Work to continue on second half of Dry Creek restoration

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Overlooking water that was swiftly running through a broad channel that was mostly a patch of thick brush and trees until last year, local and federal officials and others on Monday marked the halfway point in a 13-year, $81 million fish habitat restoration project along Dry Creek.

In the past seven years, Sonoma Water and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have completed about 3 of the 6 miles of streambed they intend to rehabilitate and enhance to give endangered salmonid species that call the creek home a better chance to survive.

“This is, I think, one of the gems of our region and really a highlight project,” Army Corps Brigadier General Kimberly Colloton told those assembled.

As they toasted the conclusion of the final phase in the first round of projects at the edge of a Ferrari-Carano vineyard in Healdsburg, the two key partners approved an agreement committing to continued work on the effort.

But they have little choice. A 2008 biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service required the two agencies to restore 6 out of 14 miles of Dry Creek. The work had to be done if they were to continue operating the Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma for flood control and water deliveries to 600,000 consumers throughout Sonoma and northern Marin counties.

The order came in response to findings that water releases made since completion of the dam in 1984 were often at too high a velocity for juvenile fish to rest or feed adequately. Moreover, such fast-moving water further scoured and straightened out the streambed, exacerbating the problem.

The work they’ve been doing since is designed to spread the creek out, creating side- and cross-channels and dead-ended alcoves that slow the water down to a stop. They’ve added giant root wads, boulders, tree stumps and other woody debris to create places for small fish to hide and rest, and put in willows and other plants on the banks for shade.

“We want to connect the stream to its flood plain,” said Joel Flannery, project manager for the Army Corps. “The lingo we use is connectivity.”

The Earth Day gathering brought together dozens of people from the lead agencies, as well as local elected officials, Congressman Jared Huffman, members of the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The event included the requisite speeches and acknowledgments of the challenges inherent in the undertaking, which was dependent on the willingness of about four dozen landowners to provide permanent easements. That allowed for construction of the restoration projects and continued access for maintenance and monitoring of their progress.

“Normal restoration, we call dating,” quipped Sonoma County Supervisor and water agency Director James Gore. “This is marriage.”

Vineyard owner Rhonda Carano said she’s been able to witness the amazing life cycle of steelhead trout and salmon from some of the 24 vineyards she and her late husband, Don, developed along Dry Creek and the Russian River.

Carano said participating in restoration projects like the one celebrated Monday is just part of trying to farm sustainably, with a conscious eye toward protecting the earth.

She said her director of vineyard operations, Steve Domenichelli, recently saw a bald eagle dive down into the newly constructed side channel and grab a salmon.

“It’s an unbelievable project actually, even how they did everything in the early stages in some of the photos I’ve seen,” Carano said.

Colloton said the work also benefits landowners by controlling erosion and improving water quality.

The larger point, officials said, is that it’s working for the fish — endangered coho salmon, and threatened chinook salmon and steelhead trout. Fish are using all the features installed since work began in 2012, Sonoma Water General Manager Grant Davis said.

The project is successful enough that Warm Springs Fish Hatchery had been authorized to double the number of fish released next year to take advantage of the newly restored habitat, said Bob Coey, North Coast branch manager for the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The hatchery currently produces about 700,000 steelhead trout and coho salmon young each year for release into Dry Creek and other Russian River tributaries.

“We had a vision,” said Eric Larson, a Fish and Wildlife environmental program manager who participated in development of the biological opinion.

“This is what we envision. Each one of these projects we go back now and it has fish in there.”

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

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