Elephants, orangutans and tigers tend to come to mind when we think of endangered species. But we don’t have to go that far afield. We have our own right here in Sonoma County—the steelhead and the coho salmon. In years past, thousands of these fish swam up the Russian River to spawn. Then dams, urban sprawl, drought, pollution of the oceans, erosion from logging, and runoff of agricultural pesticides took their toll. Their numbers dropped dramatically.

In 1983, Warm Springs Dam was constructed to control the frequent winter flooding of towns in the Russian River basin. In the process, beautiful Lake Sonoma and a recreational area of over 17,000 acres was created. The local communities benefitted. But the dam prevented coho and steelhead from reaching their centuries-old spawning grounds. Congressman Don Clausen stepped in and helped create the Warm Springs Hatchery in order to replenish and enhance the declining populations.

Visitors to the hatchery cross a bridge spanning wetlands where hundreds of birds nest, chatter and flit from branch to branch. Great blue herons and egrets spread their wings, rise from the marsh, and pass overhead. Inside a spacious building, educational displays and a continuous loop video chronicle the story of the steelhead, the coho and the role of the hatchery in their preservation. A ramp leads to large rectangular rearing ponds that house thousands of steelhead fingerlings. It’s amazing to see so many fish the same size seemingly swimming in unison. A handful of food purchased from the vending machine brings flashing tails and gaping mouths to the surface.

During the January – April spawning season adult steelhead can be viewed at the fish ladder jumping over seven steps and resting in a series of shallow pools. On a recent sunny day, Teefi, a mother from Windsor, sat on the bank of a stream watching her sons, seven and four years old, play nearby. “This is my second visit to the hatchery,” she said. “It’s so quiet and beautiful here. I’m looking forward to coming back for The Steelhead Festival. My boys are just the right age to enjoy it.”

Managed by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the hatchery’s work begins when steelhead return to spawn and then encounter Warm Springs Dam. A tunnel diverts them to the water ladder and shallow resting pools that enable the fish to navigate the creek to hatchery elevation. Once past the ladder, they swim into a channel and further on to holding tanks. There hatchery personnel weigh, measure and sort the fish by sexual maturity. Each female carries about 5,000 eggs. The eggs are retrieved and fertilized with milt, or sperm, from the males. This artificial spawning ensures genetic diversity and is not harmful. Steelhead spawn more than once. They are released and hopefully will return the following season.

It takes 30 days for the fertilized eggs to hatch. The fry grow quickly and in several months will be 8-10 inches long and classified as fingerlings. A year after spawning, the hatchery will release 350,000 of the young steelhead into Dry Creek. The fish will linger for 12 more months before making their way to the Russian River and on out to sea. Fish that spawn in fresh water, but live in a salt-water environment, are known as anadromous.

Steelhead travel thousands of miles, some even venturing as far as Japan. Their journey is fraught with peril—natural predators like eagles and osprey and the trolling nets of fishermen are some of the many obstacles that lie in wait. In three or four years, the survivors, using a highly developed sense of smell, will relocate the waters of their birth. They will retrace that trip from year’s past and swim up the Russian River and Dry Creek to Warms Springs Hatchery. And like their parents before, they will spawn to renew the steelhead cycle of life.

The hatchery also plays a crucial role in the revival of the even rarer coho. The Russian River Coho Salmon Captive Broodstock Program, managed by the US Army Corp of Engineers, was formed in 2001—and just in the nick of time. From 2001 through 2003, about 300 coho juveniles were captured each year and brought to the hatchery as broodstock. In 2004, when biologists went back, only a few coho remained.

In a state-of-the-art warehouse, large circular tanks filled with water from Lake Sonoma hold coho in all stages of development. Prior to maturity, a passive integrated transponder (PIT) is embedded, providing each fish with an identity. A caudal fin sample is also taken for DNA analysis. When ready for spawning, a matrix of data collected on each fish is used to ensure optimum breeding. This ensures preservation of the species’ genetic integrity and wild characteristics. When the coho reach a viable size, volunteers heft 50-pound water-filled barrels of coho to preselected pools in the tributaries where they are released. “Our goal is have the coho delisted from Endangered status. Some day we hope to have 5,000 to 10,000 coho returning to Dry Creek for spawning,” said Ben White, fisheries biologist.

