Update: Willow Bend Preserve Receives Funding from NOAA Fisheries’ Community-based Restoration Program

By Mike Cook, Sacramento Valley Regional Director

River Partners planning team (from left Gerald Dion, John Carlon, Helen Swagerty, Ruben Reynoso and Michael Rogner) stand in the shadow of the state-flood control levee, reviewing maps and discussing how this innovative project might be constructed.

In the last issue of River Partners’ Journal (Vol. 13, Issue 2), we told you about our Willow Bend Preserve and how young endangered salmon were getting trapped on the property after the Sacramento River flooded. In that article, we also mentioned our plans to not only fix the fish stranding problem, but to also restore the site to high-quality rearing habitat, so small fish can stuff their faces at the all-you-can-eat buffet created by the inundated floodplain. At that time, we had the good ideas to help save these species from extinction – all we needed was the funding to make them happen. Well… just as that issue of the Journal was coming hot off the press, we were notified by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that a project proposal we submitted to their 2016 Community-based Restoration Program was selected for funding!! Whoop! Whoop!!

Our project, officially titled The Sacramento River Salmonid Stranding Reduction and Floodplain Habitat Restoration Project at the Willow Bend Preserve (Whew! That’s a mouthful…) was one of only 17 projects selected from a nation-wide competitive grant solicitation administered by the NOAA Restoration Center. Based in Silver Spring, Maryland, the Restoration Center is solely devoted to restoring the nation’s coastal, marine, and migratory fish habitat. Projects awarded from the 2016 program came from 10 states and territories, including California, Hawaii, Maine, Florida, and Puerto Rico. These projects, including Willow Bend, were chosen to restore habitat for a variety of coastal and marine species, including three of the eight species identified by NOAA’s initiative known as “Species in the Spotlight: Survive to Thrive” – an intensified agency-wide effort to save these species which have been identified as the most at risk of extinction.

Willow Bend will benefit Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), an evolutionary significant unit that is an iconic part of California’s natural heritage. Winter-run are particularly important and in need of recovery because they exhibit a life history found nowhere else on earth. They are unique in that they spawn during the summer months when air temperatures in the Sacramento Valley are usually at their warmest. Because of this, they require cold water sources to protect their incubating eggs, which historically only existed in rivers and creeks fed by cold water springs in the upper watershed, such as the Little Sacramento, McCloud, and Pit rivers, and Battle Creek. However, the construction of Shasta and Keswick Dams has blocked access to nearly 50% of this historic habitat, causing the extirpation of the species that spawned and reared there. Today, the last remaining winter-run Chinook population has persevered because of timed cold water releases from Lake Shasta and artificial spawning at the Livingstone Stone National Fish Hatchery. After the recent California drought, conditions in the Sacramento River have been inhospitable for fish, and winter-run Chinook are now on the verge of extinction.

The Willow Bend project site is smack-dab in the center of the Sacramento River system. If you had your pick of locations to develop a rest area along this fish highway, this property is the prime location!

A large coordinated effort among many state and federal agencies, tribal groups, and non-profits is working to prevent this from happening. These efforts include adding spawning gravel to the Sacramento River near Redding and reintroducing a population of winter-run into Battle Creek. However, simply giving these fish more access to places to spawn won’t recover their populations alone. Even after successful incubation and the baby salmon emerge from their eggs as fry, they still have to swim hundreds of miles in order to make it out the Golden Gate to the Pacific Ocean where they will mature into adults and spend the majority of their lives. And if swimming this far isn’t hard enough, they also have to find enough food along the way to sustain them on their journey and avoid all the birds and the bigger, faster fish who see them as a bite-sized snack. Running this gauntlet is much easier said than done for a fish that’s about the size of your pinky finger.

As we described last month, flooded floodplains are the feeding grounds for these fingerlings. Several studies from across the Central Valley have shown that fish foraging on the floodplain grow exponentially faster than those restricted to the river channel. The warm water and the emergent vegetation on the floodplain supports nearly inexhaustible quantities of invertebrates while slowing water velocities which allows these tiny fish to take advantage of the bug buffet. Larger fish have a much higher likelihood of surviving their trek to sea and returning as adults to spawn. We’ve learned in recent years that seasonally-inundated floodplain ecosystems are critically important to conserving self-sustaining populations of Central Valley Chinook salmon.

With our new funding partner at the table, we hope to pull the trigger on the wild and unprecedented permitting and construction that will be required to allow the fish access and egress from the Willow Bend site. If we’re successful, we’ll have a functioning floodplain habitat that not only does not entrap tiny salmon, but also helps them along their important migration to the sea. If this project works, it will serve as a model for what we can do on myriad other properties just like Willow Bend to effectively restore this important function back to our rivers. Who knows, we may even learn a bit more about how other wildlife and people may use these reconnected floodplains too.

This past June, River Partners’ staff and NOAA Fisheries’ Sacramento Office toured the project site. Also on the tour was Ruth Goodfield, the Restoration Center staff member who oversees projects in the Central Valley and was instrumental during our proposal process.

“This project has the potential to significantly contribute to the recovery of Central Valley Chinook salmon and steelhead populations, however there’s a lot of risk associated with implementing a cutting-edge project like this,” Ruth said while standing on top of the levee overlooking the project site. “A lot of thought needs to go into it to make sure it’s a success. Basically, it’s either going to be a hero or zero.”

We have to try to be a hero for these iconic fish.

The above article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the River Partners Journal.