This is the final piece of a four-part series on the Sacramento River watershed. The first piece discusses people in the watershed, the second discusses water rights, and the third piece discusses conflict.
In spite of all the doom and gloom within the Sacramento River watershed, there is good news and good work coming out of it. Nearly every interest group has found ways to improve water use efficiency, and unique solutions to problems are being explored and implemented. In this piece, we'll look at some of the success stories on the river with an eye toward future progress.
Far up in the headwaters of the Sacramento, California Trout (CalTrout) is making significant improvements to salmonid fishery habitat in Fall Creek and Hat Creeks. In a stream formerly renowned for its spring fly fishing, the Hat Creek fishery collapsed by the mid-1900s. CalTrout's efforts in the 1970s, and again beginning in 2013, are restoring wild trout populations and improving riparian habitat. These efforts benefit fish and are also improving recreational access at the same time. On Fall River, CalTrout's work is focused on restoring native plant communities and boosting water quality.
CalTrout has also been active in taking measures to protect groundwater sources. Their work on the Northern California volcanic aquifers is holding water bottling company Crystal Geyser accountable for its impacts by recommending groundwater monitoring systems on the Upper Sacramento River and engaging the public in informative talks and panel discussion about the state of aquifers near Mount Shasta. With an increased scrutiny on groundwater as a result of recent legislation, building public awareness of their local underground water supply will be an important step for communities across the region.
In another section of the Sacramento River watershed, the Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project is a collaborative project between numerous federal, state, and citizen groups that is restoring over 40 miles of habitat for endangered and threatened fish. Small dams, levees, and irrigation canals are being removed as fish ladders are being added along with habitat restoration. Battle Creek formerly held one of the biggest Chinook salmon and steelhead runs in the Sacramento River watershed before hydroelectric power interests built diversion dams in the area. This project will return fish to waters they haven't known for over a century. At a total project cost of $130 million, it is second only to the Elwha Dam removal project in expense. It's a notable effort for a watershed that has seen its salmon runs decline by nearly 90% from historic numbers.
Beyond environmental groups, agricultural communities are also making positive changes as prolonged drought continues to impact much of California. With dry farming practices, conservation tillage, drip irrigation, and a preference for more profitable crops that require less water, farmers are slowly easing toward greater efficiency. With agriculture the dominant water user in California, finding ways to use the portion of water going to crops in a secondary fashion could be an important long-term planning option. A trial currently underway at Knaggs Farm, in coordination with CalTrout, flooded rice fields in the winter. Juvenile salmon were then released and allowed to mature in the cold waters. The young salmon showed considerable growth from being allowed this unusual source of habitat. The small-scale experiment was so successful that larger trials are now in the works, and they look quite promising.
Flooded fields like these rice paddies may seem anathema during a drought, but they do serve an important function for migrating waterfowl (not to mention a source of revenue come duck-hunting season). These fields lie in the path of the Pacific Flyway, offering crucial habitat along the migration route. With fewer flooded fields, a critical source of food and rest for migrating waterfowl has been reduced. Projects like the Knaggs Farm experiment hope to mitigate a small portion of that loss.
Waterfowl, raptors, and songbirds have enjoyed more habitat courtesy of The Nature Conservancy with the creation of the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge. More than 135 species of birds, including bald eagles and migrating passerines call this beautiful piece of riverscape home. A wide range of opportunities for nature lovers are available at the refuge, from hiking, birdwatching, hunting and fishing, and even auto tours, which often are the best way to get close to birds without frightening them away.
Recreation on wild lands offers an important way for the public to promote conservation values by creating an awareness of the issues affecting the places we all love to play in. The likes of John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Teddy Roosevelt (to name a few) were inspired by their experiences in the wild. Not only does recreation offer personal enjoyment, it provides economic benefits to rural communities and much-needed user fees that go toward the management of protected areas.
The Sacramento River Preservation Trust (SRPT) is doing its part to promote recreation on the river. For bird lovers, the annual Snow Goose Festival offers a chance to celebrate the wide variety of Sacramento River wildlife that migrates through the region. Float and hiking adventures led by science experts are offered through the trust as a way for people to learn about the challenges faced on the water and spend a day outdoors. For those looking for an extended adventure, Paddle California is an annual multi-day event guided by river experts and naturalists.
The SRPT is working closely with American Rivers and the Rivers, Trails, and Conservation Assistance Program of the National Park Service on a longer term project to create a Blue Trail and adventure guide to the Sacramento River stretching from Redding to Colusa. As American Rivers puts it, "A Blue Trail is a river adopted by communities that are dedicated to improving family friendly recreation such as fishing, boating, hiking, and wildlife watching, and conserving rivers and lands." The Sacramento River will greatly benefit from this wonderful addition to the community.
The Sacramento River watershed is such a diverse resource that finding simple solutions to water use challenges is highly unlikely. A collaborative approach by agriculture and recreationists, urban city users and environmentalists alike, will be needed. The research and projects presented here are but a small sample of the amazing opportunities for improvement along the Sacramento and its tributaries.
Drought will continue to be a formative force in the region. Climate change is going to continue to exacerbate water challenges in the region, and as a result there will be increased pressure to use up what little water remains. According to the American Geophysical Union, current trends indicate that California may enter a semi-permanent drought state by 2060 that would be broken only by brief heavy rainfall events.
These changing dynamics are making it all the more important that we get out to explore the region now to better understand the issues and to appreciate the current environment. The Sacramento River watershed is a region in flux, and there is no real clear picture of what the future will look like. Exploring from the headwaters to the delta can help those who care gain a bigger picture of what's at stake and make their own decisions about how best to get involved in the issues.
For more information about the Sacramento watershed, follow the rest of the series here:
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