Spring-run Chinook salmon may once again return to their historical habitat high in the Sierra Nevadas. An evolving agreement between government agencies, water agencies, and environmental groups is setting in motion efforts to return threatened Central Valley spring-run Chinook salmon to the North Yuba River and restore its habitat in the lower portion of the river.
Known as the “Yuba Salmon Partnership Initiative,” the historic agreement between NOAA Fisheries, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Yuba County Water Agency, American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance seeks to reintroduce fish to historical habitat upstream of New Bullards Bar Dam—providing fish access to more than 30 miles of cold water habitat ideal for a species that evolved to spend summers in mountain streams prior to spawning in the fall. The agreement also creates a program to enhance salmon and steelhead habitat in the lower Yuba River downstream of Englebright Dam.
California’s Central Valley has a series of dams that block salmon and steelhead from accessing up to 80 percent of their historical habitat. Habitat for these populations is further reduced below the dams because of current drought conditions. The drought, coupled with climate change predictions that project longer, drier spells in the future, place Central Valley’s salmon and steelhead populations at increased risk of extinction. Efforts to reintroduce fish above these barriers into cold water habitat is critical for their long-term recovery.
The salmon reintroduction program would be one of the first “collect and transport” programs in California, much like those successfully used in Oregon and Washington to move salmon around dams too tall for conventional fish ladders. If implemented as envisioned in the agreement, adult salmon would bypass the dams using specially designed collection facilities and trucks. Juvenile salmon migrating to the ocean in the winter and spring would be gathered in collection facilities above New Bullards Bar Dam and transported downstream past the dams to resume their journey. Threatened spring-run Chinook salmon will be the focus of the reintroduction, and if successful the program could be expanded to include federally threatened steelhead trout.
Habitat restoration in the lower Yuba River will likely include improvements to fish passage at Daguerre Point Dam, improved riparian vegetation, measures to restore spawning habitat, and actions to improve rearing habitat for juvenile fish. This will likely include the expansion of side channel and floodplain areas to promote rapid growth of young salmon before they migrate to the ocean.
These collective actions will contribute to the recovery of spring-run Chinook salmon, which was listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1999. NOAA Fisheries’ 2014 Central Valley Recovery Plan identifies the need to reestablish salmon into the North Yuba River as a priority for the species’ recovery. The agency’s goal is to reintroduce salmon to habitat it hasn’t utilized in more than 90 years while simultaneously minimizing regulatory requirements on local land and water users.
The Yuba Salmon Partnership Initiative (YSPI) is an evolving effort that started in 2011 when the partners began exploring the possibility of reintroduction. The YSPI includes a Term Sheet that will guide a binding settlement agreement between the signatories. This settlement agreement will form the basis for the reintroduction and habitat restoration program, and it’s anticipated to be completed by December 15, 2015. It will outline specific actions for making the reintroduction a success, such as the funding sources and the facilities that will transport fish. Once these steps are completed, a pilot program could begin within 5-7 years, with full-scale reintroduction starting in 10-15 years.