Dead fish wash up near $6.3 million passageway designed to protect them. Why didn’t it work?
April 24, 2019
Sacramento Bee By Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler
Dozens of fish carcasses — 13 of them Chinook salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act — rotted in the sun Tuesday a couple hundred yards from a new $6.3 million structure that state officials built specifically to keep that grisly scenario from happening.
Before the winter and spring flood seasonthis year, engineers completed work on the new fish passage along the Fremont Weir, a nearly two mile-long concrete structure atop the Yolo Bypass. The bypass is a 40-mile long engineered flood plain that starts near Woodland and shunts flood waters from the Sacramento River into agriculture fields.
The fish passage was intended to keep fish from becoming stranded along the weir and in the bypass once the flood waters receded back into the Sacramento River’s main channel. An automated gate was supposed to open once water levels got high enough to overflow into the bypass, allowing fish to swim back into the Sacramento River.
But in February, state officials who manage the facility noticed it wasn’t working right. Too much water was pouring through the passage, eroding the structure. Officials had to close the gate almost entirely, meaning fewer fish could escape.
The Department of Water Resources is now facing an expensive upgrade to an already multimillion structure to make it ready for the next rainy season — and prevent what happened this week.
“Yesterday was the day of carnage,” Chris McKibbin, a regional fisheries biologist for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said on Tuesday afternoon as he slowly walked with 11 state biologists in waist-deep water pushing a large net corralling fish along the Fremont Weir’s western stretch.
Over the weekend, someone called a poaching tip line to alert state wildlife officers that fish were stranded in the receding waters along the weir, McKibbin said.
When a team of biologists arrived on Monday to rescue the fish, they were too late for dozens of them. The biologists found the dead adult salmon, plus at least two dead white sturgeon, more than two dozen striped bass carcasses and other dead fish.
The optics of the dead fish rotting next to the new facility raises fresh questions about whether habitat restoration programs championed by former Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration, through his controversial Delta tunnels project, will be completed in time to make a difference. The programs are designed to prevent the extinction of numerous species of fish whose plummeting numbers in recent years have lead to wide-ranging cuts to California’s water supply.
The erosion and design problem at the Fremont Weir facility comes after the Department of Water Resources has faced more than two years of withering criticism for allowing problems to fester at Oroville Dam, which suffered catastrophic damage when its spillways failed in 2017. Investigators cited decades of faulty design and maintenance.
Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Erin Mellon said the setback at the Fremont Weir is a small one that shouldn’t detract from the important work state officials are doing to help the state’s struggling fish populations. She said lessons learned from this winter’s problems at the new passageway will be used to ensure they don’t happen elsewhere.
“We’re always trying to tweak and improve our projects to address either known or unknown design issues to make them operate even better,” she said.
The Fremont Weir, built in 1924, has long been a death trap for imperiled native fish such as green sturgeon, steelhead trout and Chinook, whose various runs are protected under state and federal endangered species laws. Fish that migrate into the flood waters of the bypass think it’s part of the Sacramento River’s natural flood plain.
When the river recedes, fish become stranded in the shallow, rapidly-disappearing water that forms in the L-shaped lip at the bottom of the 1.8 mile-long concrete Fremont Weir.
Over the years, biologists with McKibbin’s agency have staged numerous rescuesafter the flood waters recede to try to save as many fish as possible before the water dries up or they’re caught by poachers.
After finding the dead adults on Monday, McKibbon and his team were able to rescue some 700 tiny juvenile fish along the weir adjacent to the new passageway. They rescued several dozen more adult and juvenile fish on the weir’s western section, which isn’t connected to the new structure.
McKibbin said the dead adult salmon his team found this week were likely spring run Chinook, which are listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species act, or winter run, which are among the most critically endangered fish in California.
During California’s last drought, warm, low waters of the Sacramento River proved particularly lethal to the winter run Chinook, prompting regulators to cut the water supply for farms and cities across the state.
People caught killing endangered fish would face hefty fines and prison time, but government agencies often are legally allowed to kill protected fish when they’re unintentionally trapped in California water infrastructure.
