Thomas Howard & Charlton H. Bonham, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
From the moment they hatch, coho salmon fry rearing in the tributaries of Northern California watersheds such as the Russian River face an uphill battle for survival from predators, disease and lack of food in summer months before their migration to the Pacific Ocean.
This year, they face another devastating challenge — drought conditions. The drought is impacting businesses and people living in the Russian River watershed, too. It is impacting us all. But for the coho, there’s a way landowners and water rights holders can help.
In key tributaries of the Russian River such as Green Valley, Dutch Bill, Mill and Mark West creeks, surveys counting juvenile coho salmon in 2014 showed 97 percent fewer fish than in 2013. The loss was staggering. Few of the survivors made it to the ocean to feed, grow and eventually return, keeping nature’s chain of survival tentative but unbroken.
This year it’s critically important to help a new generation of fish survive. Juvenile coho rear in pools on these tributaries, and minimum flows are required to keep oxygen high, water temperatures cool and food production thriving in these streams. When flows get too low to keep pools connected, conditions deteriorate and the juveniles die.
This week, several hundred property owners and water right holders adjacent to these tributaries are receiving a joint letter from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the state Water Resources Control Board detailing how they can help with this challenge. May to December are critical months for these endangered salmon. We are urging property owners and water rights holders to work together in a voluntary effort to take just a minimal amount of water from these tributaries this year to give the coho a greater chance of survival than they experienced in 2014.
Through the governor’s leadership and executive orders, the Department of Fish and Wildlife created a voluntary drought initiative. Last year, we negotiated 22 voluntary agreements with landowners across the state. Fish and Wildlife signed these voluntary agreements and provided the willing partners regulatory coverage under the California Endangered Species Act for a specific time period.
We’ve already seen success when we have informally asked some Russian River water users to assist. In early April, we learned that some coho were trapped in a pool in Porter Creek that had become hydrologically disconnected and was in danger of drying up. E. & J. Gallo Winery agreed to release pulse flows into Porter Creek. Following that, tracking tags indicated that several hundred of those coho furthered their journey down the Russian River and toward the ocean.
We think that we can do this together with willing landowners across this watershed. There is a long-standing and strong commitment to stewardship of natural resources in the wine industry and in this region. We have taken the unusual step of publishing this public plea for help because we want to avoid a worse situation for all of us. In the absence of a sustainable voluntary commitment to not take water, the state water board may be required to act as it did in 2014 and this year with tributaries in the Sacramento River watershed and pass emergency regulations that compel curtailments by water right holders along these tributaries.
We remain hopeful these voluntary agreements will close the gap for this season and provide the juvenile salmon the necessary flow they need — and offer one less barrier to their survival for 2015. We appreciate the time and consideration of any landowners who take action and respond to our plea for help.
Thomas Howard is executive director of the state Water Resources Control Board. Charlton H. Bonham is director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.