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After an absence of more than a decade, a trickle of salmon are finally finding their way back to Sonoma County streams, thanks to private landowners and a coalition of conservationists.

Roughly 22 million years ago, the fish we know as salmon evolved the complicated biology they needed to commute between inland freshwater streams and the open salty ocean. Thus began one of the most remarkable life cycle journeys known on the planet.

Two million years ago, on the ancient California coastline, the salmon would have found a perfect cold and clear waterway emptying into the Pacific near the mouth of today’s Russian River. Running a hundred miles back among high ridges and dense redwood forest, its widely branching network of creeks and tributaries made ideal habitat for the spawning fish and its young.

And that paleo-Russian River has been the salmon’s home ever since.

So it came as a shock in 2001 when naturalists, fishermen and the community discovered that the number of coho salmon counted returning to the Russian River, once totaling 100,000, had dwindled to only 5.

It was found that throughout the watershed, the populations had crashed, and the salmon were disappearing, stream by stream. By 2004, only 3 of 39 tributaries and creeks in the entire watershed held any coho at all.

This past December, in a quiet event out of public view, red-flushed mature coho salmon were once again found spawning in the tree-shaded upper reaches of Mill Creek west of Healdsburg, where they had been virtually absent for decades.

That small, exciting homecoming was no accident. It came after more than 10 years of study and planning, captive breeding and painstaking stream rehabilitation by a smorgasbord of local, state, and federal agencies, private groups, academic institutions, community coalitions and concerned individuals.

And the vital key and the unsung heroes of the salmon rescue, according to those involved, are some of the private landowners whose property surrounds Mill Creek. In a scene that’s playing out along hundreds of miles of streams and creeks across Sonoma County, individual landowners are proving to be the crucial link in bringing the salmon home again.

Tracking the salmon

Everyone involved with salmon rescue in Sonoma County knows Mariska Obedzinski, because it’s her job to count the salmon. A fisheries biologist, Obedzinski is the coho monitoring coordinator for UC Sea Grant. Counting, for Obedzinski and team members Nick Bauer and Zac Reinstein, involves daily checks of underwater traps during the spring, snorkeling through chains of creekbed pools during the summer, and monitoring remote sensors to spot salmon carrying tiny implanted tracking devices.

Before the coho can be upgraded from the red-line federal “endangered” classification, Obedzinski must find 10,100 salmon in the watershed for three consecutive years. This past January, the estimate was 456. That makes every single salmon spawning again in prime habitat like Mill Creek vitally important.

Challenges for the coho

Mill Creek collects water from mountains in one of the wettest spots in Sonoma County, near Venado. Then it burbles and winds for 15 miles through wooded mountain canyons and second growth redwoods, before entering Dry Creek about a mile from the Russian River, and 35 miles from the sea.

Where to see the Wildflowers

Wildflower or Wildfire Hikes at Sonoma Regional Parks in April 2018

For directions and registration information, go to: parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Play/Calendar

April 8, 2018 from 10:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks: North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park: Explore the park’s spring wildflowers and the rich biodiversity. Search for blooms beneath the majestic redwoods, along Matanzas creek, amidst beautiful oaks and throughout open meadows as we climb the north slope of Sonoma Mountain. Enjoy lunch and breathtaking views from the Bennett Valley Overlook on this 5-mile hike.

April 14, 2018 from 9:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Wildfire Ecology Hikes - Hood Mountain Regional Park: How are the parks recovering from the Sonoma County wildfires? Join a Regional Parks naturalist on 7-mile hike in Hood Mountain Regional Park.

April 14, 2018 from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks - Taylor Mountain Regional Park - Petaluma Hill Road Entrance: Enjoy surprising stories and fascinating facts about nature’s blooming treasures as we search along the trail for spring wildflowers and spectacular scenery.

April 14, 2018 from 2:00 – 4:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks: Creekside Wildflower Walk -Crane Creek Regional Park: Explore edible, medicinal, useful and wondrous wildflowers. Spot remarkable blooms and discover their stories on this fun and informative 3-mile walk with a knowledgeable naturalist.

