News & Stories

  • Four years after California’s largest dam removal project, how are the fish doing?

    May 8, 2019

    San Jose Mercury News By Paul Rogers (Tommy Williams/David Boughton)

    Four years ago, construction crews with huge jackhammers tore apart a 10-story concrete dam in the wooded canyons of the Carmel River, between the Big Sur hills and the beach front town of Carmel.

    The destruction of the San Clemente Dam, which had blocked the river since 1921, remains the largest dam removal project in California history. It’s still early, but one of the main goals of the project seems to be on track: The river is becoming wilder, and struggling fish populations are rebounding.

    “We don’t want to do the touchdown dance yet, but so far things are looking good,” said Tommy Williams, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who has monitored the Carmel River’s recovery. “It’s just amazing how fast these systems come back. Everything is playing out like we thought.”

    Removal of the century-old dam is being watched closely around the country as a potential model for how to demolish other aging, dangerous and obsolete dams and restore rivers to a natural state not seen in generations.

    The 106 foot-tall dam had been located 18 miles up river from Monterey Bay. In 2016, the first year after it was removed, researchers found that no steelhead trout, an iconic type of rainbow trout listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, swam past its former site to a tagging location seven miles upriver. By 2017, seven steelhead had made the trip. Last year, the count was 29. So far this year, 123 steelhead have traveled upriver.

    “We’re seeing progress. I’m surprised that it has been happening in such a short time,” said Aman Gonzalez, who managed the dam removal project for California-American Water, the company that owned it.

    The more of the muscular, silvery fish make it upstream, the more the species can expand back into its traditional range, scientists say, increasing the number of places where the fish can spawn and produce more babies in the years ahead.

    The broader lesson, scientists say, is one of hope. Despite declines in other species, some wildlife species — from the Great Plains bison to Pacific gray whales to bald eagles — have rebounded significantly, despite plummeting close to extinction, after humans recognized what was killing them and corrected it. For bison and whales, it was hunting. For bald eagles, it was the now-banned chemical DDT.

    For steelhead trout, dams built across the West over the past century blocked their ability to swim to the ocean and return upriver to spawn, crashing their populations.

    “They just need the right conditions, and they’ll come back,” said David Boughton, a research ecologist with NOAA in Santa Cruz. “They are a resilient, hardy species.”

    When San Clemente Dam was built in 1921, the curved arch structure was a key source of water for growing Monterey Peninsula towns.

    But its reservoir became silted up with sand and gravel that washed downriver over the years. By 2002, San Clemente’s reservoir was so silted up that it stopped supplying water.

    Worse, state inspectors declared in 1991 that the aging dam, with its rusted pipes, railings and valves, was at risk of failure in an earthquake — a disaster that could wipe out hundreds of homes downstream. So Cal Am Water had two choices: Shore up a useless dam for $49 million, or tear it down and restore the river for $84 million.

    At first, the water company leaned toward buttressing the dam because it was cheaper. But the National Marine Fisheries Service said it was not likely to issue permits because the dam blocked the migration of steelhead, protected by the Endangered Species Act.

    The impasse was broken after Cal Am named a new president, and former U.S. Rep. Sam Farr pushed for removal. Under the deal they struck, Cal Am provided $49 million by raising water rates $2.94 a month on its 110,000 customers in Monterey County. Another $25 million came from the California Coastal Conservancy in Oakland, through state parks and water bonds. And the remaining $10 million came from federal grants and private donations.

    Construction crews couldn’t simply dynamite the dam, however.

    That would have released all of the sediment behind it — 2.5 million cubic yards, or enough to fill 250,000 dump trucks — and killed everything in the river. It also could have flooded 1,500 homes downstream.

    “All that sediment, how do you move it?” said Gonzalez. “Where do you move it? It would have become a 10-year project. That’s why we decided to leave it in place.”

    Instead, under the contract awarded to Granite Construction of Watsonville, workers rerouted the Carmel River for half a mile into an adjacent stream, San Clemente Creek. The giant sediment pile was shaped, compacted and blocked off.

    Crews recycled the dam’s steel. They broke the concrete pieces ranging in size from softballs to boulders. They buried the debris in the sediment pile and covered it with willows, sycamores and other native plants. They built rocky step-pools, each one foot higher than the previous one so the fish could migrate upriver more easily.

    They also tore out the Old Carmel River Dam, a 32-foot-high structure half a mile downstream that was built in the 1880s to provide water for Hotel Del Monte, the resort that was the precursor to Pebble Beach.

    When the rains came in the wet winter of 2017, the river moved millions of tons of sand, gravel, broken trees and other debris downriver. It reclaimed its historic meandering path. The debris created pools and hiding places for young fish to avoid snakes, birds and other predators.

