Friends of Butte Creek: Hope for California Salmon

You may have heard that the fall run of Chinook salmon up the Sacramento River in California has collapsed.

Where once 800,000 big king salmon, some weighing up to 70 pounds, swam upstream to spawn every fall, in 2007 there were 80,000 or less, and this year looks no better.

The ocean salmon fishery and most of the Sacramento run were closed this year, which has resulted in catastrophic consequences for sport and commercial fisheries. All that remains for sport fishing are seasons on a couple rivers in the northern part of the state, and a month-long season for late-run fish in one section of the Sacramento.

The causes of the dramatic collapse of what was once the largest Chinook salmon run in North America are many. Dams, damage to spawning grounds, pollution, poaching, poor ocean conditions, maybe global warming, water diversions from the Sacramento Delta, and the loss of thousands of young salmon and millions of baitfish like the delta smelt due to the irrigation pumps, are all involved.

Coho salmon fishing in California has already been banned. Now with the Chinook closure, the California salmon fishery has been declared an economic disaster and the federal government has pumped $170 million in disaster relief for fishermen this year.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. A recent study by California Trout finds that of present trends continue, 65 percent of the native salmon, steelhead, and trout species in California will be extinct within this century.

A number of conservation initiatives by sportsmen to save the salmon are under way. A coalition of conservation groups, commercial and sport fishermen, Water4Fish, have launched a promotional program to stimulate a groundswell of popular support to sign a petition to hand deliver to the Governator.

Calling it "the biggest lawsuit about the biggest ecological and legal catastrophe in California today," the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) and the California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court on Dec. 1, 2008, to protect Delta public trust resources — including endangered migratory fisheries of salmon and open water fish species — and to end wasteful and unreasonable diversions of water from the Delta by big state and federal water projects.

The suit also asks the court to halt irrigation of several hundred thousand acres of selenium contaminated lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, the drainage from which pollutes wetlands, the San Joaquin River, and the Delta.

Political efforts aimed at the state and federal government are important, but there is also a grassroots strategy that deserves praise — adopt a local stream, restore and conserve it.

Butte Creek is a 100 mile-long tributary of the Sacramento River. It starts at about 7,000 feet elevation in Lassen National Forest in the Sierras and works its way down past the aptly named town of "Paradise," to ultimately merge at elevation 150 feet with the Sacramento River near Sutter Buttes, which likes to be billed as the smallest mountain range in the world. The Butte Creek watershed is about 500 square miles. The upper watershed is 140 square miles.

The fall run of Chinook salmon is the biggest, but there is a spring run of Chinook salmon that returns to Butte Creek every year, at least today there is. Once there was a healthy run of thousands of fish, but dams, diversions, pollutants and water diversions steadily ate away at spawning habitat. The average run between 1955 and 1964 was 2440 fish per year. A host of problems developed — habitat, dams, diversions, etc. Between 1966 and 1975 the annual run averaged 366 fish a year. From 1976 to 1985, the average dropped to 162. In 1987, only 14 fish returned to spawn in Butte Creek. Locals said "enough!"

This year, unlike the fall run on the mainstream of the Sacramento, the spring run up Butte Creek increased and it has averaged 10,000 fish a year for the past 12 years. In 1998, 20,000 Chinook salmon returned to Butte Creek. The Butte Creek run has now become the largest Spring Run of Chinook salmon in California, and it's all natural, no hatchery here. (Note, studies show that almost 90 percent of the fall-run Chinooks in the Sacramento River are hatchery-raised.)

The conservation success of the Butte Creek Spring Run is due to many parties. Since 1992, California Department of Fish and Game, other state and federal agencies and local stakeholders and water interests (at least 39 partners) have all been involved.

Some $35 million has been spent on restoration — habitat restoration, stream monitoring, water acquisitions, dam removal, fish screen, fish ladders, habitat acquisition, etc. But that's only part of the reason why the Butte Creek run is so healthy, because all this activity has a local of grassroots support.

One stakeholder group that deserves special credit is Friends of Butte Creek. Several hundred dedicated volunteers strong, FOBC has a network of Streamwatchers to monitor stream conditions and get dirty and wet doing conservation work.

Every summer groups don waders and do physical habitat restoration. They lead Salmon Tours for all kinds of groups. And, brochures and a beautiful 37-minute DVD with music celebrating the annual salmon run have been produced. Currently, a team is tracking, commenting and encouraging restoration through the relicensing process for the PGE DeSabla-Centerville Hydro project. They also have some dams in their sights for demolition.

Plus, there is a 25 feet-long giant salmon that appears at community events every April to announce the annual return of the salmon to Butte Creek.

Another grassroots salmon project worthy of recognition in California is the partnership between United Anglers of California and Casa Grande High School in Petaluma. They have teamed up to take Adobe Creek, a "dead creek," and turn it into a healthy stream with an annual salmon run, that is replenished by a hatchery to be run by high school biology classes.

Since 1983, over 1,200 trees have been planted, tons of trash have been removed from the stream, and over $500,000 has been raised to create and maintain a state-of-the-art hatchery. In June 2008, 22,000 salmon hatched at the hatchery were transferred to rearing pens in San Francisco Bay.

People care most for what they actually are involved with. FOBC and United Anglers of Casa Grande High School are two examples of should be done all across the US, people getting involved in hands-on conservation work at the local level.

In a high-tech Information Age world, where most people spend less than 5 percent of their life outdoors, projects like these are good for conservation and tonic for the soul.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.