If you know a fisherman, you’ve heard a fish story—an exaggerated tale, usually about a whopper fish that got away. Well, this is a fish story, too. And like any fish story, it’s pretty amazing. But it’s not about fish that get away, it’s about getting fish to stay. And it stars a cast of characters that sometimes make for very strange bedfellows: private property owners, the Sonoma County Water Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. All working together, amicably, to build fish habitats along a six-mile stretch of Dry Creek in Sonoma County in an effort to save Coho salmon and steelhead trout, which are considered to be endangered and threatened species, respectively.
After bearing witness to a fall filled with squabbles between Congress and the president over the federal budget and the debt ceiling, it’s a little hard to wrap your mind around seemingly disparate groups actually reaching compromise and moving forward. But that’s exactly what’s happening in Dry Creek.
“It’s a good model for any project that needs close participation between the public and government sectors,” says Don Wallace, former president of Dry Creek Vineyard, who, these days, finds himself the chief ambassador for the Dry Creek Enhancement Project. Wallace was one of the original 11 landowners along Dry Creek who stepped forward when the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced plans to enhance the Dry Creek fish habitat. Since then, Wallace has become a sort of evangelist, spreading the word among other landowners along Dry Creek in an effort to get them to participate in something he describes as “the ultimate win-win situation.”
Not in my backyard
To truly understand how unique the Dry Creek project is, it’s worth going back a bit in time, to the construction of Warm Springs Dam and the formation of Lake Sonoma, which is not only critical to the North Bay’s water supply, but also is the largest freshwater recreational site in Sonoma County.
After the Russian River flooded heavily in 1937, Congress authorized the USACE to study possible dam sites on the river to help control future flooding. In 1941, the USACE proposed two dams: Coyote Dam in Mendocino County and Warm Springs Dam in Sonoma County. Not only would the dams help control flooding, they would also provide water storage for a growing population.
Congress authorized Coyote Dam in 1950, but construction was delayed until 1956 due to the Korean War. The first phase of Coyote Dam was completed in 1959. Originally, the plan was to add more capacity to Coyote Dam once construction of Warm Springs Dam, authorized by Congress in 1962, was completed. But the war over Warm Springs Dam—and the subsequent fallout between proponents and opponents—made that virtually impossible.
Gordon Amrein, a retired insurance manager from Santa Rosa, and Harry Bosworth, owner of Bosworth & Son Mercantile in Geyserville, remember the controversy well. Both were proponents of the dam, and both are active with Lake Sonoma today as members of the board of directors of the Friends of Lake Sonoma (FOLS), the nonprofit organization that supports the USACE’s educational and visitor service programs at the lake.
“Nearly all the farmers in Dry Creek were against it,” says Bosworth, currently chairman of FOLS and also owner of Geyserville Water Works, the public agency that provides water service in Geyserville. “They didn’t want the flood of people coming into the valley to go to the lake, and they didn’t want their friends to lose their property behind the dam.”
The controversy still continues to baffle Amrein, who notes that, before the dam and flood control, “the creek was all over the valley; every year, it was somewhere else. Now it’s channeled and controlled.”
Opponents argued that the dam wasn’t necessary for water supply because there was abundant ground water, Amrein says, “but what they didn’t explain was that the ground water was 100 feet down.” They also cited environmental issues, leaning heavily on the Environmental Policy Act that was enacted in 1969, and destruction of Pomo Indian tribal sites, which, they said, was in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. In 1974, a group of community leaders formed the Citizens for Community Improvement (CCI), which eventually became the Friends of Lake Sonoma. CCI convinced voters to approve the project in the November 1974 general election (by the slimmest of margins: 51 percent to 49 percent).
In all, it took 11 years of acrimonious lawsuits—including one that went all the way to the United States Supreme Court—before construction of the dam, which originally started in 1967, could begin in earnest in 1978. “By then, it cost 10 times what it would have cost had they kept to their original plan,” Amrein says. And that’s not even including the cost of all the lawsuits.
Warm Springs Dam was finally completed in 1982 and, due to the controversy, “it was one of the last major dams to be constructed in California,” explains Grant Davis, SCWA’s general manager. “It was brutal,” adds Bosworth, “but there’s no doubt it was necessary for the people of Marin and Sonoma counties. There’s a three-year supply of water up there now. No-growth people like to talk about what it would be like without the dam, but no one wants to give up watering their lawn, and there are so many houses that wouldn’t be here if not for that water project. The dam surely changed things forever, but for humans in need of water, there could be no substitute.”