In May 2018, state and federal officials held a groundbreaking ceremony at a new fish passage project saying it would help stop fish from being stranded. The $6.3 million passageway is largely funded by the Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages dams and water-supply canals for the federal government.
McKibbin said the passage appeared to be working earlier in the flood season, when underwater cameras caught at least 12 sturgeon swimming through the new structure before the flows were reduced to prevent the erosion.
“It did pass some pretty big sturgeon,” he said.
The Fremont Weir project is politically sensitive because it’s one of more than two dozen projects in California EcoRestore — former Gov. Brown’s plan to improve fish and wildlife habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta while the state forged ahead with his controversial Delta tunnels project.
The EcoRestore habitat plan — which was seen as a way of appeasing critics of the multibillion-dollar Delta tunnels project — became controversial because of downsizing. The state initially said it would spend $8 billion to restore 100,000 acres of habitat. In 2015, Brown reduced that to 30,000 acres and $300 million. The state later committed to restoring an additional 1,800 acres.
The tunnels project — which the state says will protect fish while improving the reliability of water deliveries to the southern half of the state — is now in limbo. Gov. Gavin Newsom said he’d reduce the twin tunnels to a single tunnel. The state continues to move ahead on the habitat work.
For instance, officials are planning in the coming years to build at least two similar passageways along the Frement Weir to ensure even more fish can move back and forth from the river. The new facility is an important test to ensure those passageways and others around the state work correctly, said Kristopher Tjernell, a deputy director at the state Department of Water Resources.
“The bottom line is we’ve actually put a facility in this known man-made impediment to fish passage,” Tjernell said. “And we’re finally going to be able to solve this issue so we can ... see wild populations come back.”
Coleman Fish Hatchery releases 300,000 salmon to study survival chances, homing instincts
April 13, 2019
KRCR by Meaghan Mackey
BUTTE COUNTY, Calif. — The Coleman National Fish Hatchery, which is largest salmon fish hatchery in California, released approximately 300,000 salmon fry on Saturday as a part of a three-year study to examine the impact on survival and chances of homing instincts.
The salmon fry are often eaten by predatory species during their descent downstream on Battle Creek from the hatchery in Anderson.
To study their survival chances, a group came together to release approximately 180,000 salmon fry 75 miles downstream from the hatchery at Scotty's Landing in Chico to see if that increases their survival rate. The remaining fish were released 75 miles upstream from the hatchery in Anderson to experiment with their survival and homing instincts.
The U.S. Fish Fish and Wildlife Service, the Golden Gate Salmon Association, the Nor-Cal Guides Sportsmen’s Association, UC Davis and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation all came together to conduct this experiment.
The group explained many Coleman salmon are lost in the first 75 miles of travel after release, especially in low water years. They said the success of this experiment could provide a critical way to boost salmon stocks in future low water years.
"The Coleman Hatchery, which is up in Anderson, is the biggest salmon hatchery in California but it is also the furthest from the Pacific Ocean so unfortunately it has some of the lowest survival rates. Through this experiment we are trying to boost the survival rate of this giant hatchery so we can take better advantage of it, make better do with what we got, get more salmon back, provide more salmon to the commercial fishermen, the supermarkets and all the sports fishermen who rely on this market of fish," said John McManus, the President of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
A truck drove down all the salmon from the hatchery to Scotty's Landing and pushed the salmon out through a tube into a net so the salmon could get acclimated in the water before their release.
"Our theory is that the salmon released at Scotty's Landing will survive in considerably higher number down to the ocean because the first 75 miles of this river that the salmon typically travel through is a dangerous stretch for them," said McManus.
The salmon that survive will come back upstream in about two years from now 15 to 20 pounds heavier and full grown.
The Bureau of Reclamation supplied radio transmitter tags that were placed in each of the salmon. UC Davis students assisted with that effort in order to track the location of the salmon and determine in two years the survival rate of the group that was released downstream from the hatchery on Saturday.
Hatchery will free 180000 tiny salmon in survival experiment
April 10, 2019
Redding Record Searchlight by Mike Chapman
Will hatchery-raised salmon have a better chance of surviving their journey to the Pacific Ocean and back if they get a 75-mile head start?
That's the question a three-year study hopes to answer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and four partner organizations.
