Salmon Safer on the Sacramento River

Knights Landing Outfall Gates operated by Reclamation District 108.

Knights Landing Outfall Gates from the Sacramento River side.

The construction project to place structures on the Knights Landing Outfall Gates to exclude salmon is almost complete. I recently went to the event when the gates were installed. Congratulations Reclamation District 108 on getting something built.

The drainage water from Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District and the Colusa Basin Drain enters the Sacramento River or continues down the Ridge Cut at Knights Landing. Most of the drainage water comes out in the fall when rice fields are drained before harvest. At this time salmon are swimming up the Sacramento River to spawn and some of them are attracted to the flows and head up the Drain. Unfortunately, if they go over the Outfall Gates they are permanently separated from the river where the spawning beds are located and lost to the wild salmon population.

People watching the gates being installed to keep salmon from entering the Colusa Basin Drain.

People watching the gates being installed to keep salmon from entering the Colusa Basin Drain.

In November the construction will be complete. Then the only place where salmon can enter the Colusa Basin Drain will be through the Yolo Bypass Toe Drain and up the Wallace Weir. The Department of Water Resources is designing a permanent structure for Wallace Weir that will also exclude salmon. Reclamation District 108, who operates the Knights Landing Outfall Gates and is managing this project, has also agreed to manage the Wallace Weir construction.

Gate is lowered into place.

Gate is lowered into place.

It is crazy to hear about the challenges of permitting a project that is built primarily to benefit an endangered species—winter run salmon. You can build a Walmart with a negative declaration under CEQA, but you have to spend several hundreds of thousands of dollars to do the environmental work to permit something just for the betterment of the environment. Go figure.


Hooray for Floodplains, Food Webs and Fish!

This excellent video describes the Nigiri Project at Knaggs Ranch in the Yolo Bypass. Watch as these students explain the importance of floodplains to producing food for salmon fry. These young fish move from the gravel spawning beds on the Sacramento and Feather Rivers toward the ocean. Due to our flood control levees they have lost 95% of their floodplain feeding grounds.

Lulu the Wonder Dog sniffing out the fish at Knaggs Ranch.

Lulu the Wonder Dog sniffing out the fish at Knaggs Ranch.

Farmers in the Yolo Bypass have been working with UC Davis and government scientists to prove that fish will grow at record rates on rice fields when flooded in the winter time. As the fields are drained, the fish continue their journey to the ocean and the food is flushed into the Delta where it provides food for Smelt and other native fish.

Local stakeholders have worked out an integrated plan that meets flood, fish, farm and waterfowl needs. It is now before government agencies to seize the opportunity for breakthrough.

Creating cuisine from invasive species

One of the stressors to the ecosystem in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta are invasive species, introduced plants and animals that crowd out native species.  This problem is not unique to the Delta. Almost every part of the settled earth struggles with this because it is primarily people in their infinite wisdom who introduce these plants or animals. When I was in Portland I read how the local chefs participated in a challenge to create dishes using the invasive species found in the Columbia River.

Chinese mitten crab

Chinese mitten crab

I forgot about it until I recently read this story in Grist about a sushi chef in Connecticut who is using invasive species to replace diminishing bluefin tuna.

Could we do the same with Delta invasives?

Water hyacinth salad?

Mitten crab cakes?

Check out the complete list of invasive species in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan for more potential cuisine.


Nigiri Project Wraps Up Another Successful Year

You can read about the conclusion of another successful year of salmon fish fattening on Knaggs Ranch rice fields on this San Francisco Chronicle cover story.  Or…

Salmon ready for their journey to the PacificOnce upon a time the California native salmon population was dwindling. Every year the fish hatcheries would release hundreds of thousands of salmon to have a miniscule return because the river was so channelized that the fish could not find the important floodplain habitat where they need to put on weight and delay their migration to sea to a time when the upwelling off the coast of San Francisco provides food.

Then one day a Department of Water Resources scientist Ted Sommers had an idea. He placed a 100,000 tagged hatchery fish in the main stem of the Sacramento River and 100,000 tagged hatchery fish in the Toe Drain of the Yolo Bypass (a flood control area that can still operate like a floodplain). He caught 16 fish in the Bay trawls at the end of a few weeks and the Bypass fish were noticeably bigger. And then Carson Jeffres, a grad student at UC Davis decided to build off of this with an experiment on one of the few remaining undammed rivers in NorCal. He created an experiment on the Cosumnes River, which resulted in the now “famous” cooler picture of floodplain salmon three times the size of the other salmon. This resulted in the National Marine Fisheries Service requiring 17,000 acres of floodplain habitat in the Sutter and Yolo Bypasses as part of the Biological Opinions for the water agencies to continue pumping water through the Delta.

