It’s been a great year for coho in the Lagunitas Creek watershed and it continues to be great for steelhead
February 1, 2019
Marin Municipal Water District by Eric Ettliinger
The coho spawning season typically runs from November through January, and this year’s run is ending on schedule. Only nine spawned-out coho were seen last week and no coho were seen this week. For the season, surveyors from the Marin Municipal Water District, Watershed Stewards Program, National Park Service, and the Salmon Protection and Watershed Network counted 324 coho redds, making this the sixth-largest run since systematic surveys began in 1996. This run was 10% larger than their parent’s generation, 70% larger than their grandparent’s, and 400% larger than the run of their great-grandparents (back in 2009-10). Such sustained generational growth is a very hopeful sign for the population.
The steelhead run continues to be on track to be one of the largest on record. So far we’ve counted 65 steelhead redds, which is a record for the end of January. February is peak spawning time and we’re hoping that this weekend’s rain will encourage a lot of spawning activity. Spotting these fish isn’t easy, as the photo below shows. Even though they can be up to three feet long, they’re cryptic, prefer to spawn in fast water, and don’t stay on their redds very long. Your best bet for catching a glimpse of one is as they jump or swim through shallow water. If you’re a local, check out the Inkwells at the mouth of San Geronimo Creek on Sunday, when flows should be receding.
Salmon populations may adapt their eggs to survive in degraded rivers
January 31, 2019
Science Daily from University of Southampton
A University of Southampton study suggests that the membrane of salmon eggs may evolve to cope with reduced oxygen levels in rivers, thereby helping their embryos to incubate successfully.
The research, funded by the Environment Agency and published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, has found that differences in the structure of the thin film surrounding a salmon embryo affects its ability to absorb dissolved oxygen from river water.
Atlantic salmon are in decline in their natural habitats and it's thought this is partly due to a reduction in the quality of the water in which they spawn. Sediments washed off the land can starve rivers of oxygen by encouraging more organic matter to grow and by silting up the gravel beds where salmon lay their eggs in nests (redds). The eggs rely on a sufficient flow of oxygen across their membranes to successfully incubate and this latest study examines how the structure of these membranes vary in different salmon populations.
The researchers took a range of measurements from membranes of eggs at a fish farm in Scotland and from conservation hatcheries in four different UK rivers; Dorchart, Tilt, South Tyne and North Tyne. They were chosen for their varying levels of sediment and oxygenation. The results showed membrane thickness, porosity and permeability varied according to each location.
Further tests on eggs in laboratory controlled conditions showed that those with less permeable membranes were less likely to survive low-oxygen conditions -- in other words, the thicker the membrane, the more likely the egg will be starved of oxygen and perish. Conversely, greater permeability means a greater chance of survival.
Lead author Jack Bloomer from Tyne Rivers Trust, who undertook the research while a PhD student in the School of Geography and Environmental Science at the University of Southampton, comments: "Our findings tell us that the permeability of salmon egg membranes differ according to their location and that their structure affects how efficiently they can receive oxygen from the water around them.
"What we can't say for certain yet is whether populations are surviving by evolving a specific membrane structure to suit the particular conditions of the river they are hatching in -- although the evidence points to this as a strong possibility and we hope future studies will provide further evidence."
Professor David Sear, also of Geography and Environmental Science at Southampton, was the lead supervisor on this research working with colleague Professor Paul Kemp of the School of Engineering. Past research by Professor Sear examined how fine sediments from soil erosion, farm run-off, road verges and eroding river banks can accumulate in the nests of Atlantic salmon and other benthic spawning fish.
He comments: "We've previously shown that reduced oxygen supply to the incubating embryo, due to increased fine sediment accumulation in spawning gravels, contributes to the decline in fish numbers in UK and European rivers.
"This new research explores the biological factors that might make populations of Atlantic salmon more or less susceptible to a low oxygen environment. With further work, it could have important implications for the management and rearing of salmon populations."
