News & Stories

  • The river is running through it/The Carmel River near Paso Hondo Road in Carmel Valley

    November 3, 2018

    Monterey County Herald By Rodrigo Pérez Ortega (Tommy Williams/Lee Harrison)

    In the process of removing the San Clemente Dam in 2015, workers created a pristine route for the Carmel River, complete with step pools and nicely arranged boulders.

    Winter floods have since transformed the river route into anything but pristine, but the “messy” course has been good for the native steelhead.

    Lee Harrison, a research hydrologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, studied how four major floods boosted the river’s natural processes and improved the spawning habitat for the trout since the dam removal.

    “The river structure has become more complex,” he says, and that’s mainly due to large wood and coarse gravel that has drifted from upstream.

    The effects of the removal on the river were expected, but “the main uncertainty was how quickly the changes were going to occur,” Harrison says.

    “It reset the system,” says Tommy Williams, a fishery biologist at NOAA. “It’s supposed to be messy, it’s supposed to be diverse.” For him, the floods were a boost for habitat recovery.

    Built in 1921, the 105-foot-high San Clemente dam was taken down in November 2015 after it was determined that it posed a major public hazard since it could fail during an earthquake or a major flood. It is the largest dam removal in California to date, and the $84-million project offered a unique opportunity for scientists to study the impact of the removal on the river and the ecosystem it sustains. This is the first time these types of studies have been carried out on a river in a Mediterranean climate.

    The federally protected steelhead trout are very dynamic and they don’t do very well in static environments, according to Williams. They are also very resilient and they are used to changes in their ecosystem when they migrate from freshwater to seawater and back.

    The dam was hampering the spawning habits of the steelhead. Although they had a ladder that allowed them to swim upstream while the dam was in place, it was too steep and wasn’t ideal, says Doug Smith, a geomorphology professor at CSU Monterey Bay.

    What was novel in this removal project was the management of the reservoir sediment. To avoid having the sediment that accumulated over the years to flow all at once and cause damage to the river and urban areas downstream, as had happened in the other dam removals, engineers decided to sequester it by building a dike and rerouting the river to the smaller San Clemente creek for a short stretch, where the improved fish passage was also put in place.

    However, the neatly designed steps and pools for the wildlife passage were washed away by winter floods and no original structure is left. But the steelhead still managed to swim up and build fish nests, called redds. Scientist have now seen young fish of different sizes, indicating that the population is more diverse.

    For now, there are no plans to restore the passage so long as wildlife continues to be able pass.

    The steelhead were not the only ones who managed to swim up. Pacific lamprey has appeared upstream for the first time in 20 years. “Lampreys are supposed to be there,” says Smith. But non-native species have also flourished upstream, like the striped bass that eat the young steelhead. “It’s a real concern,” says Williams.

    The dam removal has also helped other native animals to thrive. The endangered California red-legged frog lives upstream. Before the removal, the reservoir was a great habitat for the bullfrog, an invasive species that eats the red-legged frog. Now, with the dam gone, the number of bullfrogs has decreased. .

    Downstream, the river is also physically changing. Some portions are now shallower because of the amount of sediment, but Smith expects it will wash through with future floods and “we’ll be left with very nice gravel,” he says. “But that depends on the time and how big the storms are in the next winter.”

    In terms of seismic risk, the dam removal “was a huge success,” says Smith. “But I wouldn’t consider the river fully restored,” says Harrison. “There’s another dam –– the Los Padres dam –– that’s still in place upstream in the Carmel river.” There are talks of removing that dam in the future, but no decision has been made.

    As they structurally age and reservoirs fill up with sediment, more dams will come down. “Each of them is an experiment,” says Smith, “and we get to see the environmental response and how quickly the physical landscape and the species adapt to the new sediment, the new water.”

    There are more than 15 scientists working on different research projects in the area and everyone is excited about the next wet season. “What a great opportunity to study a large-scale, real-world issue,” Smith says. “And it’s right in our backyard.”

    Read the article at the source »

  • Snorkeling With The Salmon In A Northern California River

    November 1, 2018

    OPB/KUOW By Aaron Scott

    It’s a rare person who would look at a wicked stretch of whitewater rapids and think: “Man, that’d make for some killer snorkeling.”

    But that’s exactly what’s attracts nearly a hundred people to the Salmon River in Northwestern California every year.

    The Salmon River Fish Dive is organized by the Salmon River Restoration Council and the U.S. Forest Service. Volunteers and professional biologists spend the day snorkeling the entire length of the Salmon River and its tributaries — more than 80 miles of river in all. Their goal is to count every single Spring Chinook salmon and Steelhead adult fish.

    In the world of biology, it’s rare to survey an entire population — it’s just a lot of work. But they do it here because it’s such an important and threatened run, with important implications for the entire Klamath Basin, including the upper watershed that originates in Oregon. And they’ve been doing it for 24 years, which makes this one of the longest running and most comprehensive fish surveys on the West Coast.

