Sacramento’s salmon run in full swing, but drought still a worry

Gregg Bates, executive director of the Dry Creek Conservancy, surveys the creek on Friday to count salmon that have swum upstream to spawn in Roseville.
Gregg Bates, executive director of the Dry Creek Conservancy, surveys the creek on Friday to count salmon that have swum upstream to spawn in Roseville. rbenton@sacbee.com

A miraculous thing happens each fall in the Sacramento Valley, and it’s not the end of 100-degree weather: Salmon return to the area’s rivers and creeks.

One hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, the valley hosts one of the largest annual salmon spawning runs in America. More than 300,000 fall-run Chinook (or king) salmon are expected to return from the ocean to area creeks and rivers, mostly in October and November, to spawn in hatcheries or on their own in river gravels.

The big fish – many 2 feet long and weighing more than 20 pounds – swim past riverside restaurants, office buildings, sewage outfalls and subdivisions. Many swim up tiny creeks pinched between movie theaters and shopping malls. They all follow a mysterious homing impulse to return to the same waters where they were born, to lay eggs and begin the next generation. After spawning, they die.

“It’s kind of amazing to be there in these suburban creeks and see these giant fish,” said Orangevale resident Kally Kedinger-Cecil. “I didn’t realize these fish are so big, and they’re right there in these urban creeks.”

In the ocean, these fish are the basis of a wild-caught salmon market that supplies grocery stores and restaurants throughout California. And on the rivers, recreational fishermen have crowded the banks for decades in hopes of hooking a prize salmon.

More recently, volunteers have begun to walk the smaller waterways each fall for another purpose: to restore salmon habitat long ago cut off by development, and to count the salmon that find their way back.

On Friday, Kedinger-Cecil volunteered with the Dry Creek Conservancy to look for salmon on the network of tiny streams – many narrow enough to jump across – that thread through Roseville. After pulling on waders, she walked a section of creek to count salmon that found their way into the Dry Creek system in search of safe spawning habitat.

“Especially in Roseville, you don’t really associate that area with wildlife like that,” she said. “You get the sense that it’s so urbanized, but there’s this stuff going on right there.”

In total, the group counted more than 120 salmon Friday on four sections of creek. That is far below the peak of 800 fish counted about a decade ago, said Gregg Bates, the conservancy’s executive director. But it’s a strong showing given the drought conditions.

“We’ve seen a lot of fish on Secret Ravine especially,” said Bates, noting a tributary where the group has restored habitat, including removing an old bridge that partially blocked salmon movement. “So now there’s absolutely no problem for fish to get through there. It turned out really, really well.”

In many areas, the salmon are waiting for more flow to move upstream. Rain in the fall is important because it provides a signal telling the fish where to go, and also to deliver more water to help them swim over barriers. But there hasn’t been much rain this fall. Fish have moved with the sparse storms that have occurred so far, but more is needed.

“What we need is a big old dousing, about 40 days’ and 40 nights’ worth,” said J.D. Richey, a longtime Sacramento-area fishing guide.

Richey normally takes customers out in search of salmon until Thanksgiving. But he quit offering salmon trips three weeks ago, because it’s been too hard to find fish in the rivers. Instead, he’s going after striped bass, a non-native species that has been plentiful.

He thinks the salmon season has been slow because of the drought. River flows may be too low and warm to lure salmon upstream from the ocean in big numbers. There is not much sign of change in the weather forecast. A small storm is expected Tuesday night, and it won’t be very wet.

The salmon run already seems to be winding down, and many of the fish may have decided to stay in the ocean. Chinook salmon usually spawn when they are 3 years old but can wait a year or two, if necessary, for better conditions.

“Generally, fishing has been the pits. That’s the talk of the town,” Richey said. “Everything is just funky and late this year because of the warm water.”

Salmon hatcheries, on the other hand, are expected to collect enough fish to meet their required breeding quotas. Because the hatcheries use controlled breeding practices, fewer eggs perish than when breeding takes place in the wild, and they can produce millions of young salmon from only several thousand fish. Only a small percentage survive to adulthood, but it is usually enough to maintain fishing seasons.

Nimbus Hatchery on the American River has collected about 3,000 adult salmon in the first two weeks of the spawning operation, with six more weeks to go, said Gary Novak, a hatchery manager with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. The hatchery will collect extra fish this fall to create a safety margin in case complications from the drought cause problems, he said. Some of the eggs produced from these fish will be shared with the Mokelumne River Hatchery to ensure it has enough to meet production quotas.

The most pressing problem for salmon in the American River is a lack of cold water in Folsom Reservoir. The reservoir is just 29 percent full, which has shrunk the usual pool of cold water available to support the salmon run. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns and operates the reservoir, began tapping cold water from a deeper outlet in Folsom Dam starting in late October. This water could run out by the end of this month, before the salmon run is over.

Already, water temperatures in the river are not ideal. Salmon typically need water temperatures at 56 degrees or colder. The river is now about 58 degrees, which is marginal. Anything warmer and the salmon may die.

Temperature is a problem not just for the hatchery, which diverts water from the river, but also for wild-spawning salmon. If water temperatures are too warm, they may not spawn at all, or their eggs may not survive. Similar problems are playing out on the Sacramento River below Keswick Dam.

“They are getting some thermal stress right now,” said Tom Gohring, executive director of the Sacramento Water Forum, a coalition of agencies that works to protect flows in the American River. “We probably are going to run out (of cold water) in about a week. Frankly, the severity is going to depend on what the weather is like a week from now.”

The hatcheries were built to mitigate the construction of major water-storage dams in the Sierra Nevada foothills, which cut off salmon from thousands of miles of their original spawning habitat. Major hatcheries on the American, Mokelumne and Feather rivers, and on Battle Creek, are required to artificially spawn and raise millions of fall-run Chinook every year.

Normally, millions of hatchery-produced fingerling juvenile salmon are released into the rivers in spring to swim on their own to the sea. This past spring, because of low, warm water flows, most of the hatchery salmon were evacuated instead, loaded into tanker trucks and hauled hundreds of miles to Rio Vista on the Sacramento River, or to San Pablo Bay. A salmon-trucking operation of that size had never been done before in California.

It remains to be seen if this year’s hatchery salmon will also have to be trucked. Long-range weather predictions provide little hope for a wet winter.

“It’s pretty amazing, with all the water stuff going on here, that we have any salmon at all, really,” Richey said.

Call The Bee’s Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.