California salmon slip under the wire

 

Updated January 27th

"State and federal funding is available"-- now that's a phrase we haven't heard much lately in California. The bond freeze has crippled programs across the state,  and anyone who relies on government grants--from social services to conservation groups -- is feeling the pain. 

But the Chinook salmon and steelhead population of Battle Creek, CA, seems to have gotten a lucky break. As other conservation projects stall, the Five Dam Removal Project will go forward, restoring 42 miles of navigable habitat along Battle Creek as well as 6 miles of creek along its tributaries.

"We're lucky that everything is in place," says Sharon Paquin-Gilmore, Coordinator of the  Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy, a consortium of local stakeholders. Although the group's other projects may be put on hold, the Battle Creek project had all its bureaucratic t's crossed before the economic calamity.

Rarely can anything regarding water in California be described as a "win-win" situation, but in this case it is tempting to suspend disbelief. After ten years of hard work and cooperation by the Greater Battle Creek Watershed Working Group,  which includes the  Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy,  the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the National Marine Fisheries service, and PG&E, regional Reclamation director Don Glaser signed the Record of Decision, setting things in motion. 

The first phase of the project, which will include installing fish screens and ladders, removing Wildcat Diversion Dam, and installing other infrastructure, could begin as early as this summer.

Perhaps the most surprising marriage of interests that brought this project about was with the Municipal Water District of Southern California. MWD supplied the grant which paid for the conservation group's science consultant,the Washington-based consultant  TerrAqua. The science report helped secure the demolition of five dams, which will increase flows to Southern California (admittedly a questionable virtue) while simultaneously restoring almost half of what was once an 87 mile-long salmon and steelhead run.  

What made this project successful? Lots and lots of meetings, says Paquin-Gilmore. The Working Group was determined that the project be a success not only for salmon restoration but for the community at large. No one wanted to have to live with more regulations, and it was also important to acknowledge the value of hydropower. The alternative deemed most environmentally beneficial would have decommissioned six dams, but they settled for five instead.

 Over the ten-year process, she says, the main strategy was education, bringing everybody together, and making sure that "views and beliefs on all sides of the spectrum" were included.  "We weren't fisheries biologists or agency people," but the government "saw how serious we were." 

Paquin-Gilmore is especially grateful to Mary Marshall of the Bureau of Reclamation for her hard work in getting the project approved.