    At the crack of dawn on a midsummer day, survey participants gathered at the Forks of Salmon Elementary School and divided into small teams to divvy up the watershed. Each 3- to 4-mile reach was ranked by difficulty. The most dangerous stretch was claimed, as it is every year, by a Salmon River lifer: Will Harling, director of the Mid Klamath Watershed Council.

    Harling’s team consisted of biologists Sophie Price and Allen Crockett and, for the first time, his 14-year-old son, Owen.

    “Owen, I’m really excited: this is your first run on our home river,” said Harling, as he circled them up on the rocky shore at the top of their stretch. “French to Matthews is one of the most dangerous reaches on the river."

    “And beautiful,” added Price.

    “And beautiful,” Harling echoes. “Deep pools, big waterfalls.”

    That is, beautiful pools, waterfalls and rapids that the team would have to navigate through steep mountain valleys with no cell service and only occasional road access, meaning they had to carry everything they’d need in their packs, and should someone get hurt, it was going to be a hard hike out.

    But that didn’t stop Harling from diving goggles-first into the first winding rapid, as his teammates climbed over boulders alongside, before jumping in to join him in the pool below.

    Harling explained the general process of the survey: “We have to walk around the rapids. Sometimes you can float through, and it’s kind of a judgment call if you know whether it’s safe or not. And one person will flush out the bubble curtain in case fish are hanging up in the bubbles, and then we go through the hole.”

    “You definitely get a little banged up going down rapids, if you’re going down the exciting ones,” Price said. “My personal strategy is wearing a really thick wetsuit, and then I always have my hands out in front a my face, because you often dive straight into a bubble curtain, and then you also can’t see anything, so it’s extra exciting.”

    In bountiful years, they compare counts at the bottom of each pool. But this year, with the exception of one pod of five spring chinook, the fish were proving elusive, forcing the divers to search under ledges and boulders in the hopes of finding single fish seeking refuge. By late afternoon, their tally was only 14 adult springers and eight steelhead.

    For Harling, the salmon are much more than just numbers: they’re practically family. He was born just up the river’s banks in an old mining cabin.

    “When I was a kid growing up on the Salmon River, fishing for spring chinook salmon was a way a life — pretty much every hole had fish in it,” he said. “But in the mid-’80s, that changed, and all of a sudden the salmon were dying from a thousand cuts: from the legacy of mining, from the legacy of logging, and then finally from the droughts.”

    While populations vary from year to year, biologists have documented that the spring runs here have generally fallen from thousands of fish to hundreds — a general downward trend shared by many West Coast salmon runs.

    “Historically, spring salmon were the largest run and contributed the greatest biomass: feeding people, feeding animals, and feeding and providing the foundation of many of our food webs in the river systems,” said Frank Lake, a research ecologist at the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station. “The loss of that literally means a near collapse of all those other things that depend upon them.”

    Local tribes and organizations have been pushing for the spring chinook to be listed as endangered for years — to no avail. The government has argued the springers were no different from the fall chinook, which have bigger remaining runs. But recent genetic research has proven that the spring chinook are indeed their own species, and local groups, such as the Karuk Tribe and the Salmon River Restoration Council, have resubmitted a petition for an endangered listing.

    The population’s decline has consequences that reach far beyond the local ecosystem, too. The Salmon River flows into the Klamath River, which has its headwaters in Oregon, and this population is one of the last wild runs left in the entire Klamath Basin, where dams are slated to be removed beginning in 2020.

    “The importance of spring salmon here is that when the dams are removed on the Upper Klamath, it has the potential to be that genetic security that comes back into the Klamath Basin system,” Lake said.

    But that depends on whether those salmon can be conserved.

    The shadows were growing long by the time Harling and his team finished their reach.

    Any hope that other teams might’ve fared better evaporated as they returned to the elementary school. The final count came in at 168 spring chinook adults and 164 steelhead adults in all of the Salmon River watershed, making it the third-lowest year on record.

    Harling holds out hope that removing the Klamath River dams, other conservation measures such as restoring fire to the land, and the protections that would come with an endangered species listing could help the spring chinook rebound. Because the idea of a Salmon River without salmon — it’s just unimaginable.

    “It makes me feel sick in my stomach,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to be alive if my kid couldn’t fish in the salmon river — wouldn’t be able to see salmon. It’s part of who we are. We got to keep the faith, because what else is there.”

    Read the article at the source »

  • Study finds danger to Smith River coho

    October 30, 2018

    Crescent City Triplicate By Tony Reed (Justin Ly and Dan Free)

    Authors of the NOAA Fisheries 2017/2018 water monitoring report of the Smith River say tested levels of dissolved copper are alarming, due to the potential damage to endangered Coho Salmon.

    Released Oct. 23, the Smith River Plain Dissolved Copper Monitoring Report focused on defining concentrations of dissolved copper in the Smith River plain.

