Russian River named Habitat Focus Area
The Russian River watershed, draining 1,485 square miles of Mendocino and Sonoma counties, has been selected as California’s Habitat Focus Area, within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Habitat Blueprint.
The announcement was made Dec. 21 by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who currently represents California’s 1st Congressional District, but will become the new 5th District Representative in January. Thompson has been working for years to protect and restore the Russian River watershed and its endangered fishery.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has developed the Habitat Blueprint program in response to Congressional directives to build on existing programs, prioritize restoration activities, and guide future habitat protection priorities. Currently, all three salmonid species found in the Russian River – steelhead trout, Chinook salmon and coho salmon – are on the federal endangered and threatened species lists.
Following decades of neglect and inaction on measures to protect the declining fishery, watershed managers – prominently including the Sonoma County Water Agency – have responded with increasingly aggressive plans to restore salmon and steelhead runs.
Their actions have been driven in large part by a federal biological opinion imposing severe restrictions on stream flow regimes in the watershed until the fishery is stabilized and is on the path to recovery.
The Russian River watershed was chosen over all other candidates in California because NOAA’s habitat conservation experts felt it offered the greatest opportunities for NOAA-wide collaboration on habitat conservation among the 17 candidate areas identified by the staff this fall.
In making the announcement, Thompson, in a press release, said, “I have been impressed with the work being conducted in the Russian River watershed to protect, conserve, and maintain our salmon and steelhead populations. For years, I have promoted, supported, and advocated for this incredible collaborative effort to restore our native fisheries populations and I am pleased that NOAA has recognized the work of this community. I am proud that over the next several years, the Russian River watershed will be a focal point in salmon restoration, habitat science, and conservation within the United States.”
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who chairs boards of both the supervisors and the water agency’s directors, said, “This designation recognizes the Russian River watershed as one of the most promising regions in the nation for real improvements in fish habitat. Stakeholders should be proud of the efforts they’ve made, whether it’s volunteering at river cleanup days, adopting fish-friendly farming practices or creating habitat on their property.”
Zane added, “The community-wide focus on the watershed is one of the aspects that made this region attractive to the National Marine Fisheries Service.”
The habitat enhancement work that is taking place in the watershed will continue as part of the Habitat Blueprint. That includes the practice of supplementing cold-water releases by providing shady, complex habitat critical for young coho and steelhead, along with other habitat restoration and enhancement projects that are being done throughout the Russian River watershed. Extensive monitoring will be conducted to measure success and to continually improve projects and programs.
Additional efforts to preserve the habitat for endangered fish include efforts by private landowners to create off-stream water storage to use for frost protection and irrigation in order to reduce demand on the river. Previous ill-timed withdrawals of Russian River water by vineyard managers are believed to be factors in significant fish kills.