Spotlight: New Habitat Restoration – January 2020

  • by Will Holbert
  • Jan 17, 2020
  • Newsletters

A group of water managers, environmentalists, scientists, and equipment operators pose in front of a river-friendly bulldozer during a meeting held at the restoration site, celebrating three years of project planning and three intense weeks of construction. Strong collaboration among diverse stakeholders makes this restoration project for salmon and steelhead a success.

New Habitat Restoration Project Nurtures Record Number of Salmon Nests on American River

Kat Perkins, a scientist with the Sacramento Water Forum, recently pored over an aerial image of the lower American River near Sacramento looking for redds—underwater depressions or nests created by female salmon to lay their eggs. Part of an annual ritual to systematically count redds first by inspecting aerial imagery and then in person, last year she found zero. This year was a different story—the area teemed with redds—more than 345 by early December, and nearly 600 by the end of that month.

The difference? A new habitat restoration effort completed in fall 2019 to protect salmon and steelhead in the lower American River, spearheaded by the Sacramento Water Forum in partnership with Sacramento County Parks, ACWA member Sacramento County Water Agency and local water providers, along with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and other federal, state and local agencies. Over three weeks last September, the project placed more than 14,000 cubic yards of cleaned and sorted gravel into the river and carved out a new side channel to help fish spawn and rear their young.

Habitat restoration work plays a major role in Voluntary Agreements on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta, currently under development through a broad-based coalition that includes government agencies, landowners and farmers, conservation groups and water agencies. 

“This and numerous habitat projects throughout the state demonstrate the great potential behind Voluntary Agreements,” Perkins said. “Collaboration drives the success behind these projects, and a collaborative approach defines how Voluntary Agreements can work to benefit ecosystems and threatened species.”

 The lower American River is home to 43 fish species, including struggling fall-run Chinook salmon and federally threatened Central Valley steelhead, as well as serving as a major water supply source for nearly 2 million people. The river and parkway, which runs 23 miles along the river’s shores, hosts up to 8 million visitors and brings $364 million into the local economy each year.

“The results are gratifying,” said Tom Gohring, Executive Director of the Water Forum, a nearly 20-year-old organization that represents a diverse group of local water providers such as Sacramento County Water Agency, environmental organizations and governments focused on safeguarding the lower American River for both drinking water and wildlife. “Salmon were here long before we were. Nurturing their survival is not only important to sustaining a species but to also sustaining our region’s indentity and quality of life.”

A before-and-after photograph mapping habitat restoration work on the American River. Photos courtesy of Sacramento Water Forum

The restoration project is part of the Water Forum’s ongoing science program that uses cutting-edge techniques to further understand how to improve the river’s environment for fish survival. Over the past several years, Water Forum studies have produced detailed information about the conditions salmon and steelhead find ideal for spawning and rearing their young, including:

  • Detailed underwater maps of the lower American River to identify the best locations for enhancing habitat that won’t also impact flood safety.
  • The ideal size of gravel and river flow for spawning.
  • How long it takes for salmon to use a restoration site after construction, and how long they continue to use the site.
  • How cover (woody material, branches or tree roots) in a side channel improves survival for juvenile fish.

This year’s effort was the region’s ninth project restoring fish spawning gravel beds and improving juvenile fish rearing habitat on the lower American River. Since 2008, the Water Forum and its partners have invested more than $7 million to create over 30 acres of spawning beds and 1.2 miles of side channels.

“These projects truly represent what can be accomplished when local, state and federal agencies work together toward a common purpose,” Gohring said, noting that the team responsible for this project includes scientists from the Bureau, Water Forum, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Additional project partners included the Sacramento Area Flood Control Agency and the City of Sacramento Department of Utilities, which provided crews and heavy equipment to the project.

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