Scott Dam in Lake County listed by CalTrout among top 5 dams to remove to benefit fish, habitat
January 30, 2019
Lake County News
LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – Five dams across California – including one in Lake County that forms Lake Pillsbury – have been listed as key for removal by an advocacy group in the effort to stop the extinction of native salmon and steelhead.
In response to what it calls a “statewide fish extinction crisis,” which indicates 74 percent of California’s native salmon, steelhead and trout species are likely to be extinct in the next century, the fish and watershed conservation nonprofit organization California Trout on Tuesday released its list of the top five dams prime for removal in the golden state.
CalTrout said the dams identified in the report were carefully selected based on scientific criteria. The facilities were chosen provide the least benefit for people and caused the greatest hazards for imperiled native fish rose to the top.
“With the majority of California’s native salmonids at significant risk of extinction in the next 100 years, it’s imperative that we look for low-hanging fruit opportunities to improve conditions for fish, especially when we can do so without compromising public safety or water security for people,” said Curtis Knight, executive director of CalTrout. “The top five dams identified in the report provide only marginal value for people, while their removal would provide significant ecosystem and economic benefits.”
Among the listed dams is the Scott Dam in Lake County, which forms Lake Pillsbury. It’s one of two dams that make up the Potter Valley Hydropower Project, which provides hydroelectricity, water storage and diversions into the Russian River.
The project also includes the Cape Horn dam in Mendocino County, along with two reservoirs – the major one being Lake Pillsbury – and a diversion tunnel that sends water south to the Russian River watershed.
CalTrout said species that would benefit from the dam’s removal including California Coast Chinook salmon, Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast coho salmon, Northern California summer steelhead and Northern California winter steelhead.
The project, licensed through 2022 through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, has over the last few years been in the midst of a relicensing process. CalTrout that process is likely to call for fish passage over dam, which would be cost prohibitive.
Pacific Gas and Electric owns the project. On Tuesday, the same day that CalTrout released its list of dams to remove, PG&E filed for bankruptcy.
PG&E put the project up for sale in September and last week announced it wouldn’t relicense the project with FERC, as Lake County News has reported.
When PG&E’s decision to not relicense the project went public, CalTrout Executive Director Curtis Knight said that, while PG&E’s withdrawal does affect the process, it will not change CalTrout’s continued efforts to achieve a two-basin solution, and that in recent weeks it has put its resources toward building “a tangible plan that would remove Scott Dam and keep the water interests in the Russian River whole.”
The organization said that for the last several years, it has been conducting studies in the upper Eel River basin, commissioned dam removal and fish passage assessments above Scott Dam, and spent significant resources in analyzing the water rights and water delivery aspects of the Project in preparation for the Project’s FERC relicensing process.
CalTrout said it has worked with several other stakeholders in an ad hoc committee convened by Rep. Jared Huffman, and has assessed the fish passage options and water delivery options that will best meet the needs of water users and endangered native fish.
As a result of PG&E’s decision not to relicense, it’s expected that FERC will initiate its “Orphan Project” process, in which it will allow potential buyers to submit an application for a new project license.
In response to a question from Lake County News about whether PG&E’s decision to sell and not relicense the project had any impact on its listing of the Scott Dam, CalTrout said that the Eel River has long been a priority area for it, but its involvement in the Potter Valley Project started during the license amendment process in 1995. Since then, they have viewed the habitat above Scott Dam as high-quality potential rearing and spawning needed to restore salmonid abundance on the Eel River.
CalTrout’s said its primary goal is to open up the 150 plus miles of habitat above Scott Dam and ensure the release of cold consistent water during the spring and summer months into the Eel River.
“What is promising and what would likely be reflected in a settlement agreement, is that we can achieve those goals while diverting enough water from the Eel to the Russian River in Potter Valley during the high winter flows to satisfy the water users in Potter Valley and Sonoma County,” the organization said in a statement released to Lake County News.
