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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

PACIFIC SOUTHWEST REGION: Wine that Complements Salmon: Grape Creek Selected as one of 10 National Waters to Watch

Region 8, May 15, 2013
Grape Creek has proven to the right mix of science and partnership to help both viniculture and salmon.
Grape Creek has proven to the right mix of science and partnership to help both viniculture and salmon. - Photo Credit: n/a
Endangered Coho salmon parr in Grape Creek.
Endangered Coho salmon parr in Grape Creek. - Photo Credit: n/a
Off channel pond construction at Grape Creek.
Off channel pond construction at Grape Creek. - Photo Credit: n/a

By Cindy Sandoval

The National Fish Habitat Partnership (NFHP) has announced the 10 “Waters to Watch” for 2013, and this years’ list includes California’s Grape Creek. The Waters to Watch is a list of American rivers, creeks, lakes, estuaries and entire watershed systems that will benefit from strategic conservation efforts. Grape Creek is a tributary to Dry Creek and the Russian River, which runs through the wine country of Sonoma County.

NFHP currently supports 18 regional Fish Habitat Partnerships (FHP) in the United States. Each FHP is composed of local and regional community groups, non-profit organizations, watershed groups, state and federal agencies, and individuals working to restore fish and their habitats. One of many groups working toward the restoration of Grape Creek is the California Fish Passage Forum FHP (Forum), a collaboration of partners dedicated to protecting and restoring fish and other aquatic organisms in California by combining both public and private sectors for fish passage improvement. The Forum helped fund innovative projects with Trout Unlimited and local grape growers and landowners who wanted to help return Coho salmon and steelhead to the Russian River and Grape Creek.

The Russian River and Grape Creek are important habitats for California’s Central coast endangered coho salmon, but the species has experienced a significant decline in population during the past few decades. The Russian River once hosted thousands of spawning salmon, yet scientists and managers are currently worried about the species survival. Between 2000 and 2009, it was estimated that less than 10 adult coho returned to the Russian River watershed each year. These statistics prompted the creation of a captive breeding program, administered by the Russian River Coho Salmon Captive Broodstock Program, to supplement coho populations in the Russian River and its tributaries.

This captive breeding program is different from the usual sport fish hatchery because the agencies and partners that fund and manage the facility seek to create a self-sustaining wild population. Donnie Ratcliff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Anadromous Fish Restoration and Fish Passage Programs explains, “These fish are not produced as a sport fish. This facility carefully breeds coho salmon from local genetic stock to release as juveniles throughout the system. In addition to the hatchery program, we need to restore the rivers’ creeks and tributaries to make the system sustainable for fish.”

Grape Creek was historically an important tributary that could provide habitat for the endangered salmon, but like the number of salmon, the amount of water in the creek had decreased over the years. In 2008 with landowner approval and support, monitoring equipment was installed in critical reaches along the creek and partners worked with landowners to identify water needs and uses.

One obvious use for the water was irrigation. Parts of the creek were diverted to provide irrigation and frost protection water for crops and vineyards. The solution to this was to build off stream ponds to collect water during wet periods and to allow grape growers to store it until needed. This allows growers to maintain row upon row of green vines in the dry summer months without having a negative impact on the salmon’s water supply.

In addition to the rows of grape vines, green rolling hills make Sonoma County picturesque. However, these hills, and more importantly, the valleys in between the hills, pose a problem for grape growers. In the spring, cold air will settle in the valleys overnight and can cause the vines to freeze. To prevent the freeze, grape growers often spray a mist of water on their vines. The mist freezes and provides an insulated ice jacket to protect the shoots, keeping them warm enough to avoid freezing. Although this is an inventive way of saving their crops, it also removes much needed water from the creek. The solution here was to install fans over the vineyard that circulate warmer air down onto the vines. The fans were funded by private landowners, partner groups and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) which highlights the Russian River as one of their Keystone Initiatives.

The addition of off channel ponds and circulating fans have increased both the amount of water and fish presence in the creek. Adult and juvenile coho have been found during surveys of Grape Creek conducted by the California Sea Grant Extension Program. The presence of both adult and young salmon show that fish rely on the restored system for all stages of their development. Ratcliff adds, “We can’t just look at the number of fish, we look at fish habitat. Good water and connectivity allows different life stages of fish to survive here throughout the year.”

The work on Grape Creek could not have been done without the wide range of partners including the Forum, the California State Coastal Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, Gold Ridge and Sotoyome Resource Conservation Districts, NFWF, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center’s WATER Institute, the Sonoma County Water Agency, the University of California Cooperative Extension and California Sea Grant. In addition, many wineries, ranches, vineyards, and coalitions were involved.

The Grape Creek project is unique from many other projects because the obstacle for fish was not one large dam, but water being diverted by multiple water users who rely on the creek for many different needs. Partners worked with landowners to identify potential problems and to find alternative ways for grape growers to continue growing while not impacting the creek. Funding from both NFHP and other partners allowed complex questions to be answered and creative solutions to be implemented throughout the Grape Creek watershed. Currently all of the land in the watershed is owned privately, and a significant portion of the land is used for viticulture. According to the Wine Institute, the state of California produces an average of 90 percent of the total U.S. wine produced each year. NFHP projects, such as Grape Creek, can help lessen the effects of viniculture on native fish.

Wine and fish have always paired well together, and now with the Grape Creek partners adding science and sustainable practices to the mix Grape Creek will be around for both purposes for many more years.

Cindy Sandoval is a Pathways intern in external affairs at the Pacific Southwest Regional Office in Sacramento, Calif.

Contact Info: Cynthia Sandoval, 916-978-6159, cynthia_d_sandoval@fws.gov