U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Sacramento Fish & Wildlife OfficeServing the people, conserving the fish, wildlife, and plants of California

A Unit Of The Pacific Southwest Region

Folsom, Johnny Cash, and the Fish & Wildlife Coordination Act

May 25, 2011

Until recently, everything I ever knew about Folsom I learned from Johnny Cash.  A trip earlier this month with Doug Weinrich, a co-worker and biologist who’s worked for the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office for over 31 years providing environmental oversight on water projects, expanded my knowledge considerably.

Photo Credit: Sarah Swenty

Our day out included a visit to Folsom Dam where they are working on a huge project to better protect the city of Sacramento from flooding.  This project significantly impacted the local environment.

Folsom Dam, a multi-purpose dam built in 1955, is the largest dam in the American River Watershed. One of its authorized purposes is flood protection for the city of Sacramento and other downstream communities. Currently flood water release operations are constrained by the location of the flood release gates which are located on the top of the dam. This location prevents early release of flood waters during peak run-off periods.

New Spillway at Folsom Dam

Photo Credit: Sarah Swenty

To correct this problem a new auxiliary spillway is being constructed immediately south of the original dam. This spillway, when complete, will allow for the early release of water stored by the dam to make room for floodwater  during heavy run-off in the watershed. This improvement, coupled with downstream levee improvements, will reduce the flood risk for Sacramento and surrounding communities.

The loss of an entire hillside with its old grown valley oak habitat is the most dramatic example of the impacts to fish and wildlife in the area because of this project.  While we were out, we also visited the mitigation sites where thousands of new trees will replace the ones lost in the course of the construction project.

New trees at a mitigation site for Folsom Dam's new spillway

Photo Credit: Sarah Swenty

The impacts of dam and levee improvements on fish and wildlife resources are being mitigated in downstream in the American River Parkway. Recent areas which have been developed and planted with native plant species to improve habitat values are located at Sailor Bar, Rossmoor Bar and River Bend Park.

One of the species impacted by the construction activities is the endangered valley elderberry longhorn beetle which relies on its sole host plant, the elderberry shrub, shown below in bloom, for cover, food and reproduction.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will this spillway be.  It began in 2007 and heavy construction is very actively going on now and will be for years to come. 

Elderberry bushes grow at a Folsom Dam mitigation site

Photo Credit: Sarah Swenty

Creating a new path where water can be safely released from the dam when quick snowpack melts and heavy rains come takes time.  It also takes federal agencies working together under the Fish and Wildlife Coordination Act to ensure that when we make improvements that are good for people we also do good things for the species affected.   

This is just a bit of what I saw and learned on my trip to Folsom this spring.  Johnny could have learned a thing or two from Doug.

Photographs and Story by Sarah Swenty, External Affairs, Sacramento Field Office

Last updated: November 9, 2017