April 21, 2018 from 9:00 AM – 2:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks: Serpentine Secrets - Tolay Lake Regional Park: Join Regional Parks and the Sonoma Land Trust to experience spring’s riches at Tolay Lake Regional Park and discover rare, diverse and abundant displays of native wildflowers. Learn about California’s serpentine soils and their important and unique relationship with native wildflower species. Enjoy amazing views of San Pablo Bay and beyond on this 6-mile, semi-strenuous hike through open, rolling grasslands. Bring a hat, sunscreen, plenty of water and a picnic lunch.

April 28, 2018 from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Wildfire Ecology Hike - Sonoma Valley Regional Park: How are the parks recovering from the Sonoma County wildfires? Join a Regional Parks naturalist on an easy to moderate-level 3-mile hike in Sonoma Valley Regional Park in Glen Ellen.

April 29, 2018 from 10:00 AM – 12:00 PM
Spring Wildflower Walks: From Wildfire to Wildflower - Sonoma Valley Regional Park: Explore this unique botanical hotspot, observe splendid spring blooms, and discover the fascinating relationship between wildfire and wildflowers. This park was profoundly affected by the October 2017 Nuns Fire. Expect to see the park respond with an abundant and diverse display of wildflowers this spring — a beautiful reminder and charming celebration of nature’s resilience.

Wildflower and Wildfire Hikes at State Parks in Sonoma County in April 2018

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

For directions and registration information go to: sonomaecologycenter.org/events

April 8, 2018 from 9:30 AM – 1:30 PM
Join botanist Ann Howald of California Native Plant Society‘s Milo Baker chapter to tour areas of the park that burned in the October wildfires. The walk’s emphasis is on recovery of trees and shrubs that burned, and to look for wildflowers–possibly ones that follow fires and have not been seen for decades.

April 22, 2018 from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Join Botanist, Peter Warner, in this Earth Day Sugarloaf exploration! Fire is a powerful, rejuvenating force in California plant ecology. On this leisurely walk, with some elevation gains and losses, well observe and discuss the various effects of fire and its chemical by-products on the flora (and fauna) across several different habitat types, including grassland, oak woodland, and chaparral.

April 14, 15 and 28, 2018 from 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM
Join park naturalists and/or Sonoma Ecology Center staff to learn how to interpret fire landscapes at Sugarloaf that burned in the recent wildfires. Come see the land recover. We will be assessing burned trees, learning how to interpret fire-affected landscapes, and watching for special “fire follower” wildflowers. Discussion questions include: Why did this happen? What does it mean? How do we prepare for it happening again?

Jack London State Park

For directions and registration information for Jack London hikes, go to: jacklondonpark.com/jack-london-future-events.html

April 7, 2018 from 10:00 AM to 3:30 PM
Wildflowers on the East Slope Trail: It’s been a three years since the Eliot Loop Trail opened with the help of the Bay Area Ridge Trail and the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation & Open Space District. Join us as we discover an array of wildflowers that bloom along the trail while enjoying the fantastic views! We will expect to see carpets of California Poppies and Lupines at the top and a variety of wildflowers along the Sonoma Ridge trail. Join Park naturalist John Lynch as we take a moderately paced 12 mile nature hike to explore the wildflowers and anything else we find along the way.

Earth Day Wildflower Walk and Hike
April 21, 2018 from 10:00 AM to 12:00 PM (walk) and April 22, 2018 from 10:00 AM to 1:30 (hike)
This Earth Day weekend revel in the beauty of spring with either a wildflower walk or hike. These outdoor adventures will be led by naturalist John Lynch and focus on the interconnected web of nature at the Park. Saturday discover the wildflowers along the Wolf House trail on an easy short walk or on Sunday, take an intermediate 4 to 8 mile hike, we’ll go where the wildflowers are best, on back country trails to discover a wider variety of wildflowers. With both you can expect to see Canyon Delphinium, Chinese Houses, Golden Fairy Lantern, Lupine, Popcorn Flower, Mules Ears (2 varieties) as well as the birds, reptiles and other plants that make up the eco-system of the Park. Our hikes are slow-paced so allow plenty of time, bring cameras, binoculars, poles, plenty of water, snacks and wear sturdy shoes. Be prepared for uneven ground.

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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Experts consider the upper reaches of Mill Creek to have the perfect mix of what coho need to survive: steady flowing water, woody cover, cool pools and clean gravel beds for salmon eggs. Water flow is especially critical: after hatching, juvenile coho spend an entire year or more in the stream before heading to the sea. “Their biggest challenge,” Obedzinski says, “is surviving that first summer, because streams begin to dwindle and pools shrink as soon as rains end in February or March.”