“Simply put, the removal of Scott Dam opens up pristine spawning and cold-water rearing habitat in the headwaters of the Eel River, which we believe holds the greatest opportunity to return salmon and steelhead populations to historical abundance. Combine this with a FERC orphan process and hydro facility that has historically lost between $5 and $10 million a year and you have got a great opportunity for the conservation and water users to both get the type of water security they need,” the organization’s statement said.
CalTrout said it’s studied the dam removal impacts on flow regimes on the Eel and Russian Rivers, salmon and steelhead populations, and is producing a peer-reviewed study of the Scott Dam Decommissioning and Removal study conducted by Sonoma Water. “We expect to make this study available for all interested parties and we will continue to analyze the potential impacts and feasibility of the removal of Scott Dam. Nothing in our research has shown that the removal of Scott Dam is not a real and feasible potential outcome of this FERC process.”
The organization said removing the Scott Dam can have positive impacts on fish, the Eel river watershed as a whole and tribal interests, all the while keeping the necessary flows to the Russian River to support Potter Valley and Sonoma Water interests. “We have yet to analyze the effects of this project on groundwater interests, although we are analyzing the potential for groundwater recharge opportunities in Potter Valley as an opportunity for water storage on the Russian River side of this equation.”
CalTrout said its Top Five California DAMS OUT Report is a natural next step to its 2017 “State of the Salmonids II: Fish in Hot Water” report, which was completed in partnership with UC Davis.
That report detailed the status of 32 types of salmon, steelhead, and trout that are native to California and offered data about the threat of near-term extinction facing each of these fish populations. It also identified opportunities for stabilizing and even recovering many of the state’s native fish species.
Restoring access to upstream habitat through efforts like dam removal is a priority action in the drive to prevent a mass extinction of California’s native fish.
More than 1,400 dams block California rivers, creeks and streams. Many of these structures block access to salmon and steelhead spawning and rearing habitat.
CalTrout said studies have shown access to upstream habitat is critical for promoting self-sustaining populations of migratory fish.
While a great number of the state’s dams provide critical water supply, flood control and hydroelectric power, CalTrout said many others have outlived their functional lifespan and could be removed without impacting human health and safety.
In addition to the Scott Dam, the other four dams in the top 5 that CalTrout suggests for removal are:
Matilija Dam, Ventura River in Ojai: Built in 1947 for water storage and flood control, now essentially defunct due to excessive sedimentation. Widespread support for removal among locals and public agencies. Species to benefit: Southern California California steelhead.
Searsville Dam, Corte Madera Creek/San Francisquito Creek watershed in Redwood City: Built in 1892, has lost more than 90 percent of its original water storage capacity due to sedimentation. The dam does not provide potable water, flood control, or hydropower. Removal would allow steelhead to access historical spawning grounds. Species to benefit: Central California Coast steelhead.
Rindge Dam, Malibu Creek in Malibu: Located in Malibu Creek State Park about three miles upstream from the coastline, the concrete dam was completed in 1926 to provide water for irrigation and household use. The reservoir filled entirely with sediment by the 1940s. Removal would provide access to high-quality steelhead habitat. Species to benefit: Southern California steelhead.
Klamath Dams (Iron Gate Dam, Copco Dam No. 1, Copco Dam No. 2) in Siskiyou County: Four aging hydroelectric dams, three of which are in California, block salmon and steelhead fish from reaching more than 300 miles of spawning and rearing habitat. Dam removal is now expected to proceed in 2021, pending a dam license transfer to the non-profit Klamath River Renewal Corporation. Species to benefit: Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast Chinook salmon, Upper Klamath-Trinity Rivers fall-run Chinook salmon, Upper Klamath-Trinity Rivers spring-run Chinook salmon, Southern Oregon/Northern California Coast coho salmon, Chum salmon, Klamath Mountains Province summer steelhead and Klamath Mountains Province winter steelhead.
