’ ” Portz said. “But if we do our fish passage right, and provide the habitat that’s necessary, I think it is attainable.”

    Other work includes creating rearing habitat for salmon, adding screens to keep fish from migrating into side channels where they would get stranded, and building a fish screen, to be the largest in the state, to keep salmon out of Mendota Pool on the Valley floor.

    Additionally, more gravel must be put in the river so returning adult fish can create their redds.

     

    Read the article at the source »

  • San Joaquin River salmon make big gains, but don’t call it a comeback yet

    November 22, 2018

    Fresno Bee by Lewis Greenwold

    Fish biologists bringing back salmon runs on the San Joaquin River say a record number of fish nests have been found in the river below Friant Dam east of Fresno.

    The number of nests, called redds, created by spring-run Chinook salmon reached 41 this year, compared to just 13 last year.

    “It’s a vast improvement over previous years,” said fish biologist Don Portz, manager of the San Joaquin River Restoration Program. “That’s triple the amount.”

    The numbers are encouraging to fish scientists because they show the restoration program is making progress in re-establishing a wild salmon fishery on the San Joaquin after six decades of absence. But there’s a lot of work to do before scientists can say they’ve done all they can.

    “Right now we’re in the infancy stages of bringing the fish back,” Portz said.

    Last year, for the first time in 60 years, spring-run Chinook salmon successfully reproduced in the river, which made headlines.

    To monitor the fish after they hatch, biologists are installing special nets, called emergence traps, directly on top of nine redds. The nets are designed to catch, but not kill, emerging salmon fry.

    So far this year, no salmon fry have been found, but it’s early yet. It takes a couple of weeks for fish to hatch and a lot depends on water temperature. But when they appear, experts will count them, weigh them, measure them and test for genetics.

    “I think it’s incredibly rewarding work to see how the fish are actually thriving in the sections of the river we are working on,” said fish biologist Stephanie Durkacz, who donned waders and installed several traps over the past two weeks. “There haven’t been spring-run chinook salmon spawning here in 60 years. ... It feels very historic.”

    Turning the ‘spigot’ back on

    The work is being done because an agreement with environmentalists requires the federal government to restore the lost salmon runs. A long stretch of the San Joaquin River dried up and with it the salmon when Friant Dam was built in the 1940s.

    Several fish biologists, lawyers and members of the public recently toured the river with the Water Education Foundation, based in Sacramento. Portz, the river restoration program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, laid out the stakes.

    “This is a river that didn’t have flows for over half a century,” Portz said. “It’s not an easy thing to turn on the spigot and let water start flowing again.”

    But hatchery-raised adult salmon released into the San Joaquin River are making redds and spawning, giving fish scientists hope for success.

    A major goal of the restoration program is for salmon eggs laid naturally in the river to hatch and for juvenile salmon to swim to the ocean, reach sexual maturity, then return as adult salmon to spawn and die — and for the cycle to start all over again as it did for time immemorial.

    That’s how it was until Friant Dam blocked the river in 1948 and the water stored in Millerton Lake was diverted to farms on the Valley’s east side as part of the federal Central Valley Project.

    But under California fish and game code, dams must release enough water to keep fish alive downstream.

    In 1988, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the dam, and all of the irrigation districts that use the water for farming. A federal judge sided with the NRDC.

    At the judge’s urging, the parties in 2006 hammered out the San Joaquin River settlement mandating that both spring and fall salmon runs be restored, from Friant Dam to the confluence of the Merced River a distance of 153 miles.

    Seeking a self-sustaining salmon population

    There are two kinds of salmon in the San Joaquin River — fall run and spring run salmon.

    Spring run salmon evolved to take advantage of spring pulses of snowmelt rushing down from the Sierra Nevada. Historically, the fish swam up from the ocean and lived in deep pools of cool water during the summer, then spawned in the fall.

    By contrast, fall run salmon arrived in late November to early December and quickly spawned. Both spring run and fall run juveniles swim to the ocean in the late winter and spring.