Unfortunately, civilization has not been kind to the salmon’s streams. Today, about 95 percent of Sonoma County’s million acres are privately owned, and that means to survive the salmon must compete for water with the residents, ranches, vineyards, dairies and farms along their streams.

The other challenge coho face is the marathon swim home. After living two or three years in the Pacific Ocean, male and female salmon will successfully navigate upstream, through strong winter currents and rock-strewn mountain canyons, swimming to elevations of more than 1,500 feet, to find their ancestral stream and each other, to start the next generation.

Unless, of course, they meet a dam.

And that was the problem with Mill Creek: about a mile up, there was a dam. First built in the early 1900s in a narrow steep-sided canyon, it sits on four adjoining private properties, and is still being used as the source of drinking water for two creekside homes.

Just downstream of the dam, where the creek goes dry most summers, Obedzinski and her team found clusters of salmon egg nests, called redds, which the fish prepare in the gravel stream beds for spawning. But there were few to none in the next 11.5 miles upstream of the dam, in prime salmon habitat, where water flows even in the worst summer of the drought.

If there was any hope of recovering fish populations in Mill Creek, designated one of the top priorities for restoring salmon in the entire Russian River watershed, the obstruction, on private property, had to be breached.

Restoration project

In 2008, the Sonoma Conservation Resource District, a group with longstanding roots in the Mill Creek watershed, took up the challenge. RCD’s were born in the dust bowl days of the Roosevelt administration, to partner with farmers and ranchers to conserve and steward the land, by sharing best practices and information. Since the ’90s, local RCDs have also been involved in watershed conservation.

Sonoma RCD was in a unique position to approach the landowners. Their cultural philosophy, as Kara Heckert, Sonoma RCD’s executive director, explains, is to focus on mutually beneficial projects, as collaborators. They’re not regulators, and that is a key concern of rural residents and agricultural landowners, who are often deeply wary of government regulations, intrusion, and loss of independence.

“We empower private land owners to do what they can on their own,” Heckert notes. And by working with generations of ranchers, farmers and dairymen here over the past 70 years, they have earned their trust.

In 2009, the Sonoma RCD, working with the Sonoma County Water Agency, contacted the landowners to discuss a possible fish passage design, to be developed by Prunuske Chatham, Inc., a Sebastopol-based environmental consulting firm specializing in watershed rehabilitation. But in 2010, the landowners declined to go forward, uncomfortable with the scale of construction, months of heavy equipment and access roads and the potential loss of their drinking water.

The project found new life in 2013, as PCI Geomorphologist Lauren Hammack explains, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Trout Unlimited, a nonprofit grassroots organization working to restore and protect salmon and trout habitat, and PCI renewed contact and asked the creekside residents to reconsider. “To everyone’s immense gratitude,” Mary Ann King, director of Trout Unlimited’s Coastal Streamflows Restoration Project, says, they did.

Permitting and grants in hand, the design called for building up a new rising boulder creekbed below the dam, and a bypass to give salmon passage without removing the structure or water source for the homes.

PCI completed the project in October 2016.

By February 2017, more than eight coho redds had been counted upstream of the dam. And each redd may contain up to 2,500 eggs.

Salmon homecoming

The successful partnership on Mill Creek has provided a boost of optimism, particularly in light of similar ongoing efforts occurring across the entire watershed with streamside property owners.

On a mid-March morning, among the 80 specimens and seven species of fish found in their daily check of the Mill Creek monitoring station, Reinstein and Bauer found one 5-inch juvenile coho, called a smolt, heading to the ocean. The early smolt is a good sign. The peak of the run comes later, in April.

Every December in the ocean a hundred miles or so off the coast of California, a small spark awakes in the sleek silver coho salmon. Three years after entering the Pacific to feed and grow strong, a surging change in hormones turns the swimmer increasingly restless, and starts it on a marathon journey toward its spawning ground, and the creek where it started life.

Less than one percent of all the salmon that hatch or are stocked in the watershed will ever complete the round trip back home.

But thanks to the support and participation of Sonoma County landowners, this year, more will.

Stephen Nett is a Bodega Bay-based Certified California Naturalist, writer and speaker. Contact him at snett@californiasparks.com.

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