Dozens of onlookers crowded the banks of Dry Creek near Geyserville on Friday, as thousands of coho salmon were released into a newly restored habitat.
“It’s working,” Mike Dillabough exclaimed, pointing out clusters of coho finglerlings underneath the trees and branches secured in the creek with thick metal cables. Dillabough, chief of the Operations and Readiness Division at the San Francisco District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been working on the Dry Creek habitat restoration project and, more recently, on the reintroduction of endangered and threatened fish effort with the USACE and the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA). “The fish gathering underneath the restored habitat sites we built is exactly what we want to see, it means they (the fish) like what we made,” Dillabough said. “It gives us hope to see that it is already working.”
In 2008, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) released its Russian River Biological Opinion, ruling that the water flow through the once-barren Dry Creek was now so fast, because of water releases from Lake Sonoma behind Warm Springs Dam, that it was disrupting the habitats of endangered coho salmon and threatened chinook salmon and steelhead in the Russian River watershed. Dry Creek is a tributary of the Russian River and the NMFS opinion spurred a 15-year plan to both save endangered fish and ensure the region’s water supply.
The Army Corps and the SCWA teamed up with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of the Pomo (which cares for the sacred tribal land near Dry Creek, including land surrounding the USACE site), Construction Services Group, nearby landowners and business owners, to turn Dry Creek into a flourishing wildlife area.
Friday, Nov. 22, more than 80 people gathered at the Army Corps’ restoration site downstream from Warm Springs Dam, across from Sbragia Vineyards outside Geyserville, to watch – and participate in – the first release of juvenile coho salmon into the Dry Creek restoration area. With the help of Don Clausen Hatchery fisheries biologists, from the nearby Warm Springs hatchery, scores of other vested parties from agencies like California Department of Fish and Wildlife and NMFS participated. At the USACE site, 1,000 coho were released. Later, at the much less-crowded Amista Habitat Enhancement site on Dry Creek, at Dry Creek Vineyard outside Healdsburg, another 1,000 coho were released.
Dillabough explained that, around 1974, there was a law passed that made the USACE responsible for the mitigation of Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, the two main reservoirs used by the Sonoma County Water Agency. The USACE, Dillabough said, assumed responsibility for the endangered and threatened species of fish in the area.
Sonoma County Water Agency Environmental Resource Coordinator David Manning said the project will span six miles of the remaining 14-mile Dry Creek. So far, more than a half-mile of creek has been restored. By the end of 2014, participating agencies would like to have the first mile of the creek restored.
To restore the creek, Manning explained, the group takes fallen trees or trees cut in other projects and secures them with cables to rocks it places in the water. The goal, he explained, is to create areas of respite where juvenile fish can rest and feed to escape high velocity water flows. For instance, at Dry Creek Vineyard, Manning said, the group used redwoods and Douglas fir cut down during the recent Highway 101 expansion. These types of trees, he explained, are ideal because they do not deteriorate quickly. As part of the project, he noted, native plants are being planted around the creek to restore the wildlife area.
Lt. Col. John Baker, who commands the San Francisco USACE, gave the opening statement at the ceremony, explaining the project is essential for endangered coho, and threatened chinook and steelhead. He said he was proud that, after a groundbreaking ceremony almost a year ago to begin restoration on the creek, the group is already putting fish in the water. Shortly thereafter, he was the first to release a net full of the 9-month-old coho fingerlings in the creek.
All event attendees, even members of the public, were welcome to join in on the release. The youngest attendee, 8-month-old Samantha Dixon, strapped to her mother’s chest, was among those to release the fish.
Fisheries biologist Rory Taylor said all of the coho released were 9 or 10 months old and considered to be advanced fingerlings.
Ben White, a fisheries biologist who leads efforts at the hatchery, explained why it is so important that the fish are released at this young, but durable age. “They will imprint on the water, meaning they will be able, if nature permits, to remember where they need to return after they go out to sea for two years and they are ready to come back to spawn, where they will eventually die.”
Because so few fish were left, White said, when the hatchery initially captured the fish, there was significant inbreeding and all of the first fish they collected were related. To strengthen the breed, the hatchery is working with a geneticist and using a special breeding matrix. “All of the fish we are spawning are carefully selected through a spawning matrix so we know what males to pair with what females,” he said.
Manning said Dry Creek has turned out to be one of the best areas for coho because the water from the Russian River is cold year round and creates ideal conditions for this breed of fish.
According to White, the hatchery releases 175,000 fish per year in the Russian River and its tributaries, so this release was relatively small. But it was nevertheless significant, as it was the first time fish were released in the newly-restored habitat area at such a young age.
The salmon, Manning explained, come from the Russian River coho salmon brood stock program, located behind the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery. The last living coho from this area are kept at the hatchery.
For this reason, Dillabough said, the group is even more eager to release the fish and let nature take over. “We don’t want to be responsible for the last of a breed,” he said.
After this first release, biologists and volunteers will monitor the fish and use trackers to study their habits, map their journey to sea and, hopefully, back to Dry Creek over the next two years. The University of California Sea Grant will also help in monitoring the coho and its habitats.
Dillabough invited all Friday attendees to another ceremony at the same site in two to three years to watch the fish come back. “That’s when we will be able to tell if what we have created is what the fish want,” he said. “It’s a bit of an experiment.”