While California Department of Fish and Wildlife is still analyzing the fall Chinook salmon run in the Shasta River, the numbers to date—a historic 29,489 Chinook—show that partnerships between agriculture and conservation to save salmon are making a difference.
Agricultural landowners, agencies and conservation groups have been working for years to improve fish habitat, and recent efforts like providing more water to help the return of adult fall Chinook make a difference when the weather is hot and river flows are low.
“The additional water flows provided by the agricultural community directly benefited close to 60 percent of the total run of 2012 fall Chinook in the Shasta River,” said Amy Campbell, project associate, The Nature Conservancy.
For more than 20 years landowners, the Shasta Valley Resource Conservation District (SVRCD), Natural Resources Conservation Service, CA Department of Fish and Wildlife, National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, CalTrout and other groups have been working to improve fish habitat in the Shasta River. Even before the listing of coho salmon as threatened in 2004, there was fencing to keep cows out of the streams, screening of water diversions to keep fish out of fields and ditches, and trees planted on newly protected riparian areas to stabilize stream banks and create shade—all things that help salmon thrive.
As time progressed, the low-hanging fruit was picked, and restoration projects got more advanced. Old flashboard irrigation diversion dams were removed and replaced with fish-friendly diversions that allow for fish passage all year long. The SVRCD has an ongoing program to work with landowners on irrigation management and to reduce excess irrigation water from returning to the river.
“Working with the agricultural community to identify solutions that not only make them whole but protect, improve or enhance instream habitat is one goal,” said Adriane Garyalde, district administrator, Shasta Valley RCD.
In addition, groups such as The Nature Conservancy have worked with these partners to enhance salmon habitat and, more specifically, have purchased two ranches in the late 2000s to demonstrate how working cattle ranches can support and enhance healthy salmon habitat.
Work Pays Off
2008 and 2009 saw a notable increase in fall Chinook spawners returning to the Shasta River. Since then restoration efforts have continued, and the river is showing additional improvements from the ongoing efforts.
In 2012, early estimates of returns for fall Chinook looked to be close to breaking records in the Klamath River watershed and additionally for the Shasta River, an important salmon tributary to the Klamath. In response to these record numbers of returning adults, state and federal agencies, landowners, irrigation districts, conservation groups and others met to make sure these fish, upon arrival to the Shasta River in September and during the irrigation season, would have the water they needed to remain healthy.
“Salmon have enjoyed good ocean conditions, little disease and reduced fishing pressure, all adding up to a great return of spawners,” said Wade Sinnen, CA Department of Fish and Wildlife. “These conditions, combined with 20 years of on-the-ground habitat work, meant a lot of fish were returning to the Shasta River to spawn.”
Landowners and the irrigation districts volunteered to provide water for the needed flows. “We are proud we helped add water to the river for the fall Chinook run,” said Rick Lemos, board member of the Shasta River Water Association. “Industry isn’t often seen as a key contributor to protecting our natural resources, but we felt strongly about doing our part.”
The largest irrigation district in the Shasta River watershed, Montague Water Conservation District, also voluntarily agreed to continue releasing water after downstream water quotas were met. “As the owner of the only significant water storage facility in the Shasta River watershed, our facilities are one of the few resources available to aid in flow releases during instances like this fall’s extended heat wave and record return run of fall Chinook salmon,” said Stan Sears, district president, Montague Water Conservation District. “Among other actions, we’ve provided flows during the spring and fall for many years. We are pleased to see the benefits of our efforts and will continue to be proactive.”
“We’re happy to have been part of the concerted effort to aid this year’s fall Chinook salmon run on the Shasta River,” said Paul Willis, president of the Grenada Irrigation District. “As a junior water user, we are the first to be shut down if the river flows diminish. In the past several years, we have been proactive and have monitored the river ourselves and have ceased pumping, at times, when doing so would negatively impact river flow.”
“The key point in all of this is that the agricultural community is doing what it reasonably and feasibly can, but even that effort requires a complex combination of favorable natural conditions for a successful outcome. With so much of the outcome left to chance, cooperation and incentive are the only ways to optimize success,” said Ric Costales, specialist, Siskiyou County Natural Resources.
The Nature Conservancy is a leading conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. The Conservancy and its more than 1 million members have protected nearly 120 million acres worldwide. Visit The Nature Conservancy on the Web at www.nature.org.