Water & Drought

Endangered fish find unusual ally in rice farmers

An adult Chinook salmon is propelled by a powerful, unwavering instinct to swim upstream to spawn. But sometimes these fish zig when they should zag.

That happened with disastrous results in the spring of 2013, when nearly 600 endangered winter-run Chinook ended up 70 miles off course, trapped in dead-end drainage ditches they mistook for Sacramento River tributaries.

Although conservationists captured and returned many of the fish to the river, some Chinook were so stressed from the experience they were unable to spawn. State officials estimate that nearly 50 percent of the run was lost.

In an effort to prevent a similar scenario from happening again, local, state and federal officials are close to completing a $2.5 million project that will block an entrance wayward salmon use to get into the Colusa Basin Drain, a system of ditches and channels that carry runoff from more than 1 million acres, much of it rice fields in Glenn, Colusa and Yolo counties.

It’s just one of several potential projects aimed at preventing Chinook from entering the vast network of flood channels and irrigation ditches, but fish advocates say it’s a much-needed step in the right direction. “We’ve been watching this for many years with frustration at the inaction that was taking place,” said John McManus, executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association. “The fact these folks broke through gives us hope.”

Initial funding for the project came from an unlikely source – Northern California rice farmers who fallowed fields and sold irrigation water to other parts of the state.

Officials at Reclamation District 108, which manages irrigation water for rice farmers, in November began planning the project at the Knights Landing Outfall Gates in Yolo County. The 100-year-old damlike structure is owned by the Central Valley Flood Protection Board. It regulates flows in a wide, deep canal about a quarter-mile above its connection to Sacramento River. When the river is high, salmon mistake the canal for the river, leaping through the gates and swimming upstream where they become trapped.

Lewis Bair, general manager for the reclamation district, said the rice growers, who typically plant about 33,000 acres annually, saw a clear need to help the fish. However, the growers’ motive is not altogether altruistic. While these rice farmers have senior water rights guaranteeing them irrigation water from the federal government’s Central Valley Project – even during the drought – they realize their livelihoods are increasingly tied to the well-being of the Chinook, Bair said.

During the drought, surface water deliveries to agriculture have been curtailed as state and federal agencies try to keep cold water flowing to sustain these fish and others protected under the Endangered Species Act. “When these species aren’t doing well, they take resources,” Bair said. “With the salmon, that primary resource is the water supply that’s the lifeblood for agriculture.”

Salmon make multiple one-way spawning migrations each year in the Sacramento River system. The fall run is the largest and most commercially important to California, but most of those offspring are raised in hatcheries. During the winter run, by contrast, Chinook still largely spawn in the wild. Adults lay their eggs in gravel beds along a short stretch of river below Shasta Dam. In recent decades, salmon numbers have dwindled because of predators and deteriorating river conditions. The federal government declared the winter run endangered in 1994.

Officials estimate that only about 5 percent of last year’s winter-run Chinook survived long enough to migrate to sea. They died because water releases from Shasta flowed out warmer than federal models had predicted.

Earlier this year, federal scientists believed they had developed a new strategy to avoid a similar die-off, only to realize their temperature-monitoring equipment had failed and Shasta’s waters once again were warming faster than anticipated.

In the months since, dam managers changed course and sharply curtailed flows out of Shasta. The hope was that they reserved enough of the reservoir’s deep, cold water pool to sustain this year’s juvenile winter-run Chinook. That water stored behind Shasta now is being released, but it’s not yet clear how many fish survived the blistering heat of summer and early fall.

“The jury’s still out on that,” said Shane Hunt, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The Shasta water that’s now flowing down the Sacramento River contains some of the supply that Reclamation District 108 sold for around $5 million to junior water rights holders who farm near Arbuckle and Los Banos.

Using $400,000 from that sale, Bair’s agency financed the planning, permitting and design phase of the project that broke ground this past month. Construction includes building concrete walls and a metal picket weir to block fish from getting through the structure.

Bair said another recently completed project to create better spawning habitat in the Sacramento River near Redding was spearheaded by a neighboring irrigation district. Bair said these local water agencies have proved they’re able to move faster than the large state and federal bureaucracies managing the Sacramento River system.

“Their decision-making matrix is really slow,” Bair said. “Their risk tolerance and contract approval, all of those things, are too slow to accomplish something locally. It takes forever.”

But the drought has given urgency to the larger agencies. They approved the Knights Landing project in less than a year – a lightning-fast pace compared with other infrastructure improvements. The bulk of the funding – $1.5 million – came from the Bureau of Reclamation.

“This project helps us protect winter run Chinook, which directly assists us in reducing the challenges in balancing the competing demands on the Central Valley Project,” said Hunt, the spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation.

The remaining $600,000 came from the state Fish and Wildlife and Water Resources departments.

Charlton Bonham, the director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said his boss, Gov. Jerry Brown, has made it clear that state officials need to move quickly to protect imperiled fish, and thanks to Proposition 1 water bond money, funds are available.

He said state and federal agencies are fast-tracking several other projects that will keep the easily confused salmon moving upriver instead of getting lost in canals.

As the former state director for advocacy group Trout Unlimited, Bonham says he wants these projects to be a significant part of his legacy at the department, something he hopes to accomplish before Brown’s term – and likely his – is up.

“Enough is enough,” he said. “I feel the clock is ticking for me. At most, I have three years, so let’s go fix these problems.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow.