Field Notes
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Field Notes Entry   
SACRAMENTO: Restoring Spring-run Chinook Salmon to California’s Central Valley
California-Nevada Offices , September 20, 2011
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Spring-run chinook salmon at Butte Creek.
Spring-run chinook salmon at Butte Creek. - Photo Credit: USFWS
New fish ladder at Edwards Dam on Antelope Creek.
New fish ladder at Edwards Dam on Antelope Creek. - Photo Credit: USFWS

The San Joaquin River in California’s Central Valley once boasted the nation’s largest spring-run Chinook salmon population, but when the river was dammed in the 1940s, area water was diverted to the valley’s growing farms and cities. The result was a 60-mile stretch below Friant Dam that all but ended the river. By the time spring-run were listed as threatened under both the state and federal endangered species acts in 1999, only remnant populations existed in five small tributaries to the Sacramento River and hybridized populations lived in the Sacramento and Feather rivers.

Following an 18-year legal battle, water users, environmental groups, power authorities, fishing groups and the government agreed to restore the river and provide fish habitat.

To meet the goal of returning Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin River, collaborative planning and permitting initiatives are under way. Several studies to evaluate the current and future needs of fish in the river, including some using small groups of hatchery-raised Chinook salmon, are in progress.

Spring-run have been successfully restored elsewhere in the Central Valley. As a result of restoration work in the 1990s, spring-run now return annually to three additional tributaries to the Sacramento River. Through partnership efforts, along with the support of local watershed groups, habitat improvements have been made on Antelope, Butte, Big Chico, Battle, Clear, Cottonwood, Deer and Mill creeks. These efforts have increased the numbers of spring-run returning to spawn and have reduced the risk that a localized catastrophic event could decimate the fish population.

On Butte Creek alone, four dams were removed and another eight had passageways added to allow salmon to move around the dams and upstream. Additional work placed screened barriers in front of five diversions from the river to prevent juvenile fish from being entrapped with irrigation water. The results have been substantial; the number of spring-run spawning in Butte Creek has increased tenfold. Prior to similar efforts in Battle and Clear creek, spring-run had not been seen spawning there most of the last fifty years. Both creeks now consistently provide habitat for spawning spring-run Chinook salmon.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists continue to work on creating quality habitat for salmon but even with these improvements, spring-run Chinook salmon numbers remain lower than what they were prior to the construction of large area dams. Full success will be slow but the partners believe the run can be re-introduced and sustained. “I truly believe they will come back. It will take patience and letting the water flow,” said Peter Vorster, Bay Institute hydrologist.

San Joaquin River Restoration Program
Contact Info: Scott Flaherty, , Scott_Flaherty@fws.gov
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