A massive concrete structure, built to withstand floods and earthquakes beside the Russian River near Forestville, is the latest step toward restoring the river’s beleaguered salmon and steelhead populations.
The 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county residents who get their drinking water from the river paid for most of the $12 million fish ladder, which includes both a video monitoring system so scientists can count the migrating fish and a viewing gallery that will give the public a glimpse as well.
Grant Davis, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency, which developed the facility, said it offered a unique, submarine vantage point in California to watch wild salmon make their way upstream.
“This is open-heart surgery that we accomplished in our river system,” he said.
At a formal ribbon-cutting attended by about 150 people Wednesday, state Sen. Mike McGuire hailed the fish ladder as “a legacy project.”
“The Russian River is who we are in Sonoma County,” he said, noting that the river’s once-abundant salmon and steelhead long fed the region’s Pomo Indian tribes.
Chuck Bonham, director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, lauded the project as a pivotal one for salmon recovery in California.
Describing the annual migration of river-born fish to the ocean and back to their own spawning grounds, Bonham said, “What journey is more inspiring than that one?”
Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said it was “a heavy lift to get here. You just don’t see projects like this today.”
The star attraction of the day — migrating chinook salmon — were largely no-shows.
There likely were scores of the silvery fish swimming slowly past the six large windows built into the underwater viewing gallery, but they were concealed most of the time by brown, silt-laden water following rains that more than doubled the river’s flow since last week.
Replays of video footage of the chinook passing through the fish ladder last month, however, showed evidence their fall run was off to a promising start.
The fish ladder was completed in August, in time for the start of the chinook run on Oct. 2, and cameras had captured 531 fish through Oct. 19, said David Manning, the Water Agency’s environmental resources manager. The estimated total to date is about 1,000 chinook swimming past the Mirabel facility, he said.
“It’s shaping up to be a great year,” Manning said.
On Nov. 2 last year, the count was 124 salmon, and at the same point in 2014, it was 67 fish, he said, adding that the fall run started earlier than usual this year thanks to October rains. It is too soon to know if the annual total will be above the recent annual average of 3,000 fish. Historically, tens of thousands of salmon and steelhead migrated up the watershed to spawn, but those runs dwindled as dams, logging, gravel mining, farming and urban development took a toll on fish habitat.
Recently, drought and poor ocean conditions have also decimated runs statewide. Since 2006, the annual chinook salmon count at Mirabel has fluctuated between 1,125 fish in 2008 to 6,713 in 2012, with an estimate of 4,000 last year, when the fish ladder was under construction.