Vulnerable and sensitive to change, coho are a barometer of the health of a watershed. They require three types of water to survive—cold fresh water for spawning, brackish and semi-salty as they migrate out, and the brine of the ocean where they will grow to maturity.  Some can reach 22 pounds in size. They leave the Russian River bright silver. When they return in three years they will change to the salmon’s characteristic deep red color.

Dry Creek Habitat Enhancement Project
The success of the hatchery breeding programs depends on the availability of natural habitat and clean water. The Warm Springs Dam caused Dry Creek to flow faster creating an unsuitable environment for spawning.  The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) and the US Army Corps of Engineers are mandated to provide water to 600,000 customers. The agencies also have a responsibility to protect the watershed’s endangered species. These objectives are not incompatible, though much planning is involved to ensure success.

In 2012, a collaboration of federal and state agencies initiated the Dry Creek Habitat Enhancement Project. The goal—restoration of six miles, or almost half of the creek. “We have already restored a two-mile stretch,” said David Manning, SCWA environmental resources manager. “Twenty winery and vineyard owners voluntarily participated in the project. Eventually we expect a hundred landowners  to be involved.”

Truett-Hurst is one of the participating wineries. A half-mile of its 26-acre parcel borders the creek. “We’re super happy with the project,” said Phil Hurst, the company’s CEO. “The water agency folks are great to work with. Our operation is biodynamic so restoring habitat to save fish fits with our values. And our customers like to go down to the creek and check out what’s happening. They’re excited. Many have never seen spawning salmon.”

For their extraordinary role in the protection and recovery of the endangered steelhead and coho, landowners are recognized as Salmon Stewards of Dry Creek and can display the Salmon Steward logo on their property and in marketing literature.

Restoration involves creating a calm-water backchannel off the faster flowing Dry Creek. There the coho and steelhead can spawn under more ideal conditions. Boulders and rocks are added to stimulate eddies and slow the waters even further. Strategically placed logs are incorporated in the landscape along with native plants and trees that anchor the stream banks and provide shade for spawning sites. 2020 is the expected completion date for the Dry Creek restoration project.

Environmental Education
The final link in the chain of collaboration and fish survival is environmental education. The Aquarium Classroom Program initiated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife enables students from pre-school through middle school and even college to experience the steelhead’s ecosystem firsthand. The program has been implemented in over 2,000 classrooms in California. “Eighty teachers signed up for our one-day certification workshop at Warm Springs Hatchery this past January,” said Ethan Rotman, program coordinator for the San Francisco Bay Area.

After completing the workshop, teachers apply for a permit for up to 35 eggs obtained locally from the hatchery. The eggs are placed in a 10-gallon aquarium where the kids monitor fish development over the next several weeks. They keep journals. They learn about fish and watersheds. They monitor the water for proper oxygen level and ensure that a constant 52-degree temperature is maintained. They learn responsibility and what’s involved in caring for a fragile environment. And finally they go on a field trip. Standing on the bank of a stream, each student holds a cup with a fish. As they dip the cup in the water and watch the fish swim away, they make a wish.

Brandon Spars, humanities instructor at Sonoma Academy, enrolled in the aquarium workshop at the suggestion of Byron and Caspian, students and members of the school’s fly fishing club. “After placing the eggs under the gravel, nothing happens for a while,” Spars said. “Then one day I heard shouts of joy. A student spotted eyes and a tail emerge. Word spread quickly and other students came running.” After releasing their fish in Santa Rosa Creek, Spars’ class stood silent for a while, each student reflecting on the experience. Then one said, “It’s good to give something back to nature rather than always taking away.”

With so many committed to saving the endangered steelhead and coho, it’s hard not to get excited at the thought of thousands of these magnificent fish returning to the spawn in the cold clear waters of Dry Creek and its tributaries.    SD

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story did not credit the Sonoma County Water Agency. We have corrected the story so that SCWA replaces the Sonoma Valley Water Agency.