The plan Saturday is to release 180,000 salmon fry into the Sacramento River 75 miles downriver from the Coleman National Fish Hatchery. A tanker truck will take the young salmon from the hatchery outside Anderson to Scotty's Landing in Chico for the fish's intended journey to the ocean under the Golden Gate Bridge.
"If we can boost survival of the fish by even 20% to 40%, it's a great step forward to add fish to the fishery," said John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.
McManus said his group proposed the experiment to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the agency agreed to give it a try.
The fish will be funneled into a portable, floating pen in the river — guided by jet boats — so they can get used to the water and get their bearings before they're set free.
The study will try to determine if the fish's chance of survival will significantly improve without more of the salmon straying, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife says.
A control group of another 180,000 salmon fry is planned for release Thursday for a comparison of results, McManus said.
The study also will be a test for the fish's homing instincts to see if they return up the Sacramento River or go elsewhere, such as another tributary. The fry each have a coded-wire tag the size of a grain of rice inserted into their snouts and when they return to spawn in several years, their carcasses can be retrieved by wildlife officials and the tag checked under a microscope.
Wildlife biologists won't have to wait a full three years to find out if the experiment is working. Battery-operated acoustic tags have been surgically implanted into the gut of 600 of the fry — half in the control group and half in the trucked salmon — so transceivers in the river can monitor the fish's progress.
Under current practices, a good number of the salmon reared and released from the Coleman hatchery are lost in their first 75 miles of swimming from Battle Creek and down the Sacramento River. There's also a high mortality rate for the fish in years when there's low water in the Sacramento River due to predators.
The salmon sent into the river this week should have a higher survival rate anyway because the river is murkier from the higher flows out of Shasta Dam, giving the fry better camouflage from their hungry predators, McManus said.
"Everybody likes to eat baby salmon. They're on everybody's menu," McManus said.
Others partnering in the study are the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the University of California at Davis and the Nor-Cal Guides and Sportsmen's Association.
A different experiment was tried in March 2016 to see if releasing salmon fry earlier — when they're 2-and-a-half inches long — would increase survival rates. Typically the hatchery releases fall-run chinook salmon in early April when they're 3 inches long.
This year is when hatchery officials expect to get solid data on that operation, McManus said.
Scientist urges Reclamation to reduce salmon pre-spawning mortality on American River
April 9, 2019
IndyBay by Dan Bacher
To ensure that there is less pre-spawning mortality and salmon can spawn in favorable water conditions, Felix Smith urges Reclamation to make an effort to get 59 to 60 DF by mid October and to remain at or below such temperature. He also says the stream flow should be in the range of 1900 to 2400 cfs.
Felix Smith, a Save the American River Association (SARA) board member and the former U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist who exposed the Kesterson Wildlife Refuge selenium contamination scandal in 1982-83, has just sent a letter to the Bureau of Reclamation regarding his concerns about the operations of Folsom Dam and Reservoir for this summer and fall months.
“My concern is the amount of pre-spawning mortality of the Chinook salmon run that has occurred over the years of 2001 through 2017,” says Smith. “In my opinion, a pre-spawning mortality of more than 5 to 7 percent is uncalled for. An extra effort must be made to reduce such mortality.“
Smith says the Bureau should “prioritize the protection and propagation of Chinook salmon and steelhead. Lets try to reduce the pre-spawning mortality of the Chinook salmon run.”
He says a review of Chinook salmon spawning escapement data for the American River since 2001 shows pre-spawning mortality of 10 percent (2008) to 67 percent in (2001). The lowest per-spawning mortality occurred in 2009 at 4 percent and 6 percent in 2011, “years of very modest runs.”
To ensure that there is less pre-spawning mortality and salmon can spawn in favorable water conditions, Smith urges Reclamation to make an effort to get 59 to 60 DF by mid October and to remain at or below such temperature. He also says the stream flow should be in the range of 1900 to 2400 cfs.
As soon as Smith gets a response to his letter, I will post it here. It would be tragic to see the potential for a robust salmon spawning season on the American this year, due to the heavy Sierra Nevada snowpack, to be diminished due to high spawning mortalities.
