By Matt Weiser
State and federal wildlife agencies Tuesday unveiled ambitious plans to restore endangered salmon and steelhead fish in California’s Central Valley, including returning them to some habitats where they were shut out decades ago by dams and other development.
Although the two plans differ somewhat, officials said they both aim to prevent extinction of three species: endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon, threatened Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon, and threatened Central Valley steelhead.
The National Marine Fisheries Service released a formal recovery plan for the three species, which will use science to coordinate habitat improvements by many agencies over the next 50 to 100 years.
“Their recovery presents both a challenge and an opportunity for future generations,” said Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator at the National Marine Fisheries Service regional office in Sacramento. “Reintroductions are some of the more challenging actions in the plan and will happen over the course of years.”
The plan is required by the Endangered Species Act, but it does not impose any new restrictions on property owners, water users or businesses.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife simultaneously released an ecosystem restoration program, which is intended to guide Central Valley restoration activities for all species – not just salmon and steelhead – over the next 15 years. Also a voluntary program, it was completed in cooperation with Rea’s agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in response to criticism that the agencies have not been coordinating their activities enough.
“It’s only going to work in this state if you foster a real open, transparent dialogue with everybody involved,” said Chuck Bonham, the department’s director.
Together, the two plans aim to restore habitat in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and its tributary rivers, reintroduce breeding populations of the fish above several major dams, improve fish hatchery practices to avoid harm to endangered species and improve water flows and spawning gravel habitat.
About 90 percent of the original spawning habitat for the species has been blocked by dams, one of the primary factors that led to their population declines and protected status.
The National Marine Fisheries Service intends to re-establish a population of winter-run Chinook salmon in the McCloud River above Shasta Dam and in Battle Creek, both tributaries of the Sacramento River. It plans to reintroduce spring-run Chinook salmon in the upper Yuba River above Englebright Dam and in the San Joaquin River below Friant Dam.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife proposes to assist by expanding salmon access to Battle Creek and Mill Creek and building a fish ladder on Deer Creek.
Many of these actions are already in the planning phases as part of Endangered Species Act requirements imposed on the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages dams on the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The new recovery plans are intended to coordinate additional restoration actions to achieve the best possible results, Rea said.
For example, state plans on the Battle Creek watershed will focus on Digger Creek, a tributary stream that is separate from fish-passage improvements already being built by the Bureau of Reclamation.
“We’ve not tried really grand reintroduction projects like these in the state,” Bonham said. “Our department is very interested in trying them, but only with such partnerships because we will have a lot of kinks to sort out to be successful.”
Dick Pool, a board member of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, praised the agencies for working together. But he said the difficult task now is finding money for the projects spelled out in the plans.
“It’s not an easy task to get it all funded,” said Pool, who also owns Pro-Troll Fishing Products, a Concord-based company that makes lures and other products for salmon anglers. “If the fisheries service has it in their plan, and fish and wildlife has it in their plan, I think there’s a pretty good chance we can muscle some money and get some things done.”
The Department of Fish and Wildlife was allocated $38 million in the current state budget for fishery restoration and monitoring projects designed to ease the ongoing California drought. Some of that money will be used on projects recommended in the federal recovery plan.
In addition, $5.2 million from that budget allocation is now being offered as grants to nonprofits, tribes and government agencies to do some of the projects identified in the two restoration plans. The application deadline is Aug. 12. Bonham said it is the first time habitat restoration grants related to a drought have been offered in the Central Valley.
“It will literally jumpstart dealing with these priorities for ecosystem restoration in the context of drought,” he said.