Califonia Bountiful

Farmers helping fish

May/June 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Collaborative efforts aid species and enhance water quality

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Standing in Santa Rosa Creek, farmer George Kendall and conservation expert Devin Best discuss ways to help Southern California steelhead trout and benefit the water supply. Photo: © 2020 Richard Green

Fish and farms coexist throughout California. For years, California farmers and ranchers have worked to support the watersheds in which they live and farm—gathering information, conducting research and implementing solutions to help improve fish populations and enhance the quality of local water supplies.

"I haven't met a farmer yet who doesn't want to help fish if it can be done in the right way," said Chris Scheuring, a Yolo County farmer and environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation. "This requires us to embrace collaborative, voluntary projects and it requires us to seek overlapping values instead of competing values for water use.

"Where farmers can use water in a way that allows them to grow food and, at the same time, do good things for fish, that's a win-win for California's future," he said.

Kendall constructed a sediment basin in 2015 to recharge groundwater and improve water quality. Photo courtesy of George Kendall

Neighbors improve watershed, one project at a time
Location: Santa Rosa Creek
Fish: Southern California steelhead trout

George Kendall

George Kendall grows citrus fruit and avocados at his farm located along Santa Rosa Creek in Cambria, which is considered prime habitat for native steelhead trout. Like salmon, endangered steelhead are born in freshwater creeks and rivers, spend years in the ocean and return to their birthplace to spawn. To help the fish, Kendall works with local agencies such as the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District.

To improve creek flows during the late spring and early summer when fish need them most, Kendall and the district constructed a sediment basin. The basin, built in 2015, collects water during storms so it slowly percolates back into the groundwater.

"We wanted to capture that water and let it slowly soak into the ground before it runs down the creek and out to the ocean," said Kendall, who worked previously as a geologist. "We wanted to investigate groundwater recharge and see what we could do to mitigate agricultural pumping and increase streamflow for steelhead."

The early work on the sediment basin and groundwater recharge led to additional projects and increased participation by more landowners.

"One little project is a little project—it's not going to make a big difference. But if we did 20 of them or if every stream did 20 of them, we wouldn't have near the water issue we do," Kendall said.

Devin Best, executive director for the resource conservation district, said through work by the district and eight additional Santa Rosa Creek landowners, "we are trying to get more water back in the stream for fish, which will have a cumulative benefit for the watershed and flows for the species." Best added, "The farmers we are working with are trying to be part of the solution and help make sure that the species continues and is thriving once again."

Gravel placed along the Sacramento River near Red Bluff creates areas where salmon can nest and hide from predators. Photo courtesy of Lewis Bair/Reclamation District 108

Successes lead to expansion of fish-recovery efforts
Location: Sacramento River
Fish: Chinook salmon

Roger Cornwell

Knights Landing-based River Garden Farms is one of many Sacramento Valley farms working with public agencies and fish experts to grow and support endangered chinook salmon through fish recovery projects that focus on food and habitat, gravel for spawning and cover from predators.

"We're investing our money now to create more habitat for fish, because more fish equals a reliable water supply," River Garden Farms Manager Roger Cornwell said. "As a farmer, River Garden Farms is not looking just three, five, 10 years down the road. Our farming culture is long term, it's generational, and water reliability is very important to us."

River Garden Farms grows a variety of crops including rice, alfalfa, wheat, corn, walnuts and sunflowers. In 2015, it began participating in a collaborative effort between rice farmers and researchers to restore the salmon population by raising juvenile salmon in winter-flooded rice fields before they return to the ocean.

As that effort continues, more recent work by the farm and others involves a side channel habitat project along the Sacramento River near Red Bluff. Side channels offer juvenile and spawning salmon protection from predators, slower flows and food sources before the fish migrate to the ocean.

"The side channels are happening near the spawning gravel and give juveniles and spawners a place to go, a place to make nests, and gives them shallower water away from predators," Cornwell said. "It's pretty cool that just a few days after finishing the restoration, the side channels were being used by the endangered species it was meant to help."

Farmer Jim Morris guides students conducting a fish survey. Photo courtesy of Etna High School FFA

Data collection informs decisions, inspires teens
Location: Scott River
Fish: Chinook salmon

Jim Morris

Siskiyou County rancher Jim Morris raises livestock and grows field crops at the family-owned Bryan-Morris Ranch in Etna. The farm, which dates back to the 1850s, is located along the Scott River, a tributary of the Klamath River. The Scott River supports chinook salmon and steelhead. It also supports coho salmon, which are listed as endangered.

Farmers and ranchers, tribes, fishing groups and environmentalists have debated the river's future for years. Given the importance of the resource, Morris said, it is important to have reliable data.

To help in this data collection process, he invites agricultural science students to his ranch each year to conduct a fall-run chinook female spawning survey. When the survey was conducted last November, students saw chinook salmon and steelhead.

"For about 20 years, I've been taking Etna High School students out on the river—ranch kids, Native American kids, agency people's kids and environmentalists' kids—and we all work together on this," Morris said. "Students learn firsthand about the fishery and learn to respect the fish."

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council oversees the survey. Its purpose, Morris said, is to help fisheries managers identify the number of fish that can be caught or allocated commercially by tribes and by recreational anglers, while still allowing for escapement—the number of fish that would return to spawn.

"The idea is to make good decisions based on good data, and that data comes from getting out on the ground and collecting it," Morris said. "By doing this survey, we've found a lot more fish."

Student Keith Johnson said he enjoyed taking part in the survey, adding, "We actually got to see the salmon spawning and making redds (spawning nests).

"We learned about the habitat of salmon and found that the gravel was worked up, which made it easier for the salmon to make stronger nests," Johnson said.

Christine Souza

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