San Joaquin River salmon reg­is­ter record ap­pear­ance

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY LEWIS GRIS­WOLD lgris­[email protected]­nobee.com

“It’s a vast im­prove­ment over pre­vi­ous years,” said fish bi­ol­o­gist Don Portz, man­ager of the San Joaquin River Restora­tion Pro­gram. “That’s triple the amount.”

Fish bi­ol­o­gists bring­ing back salmon runs on the San Joaquin River say a record num­ber of fish nests have been found in the river be­low Fri­ant Dam east of Fresno.

The num­ber of nests, called redds, cre­ated by spring-run Chi­nook salmon reached 41 this year, com­pared to just 13 last year.

“It’s a vast im­prove­ment over pre­vi­ous years,” said fish bi­ol­o­gist Don Portz, man­ager of the San Joaquin River Restora­tion Pro­gram. “That’s triple the amount.”

The num­bers are en­cour­ag­ing to fish sci­en­tists be­cause they show the restora­tion pro­gram is mak­ing progress in re-es­tab­lish­ing a wild salmon fish­ery on the San Joaquin af­ter six decades of ab­sence. But there’s a lot of work to do be­fore sci­en­tists can say they’ve done all they can.

“Right now we’re in the in­fancy stages of bring­ing the fish back,” Portz said.

Last year, for the first time in 60 years, spring-run Chi­nook salmon suc­cess­fully re­pro­duced in the river, which made head­lines.

To mon­i­tor the fish af­ter they hatch, bi­ol­o­gists are in­stalling nets, called emer­gence traps, di­rectly on top of nine redds. The nets are de­signed to catch, but not kill, emerg­ing salmon fry.

So far this year, no salmon fry

have been found, but it’s early yet. It takes a cou­ple of weeks for fish to hatch and a lot de­pends on wa­ter tem­per­a­ture. But when they ap­pear, ex­perts will count them, weigh them, mea­sure them and test for ge­net­ics.

“I think it’s in­cred­i­bly re­ward­ing work to see how the fish are ac­tu­ally thriv­ing in the sec­tions of the river we are work­ing on,” said fish bi­ol­o­gist Stephanie Durkacz, who donned waders and in­stalled sev­eral traps over the past two weeks. “There haven’t been spring-run Chi­nook salmon spawn­ing here in 60 years . ... It feels very his­toric.”

TURN­ING THE ‘SPIGOT’ BACK ON

The work is be­ing done be­cause an agree­ment with en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists re­quires the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to re­store the lost salmon runs. A long stretch of the San Joaquin River dried up and with it the salmon when Fri­ant Dam was built in the 1940s.

Sev­eral fish bi­ol­o­gists, lawyers and mem­bers of the pub­lic re­cently toured the river with the Wa­ter Ed­u­ca­tion Foun­da­tion, based in Sacra­mento. Portz, the river restora­tion pro­gram man­ager for the Bu­reau of Recla­ma­tion, laid out the stakes.

“This is a river that didn’t have flows for over half a cen­tury,” Portz said. “It’s not an easy thing to turn on the spigot and let wa­ter start flow­ing again.”

But hatch­ery-raised adult salmon re­leased into the San Joaquin River are mak­ing redds and spawn­ing, giv­ing fish sci­en­tists hope for suc­cess.

A ma­jor goal of the restora­tion pro­gram is for salmon eggs laid nat­u­rally in the river to hatch and for ju­ve­nile salmon to swim to the ocean, reach sex­ual ma­tu­rity, then re­turn as adult salmon to spawn and die — and for the cy­cle to start all over again as it did for time im­memo­rial.

That’s how it was un­til Fri­ant Dam blocked the river in 1948 and the wa­ter stored in Miller­ton Lake was di­verted to farms on the Val­ley’s east side as part of the fed­eral Cen­tral Val­ley Pro­ject.

But un­der Cal­i­for­nia fish and game code, dams must re­lease enough wa­ter to keep fish alive down­stream.

In 1988, the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil sued the U.S. Bu­reau of Recla­ma­tion, which con­trols the dam, and all of the ir­ri­gation dis­tricts that use the wa­ter for farm­ing. A fed­eral judge sided with the NRDC.

At the judge’s urg­ing, the par­ties in 2006 ham­mered out the San Joaquin River set­tle­ment man­dat­ing that both spring and fall salmon runs be re­stored, from Fri­ant Dam to the con­flu­ence of the Merced River a dis­tance of 153 miles.

SEEK­ING A SELF-SUS­TAIN­ING SALMON POP­U­LA­TION

There are two kinds of salmon in the San Joaquin River — fall run and spring run salmon.

Spring run salmon evolved to take ad­van­tage of spring pulses of snowmelt rush­ing down from the Sierra Ne­vada. His­tor­i­cally, the fish swam up from the ocean and lived in deep pools of cool wa­ter dur­ing the sum­mer, then spawned in the fall.

By con­trast, fall run salmon ar­rived in late Novem­ber to early De­cem­ber and quickly spawned. Both spring run and fall run ju­ve­niles swim to the ocean in the late win­ter and spring.

“If you can’t bring them both back, we’re sup­posed to fo­cus on the spring run,” Portz said.

The fish that hatched in the river late last year are spring run salmon. It was con­sid­ered a ma­jor mile­stone.

The work has been slow to ramp up, but Portz says they’ll have all the nec­es­sary work com­pleted by the end of 2024 so both spring and fall run salmon can swim unim­peded from the ocean to Fri­ant Dam.

The Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil is keep­ing a close watch on de­vel­op­ments.

