Land donation helps threatened salmon in San Joaquin River

Spring-run Chinook salmon will get a needed path around Sack Dam

Four people and a dog pose for a photo outside

The Clayton family has donated 8.1 acres of riverfront property to the Bureau of Reclamation to enable the creation of a “nature-like fishway” that will allow salmon to swim around Sack Dam. “We decided to work with the Program because we believe that restoration is a good thing,” said Connley Clayton, far left. “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could create some habitat on their land to help the environment?” Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

By Brandon Honig
September 1, 2021

When Connley Clayton, a third-generation farmer in California’s Central Valley, looks over the San Joaquin River flowing past Sack Dam, he can see that the river — and its salmon — are on their way to recovery.

a cement dam and water

The Clayton land donation on east bank of Sack Dam. Credit: U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

“We are so happy that the river is running again,” said Clayton, 75, who lives with his wife in El Nido, about 10 miles north of the dam.

Before 2016, the river would often run completely dry below Sack Dam, he said, because the entire flow was diverted for agricultural use. Then the San Joaquin River Restoration Program — a collaboration of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Reclamation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California Department of Water Resources — began releasing water through Friant Dam specifically for river restoration.

To aid the Program’s restoration efforts, the Clayton family has deeded 8.1 acres of their riverfront property, Clayton Ranch, to the Bureau of Reclamation.

The donation will enable the creation of a “nature-like fishway” that will allow salmon to swim around Sack Dam. Design of the fish passage is underway and will include natural elements like boulders and rocks to mimic a natural stream. Construction is expected to begin in 2023.

“We decided to work with the Program because we believe that restoration is a good thing,” Clayton said. “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could create some habitat on their land to help the environment?”

a truck and people next to a river at sunset

Fish and Wildlife Service biologists and partners prepare to release nearly 90,000 juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon into the San Joaquin River at the Eastside Bypass in March 2017. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

Overcoming obstacles

Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon once thrived in the San Joaquin River. Construction of Friant Dam in 1942, however, diverted water for agriculture, and within a decade the spring-run Chinook were gone from the river.

In 2014, the Program began reintroducing the now-threatened species to the San Joaquin River, using hatchery-raised juvenile fish.

Chinook salmon are naturally born in freshwater habitats then travel to the ocean, where they live for two to five years before returning to their birthplace to spawn before dying. However, Sack Dam is one of several obstacles in the San Joaquin River that block spring-run Chinook from reaching their historical spawning grounds.

a woman outside.

Heather Swinney, San Joaquin River Restoration Program coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, leads a tour of the San Joaquin River. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

“The Program has successfully documented the return of adult spring-run Chinook salmon to the restoration area years after its initial reintroduction efforts of releasing salmon to the river,” said Heather Swinney, the Service’s San Joaquin River Restoration Program coordinator. “As the abundance of naturally produced salmon increases and hatchery supplementation efforts expand, it will be critically important to improve existing fish passage conditions.

“This land donation brings the Program that much closer to making planned improvements happen at Sack Dam.”

NOAA Fisheries said it is encouraged by the Claytons’ support, as partnerships like this help move at-risk species away from extinction and toward recovery.

“The population of spring-run Chinook salmon currently being reintroduced is crucial to the species' recovery and will help the species be resilient to increasing changes in climate,” said NOAA Fisheries assistant regional administrator Cathy Marcinkevage.

a salmon in water.

Spring-run Chinook salmon seldom can make it past in-river obstructions like the Sack Dam. Credit: John Heil/USFWS

A Lasting Legacy

Clayton Ranch has always been a family affair. Connley’s father, Forrest, bought the 1,100-acre property with his brother Claud from the Cook Land & Cattle Company in 1953. Connley and his sister, Barbara Weber, own the ranch, where they watched crop after crop of cotton, alfalfa, wheat, corn and other crops be planted, harvested and sold.

small fish falling out of a net.

Threatened spring-run Chinook salmon were first reintroduced to the San Joaquin River as juveniles in 2014. The San Joaquin River Restoration Program has since documented adults’ successful return from the ocean to the river. Credit: Steve Martarano/USFWS

“From the time I was 7 years old, we worked the property every day, regardless of weather, from 6 in the morning until 6 at night with a half-hour for lunch,” he said.

Clayton’s stepdaughter, Larkin Harman, now farms the land, where she plans to plant olive trees in addition to the almonds and wheat already growing there.

“We are extremely grateful to the entire Clayton family for their generous donation to the Program and, ultimately, to the river,” said Don Portz, Program manager for the Bureau of Reclamation.

Harman said it is important for the agricultural community to support the Program and added, “Connley is leaving a legacy that we are just tickled about.”

“I really see this as an opportunity to show America that ag isn’t opposed to environmental restoration,” she said. “We are enthusiastic and want to show that agriculture and the Program can work together.”