Trinity River Restoration Project a Collaborative Success

  • by Dave Eggerton
  • Jul 19, 2019
  • Voices on Water

During a recent trip to the Trinity River, I learned about the many challenges facing its salmon and steelhead populations. 

Seasonal floods no longer cleared away excessive brush, which built up over time into steeper banks that unnaturally channelized the river. This in turn affected how river flows distributed gravel, the starting point for the salmon and steelhead lifecycle. Flows, droughts, temperatures and growing demands on water supplies from the river over time interconnected into a complex web of consequences that brought the Trinity to where it is today, a river that looks beautiful but bears little resemblance to what it once was.

But there is hope and evidence of progress in realizing ecological benefits of the past. A holistic approach to habitat restoration doesn’t rely on a single silver bullet solution, but applies a comprehensive set of actions that rely on collaboration between local tribes, federal and state agencies, and local government agencies such as ACWA-member Weaverville Community Services District (WCSD). Known as the Trinity River Restoration Project (TRRP), this broad-based effort shows great potential in reversing the decline in migratory fish populations. Scientists working within the project have tracked an increase in the number of outgoing juvenile salmon headed to sea and that increase will hopefully repeat itself with more adult fish returning to spawn.

Restoring the Trinity’s natural functions won’t depend on a single solution, no more than their decline stemmed from a lone cause. Targeted, high-flow releases matched with habitat restoration work is attempting to reverse unnatural channelization by re-introducing flood plains and scouring the river bottom. Boulders and logs placed in the river also diversify flows and slow the current to increase habitat quality for young fish. WCSD itself, while not a partner agency within TRRP, also cooperated with project scientists to integrate habitat restoration into a redesign of its river intake site. 

Those are just a few of many examples I saw that reflect a long-term investment in the health and well-being of the Trinity and its ecosystem. It’s the variety and sophistication of the  efforts to achieve progress on the river and its tributaries and the dedication of the men and women behind this work, including scientists and water managers, that hold the greatest promise for meaningful, lasting change.

This collaborative approach among so many partners who are integrating multiple tactics toward a single goal has precedent. Twenty years ago, restoration work on Butte Creek backed by federal, state and local government agencies set the stage for a stunning comeback in the Chinook salmon population. ACWA member agencies played an important role in this success story, including Western Canal Water District locally and Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Further south, the Lower Yuba River Accord has also demonstrated great potential for restoring fish populations through collaboration among conservation groups, state and federal agencies, and the Yuba Water Agency.

Each of these efforts reflect a commitment to collaboration among multiple parties that relies on a variety of approaches – all the tools in the toolbox. What I saw on the Trinity illustrates the promise and potential for this process to work on a much wider scope and scale throughout our state.  It’s why I am convinced the tireless efforts of our member agencies and the Governor’s One Water Team to realize Voluntary Agreements for comprehensive investments in the tributaries to the Bay-Delta can and will work.

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