By Sara Tremayne
Salmon are back in Putah Creek again, brought up by a weeklong pulse of water provided by the Solano County Water Agency. The return of the Chinook salmon to Putah Creek is a nearly annual event and, according to Peter Moyle, a UC Davis professor and renowned fisheries expert, signifies the recovery of Putah Creek as significant habitat for native fishes.
Every year during the first week of December, the Los Rios Check Dam is removed from Putah Creek and additional water is released from Berryessa and the Putah Creek Diversion Dam to attract salmon upstream. The check dam in the Yolo Bypass is the first dam an upstream-migrating salmon in Putah Creek would reach on its journey from the ocean to spawning areas upstream.
This year, the check dam was removed on Dec. 2, and by Dec. 6, landowners in Winters already had reported seeing salmon in Putah Creek.
“It’s very exciting,” said Libby Earthman, executive director of the Putah Creek Council. “Every year around this time we eagerly await the return of salmon, but we don’t often get to see them because there are either so few, or the water is so murky from runoff events. This year the water is very clear, and some landowners have watched them spawn.”
Salmon hatch from eggs laid in the gravel bed of cold streams, live in the creek for a couple of months, and then migrate out to the ocean. They typically return to the creek where they were born to spawn, and continue the cycle.
“I like to think that we have returnees from previous spawnings in Putah Creek,” Moyle said. “I dream of years when the creek is so full of salmon that spawners can be watched from the pedestrian bridge in Winters.”
It has been 25 years since local residents banded together to form Putah Creek Council, a group of residents dedicated to protecting and enhancing the streamside habitat along Putah Creek, and protecting flows for native fish. The group led a 10-year-long lawsuit that established the Putah Creek Accord, an agreement that includes a flow regime that favors native fish and the habitats on which they and other wildlife depend.
During the prolonged drought that began in 1989, the water released from Putah Diversion Dam was inadequate to maintain flows in the creek beyond the first few miles downstream of the Putah Diversion Dam. The streambed was littered with dead fish. Putah Creek Council rallied the community, including landowners, UC Davis and the cities of Winters and Davis, in an effort to bring water back to the creek, and established habitat restoration programs to improve the habitat that remained.
“Since the lawsuit was settled in year 2000, the citizens of California have invested over $10 million of water bond and grant funding into habitat enhancement of Putah Creek,” said Rich Marovich, Putah Creek streamkeeper. “We have seen incredible work done on Putah Creek in the past 10 years. We have seen the wildlife respond in ways no one dared imagine was possible.
“Putah Creek Council is justifiably proud of leading the way for the restoration of Putah Creek, including the return of salmon. Without Putah Creek Council, none of this would have happened,” he continued. “Just as profound as the restoration of the creek is the restoration of a community once divided by litigation over flows, now working together in perpetuity to protect the resources of Putah Creek.”
Joe Krovoza, mayor of Davis and a former seven-year chair of Putah Creek Council, added, “Every year it gets harder and harder to remember that the salmon run was merely a memory and a dream in the decades before the Putah Creek Accord. Fourteen winters later, the only question is when will we see our spawning friends, and where, and how many.
“The salmon remind us that we can heal the Earth, and that every ounce of action today will make a difference tomorrow.”
According to Moyle, Putah Creek is increasingly gaining renown as an example of successful management for native species in a human-dominated landscape. The successes with Putah Creek have encouraged similar, ongoing restoration efforts on the San Joaquin River.
To mark the 25-year legacy of this citizens creek group, Putah Creek Council is hiring local artists to interview and transcribe the oral histories of founding members.
“Restoring our little creek, which now supports a remarkable diversity of wildlife and provides a place for everyone in our communities to connect with nature nearby, has been the work of thousands of community members pulling together to care for Putah Creek,” Earthman said.
“Caring for nature nearby is a labor of love, and though the journey from where we began to where we are today was a long one, it certainly is worth the effort.”
Putah Creek Council encourages community members to help support the oral history project by visiting its website, www.putahcreekcouncil.org, and clicking on the first link in the “news” section.
Putah Creek Council has video, pictures and updates on its Facebook page. Community members are asked to report salmon sightings by calling 530-795-3006, or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.