    Scientists say they will need another decade to make sure the experiment is working.

    “If we go into another big drought, we expect there to be an impact,” Williams said. “But we’re making more resilient populations of fish, so they should be able to withstand it.”

    One more dam remains upriver from the San Clemente site. Los Padres Dam, built in 1946, is partially silted up and 148 feet high. Scientists are studying the feasibility of removing it. Cal Am draws its water now from wells alongside the river.

    Other dam-removal projects, including four huge dams on the Klamath River at the Oregon-California border, along with the 165-foot Matilija Dam in Ventura County and others, are slated for removal. Many of the projects just need money.

    At the Carmel River, though, other species, such as lampreys, an eel-like fish, are coming back, and tributaries are showing more wildlife.

    “The river is recovering to its natural state,” said Tim Frahm, Central Coast Steelhead coordinator with Trout Unlimited, an environmental group. “We hope it will be as healthy in a few years as it was 100 years ago.”


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  • Volunteers give 720,000 salmon a head start on life

    May 5, 2019

    San Francisco Chronicle by Tom Stienstra

    In Half Moon Bay, some volunteers wanted more salmon in the ocean. Now they have them.

    In a testament to how to get what you want, the Coastside Fishing Club will take delivery of 720,000 juvenile salmon this month in three net pens in Pillar Point Harbor. The fish will be acclimated to ocean waters and then released this summer.

    This is more than a fishing story.

    If you want more flowers, plant them. If you want more songbirds, scatter some feed and put up a birdhouse. If you want hummingbirds, put up a few feeders. And if you want more salmon, grow them yourself.

    In the big picture, members of the Coastside Fishing Club recognize that the quality of habitat — for salmon, that would be the breeding grounds, rivers and the ocean — is the fundamental key for health and abundance for all species. They also recognize that when habitat has been compromised, you can give nature a helping hand.

    This year’s project starts Saturday, when about 35 volunteers will build three pens at Pillar Point Harbor. The Department of Fish and Wildlife then will deliver 720,000 smolts in three shipments, May 18, 25 and June 1.

    It is a spectacular sight to watch the fish release. From the pier, the young fish are shot out of a stream of water from a tanker truck and into the submerged nets below.

    By bringing the juvenile salmon to Pillar Point Harbor, the young fish bypass a maze of pumps, reverse currents in the delta and predators in a 300-mile river journey they otherwise would face en route to the ocean. To document survival rates, the club has embedded wire codes in the fish to later ID them. The net pen salmon have had about 10 times the survival rates compared with the salmon released from hatcheries, according to one study.

    The program started in 2012, and now, each year in late summer, 3-year-old salmon return to the entrance of the harbor and provide a fishery from Pillar Point Harbor that hadn’t existed. The fish eventually head north to San Francisco Bay and venture upriver to spawn.

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  • Chinook Salmon Spring-Run wraps up at One Mile Recreation Area

    May 1, 2019

    Action News By Stephanie Schmieding, Cecile Juliette

    CHICO, Calif. - The Big Chico Creek Chinook Salmon Spring-Run is just wrapping up at One Mile Recreation Area.

    There is a fish ladder at the bridge at One Mile Recreation Area, which helps the endangered salmon make the run through Sycamore Pool.

    The Spring-Run Chinook Salmon have been moving up Big Chico Creek, according to Michael Hellmair, a local fish biologist.

    "They started showing up a little over a week ago and they're making their way through downtown and Lower Bidwell Park and upstream to the coldest and deepest water they can find to spend the summer before they spawn their eggs and fall," he said.

    The species is endangered, which has led to fewer numbers making the run through Big Chico Creek in recent years.

    "There haven't been any returns in appreciable numbers to Big Chico Creek in the last few years, since about 2011, which is an indication that Big Chico Creek is a dependent population, these fish were actually born in a different stream," Hellmair said.

    The fish have been coming through the fish ladder and into Sycamore Pool for the past 10 days.

    "It's important to know that these fish live off of their energy reserves," he said. "So all of the food that they ate out in the ocean, they stored up as fat and that's what they have to live off of until they lay their eggs in early Fall."

    Hellmair captured photo and video of some of the salmon population making its way through Lower Bidwell Park.

    The city of Chico allowed the lowering of the dam so that it would make it easier for the fish to use the ladder into Sycamore Pool, he said.

    "Like I said, they have to live off of their energy reserves in the Summer," Hellmair said. "Every calorie counts."

    The Camp Fire did affect the Butte Creek Watershed, which is home to the largest spring run salmon population in the Central Valley.