    “If you can’t bring them both back, we’re supposed to focus on the spring run,” Portz said.

    The fish that hatched in the river late last year are spring run salmon. It was considered a major milestone.

    The work has been slow to ramp up, but Portz says they’ll have all the necessary work completed by the end of 2024 so both spring and fall run salmon can swim unimpeded from the ocean to Friant Dam.

    The Natural Resources Defense Council is keeping a close watch on developments.

    “Progress is slower than required, and that is disappointing,” said NRDC lawyer Doug Obegi in an interview with The Bee. Still, he said, “we should have a fully functioning river, and that’s encouraging ”

    The effort is funded by state and federal governments. Eastside farmers pay a “Friant surcharge” for their irrigation water, and the collected funds, about $8 million a year on average, is paid to the federal government.

    Portz said the original cost estimate for the restoration work was $1.5 billion to $1.6 billion, but program managers gave the budget a “haircut” to cut costs. “It still came to $648 million for just phase one,” he said.

    Costs include a new fish hatchery near Friant Dam, which is behind schedule but should open next year. The hatchery will eventually produce 1 million salmon fingerlings annually. An interim hatchery on the river now produces 200,000 fish per year.

    The hatchery is needed because naturally producing salmon on the river won’t be enough to restore the salmon runs, at least at first.

    “We want a naturally reproducing, self-sustaining population, but you need a supplement,” Portz said.
    What’s the next milestone?

    So far, returning adult Chinook salmon have not yet been seen in the San Joaquin River. But Portz and the other scientists have their fingers crossed that salmon will start showing up on the San Joaquin next spring.

    When that happens, “the returning adult spring run salmon will be the next milestone for the program,” he said.

    Because of physical barriers still in the river that stop the migrating fish, the fish will be netted downstream and trucked to the waters below Friant Dam, he said.

    There currently isn’t enough water in the river to support a fully functioning salmon fishery, Portz said. Levees will be built where needed so the channel can contain more water, he said.

    There’s also a need to build “fish passages,” man-made structures allowing fish to swim around dams and get upriver on their own, which biologists call “volitional passage.” The fish passages will be built by 2024 as required by the settlement, Portz said.

    But it’s water temperature that is the crucial factor for salmon survival, he said, especially for juvenile fish going out to the ocean. That’s why cool water at the bottom of Millerton Lake must be sent downriver.

    “We have to time our releases effectively,” Portz said. “We need to have planned pulses to move the juvenile fish and start their migration to the ocean.”

    The settlement requires water in the river all year long. That leaves less irrigation water for farmers — about 15 percent to 20 percent less per year on average than before the settlement.

    But the farmers are banking on there being no more reductions and support bringing back salmon on the river.

    “Friant Water Authority continues to be invested in the long-term success of the San Joaquin River Restoration Settlement and program,” the water delivery agency said in a statement. “We believe the terms of the settlement were fair and we’re working with our partners to fully implement it.”

    One major unknown, meanwhile, is the effect of climate change on the San Joaquin River salmon. Spring run salmon would probably do better than fall run salmon in an era of global warming, Portz said.

    “Because they spawn earlier in the fall, they move out earlier in the year: February, March, into April,” he said. “Water temperatures are still cool.”

    But it means managers must make the right calls so the adult salmon will return despite climate change, he said.

    “People are going to say, ‘This can’t be done,’ ” Portz said. “But if we do our fish passage right, and provide the habitat that’s necessary, I think it is attainable.”

    Other work includes creating rearing habitat for salmon, adding screens to keep fish from migrating into side channels where they would get stranded, and building a fish screen, to be the largest in the state, to keep salmon out of Mendota Pool on the Valley floor.

    Additionally, more gravel must be put in the river so returning adult fish can create their redds.

     

    Read the article at the source »

  • Butte County Town Attempts to Save Salmon From Wildfire Devastation

    November 21, 2018

    KQED by Chloe Veltman

    Despite being evacuated nearly two weeks ago from their homes in the wake of spreading wildfires, residents of the town of Butte Creek Canyon — a few miles east of Chico — plan to join forces Wednesday to save the local salmon population.

