Thanks to a project started four years ago by Family Water Alliance, Inc. (FWA), thousands of baby salmon in Auburn Ravine will be saved from certain death early next year, and for many years to come. Auburn Ravine is a 34-mile long stream that flows west from the foothills around Auburn, down through Newcastle and Lincoln, and then out across the valley to Verona where it enters the Sacramento River.
The River and the Danger
Every fall and winter, large Chinook salmon (some up to 3 feet long) swim up Auburn Ravine to spawn in the cool clean water between Lincoln and Newcastle.
But when their eggs hatch in February and March, the baby salmon face many dangers as they swim downstream toward the Sacramento River, and out to the Pacific Ocean. Among the biggest dangers are the places where water is diverted out of Auburn Ravine. Farmers and ranchers depend on these diversions to grow their crops and raise their livestock. All of us benefit from the food they produce and many of us benefit from the jobs they create. But, when the water diversions begin every year around April 15, any young salmon that are still swimming downstream often get pulled into these diversions where they die as the water is spread out into the fields. There is a way to fix that. Construction began in early November to install a time-tested, low maintenance screening system at a major diversion site along Auburn Ravine.
A few miles west of Lincoln, the Pleasant Grove Canal pulls water out of the south bank of Auburn Ravine. During irrigation season, a small dam nearby raises the water level a few feet which is just enough for it to flow nicely into the canal. The problem for the baby salmon is that the canal looks too nice. In fact, to them it looks (and feels) like it will give them a nice smooth ride to the Sacramento River. But, of course, it does not. All the fish that enter the canal die within a few days.
Humans to the Rescue
To stop this tragic loss of young salmon, FWA identified funding sources, and managed the project through the design, contracting, and permitting process. Funding came from California’s Proposition 84 Natural Resource Protection fund, and from the US Bureau of Reclamation. South Sutter Water District approved the project, and a company called Intake Screens Inc. is managing the installation of the system at the entrance to the canal. The system uses two cone shaped screens to allow water to flow properly into the canal while preventing any fish from getting pulled along with it. As slender brushes slowly rotate around the cones, water flows gently in, and any debris that gets stuck on the screens is automatically removed. When water diversions begin next April, and these screens are activated, young salmon will swim past the canal entrance unharmed and continue down Auburn Ravine toward the river and the sea. Then in 3 to 5 years, large and strong, they will return to Auburn Ravine to give life to a new generation. These screens will also protect other fish that spawn in Auburn Ravine like Steelhead and the Pacific Lamprey.
Prospects for the Future
Some of Auburn Ravine’s salmon spawn below Lincoln. But thanks to an excellent project completed by Nevada (County) Irrigation District (NID) in 2011 at their Lincoln Gauging Station, most can now swim upstream at least as far as the Hemphill Dam three miles east of Lincoln. And, if the water is high enough at the right time, up to 10 percent of them will get over that dam and continue up Auburn Ravine. Some get as far as the Newcastle area above Gold Hill Road.
Despite the low water last year, there were still over 60 adult salmon counted in Auburn Ravine. In most years since 2011, there have been more than a hundred. But with large numbers of young salmon dying in diversions each spring, it has been unlikely that the numbers of salmon returning each year would rise above a few hundred. Now that the screens will be working at the Pleasant Grove canal in early 2016, many more young salmon will survive to return as adults beginning with the 2019-2020 season. But there is still a diversion at Hemphill Dam that needs to be screened plus at least 5 smaller diversions along Auburn Ravine west of Lincoln that should be screened as well. So work needs to begin as soon as possible to stop the unnecessary mortality at those sites. With each female carrying over 4000 eggs, it is easy to see how screens can save thousands of baby salmon.
If more projects like this can be done on Auburn Ravine and other similar streams in California, the populations of salmon and steelhead will be increased dramatically. This will reduce dependency on hatcheries, and produce great economic benefits to California. The commercial and recreational fishing industries will grow, and people will be able to continue to serve their families wild salmon at affordable prices. Toward those goals, Nevada Irrigation District recently funded a study to find out how to best modify the Hemphill Dam site to allow unimpeded fish passage, and keep small salmon and steelhead out of the canal intake there.
The Salmon Saving Superstars
The Pleasant Grove Canal screening project was made possible by a great team of local agencies and businesses including:
- Family Water Alliance – Debbie Lemburg and Nadine Bailey
- US Bureau of Reclamation
- US Fish and Wildlife Service
- National Marine Fisheries Service
- California Department of Fish and Wildlife
- South Sutter Water District – The Board of Directors and Brad Arnold, General Manager
- ICF Jones & Stokes
- MBK Engineers
- Intake Screens, Inc. – Darryl Hayes
A special note of appreciation is owed to Pacific Gas and Electric Company; Steve Morgan and Daniel Kominick with Wildands, Inc.; and Pat Shea with Wildlife Heritage Foundation for their outstanding efforts to get electric power to the screens. This was the last and perhaps the most difficult aspect of the project. Were it not for their tenacious commitment to saving the salmon of Auburn Ravine, the screens could not have functioned.
What YOU can do to help
Send letters or e-mail to your State and Federal representatives asking for continued funding for projects to protect and enhance salmon and steelhead populations. When you do that be sure to copy Family Water Alliance, Inc. (P.O. Box 365, Maxwell, CA 95955, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org . You can also make a donation to FWA at: http://familywateralliance.com/you-can-help/
Copyright James Haufler, 2015
James Haufler lives in Lincoln is a founding member of Friends of Auburn Ravine.