Salmon in the Rice Fields

Another story on this wonderful project, from Inside Climate News.

An excerpt.

“It’s easy to see how biologists studying the fate of California’s native fish might fall into despair. That’s how Jacob Katz felt when he and his colleagues reported in 2011 that more than three-quarters of the state’s native freshwater fish, including its iconic Chinook salmon, were in sharp decline. 

“But Katz, a fly-fishing ecologist who directs Central Valley operations for the conservation nonprofit California Trout, isn’t the despairing type. His eyes lit up as he recalled the moment he realized the same forces leading California’s fish to the brink of extinction could be harnessed to reel them back. 

“That epiphany now drives his work. Restoration isn’t about removing any one dam or returning to some mythical pristine condition but about helping salmon recognize the rivers they evolved with, said Katz, walking along a flood-protection levee that cuts off the Sacramento River, California’s longest, from the thousands of farms and towns that occupy its historic floodplains. When you realize “farms or fish” is a false choice, he said, “suddenly you see that you can have both.”

“California’s labyrinthine system of dams and levees cut off once roaring rivers from millions of acres of their floodplains, drastically reducing the habitat and food salmon need to thrive. Climate change may hasten extinctions by raising water temperatures and disrupting flows with bigger floods and more frequent and severe droughts, which also threaten to reignite conflicts over increasingly scarce water. 

“But such dire prospects have inspired a novel alliance in one of the most productive agricultural valleys in the country, which has turned adversaries into allies to offer salmon and other threatened wildlife a lifeline.

“Farmers in the Sacramento Valley have partnered with biologists, water regulators and conservation groups to imagine “a new way forward” to restore wild fish runs. They aim to create what Katz calls a “string of pearls” along the Sacramento River by reconnecting the highly leveed waterway with its floodplains at places most likely to benefit fish. 

“That might involve adding gates to weirs that open so young salmon can move in and out of fields or pumping fish food into rivers. If the plan succeeds, it will turn the same fields that grow rice for people in the summer into rearing habitat and food factories for young salmon during the winter, increasing their odds of reaching the ocean and, ultimately, returning to spawn. 

“Salmon need unimpeded migration corridors, both as juveniles and adults, and the ability to migrate thousands of miles in the ocean and come back,” said Robin Waples, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center whose pioneering work on the population genetics of salmon led to listing Pacific salmon species as endangered.

“But just about everything people do related to urbanization, agriculture, forestry and road building harm salmon, Waples said. All have conspired to make one of nature’s most improbable migrations nearly impossible. 

“Before settlers dammed the valley’s rivers and drained its marshes, a dynamic mosaic of seasonal wetlands and riparian forests supported millions of salmon that fed wolves, grizzlies and bald eagles that once inhabited much of the state. Every year rivers swelled with winter rains and spring snowmelt, overflowing their banks and spreading out slowly across the floodplains. 

“We drained the entire valley at a time when we didn’t realize the water’s importance for fish and birds,” said Roger Cornwell, who works with Katz as manager of River Garden Farms, which grows rice, wheat and other crops on 15,000 acres northwest of Sacramento in Knights Landing. “Once you disconnected the land and the water, that really changed things. Now we’re starting to understand that there’s a great opportunity to reverse that.”

Retrieved January 5, 2021 from Harnessing Rice Fields to Resurrect California’s Endangered Salmon – Inside Climate News

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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