Along the central California coast, coho salmon — also known as silver salmon — were once as plentiful as the gold nuggets that lured prospectors to the state. The Russian River was the largest of the watersheds that coho inhabited, and fishermen there harvested more than 13,000 of the fish from its waters each year.
In the valley, as in other coastal areas, the fertile soil and mild climate drew settlers. Grapes and other crops flourished, and vineyards prospered. Gradually, water withdrawals for agriculture so depleted the Russian River that levels dropped too low for salmon to swim upriver to spawn. By 2008, fewer than 10 adult coho salmon were returning to complete their life cycle.
Despite the grim prognosis, experts agreed that intensive, targeted action could restore a viable population of coho to the Russian River. NFWF brought together an extraordinary number of groups — the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA Fisheries, the California Department of Fish and Game, the Sonoma County Water Agency, the UC Cooperative Extension and others, plus a coalition of community members — to devise a plan. “The funding from NFWF really focused our attention on this flow issue and brought together experts from a lot of different areas,” said Mariska Obedzinksi of the UC Cooperative Extension, Sea Grant.
Through discussion, a number of long-term solutions for the coho emerged. Instead of taking water from the river to spray grapes and protect them from damaging spring frosts, vineyard managers built wind fans to regulate temperatures. They installed irrigation ponds on their properties to hold water, rather than drawing it from the river at times when lowered flows would strand the fish. Fishery specialists introduced young coho to bolster populations, and they thrived in higher water levels. At the end of 2011, just three years after the project started, there were more than 300 salmon returning to the river.
Brock Dolman, director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center’s WATER Institute, emphasized that the approach fostered by NFWF has benefited both agriculture and ecology. “I firmly believe this is as innovative a project as we’re seeing out there with respect to really understanding both the needs of the fish and the needs of people, and then trying to bring them together for a solution,” he said.