Salmon success

The SF Chronicle has an article about the success of the Butte Creek salmon run, near Chico.

The number of spawning fish returning from the ocean to Butte Creek increased 10 percent from 2006 to 2007, Harthorn said. By the look of things, he said, even more fish are returning this year.

But the most dramatic resurgence occurred over the past 10 years, when an average of almost 10,000 salmon a year swam back up the creek, according to Harthorn, who co-founded Friends of Butte Creek in 1999 after years battling farming interests and Pacific Gas and Electric over its DeSabla-Centerville plant.

It is a minor miracle that there are any salmon at all wriggling their way up Butte Creek, given that only 14 fish returned to spawn in 1987.

The dismal return outraged environmentalists and prompted a desperate effort to save the fish. About $30 million was spent by the state on a variety of projects over the years, including the removal of six small dams, the building of fish ladders and the insertion of numerous screens to keep salmon out of water diversion pipes.

The construction of Shasta Dam on the Sacramento, Friant Dam on the San Joaquin, Folsom Dam on the American and Oroville Dam on the Feather River over the past century cut off huge sections of river, wiping out much of the spring run.

Numerous smaller dams were built on the various creeks that fed the rivers. Diversions of freshwater to cities and farms, pumping operations and exposure to pollutants all contributed to the reduction of the once-mighty salmon runs.

Fisheries experts and environmentalists throughout the Sacramento River system would like to duplicate the restoration work done on Butte Creek, but finding the money and navigating through the bureaucracy is always a problem, especially with so many competing interests, like PG&E and the various water contractors.

There has been limited success removing migration obstacles on smaller tributaries, but there is very little hope that any of the big dams will ever be removed and bypassing them would cost a fortune, according to state fisheries experts.

While it’s heartening that nature can overcome such huge odds, less so is the vanishing possibility that it will get a chance to do so.

2 Responses to “Salmon success”

  1. Pat Ferraro Says:



    Thanks for the salmon overview on the statewide basis.

    The story of the return of salmon to the Guadalupe River in San Jose is tied more to its high tech industrial activity than to watershed restoration efforts that we talk about today.

    In the mid 80’s, we discovered a horrible oversight of our otherwise-genius pioneers of Silicon Valley. They neglected to think that solvents dissolve stuff as well as rinse off electronic parts, and the tanks and pipes holding them started to leak into out precious underground aquifer.

    The bright Stanford grads working at a South San Jose semiconductor company were quite embarrassed that their “tank that never filled” was poisoning well water a mile or two away.

    IBM had an even bigger problem. The brilliant folks at that facility buried all their chemical solvent storage tanks in a gravelly area on the campus, so any leakage could just flush away quickly. Secondary containment, which was later mandated along with monitoring wells, was not ever considered as part of good management practices.

    The cost of IBM’s ignorance of nature and environmental health soon turned into a $90 million water bill, as the hydrogeologists determined that IBM had sunk their tank farm in an old alignment of Coyote Creek, that nature later filled with gravel during succeeding floods. And the chemical plumes were heading to our main groundwater basin that serves most of San Jose its drinking water.

    High capacity well pumps were quickly installed down gradient of the several leaking solvent tanks, and IBM began pumping 15 million gallons per day of contaminated groundwater and dumping it down a storm drain. The volatile organic chemicals in the water would the release from the water into the atmosphere where they began destroying ozone when they reach that endangered level. Another big unintended consequence!

    All this water continued to flow toward the Guadalupe River through a somewhat lined channel called Canoas Creek. Canoas Creek once functioned as an overflow channel from the Coyote Creek, a condition forever interrupted when the railroad placed an embankment across the channel over a century ago.

    Once this water began flowing all year down the Guadalupe River, the salmon began to run within a few short years. Some of NGO’s that focus on stream restoration today may have the actual run history. But the fact that a huge groundwater cleanup operation from the Valley’s biggest and oldest high tech employer supplied the necessary water for restoring a salmon run in the middle of a huge metropolis is a strange kind of legacy that could only happen in the wild west, in this wildest part now called Silicon Valley.

    A good place to end, except that the legacy since has shifted the burden of providing the necessary stream flow for the salmon runs onto the public, namely the Santa Clara Valley Water District. All the Water District dam permits from the State require that the owner make necessary releases to protect existing fisheries. A large number of people were suddenly employed by the Water District to learn their new role of salmon stewards. Eventually the District, under Stan Williams’ leadership, amended the District Act (in a good way this time) to be the authorized steward of our county’s watersheds.

    Our endless work awaits us.

    Never Thirst!

    Pat Ferraro

  2. brthomas Says:

    Its nice to hear a success story on
    restoration of Butte Creek. Lets hope that the upcoming
    Battle Creek restoration is equally successful!

    Butte Creek Recreation & Conservation Directory.

Working to build a local, sustainable food system in San José