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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.

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.