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Volunteers sought to share water with drought-threatened fish

What if you had just enough water to spare to make a life-or-death difference for vulnerable coho salmon or a steelhead trout stranded in a drought-stricken stream?

Federal and state fish and wildlife officials hope there may be grape growers or other landowners in key areas of the lower Russian River watershed who might be willing to share some of their water to support endangered coho and threatened steelhead.

It doesn’t take much.

“Picture a garden hose with, like, a quarter of the faucet on,” said Rick Rogers, fish biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s not like water is gushing out. It’s almost kind of like a trickle is enough to keep those riffles wetted to where you don’t see that drop in water quality that leads to the fish die-offs.”

The point is to introduce enough water at the right time to keep the shallow riffles between deeper pools flowing. That will connect pools, and the turbulence will aerate the water to ensure fish have sufficient oxygen.

The conditions may still not allow young fish to thrive, but they might survive, said Sarah Nossaman Pierce, a fisheries biologist with California Sea Grant and the Russian River Monitoring Program.

“We’re talking ‘survival’ a lot these days,” she said regretfully.

NOAA Fisheries and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife introduced the Voluntary Drought Initiative in 2014, during the last prolonged drought, said Dan Wilson, division manager for operations and policy with NOAA Fisheries’ California Coastal Office.

Renewed last summer, it’s now a permanent program that allows property owners to agree to conserve water and augment stream flows in four priority creeks — some of the last strongholds for California Central Coast coho salmon. They are Dutch Bill, Green Valley, Mark West and Mill creeks.

Voluntary Drought Initiative.PDF

A partnership with Jackson Family Wines paid off during the last drought, for instance, when water released into Green Valley Creek kept the stream wet during a critical period, “keeping fish alive,” Wilson said.

The Camp Meeker Water District has a similar arrangement for Dutch Bill Creek.

“We estimated in the last drought that roughly 3,400 coho would have perished without this flow augmentation,” Wilson said.

Prospective participants would be landowners with storage reservoirs or wells some distance from the creek, to ensure water drawn from them would not disrupt creek flow.

The infrastructure involved is minimal — mostly tubing and a pump, Rogers said — though the specifics of individual situations are unique.

The Fish and Wildlife department has funding set aside that can be used for equipment, he said.

Similar efforts also are underway in the Navarro River watershed in southern Mendocino County and in the Napa River watershed in Napa County, Rogers said.

But despite hundreds of letters sent out to landowners in the four Sonoma County creek watersheds earlier this year, only a handful of responses have been received, he and Wilson said.

“This is an opportunity to really help,” Wilson said.

Anyone interested in learning more can contact BDRDrought@wildlife.ca.gov or calcoastalvdi.wcr@noaa.gov.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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