Close to Home: How local salmon are tied to Central Valley flood decisions

In the Russian River watershed, residents understand what floods mean and why it's important to protect people and property from high water. But it's less obvious that Sonoma County residents also have a stake in flood management decisions in the Central Valley.

It's a short trip as the crow flies from Santa Rosa or Ukiah, east over the mountains, to the Central Valley. Flood waters there can increase the salmon harvests that support Bodega Bay, Fort Bragg, Point Arena and California's $1 billion-plus fishing industry.

Floodplains are the seasonally dry, mostly flat areas adjacent to river banks that go underwater during floods. Over the past 150 years, Californians built levees to cut off Central Valley rivers from 95 percent of their historic floodplains. In very wet years like this one, flood waters are directed into the few remaining Central Valley floodplains, like the Sutter and Yolo bypasses, to keep surrounding farms, towns and cities dry. (Without those floodplains, Sacramento almost certainly would have flooded this year, and critical levees would have likely failed.) When we allow water to flow into these floodplains, baby salmon are carried in as well, to find a rich brew of microscopic life to eat.

After a few weeks gobbling the tiny bugs that flourish in these shallow, slow-moving waters, salmon in floodplains are bigger and stronger than fish feeding in mainstem river channels. This increases their survival. Most are believed to make it back to the rivers or to the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta and survive their trip to the ocean at much higher rates. This is one of the reasons why, two years after wet years, we see more adult salmon in the ocean. Since most of California's salmon come from the Central Valley, floodplains there play a key role for fishermen.

All of our best fishing years have been two years after very wet winters, with 1988 setting the modern record after the wet winter of 1986. The catch in 1988 created an estimated 100,000 good-paying jobs worth billions of dollars in economic activity.

Not all Sonoma County residents fish for salmon, but nearly everyone benefits from this delicious, healthy, sustainable, local food. Strong salmon runs support jobs far from the dock - in restaurants, bait shops, fish markets, boat dealerships, hotels and more. People come from all over the state to coastal counties to fish for salmon. Salmon are part of our history and our quality of life. Every year, fishing families look forward to introducing the next generation to the excitement of catching salmon. So smart Central Valley flood projects that give baby salmon more access to food-rich floodplains deserve all of our support.

In the wake of the spillway failure at Oroville Dam and recent floods, the state Legislature is now debating measures to pay for new flood facilities. State and local Central Valley flood agencies are designing new projects to reduce flood risk and the Central Valley Flood Board is writing a new state flood plan.

The debate about Central Valley flood management is also a debate about the future of salmon, fishing families and fishing ports from Santa Barbara to Washington. The good news is that smart flood projects that expand or restore floodplains can benefit Central Valley cities, towns and farms as well as native salmon populations and coastal fishing communities.

Coastal counties will greatly benefit if state policymakers focus on flood safety solutions that include floodplain restoration and expansion. This approach protects people and property while helping struggling salmon runs to recover from the severe damage they suffered during the drought.

John McManus is executive director of the Golden Gate Salmon Association.

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