We don’t want to see again the 67% mortality that occurred in 2001, a record year for returning American River Chinook salmon, due to low, warm water releases by Reclamation from Nimbus Dam.
The American River is a big contributor to ocean recreational and commercial salmon fisheries. Nimbus Hatchery fall Chinook salmon last year contributed 16 percent of the fish caught in the recreational ocean fishery and 16 percent of the fish landed in the commercial ocean salmon fishery, according to CDFW data.
In 2018, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) scientists estimated that a total of 27,302 salmon, including 17,352 adults and 9,951 jacks and jills (two-year-olds), returned to the American River to spawn. This was 36 percent of the total escapement on the Sacramento River watershed. A total of 21,091, or 39 percent, were natural spawners, while 6,212, or 28 percent, were taken into the hatchery.
Here is Smith’s April 3 letter to Ernest A. Conant, Regional Director of the Mid Pacific Region - Bureau of Reclamation and a former lawyer for agribusiness billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the Kern Water Bank and the Westlands Water District:
Dear Mr. Conant:
This year has been a very good water year. As of March 1, the forecast of runoff for the American River Basin is 3,710,000 acre feet. The month of April with additional snow and rain, the runoff for the American River Basin should be greater.
Irrigated agriculture will benefit. Ground water recharge will benefit. Dry land farming should benefit. The water quality of the Delta should improve as high water cleansed the Delta, especially the south Delta. Hydro power will benefit. All reservoirs are nearly full or full to benefit their beneficiaries.
How does the Bureau of Reclamation plan to operate Folsom Reservoir this summer and fall months to improve conditions to benefit Chinook salmon and steelhead of the American River?
As a suggestion, the Bureau should prioritize the protection and propagation of Chinook salmon and steelhead. Lets try to reduce the pre-spawning mortality of the Chinook salmon run. A review of Chinook salmon spawning escapement data for the American River since 2001 shows pre-spawning mortality of 10 percent (2008) to 67 percent in (2001). The lowest per-spawning mortality occurred in 2009 at 4 percent and 6 percent in 2011, years of very modest runs.
The Bureau seems to wave off mortalities of 12 to 20 percent as normal. Pre-spawning mortality in the range of more than 5 percent is uncalled for and unacceptable. The heaviest mortality occurs during the early portion of the spawning season and gradually decreases.
Therefore let’s make an effort to get 59 to 60 DF by mid October and to remain at or below such temperature. Stream flow should be in the range of 1900 to 2400 cfs. This should reduce the holdover time for adults and encourage spawning to reduce mortality. The earlier the adults spawn the sooner young can move out on winter freshets.
I and the Save the American River Association, the fishing and environmental communities has been waiting for such improvement since the 1992 passage of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.
Battle Creek Hatchery releases thousands of endangered chinook salmon into Sacramento River/The effort to bolster the species resulted from the loss of nearly the entire in-river juvenile population during the drought of 2014 and 2015.
April 5, 2019
ANDERSON, Calif. — The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released 185,000 marked juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon into the north fork of Battle Creek for the second year in a row, a continuing effort to jump-start the population.
“Last year, approximately 200,000 hatchery-reared winter-run Chinook salmon were released into Battle Creek,” said Dan Castleberry, Assistant regional director for Fish and Aquatic Conservation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Those fish are expected to return to Coleman National Fish Hatchery in 2020.”
While California is home to many native salmon species, winter-run Chinook salmon face unique challenges during their life cycle.
These fish are historically spawned in the cold, clear waters of the Upper Sacramento, McCloud and Pit Rivers as well as in Battle Creek. The construction of Shasta and Keswick Dams, combined with an extensive hydroelectric project on Battle Creek, blocked access to their native habitats and forced them to spawn in the unhospitable waters downstream of Keswick Dam.
Today, Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon are listed as an endangered species under both federal and state law. NOAA Fisheries also considers winter-run Chinook salmon among eight marine species most at risk of extinction.
The single remaining population of Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon has persisted in large part due to federal and state agency-managed seasonal cold water releases from Shasta Reservoir, to protect sensitive salmon eggs from the summer heat, and through the release of hatchery-produced juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon from a conservation program at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery. However, re-establishing self-sustaining populations in other locales is important for the recovery of these fish.