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.