CalTrout identified the dams as ripe for removal by analyzing information found in several studies to assess the overall benefits that removal would present to native fish, water, and people.
Every dam considered for inclusion in the list blocks access to habitat for salmon and steelhead species listed as critical or of high concern in the State of Salmonids II report.
CalTrout said these dams also no longer serve the purpose for which they were built and, in some cases, may now pose a public safety threat. Dams that currently provide flood control or water supply for people were not considered for inclusion in the list, nor were any dams that are part of the State Water Project or federal Central Valley Project due to their vital role in securing water for residents throughout the state.
“CalTrout’s priority is always to find a middle ground that protects the water needs of people while improving conditions for native salmon, steelhead and trout where possible,” said Knight. “Removing these five dams would be a significant step in the right direction for imperiled native fish without having a significant impact on people. It would also be a step in the right direction for the overall health of our watersheds, which is especially important in this era of climate change.”
Federal Shutdown Impacting Eel River Salmon
January 20, 2019
Holding pools in the lower Eel River have been declining for a decade, fishing guide Eric Stockwell, widely known as Loleta Eric, told us. He thinks the pools reached crisis proportions this last year.
During a November interview, Stockwell said, “I track these fish, and they are just waiting and waiting [due to the new pattern of late rain] and usually they are in holes, and then the holes got really filled in.  was the worst I’d ever seen, and I was reporting that to the [regulatory] agencies. I was telling them, ‘Look, you’ve got a hundred big chinook and a sturgeon in 5 feet of water over here. And then this year, when I started investigating the river in August,…I discovered the holes were all basically filled in between Fortuna and Fernbridge.”
Senior Biologist Matt Goldsworthy of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) explained that NMFS cannot apply for grants and do projects itself to improve the situation in the lower Eel River because it is a regulatory agency. Goldsworthy said it needs a non governmental agency to apply for grants and do the project. for that reason, on this specific project and others, the National Marine Fisheries Service NMFS has invited the RCD (Humboldt Resource Conservation District) to be the lead agency on projects in the lower Eel.
According to Goldsworthy, “RCD coordinates with us to find out what NOAA’s priorities are [in the Eel River] so that RCD can put forward a more [targeted] proposal for grants. That’s something that happens regularly. So this year, when we met with the RCD, NOAA really emphasized the need to do work in the lower Eel. That’s a very high priority for us.”
Toward that end, he met with staff from the RCD Thursday the 20th of December in the week before the Federal shutdown.
Goldsworthy explained the need for scouring and pool complexity which can be accomplished in a relatively short, three year time frame. Goldsworthy described the focus of the potential project. He said, “We retreated back to a ‘reach scale effort’ where we can target and identify where the pools are, where we can add structures like boulders and engineered log jams that would work with the [force of] the water to promote scour and get some deeper pools. Because pool depth is a huge concern like you’ve heard from Eric Stockwell. The other concern raised in the [National Marine Fisheries Service] Salmonid Recovery Plan is that the habitat is just not complex.”
He explained, “[H]aving that complexity helps the species separate out into their niches. It’s just widely known that if fish have a choice of a pool with complexity and cover and one without, they will always choose the one with complexity.”
Goldsworthy went on to describe stream complexity as, “like a jungle-gym. Instead of just being a gravel bottom with four feet of water, complexity would take into account the bank undercut, hiding spots for fish.” He added that the National Marine Fisheries Service “targets for the number of pieces of wood that should be in the aquatic system. The more wood, the more hiding spaces and cover the fish have.“
He went on to explain, “One of the details we need to work out is who will engineer these designs. [For example,] can NOAA offer that engineering service as a cost share?”
