Construction crews that have spent more than two years reconfiguring a mile-long stretch of Dry Creek outside Healdsburg are about to mark completion of the critical first leg of what, by 2020, is to be a six-mile project designed to create new habitat for threatened and endangered fish.
So far, workers have strategically placed thousands of tons of locally sourced rock and more than a thousand giant root balls and saw logs in the creek, and they’ve removed some 30,000 cubic yards of soil and gravel to create restful backwaters, some of which already are being used by fish species whose very survival is at risk, officials said.
The overall goal is to offer supportive habitat for coho and chinook salmon, as well as steelhead trout, that includes areas of slow-water refuge, plenty of places to hide from predators, adequate food supply and cool, shallow current — partly offsetting the loss of 130 square-miles of upstream habitat cut off by the construction of Warm Springs Dam to create Lake Sonoma in 1983.
The reservoir has offered the project one advantage: From the dam at its southern end comes a reliable supply of cold, clear water that’s so rare in the Russian River watershed these days, said Eric Larson, environmental program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
“Basically, it comes down to the recognition that due to the characteristics of Dry Creek following the construction of the Warm Springs Dam, Dry Creek offers a huge opportunity to create salmonid habitat in the Russian River watershed where it once did not exist,” at least not year-round, Larson said.
It remains to be seen whether the entire habitat restoration effort will be enough to ensure a future for the three local species, all of them listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.
But with the first of the six miles nearly completed, the results so far appear impressive.
“This past year we saw baby coho in the demonstration project backwater thriving, which is a significant milestone in moving this project forward,” Sonoma County Supervisor Mike McGuire said.
“It looks great,” said Andrew Fegelman, a spokesman for Quivira Winery, one of the first properties involved in the project, which is dependent on the willingness of private landowners, mostly grape growers, to participate. “Visitors to the winery just love the fact that this project is ongoing. Everybody who comes to the winery is totally behind it.”
Under a 2008 order from the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Sonoma County Water Agency has been charged with enhancing six miles of Dry Creek within the 14-mile reach between Lake Sonoma and the Russian River as a condition of continuing to use the creek to deliver water to approximately 600,000 customers in Sonoma and northern Marin counties.
The cost of the restoration is significant: about $8 million a mile, taking into account design, engineering, construction, permitting and other costs, said Greg Guensch, an engineer and project manager for the Water Agency.
But the alternative — a now-shelved proposal for a 24-mile pipeline that would transport water from Lake Sonoma to the agency’s intake on the Russian River in Forestville — would have been far more costly, officials said.
“We’ve always had two choices,” McGuire said. “Do the right thing environmentally and for the ratepayers, and advance the habitat enhancement project, or construct a pipeline that would have cost ratepayers eventually over $300 million and disrupted the Dry Creek Valley for years with a massive construction project.
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