    Locals are very proud of these fish.

    "Butte Creek spring-run salmon are one of the only remaining populations of wild spring-run salmon left in California," says Allen Harthorn, executive director of The Friends of Butte Creek, an organization that works to protect the fish, which were once near extinction.

    Now, the fish face a new danger, as rains threaten to wash toxic debris from the nearby wildfires into the creek.

    "The ash and toxic components in the runoff could just saturate the creek, fill it up with sediment and wipe out this entire year class of spring-run salmon," said Harthorn, who spoke from a friend's home in Chico 12 days into his evacuation from Butte Creek Canyon. He said around 100 homes had been destroyed in his town, though his house escaped the flames.

    With the spawning season recently over, the problem is particularly acute for newborn fish.

    The juvenile salmon at this point are at a very critical stage," said Harthorn. "The adult fish finish spawning about the middle of October. So all of those eggs were in the gravel. They've probably started emerging from the gravel in the last week or so, out swimming around in the creek."

    Following a callout on The Friends of the Butte Creek's Facebook page, Harthorn said around 50 volunteers planned to spend Wednesday laying down 800 long rolls of straw, called "wattles," near burned-out residences and streams.

    The hope is to ease the flow of the creek and capture the debris.

    "The straw wattles will slow down the movement of the water and allow it to seep in as well as capture the ash and potentially other toxic components," Harthorn said.

    The task ahead is huge. And Harthorn is also worried about the run-off flowing in from other nearby places destroyed by fire, particularly Paradise.

    "The unfortunate thing is that Butte Creek meets up with all the tributaries that come off Paradise out in the valley," Harthorn said. "And all those tributaries are going to be carrying all the runoff from Paradise, which has 5 to 10 times the volume of material and destruction that the Canyon had. So it's going to be a lot worse. There is a huge effort out there to protect the water quality. But it's going to be a massive job."

    Read the article at the source »

  • Another big year for salmon on Mokelumne River

    November 20, 2018

    Stockton Record By Dan Bacher / Record Correspondent

    The Mokelumne River Hatchery in Clements is once again seeing big numbers of fall-run Chinook salmon returning from the ocean this autumn. The run is 1,617 fish behind the numbers seen last year at this time, but this run is still going to be one of the top three recorded on the river.

    The count over Woodbridge Dam on the Mokelumne to date is 13,467 salmon, including 8,779 adults, reported William Smith, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) hatchery manager. That compares to 15,086 fall chinooks by the same time last season.

    A record number of fall-run Chinook salmon, 19,904, went over Woodbridge Dam in the fall of 2017. Early dam counts indicated an increase over last year’s run, but the numbers since then have fallen behind those of last year.

    More fish are on the way, as evidenced by continuing reports of salmon being caught in the Mokelumne below Interstate Five, the South Fork Mokelumne and Hog and Beaver sloughs.

    “One of our hatchery employees, Jake Aucelluzzo, last weekend landed a bright 14-pound salmon while fishing a Rat-L-Trap for striped bass in Hog Slough,” Smith said.

    The steelhead numbers reported to date are behind those of last season’s record run. To date, the hatchery has counted 116 adult steelhead and 227 half pounders (juveniles). That compares to 406 adults and 34 juveniles last season to date.

    A record for the number of steelhead returning to the Mokelumne River Fish Hatchery in one season was set earlier this year. The hatchery trapped 530 adults and 638 juveniles, a total of 1,168 fish. That compares to 719 adults and 402 juveniles the previous season, a total of 1,121 fish.

    Factors behind the record salmon and steelhead runs in recent years include stronger river pulse flows by EBMUD, closures of the Delta Cross Channel gates, the use of tagging data to increase fish survival when released, barging salmon, habitat improvements, the rebuilding of Woodbridge Dam and the 1998 Lower Mokelumne River Settlement Agreement. Information: (209) 759-3383.

    Read the article at the source »

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