The fish story
One of the things the dam changed was the habitat of migrating salmon and steelhead trout. Put simply, the flow levels on water released from the dam during the summer months are at a velocity that makes it difficult for juvenile fish to thrive. In addition, high winter flow releases disturb the stream channel and have caused widespread stream bank erosion, further degrading the fish habitat and threatening valuable agricultural land along Dry Creek.
To help mitigate the fish problem, the USACE built the Congressman Don Clausen Fish Hatchery in 1980 to replace and enhance trout and salmon spawning grounds. It’s a state-of-the-art hatchery, run by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which annually produces more than 500,000 steelhead trout and is also at the core of an intense recovery effort for the federally endangered Coho salmon. Located directly behind the Milt Brandt Visitors Center at Lake Sonoma, the hatchery is open to the public for tours and is a popular field trip destination for local school children, particularly during late winter and early spring, when the trout and salmon are “running” to spawn. It’s also the site of the annual Steelhead Festival, sponsored by the Friends of Lake Sonoma (the next will take place February 8, 2014).
But both the SCWA and the USACE recognized that the fish hatchery could only do so much and were concerned about how their actions at the dam were affecting endangered and threatened species. So in the mid-1990s, the two groups approached the National Marine Fisheries Service and requested what’s called a Section 7 Consultation, which requires federal agencies to use their authorities to carry out programs for the conservation of threatened and endangered species.
“It was almost a first for a public agency to seek a coordinated response as to how our operations affected steelhead, Coho and, in lesser numbers, Chinook salmon,” Davis says. It took a decade for NMFS to research and issue its formal biological opinion, “which laid out 23 different actions that SCWA and the Army needed to take to help ensure we’re doing what we can to manage the water supply for 600,000 people and aid in the recovery of the fish,” he explains. One requirement was to help restore the fish habitat along six miles of the 14-mile-long Dry Creek during the next 12 years—at a cost of $36 to $48 million—now officially known as the Dry Creek Enhancement Project.
“Our biggest challenge,” says Davis, “is the fact that 99 percent of Dry Creek is in private hands.” And after the contentious struggle that ensued with the building of the dam, no one wants to relive that era of history.
Enter Don Wallace. Ironically, Wallace—whose family still owns and operates Dry Creek Vineyard—was once a construction worker and actually worked on the Warm Springs project. He’s experienced the acrimony first hand, yet he understands the necessity of the dam and is dedicated to saving the fish as well.
To get cooperation, Wallace has worked as a champion for the project. “The history between those in agriculture and the people in the federal government is that you have to keep a wary eye on them [the government], because the feeling has been that they’re not looking out for our best interests.”
Overcoming this predisposition with Dry Creek landowners is Wallace’s greatest success. “I tell the same story everywhere I go: The project makes good sense. It’s going to be good for our land values. But even more important, it’s good for the environment. It’s something our children and our children’s children will benefit from.”
The creek enhancement project has been broken into phases with the first milestone due for completion in 2014. That includes three sections of the creek—at the base of Warm Springs Dam, at Quivira Winery and at other sites near Lambert Bridge—for a total of more than one mile of rehabilitation.
Each of the projects is unique in complexity, but each uses similar components, including redwood logs, fir root balls, willow tree plantings, boulders and gravel. The redwood logs have a complex role in habitat enhancement. They provide hiding places for the fish, encourage food production and, over time, change the streambed to provide more complex habitat. The willow trees, once they start growing, will provide a cool, shady environment that’s highly desirable for the fish and will protect them from eagles, osprey and other predators. The boulders anchor the logs to keep them from floating downstream in high, fast-moving water and the gravel provides the perfect spawning environment.
The USACE broke ground on its project at the base of the dam, located almost directly across from Sbragia Vineyards, in fall 2012 and completed it nearly a year ahead of schedule, according to Mike Dillabough, chief of USACE’s San Francisco District operations and readiness division and acting park manager for Lake Sonoma. Contractor Services Group of West Sacramento was the contractor.
The quarter-mile stretch of the creek now has a new side channel that parallels the main stream. “This side channel will never have as much water speed as the main stream, so, as a result, it’s less likely that the smolts [juvenile fish] will get blown downstream and out to the ocean too early in their life cycle,” says Charles Fenwick, senior district ranger at Lake Sonoma. The Coho conservation hatchery releases young fish, less than a year old, into creeks and streams in the Dry Creek watershed. The fish migrate to the ocean and return two years later to the creeks and streams where they were released. The hope is that they’ll spawn in the wild, and that the habitats that have been created will provide for ongoing generations of fish.