“Progress is slower than re­quired, and that is dis­ap­point­ing,” said NRDC lawyer Doug Obegi in an in­ter­view with The Bee. Still, he said, “we should have a fully func­tion­ing river, and that’s en­cour­ag­ing ”

The ef­fort is funded by state and fed­eral gov­ern­ments. East­side farm­ers pay a “Fri­ant sur­charge” for their ir­ri­gation wa­ter, and the col­lected funds, about $8 mil­lion a year on av­er­age, is paid to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Portz said the orig­i­nal cost es­ti­mate for the restora­tion work was $1.5 bil­lion to $1.6 bil­lion, but pro­gram man­agers gave the bud­get a “hair­cut” to cut costs. “It still came to $648 mil­lion for just phase one,” he said.

Costs in­clude a new fish hatch­ery near Fri­ant Dam, which is be­hind sched­ule but should open next year. The hatch­ery will even­tu­ally pro­duce 1 mil­lion salmon finger­lings an­nu­ally. An in­terim hatch­ery on the river now pro­duces 200,000 fish per year.

The hatch­ery is needed be­cause nat­u­rally pro­duc­ing salmon on the river won’t be enough to re­store the salmon runs, at least at first.

“We want a nat­u­rally re­pro­duc­ing, self-sus­tain­ing pop­u­la­tion, but you need a sup­ple­ment,” Portz said.

The long-term goal is to have tens of thou­sands of re­turn­ing salmon — 10,000 fall run and 30,000 spring run.

This year, 168,000 ju­ve­nile hatch­ery fish were re­leased into the river and last year it was about 150,000. Sim­i­lar num­bers have been re­leased since 2014. It takes two or three years for them to re­turn as adults.

WHAT’S THE NEXT MILE­STONE?

So far, re­turn­ing adult Chi­nook salmon have not yet been seen in the San Joaquin River. But Portz and the other sci­en­tists have their fin­gers crossed that salmon will start show­ing up on the San Joaquin next spring.

When that hap­pens, “the re­turn­ing adult spring run salmon will be the next mile­stone for the pro­gram,” he said.

Be­cause of phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers still in the river that stop the mi­grat­ing fish, the fish will be net­ted down­stream and trucked to the wa­ters be­low Fri­ant Dam, he said.

There cur­rently isn’t enough wa­ter in the river to sup­port a fully func­tion­ing salmon fish­ery, Portz said. Levees will be built where needed so the chan­nel can con­tain more wa­ter, he said.

There’s also a need to build “fish pas­sages,” man-made struc­tures al­low­ing fish to swim around dams and get up­river on their own, which bi­ol­o­gists call “vo­li­tional pas­sage.” The fish pas­sages will be built by 2024 as re­quired by the set­tle­ment, Portz said.

But it’s wa­ter tem­per­a­ture that is the cru­cial fac­tor for salmon sur­vival, he said, es­pe­cially for ju­ve­nile fish go­ing out to the ocean. That’s why cool wa­ter at the bot­tom of Miller­ton Lake must be sent down­river.

“We have to time our re­leases ef­fec­tively,” Portz said. “We need to have planned pulses to move the ju­ve­nile fish and start their mi­gra­tion to the ocean.”

The set­tle­ment re­quires wa­ter in the river all year long. That leaves less ir­ri­gation wa­ter for farm­ers — about 15 per­cent to 20 per­cent less per year on av­er­age than be­fore the set­tle­ment.

But the farm­ers are bank­ing on there be­ing no more re­duc­tions and sup­port bring­ing back salmon on the river.

“Fri­ant Wa­ter Au­thor­ity con­tin­ues to be in­vested in the long-term suc­cess of the San Joaquin River Restora­tion Set­tle­ment and pro­gram,” the wa­ter de­liv­ery agency said in a state­ment. “We be­lieve the terms of the set­tle­ment were fair and we’re work­ing with our part­ners to fully im­ple­ment it.”

One ma­jor un­known, mean­while, is the ef­fect of cli­mate change on the San Joaquin River salmon. Spring run salmon would prob­a­bly do bet­ter than fall run salmon in an era of global warm­ing, Portz said.

“Be­cause they spawn ear­lier in the fall, they move out ear­lier in the year: Feb­ru­ary, March, into April,” he said. “Wa­ter tem­per­a­tures are still cool.”

But it means man­agers must make the right calls so the adult salmon will re­turn de­spite cli­mate change, he said.

“Peo­ple are go­ing to say, ‘This can’t be done,’ ” Portz said. “But if we do our fish pas­sage right, and pro­vide the habi­tat that’s nec­es­sary, I think it is at­tain­able.”

Other work in­cludes cre­at­ing rear­ing habi­tat for salmon, adding screens to keep fish from mi­grat­ing into side chan­nels where they would get stranded, and build­ing a fish screen, to be the largest in the state, to keep salmon out of Men­dota Pool on the Val­ley floor.

Ad­di­tion­ally, more gravel must be put in the river so re­turn­ing adult fish can cre­ate their redds.

JOHN WALKER [email protected]­nobee.com

An­dreas Raisch, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice bi­o­log­i­cal science tech­ni­cian, left front, and oth­ers carry an emer­gence trap Mon­day morn­ing to lay in the chilly wa­ter of the San Joaquin River at Fri­ant and place it over a redd to catch newly hatched Chi­nook salmon for study.

Bee file photo

A 2015 photo shows a net­ted bin with ju­ve­nile Chi­nook salmon — cap­tured at other state water­ways — as they wait en­try into the San Joaquin River at Fresno.

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