According to Goldsworthy, there is NOAA grant funding available for project implementation if the RCD Board were to approve the project. Goldsworthy said it is a Community Based Restoration Program grant funded by NOAA’s Restoration Center. Their grant webpage says, “NOAA’s Restoration Center recognizes that habitat protection and restoration are essential elements of a strategy for sustainable commercial and recreational fisheries. Investing in habitat restoration projects leads to real, lasting differences for communities, businesses, and the environment. The Community-based Restoration Program supports restoration projects that use a habitat-based approach to rebuild productive and sustainable fisheries, contribute to the recovery and conservation of protected resources, promote healthy ecosystems, and and yield community and economic benefits.”
Goldsworthy said the grant competition is nationwide. However, if it were approved, work might be able to begin as early as the summer of 2019, so that winter flow next year might begin to scour holes for fish to use in the winter of 2019/2020. The grant is a three year funding, so more would be done in stages throughout the river section from Fernbridge up to southern Fortuna.
However, the ongoing shut down of the federal government impedes the timing significantly. When we spoke two days before the federal shutdown, Goldsworthy explained “Everything will go on hold. We aren’t allowed to check emails, or do anything that might be construed as ‘work’ [during the shut down.]”
In a phone conversation this week, Jill Deemers the Executive Director of the RCD, said RCD staff has informed the Board about the proposed project, but that it has not been presented for a vote. Deemers explained that until the shutdown ends, there are detailed questions that cannot be answered without NMFS staff available.
Deemers worried that the NOAA funding deadline may not be extended once the government does reopen and that it may have been missed for this year. However, she said there are other funding sources available, but again, the district “needs its federal partner at the table to answer design questions,” so that the project details meet the complex and exacting regulatory standards.
Lagunitas Creek observers see robust coho salmon run/
January 14, 2019
Marin Independent Journal By Will Houston
The recent burst of winter rains has helped drive endangered coho salmon up to their spawning grounds in Lagunitas Creek, with surveyors counting the highest number of spawners in 12 years.
“Since my last update we’ve counted 58 coho redds, bringing the season total to 160,” Marin Municipal Water District ecologist said Eric Ettlinger in a Jan. 7 update. “That’s slightly higher than average for this date, but we’ve also counted 563 adult coho salmon — the highest count in 12 years. It remains a mystery why we’re seeing so many fish but only slightly above-average numbers of redds. Many of the fish we saw last week had not yet spawned, so the redd count may still grow considerably. Fingers crossed.”
Redds are salmon egg nests which are usually made by salmon in stream and creek beds during their return to fresh waters. The adult coho die after spawning, with the young salmon that hatch remaining in the fresh water for another year-and-a-half before returning to the ocean. The cycle repeats another year-and-a-half later.
Lagunitas Creek supports about 20 percent of the remaining coho salmon between Monterey Bay and Fort Bragg, making it a key recovery area for the threatened species.
These coho are listed as endangered by both the federal and state governments, with dams and human development having choked off historic spawning grounds. Surveyors usually count about 250 redds each year in the watershed, falling far short of the federal recovery goal of about 1,600 redds.
State and federal government partners also survey the fish where the watershed extends into their managed lands. But the federal government shutdown has resulted in these monitoring efforts being cut off during the height of the spawning season.
While the heavy rains help signal spawning fish to push upstream, they also come at a cost due to the loss of historic wetlands and floodplains in the watershed that used to absorb these high flows. Ettlinger said rain from this past weekend raised the flow of Lagunitas Creek to a level “possibly high enough to uncover and wash away salmon eggs.”
“We don’t know exactly how high the flows got since the two stream gauges are down and the U.S. Geological Survey has indicated it doesn’t have any money for maintenance,” Ettlinger wrote in his update. “The government shutdown is also preventing our colleagues at the National Park Service from conducting spawner surveys on Olema and Redwood Creeks. Our best wishes go out to these folks who surely want to get back to doing their important work.”
Todd Steiner, executive director of the Olema-based Salmon Protection and Watershed Network, or SPAWN, said it has not been able to conduct recent surveys as the storms and rushing flows have kicked up mud in the waters they monitor on San Geronimo Creek. The creek is a tributary of Lagunitas Creek and provides vital spawning grounds for the coho salmon.