The project at Quivira Winery is backchannel work, according to Dillabough, and only accounts for 300 feet of the first phase. “It’s more for sheltering fish when water in the main channel is going too fast for small fish to rest,” he explains. Think of it as a highway turnout: When traffic gets too heavy, you pull off to the side and let it pass.
The backchannel at Quivira is dry in the summer and can be hiked. Andrew Fegelman, Quivira’s director of marketing, notes that visitors to the winery’s tasting room are intrigued with the project. Quivira has been working on the restoration of Wine Creek, a Dry Creek tributary, since 1998. In 2010, CDFW worked closely with the winery to release more than 6,000 juvenile Coho salmon into Wine Creek, outfitted with homing devices that let the agency determine how many Coho are migrating and how many adult fish return to Wine Creek.
At Lambert Bridge, which includes property owned by Don Wallace and Kim Stare Wallace as well as Dry Creek Vineyard, the project is a massive undertaking that includes construction of a new island and a backwater feature that will let the fish seek refuge during floods and provide a place where they can develop during other times of the year.
According to Bruce Jensen, project manager for Hanford A.R.C. of Sonoma, the contractor for the Lambert Bridge segment, a total of 15,000 cubic yards of material was removed from what was once an abandoned channel. “To give you an idea of what we’re talking about, each of our big dump trucks can only carry 25 cubic yards. That’s a lot of truckloads,” Jensen says
Wallace is personally thrilled with the work being done, because it will keep the river from jumping from location to location each year and will provide a great habitat for all native animals, including the salmon. “For years, landowners all along Dry Creek have had issues with bank erosion, as it was difficult to receive permission from the government to repair any flood damaged areas or do any work in or around the stream channel,” Wallace explains.
Two of the landowners Wallace helped convince to get on board with the project were his neighbors, Michael and Vicky Farrow, who own Amista Vineyards. “When we were approached by SCWA to see if we’d be interested in participating in this project, we were immediately intrigued,” says Vicky. “It’s always been our vision that Amista be a good neighbor with a positive impact in Dry Creek Valley. This project provided a great opportunity to help us do our part to be good stewards of this gorgeous valley where we live and work. Plus we love ‘two-fers,’ and we saw this as a way to help restore the incredible beauty of Dry Creek and at the same time recreate a vibrant habitat for the fish.”
Construction at Amista was recently completed. “We can now actually see the waters of Dry Creek, which used to be totally covered by overgrown brush and weeds,” Farrow continues. “We also have a tranquil back channel with log structures for the fish to rest, which replaced the dry wash that flooded and undercut the banks every winter.
“The crew has begun planting native vegetation and trees, and now we can’t wait to get a couple of chairs and a glass of wine, watch the sun set over the sparkling waters, and try to spot the fish.”
The Lambert Bridge segment won’t be completed until sometime in 2014 because landowners across from Wallace and Farrow have only recently granted SCWA access to the creek. Negotiations with other landowners upstream are ongoing and “very promising,” according to water agency officials.
Will it work?
One of the big questions on everyone’s mind is “Will it work?”
“It’s going to need constant monitoring to know if it’s working,” says Dillabough. “We need to make sure we’re doing the right thing and, if we’re not, we need to modify it. So far, we’ve seen good results. Some of the fish have already moved in and they seem to like the new neighborhood. But it’s just too soon to know if it works for their full life cycle.”
A similar project involving a large restoration and bridge replacement project on Willow Creek, which involved many partners and more than a decade of planning and fund-raising, was completed in 2011. SCWA officials report that Coho are definitely moving back into the creek, and the agency is hoping for similar results from the Dry Creek restoration.
Davis notes that the Quivira project worked like a charm during heavy rains last winter. “The channel functioned exactly as it was supposed to,” giving the fish a place to hide until the flow lessened, he says.
“We’ll just need to keep monitoring to see if it all works. We have an adaptive management plan that includes extensive monitoring of the habitat and the fish that use it,” Davis says. If these three projects do what they’re supposed to do, construction will begin on the next phase, which will be two additional miles of habitat enhancement, scheduled for completion in 2017.
The ultimate goal, according to Dillabough, is to get the salmon and trout back into Dry Creek, even if it means “building something natural in an unnatural way. If we get the habitat done and the species move in, we will have set the path for others to follow to bring back fish from the brink of extinction,” he says. “Nothing would make me happier than to put the hatchery out of business because we brought back the fish.”
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