Places We Protect

Lower Garcia River


Mouth of the Garcia River.
Mouth of the Garcia River The Garcia River joins the Pacific Ocean in this view of estuary at Stornetta Ranch. © Douglas Steakley



Born in rivers, maturing in the ocean and returning to rivers to mate, salmon are a foundational part of California’s vast coastal ecosystems. But unsustainable land management practices and overfishing have decimated their numbers. Where hundreds of thousands of coho salmon once fought their way upstream to spawn in California each fall, less than 1% of their historic numbers remain.

In Mendocino County, the Garcia River harbors one of the last naturally reproducing, wild populations of coho salmon remaining on the southern Pacific Coast. It is also home to Chinook and pink salmon as well as steelhead trout. The Nature Conservancy has a long history of investment in the watershed, helping protect the Stornetta Public Lands at the estuary and the Garcia River Forest, an upstream property that is home to some of the best summer rearing habitat for salmon in the watershed.  




Mendocino County, CA

Map with marker: The estuary and the Garcia River Forest.

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As a result of decades of effort by local community groups, public agencies, and non-profits, substantial progress has been made to protect and restore the summer habitats salmon need to thrive in the Garcia watershed. However, a dearth of winter habitat in the near-coastal floodplain valleys remains a key factor limiting coho recovery in the watershed. And protecting and restoring estuaries and coastal floodplains is not only key to recovering salmon; it is a critical action to increase coastal resilience in the face of sea-level rise due to climate change. Conserving coastal wetlands and rivers today will allow inland migration of coastal wetland habitat as sea levels rise. These ecosystems are essential not only to salmon and trout, but to many marine species, migrating birds and other coastal plants and animals

Why Restoration

TNC and our partners are undertaking coastal floodplain restoration projects on the Garcia with a focus on providing winter rearing habitat for young salmon and trout in an increasingly extreme climate. These days, we can go from drought to flooding in a matter of hours and without places to take refuge and feed when rivers run high, young fish can’t survive. In the winter, the estuary and nearby floodplains should provide flow refuge from big winter storms, rich feeding opportunities and places to hide from predators. When young fish find refuge on floodplains, they also find rich feeding opportunities and grow quickly, increasing the chances that they survive in the ocean and return to their natal watershed as adults. But the Garcia watershed has lost about 95% of the winter salmon habitat it once had, and the estuary and lower river lacked the type of extensive, complex instream shelter that salmon need to hide from predators.

Garcia River (7:41) As the saying goes, there was a time when you could walk across the Garcia River on the backs of coho salmon. Today, the species is on the brink of extinction in California. Preserving these fish in Northern California requires creative, nature-driven strategies.

Estuary and Floodplain Restoration

In 2022, TNC, in collaboration with a team of fisheries scientists and technical experts, began implementing an ambitious restoration project in the Garcia estuary. This project is a key step towards increasing the amount and quality of essential winter and spring habitat that salmon need to survive. Throughout the summer and fall, eighteen enormous log jams were built to provide extensive shelter within the middle estuary. Young salmon prefer to congregate in and around large wood structures, which provide protection from predators while the salmon feed in the estuary. Before this project, the estuary had only two small jams within its nearly two-mile length.

This first phase also gave young salmon access to flooded wetlands with seasonal ponds that provide refuge during high winter flows, winter rearing habitat, and a rich feeding environment for young out-migrating salmon. Existing floodplains were reconnected to the river by removing levees and building small ponds, making over two acres of high-quality floodplain habitat accessible to young salmon and trout. And the fish could not be happier about it. In recent surveys, schools of hundreds of fish were observed throughout the restoration area.

What’s Next

We aren’t stopping here. Going forward, TNC will continue to develop and implement high-impact restoration actions in the Garcia estuary, while also looking upstream to advance restoration through much of the lower river. We recently received a large Transformational Habitat Restoration and Coastal Resilience grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that will help expand our work on the North Coast to plan, design, and implement a portfolio of projects across the region. Building on a long history of local restoration efforts in the Garcia River, this work will advance restoration of high-priority habitat for coho salmon in the lower watershed over the next decade.

How You Can Help

Become a member of the Nature Conservancy in California! Your support is what makes our work possible. Consider a gift today.