    “Copper is used as a fungicide to control fungal diseases on newly emergent and growing lily bulb plants,” the report reads. “Lily bulb plants emerge from the ground during the fall/early winter and must be frequently sprayed with copper to control fungus during the rainy season and as new growth appears on plants. Copper is the second highest pounds of pesticide applied during lily bulb production, which is of particular concern because of its high toxicity to aquatic life.”

    Justin Ly and Dan Free were two NOAA Fisheries researchers who worked on the report, which states that in every site tested downstream from the lily fields, concentrations were above levels determined to cause damage to salmon.

    Asked if the results were alarming, Ly, a supervisor at the North Coast Branch, said yes. He added even tiny amounts of copper can elicit effects on salmon’s ability to smell, find food, detect predators and migrate upstream.

    “The levels are high enough for us to be concerned about,” Ly said.

    Free, a biologist with the North Coast Branch, said the recorded levels of copper would not cause visible outward damage to salmon, but damage to its sensory systems would be observable under a microscope.

    Asked if any agencies are testing Smith River salmon for such effects, Free said no, but added that the Tolowa Dee-Ni’ Nation has been conducting tests on Sculpins. Free explained sculpins are native to the river, and do not migrate into the ocean, increasing their potential exposure to pesticides used in the Smith River Plain.

    Calls to the Tolowa Dee-ni’ offices were not returned as of press time.

    “We focused our report on copper, which is highly toxic to salmonids,” Free said, “and Coho Salmon in particular.”

    According to the report, tests were also done in areas outside the influence of pesticides.

    “Dissolved copper was detected at 8 of 13 downstream sites and 3 of 8 upstream sites,” the report stated. “For every site where dissolved copper was detected, concentrations were well above those that cause olfactory and lateral line damage.”

    According to the report, “the lateral line is the visible line along the side of a fish consisting of a series of sense organs, which fish use to detect movement, pressure, and vibration in the surrounding water.”

    In addition, the report said dissolved copper may potentially limit the productivity and growth of salmon populations by reducing their survival rate and reproductive success.

    Asked about upstream test results which still showed detectable levels of copper, Ly said the samples were taken from areas near Little Mill Creek, Sulton Creek, and others. He added some of the levels could indicate pesticides blown from fields. Free said copper is a naturally occurring mineral, and that there are mines along some upstream parts of the river.

    “In really low levels, it’s not unusual to see in a watershed,” Ly said, “But below the lily fields, we saw dramatic increases in some cases.”

    “Dissolved copper was found at all upstream and downstream sites,” the report said, noting that some ‘hot spots’ were found and levels were higher in the fall than in the spring. It also said while water hardness effects the toxicity of copper, it was not enough to reduce sensory toxicity to salmon.

    In response

    In a media release Monday, Greg King, executive director of the Siskiyou Land Conservancy, said his organization is calling for lily growers in the plain to begin transitioning to organic, pesticide-free growing methods.

    “This new report is praiseworthy but devastating,” said King. “Given the 260,000 pounds of toxic, non-copper pesticides also used by lily growers, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Lily growers can no longer be allowed to dump 300,000 pounds of highly toxic pesticides into crucial salmon habitat. It’s illegal, it’s immoral, and it could cause salmon to go extinct even in the Smith River.”

    According to the release, the river is one of the state’s most pristine, it provides critical habitat for young salmon and steelhead.

    “A compromised estuary could cause these species to go extinct,” it states. “At the same time, the state and federal governments consider the Smith River to be a “core watershed” that is essential for aiding the recovery of salmon in nearby streams along the California-Oregon coast.”

    The Land Trust’s release called it clear the testing shows lily pesticides to be the source of the detected levels of dissolved copper.

    To the growers

    A letter from the California Water Boards was mailed to four major lily bulb growers, Hastings Bulb Growers Inc. Palmer Westbrook Inc. Dahlstrom and Watt Bulb Farm, and United Lily Growers, asking for information that could be used to create a water quality management plan. The letter was due, in part, to the test results and water connections between the many fields where pesticides are applied.

    “The expectation is that growers will coordinate their response into a general description of the farming operations and current and planned water quality protections in the Smith River Plain” the letter reads. “Once reviewed and approved by the Regional Water Board Executive Officer, the information submitted in response to this request will be incorporated by Regional Water Board staff into a Smith River Plain Water Quality Management Plan.”

    The letter says that while the plan is being developed, growers are expected to implement management practices sufficient to control discharges into surface and groundwater.

    The letter asked each grower for a description of agricultural operations, assessment of risk to water quality, a description of current and planned water quality management practices, and monitoring and reporting data and a detailed explanation of how data should be provided.

    “The Regional Water Board recognizes the work that has been done since the April 2018 meeting to address water quality risks in preparation for this season’s operations,” the letter concludes. “Regional Water Board staff are available to help clarify the information being requested and to provide assistance as you prepare the response to this information request.”

    A deadline of Feb. 1 was given to respond and the letter was signed by Matthias St. John, Water Boards executive director.

    Read the article at the source »

  • 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.

    Read the article at the source »

  • 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.”

    Read the article at the source »