Interview with a Habitat: River

July 19, 2019

Float along with NOAA as we interview the Russian River in California and discuss water quantity, riverbank restoration, and more.

Russian River and Jenner bridge in California

The Russian River in California.

Meet the Russian River

We’re talking with the Russian River, which flows southward through Mendocino and Sonoma Counties, California. Thanks for being here—can you tell us a bit about what you are and what you do?

Thanks for stopping by to chat with me! I’m the second-largest river in the Northern San Francisco Bay area. Currently, I provide habitat and transportation services for important fish species, including coho and Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. I bring these fish downstream from their spawning grounds back to the ocean—and I support them on their way back up, too. You could say I’m like a full-time bus driver for fish! I love where I am, and I am proud that NOAA awarded me with the distinction of being a Habitat Focus Area!

What do you tend to see along your route?

My route starts in the coastal range in Mendocino County. From there, I go south along valleys and farmlands, and at the end of my route, I flow into the Russian River estuary and finally into the Pacific Ocean about 60 miles north of San Francisco. 

A lot of forests and meadows were altered for agriculture, forestry, and development. But people have helped to restore some of my key habitat, like tributaries, that are important for baby fish. Some of my friends at NOAA are currently working to convert eyesore gravel pits to beautiful salmon habitat. It’s going to make a huge difference in my daily commute! 

What are your favorite fish to swim through your waters?

Gee, I’ve got to say I love those baby coho salmon, they are just the cutest little critters! Twenty years ago, they almost never came around. All the water was being used up, and barriers and pollution kept the adults from swimming up to my nursery grounds. But since then, they’ve come back, thanks to my friends at NOAA Fisheries and partners in California. They started the Russian River Coho Broodstock Program (named after me, what an honor!) and teamed up to bring those little fish back.

coho3.jpg

Juvenile Central California Coast coho.

Meeting Competing Needs for Water

What are some of your strengths and weaknesses?

My cool waters are the best place to kayak or relax in the summers. In the old days, people in San Francisco used to take a boat across the Bay and then ride in horse-drawn carriages to camp and swim along my shores. They’d stay for months at a time!

I will admit, I can be pretty moody—I’m highly susceptible to drought and flooding. Lately, I’ve been really stressed by climate change, and that’s definitely made the problem worse. Rains and droughts are getting more extreme and more unpredictable. But recently, NOAA and Sonoma County have helped get my moods back in check with water conservation tanks that improve flows throughout the year.

Can you tell us about a specific challenge that you overcame?

Since I get my waters entirely from rain and atmospheric rivers, it’s really hard to predict when I’ll get too much water or not enough. If it rains too hard I sometimes flood the surrounding communities or farmlands, or I leave the fish and farmers without water for months. NOAA has helped me and the community by teaming up with the Army Corps of Engineers, Sonoma County, and other partners to create Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations (PDF, 22 pages) program. 

With FIRO, all the agencies work together to predict (PDF, 2 pages) when the rain will come. They find the best time to release water from Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino. Now, we can make sure the farmers, fish and communities along the mainstem have enough water when they need it!

Working Together to Restore Habitat

Who are your biggest supporters?

Restoring my waters is a full time job! Sonoma County, Mendocino County, and the State of California have been a huge help to me. Not to mention my other partners, like Trout Unlimited, the U.S. Geological Survey, Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District, the Sonoma and Mendocino County Farm Bureaus, and the California Sea Grant. I really couldn’t have become the beautiful river I am today without all the help from NOAA and my other friends!

What other habitats do you admire?

I’ve been really impressed with the Penobscot River in Maine. I mostly have to deal with low water levels preventing my fish passage. The Penobscot has a bunch of dams and barriers that have kept fish away and really hurt its Atlantic salmon population. Recently, the Penobscot River Restoration Trust has restored more than a thousand miles of habitat, and it’s been working. Sturgeon, river herring and Atlantic salmon are coming back after years and years. It’s really inspiring to see what a little hard work can do!

Looking to the Future

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Since I became a Habitat Focus Area five years ago, we’ve made so much progress. We're restoring my key functions that support the communities of the Northern San Francisco Bay area. But I want to see more! More restoration projects, more habitat for struggling fish species, and more salmon coming back to spawn and flourish in my waters. I’m a valuable part of the California ecosystem and I’m excited to get better and more beautiful every year.