    However, Hellmair said biologists will not know for another three years whether there is an impact on the fish due to the Camp Fire.

    "It's difficult to tell right now what the impacts are simply because we won't really know for another three years until that generation that was affected comes back so we can find out what those numbers were," he said.

    Hellmair is optimistic in saying that the fish population may be OK because the vegetation in that area of the watershed appears to be intact.

    "There may be some runoff of ash and debris, but hopefully it didn't have too big of an impact, but we won't know for sure for another three years," he said.

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  • Salmon Spawning Habitat Restoration Project underway in Redding

    April 30, 2019

    ABC Redding by Briona Haney

    Ton after ton of gravel is being dumped into the Sacramento River this month as part of a two week project to protect salmon spawning in the Northstate.

    "Historically, they spawned up stream from this area but with the completion of the Shasta Dam are no longer able to access their historic spawning grounds," said Director of Government Relations Northern California Water Association Todd Manley.

    Over the last four years, the Sacramento Valley Salmon Recovery Program has completed 18 projects to protect the Northstate salmon populations. The program is run by a group of government and private organizations that all work together to get the projects done.

    Their most recent project, the "Salmon Spawning Habitat Restoration Project," involves pouring tons of river rock into the Sacramento River to protect the endangered Chinook salmon spawning ground.

    "By Thursday, we will have had 12,000 tons of spawning grade gravel put into the river system," said Project Manager Sacramento River Forum Harmony Gugino.

    They say the spawning grounds are vital to the endangered species survival and the Sacramento River ecology.

    "Salmon are very important to the ecosystem. They historically brought nutrients from the ocean to the upper reaches of the river. Once adult salmon spawn, they die and then their carcasses provide food in the rivers for other species," Manley said.

    During the project, crews have created disconnected platforms with the rock to help protect them from the river current.

    "That provides safety for the heavy equipment operators. It allows us to get accurate readings of the depth we're placing the rock and then, it also provides protection or separation between our work area and the species that are utilizing the main stem," Gugino said.

    The organization is using spawning grade salmon to protect the endangered species and build a safe place for them to reproduce. They say spawning grade gravel means it's about the size of your fist and has rounded edges to help them protect the eggs. While the groups are proud of this project and what it will be able to do, they also say it likely won't be their last.

    "This project is addressing the spawning fish but there's also projects addressing the up stream migration of adults, as well as downstream migration of juvenile fish once they come out of the salmon redds," Manley said.

    Work on this project began on April 22 and will continue through May 6.


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  • It hasn’t happened in 65 years. This threatened species has returned to the San Joaquin River

    April 25, 2019

    The Fresno Bee By Tim Sheehan

    Before the construction of Friant Dam and creation of Millerton Lake in 1942, the San Joaquin River was a historic spawning habitat for spring-run Chinook salmon.

    But it’s been more than 65 years since adult salmon returned from the Pacific Ocean to the river – until this month, that is.

    So far in April, five adult Chinook salmon have been discovered in the same area of the San Joaquin River for the first time in decades. Josh Newcom, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s San Joaquin River Restoration Program, said the salmon were all caught in net traps in an area of the river’s lower Eastside Bypass.

    “This is monumental for the program,” said Donald Potz, manager of the restoration program. “It’s a clear indication of the possibility for these fish to make it out of the system as juveniles and then return as adults to spawn.”

    The first of the five fish was caught on April 9. Scientists collected tissue samples and an acoustic tag was inserted down the fish’s throat so they could track its movements before they released the salmon into a portion of the river called Reach 1, a 40-mile stretch downstream from Friant Dam.

    Two fish were caught on April 19, and two more were caught this week – one on Tuesday, another on Wednesday – in the same part of the Eastside Bypass.

    Scientists could determine that all five salmon were from California hatcheries, and not wild fish, because their adipose fins – a small fin on the back between the dorsal fin and tail – had been removed.

    Additionally, one of the two fish caught on April 19 did not survive, and biologists were able to recover a coded wire tag embedded in its snout that confirmed it was one of more than 38,000 juvenile spring-run Chinook released into the river two years ago, in March 2017.

    Spring-run Chinook get their name from the March-through-June period when they leave from and return to the river system where they are spawned, according to the restoration program.

    Adult salmon inhabit the river’s cool upper reaches during the summer and spawn in the fall. After hatching and growing to juvenile stage, where they are about the size of a human hand, some fish migrate to the ocean or remain in the river for a year before migrating. Salmon spend two to five years maturing to adulthood before returning to the river, according to biologists.

    Additional tissue testing will be conducted to determine if any of the fish were spawned at a state hatchery along the river downstream from Friant Dam.


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