Water added to Camp Meeker's Dutch Bill Creek a 'lifesaver' for young fish

Thanks to a novel injection of cold, clear water, about 3,400 imperiled coho salmon and steelhead trout have a better chance of surviving in a west Sonoma County until winter rains can sweep them to safety in the Russian River.|

Thanks to a novel injection of cold, clear water from Camp Meeker’s water system, about 3,400 imperiled coho salmon and steelhead trout have a better chance of surviving in Dutch Bill Creek until rain sweeps them to safety in the Russian River.

Gurgling as it splashed down a narrow, rock-lined channel under towering redwoods, the gift of water to a shrinking creek was hailed last week by a group of officials from state and local agencies committed to saving the fish from the grip of California’s historic drought.

“This is incredibly exciting for me,” said David Hines of the National Marine Fisheries Service, calling the flow “literally a lifesaver” for the juvenile coho and steelhead trapped in pools along the creek that winds along Bohemian Highway to a confluence with the river at Monte Rio.

The water, delivered nonstop from a nearby Camp Meeker Recreation and Park District storage tank at 44 gallons a minute, amounts to just one-tenth of a cubic foot per second - minuscule compared with the current release of 110 cfs from Lake Sonoma’s Warm Springs Dam into the river near Healdsburg.

But it has more than doubled the volume of water in the creek, one of four primary coho-rearing waterways in Sonoma County, affording the fish a “minimum subsistence” flow for the rest of the summer, Hines said.

“A lot of coho in the other creeks aren’t going to make it,” he said, referring to Green Valley, Mark West and Mill creeks, and there’s a “distinct possibility” that coho could go extinct in the Russian River basin.

In June, the State Water Resources Control Board gave rushed approval to rules mandating water conservation measures by about 10,000 landowners in the four watersheds and requiring them to report the source and use of water on their properties to the state agency.

Residents have angrily faulted the conservation rules for exempting vineyards, and are now chafing under the complex water reporting system, but have widely agreed with the need to save the young fish. Coho and steelhead, along with chinook salmon, are local species that are born in fresh water, spend most of their lives in the ocean and return to fresh water to spawn.

Researchers counted 2,000 coho and 1,400 steelhead juveniles, 2 to 3 inches long, in a snorkeling survey last month on Dutch Bill Creek, said Mariska Obedzinski, a fish biologist who coordinates the UC Cooperative Extension’s coho monitoring program.

Coho salmon are listed as an endangered species in the Russian River; steelhead are a threatened species.

Camp Meeker is basically recirculating the creek’s water to aid the fish, said Gary Helfrich, a Camp Meeker Recreation and Park District board member.

The small district, which delivers water to 350 Camp Meeker homes, is entitled to draw 29 million gallons of water a year from two wells at the creek’s Monte Rio end. The water is pumped about 6 miles up Bohemian Highway to the community’s 6,700-gallon tank on a hill across from the Alliance Redwoods Conference Grounds.

There are no lawns in Camp Meeker and conservation-minded residents use only 30 gallons per person a day, Helfrich said, leaving the system with a comfortable surplus of 10 million gallons a year.

The concept of returning some of that water to the creek has been percolating for years, it turns out. Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center said he had been promoting the “crazy idea” for years, but it “never had legs” until the four-year drought finally made it appealing.

“It seemed like such a no-brainer,” he said. “Just putting in a valve (on the Camp Meeker water tank) and a pipe.”

John Green, lead scientist with the Gold Ridge Conservation District, had shared the idea and helped make it happen, laying 450 feet of flexible pipe that snakes down the hill from the tank, through a culvert under the highway and spills water into the creek channel on Alliance Redwoods property.

Flowing 24/7, the release will add more than 63,000 gallons a day to Dutch Bill Creek and will continue until rain swells the creek naturally.

Green said the effort, including materials and staff time, cost about $1,000. He also has grant funding to compensate the Camp Meeker district for the cost of pumping the extra water up from the river.

Helfrich said the biggest obstacle was securing approval from numerous state and federal agencies.

Steven Moore, a state water board member, applauded the project for simplicity and for answering the state’s call for voluntary efforts to bolster the flow in coho-rearing creeks.

“What’s amazing is this is native water from the watershed,” Moore said, noting that the non-chlorinated water has the same chemistry as the creek water. “It’s an elegant solution,” he said.

Fish surveys in the creek will ultimately assess the impact of the added water, Hines said, but he believes it is certain to make a difference.

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