In some ways this seemed like an “all is lost” moment because the agencies interpreted that as flooding the Bypasses wall-to-wall for long periods of time and this would have made it tough for the farmers and duck clubs in the Bypass to survive and then this would have compromised the Bypasses as a flood control structure.  Until one day John Brennan, a farm manager/appraiser/rice drier owner put together a group to buy Knaggs Ranch and experiment with using rice fields as surrogate salmon floodplain habitat. And now 3 years later the experiment has proven that the rice fields with water held for up to 6 weeks create “Floodplain Fatties”. And a coalition of farmers, scientists, fish advocates, county folks, wildlife area managers, and agencies are proposing a management system that is compatible with all of the existing uses in the Yolo Bypass. This year is a drought year and naturally really tough on fish. Access to the floodplain will give them resiliency to survive this kind of water year and in the future sea-level rise and warmer temps. It is also Conservation Measure 2 in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.

Brilliant Bypass Flood Strategy

The planners that coped with floods in the early 1900s almost despaired from the frequent winter inundations in the Sacramento Valley.  Then they began set aside swaths of land for a flood bypass system that has since averted many a disaster.  The Sutter Bypass, while technically not in the Delta, is a flood bypass for the Feather River just above where it joins the Sacramento River.  The Sutter Bypass is just north of the Fremont Weir and Yolo Bypass and so is interconnected (a kind of cousin) to the water wheelhouse we call the Delta.

A wild stretch in Bypass between rice fields and Feather River.

A wild stretch in Bypass between rice fields and Feather River.

It is a wilder, wetter, more remote place than the Yolo Bypass.  There is no Highway 80 or Interstate 5 bisecting it. The Sutter National Wildlife Refuge is in the middle with rice fields and other farmland on either side. All along the Feather River is a stand of trees and native grass that is home to deer, coyotes and mountain lions.

Along Highway 113 in November--wherever there is water there are lots of birds

Along Highway 113 in November–outside the Bypass the farms have clean edges–still good for birds but not as wild as the Sutter Bypass

I was lucky to get a tour from a farm manager today (with keys to the gates) and see this relatively remote place. Wherever the rice was flooded for waterfowl there were flocks of swans and geese and other birds. We saw one coyote, four different kinds of hawks, buzzards, and deer.

The Central Valley Flood Control Board is discussing plans to expand the bypass system and it is controversial. Whenever a public agency talks about condemning aspects of private property rights–in this case, the ability to develop the land for something other than row or field crops or waterfowl habitat–there is a hew and cry.  Even in 1910, I bet there were more than a few angry letters to editor about the proposed bypass systems.  Now the wisdom of the system is so obvious.

The Sutter bypass will fill with cottonwoods without cultivated agriculture.

The Sutter bypass will fill with cottonwoods without cultivated agriculture.

It is best to plan for it before urban encroachment makes it political or economically unpalatable.  Natomas used to serve in much the same way as the Yolo Bypass. West Sacramento and Davis are hugging the Yolo Bypass.

It is relatively easy to connect fish from the Feather River to the Bypass for floodplain habitat in winter.

It is relatively easy to connect fish from the Feather River to the Bypass for floodplain habitat in winter.

In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, New York and New Jersey are looking at the bypass systems in the Netherlands. They could also look to California. What would they find? Land that serves multiple beneficial purposes and one heck of a buffer from extreme weather.

Nigiri Project 2013

The experiments to test how well salmon fry will thrive on “surrogate wetlands” (a.k.a. rice fields) is in middle of year two.  The test pods were expanded from 5 acres to 10 2-acre ponds at Knaggs Ranch.  Each of the fields, now ponds, has one of three treatments: fallow with weeds, rice stubble and stomped rice (stubble rolled into soil, twice).  In addition, there are cages within the first pond with all three treatments and the telemetry to track fish behavior using technology like that in Fastrak.

Equipment in pond tracks what type of land treatment the fish prefer: rice stubble, weeds or stomped rice.

Equipment in pond tracks what type of land treatment the fish prefer: rice stubble, weeds or stomped rice.

Another experiment is comparing the success rate of fish that spend time on the floodplain getting fat for 4-6 weeks before swimming to sea, versus going directly into the Toe Drain or into the Sacramento River.  These experiments are coordinated by a Science Team led by Jacob Katz with California Trout.  Scientists from Department of Water Resources, UC Davis Watershed Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, CA Department of Fish and Wildlife and US Bureau of Reclamation all collaborate to design the experiments and manage the projects in the field.

The farm manager, John Brennan, is an active partner– especially in solving problems such water supply and field designs. At the beginning of February there was a concern about possible breaks in the field checks.  The good weather relieved those pressures but created other concerns.

The warm weather raised concerns about salmon tolerance for temperature. The sunshine also provided the conditions for the algae bloom that feeds the bugs that feed the fish.  The food is so abundant that the fish are growing at twice the rate of last year, reaching sizes at 3 weeks that were measured after 6 weeks in 2012.

Pilot 2 – Growth 22 days (1)

The floodplains also give the fish space to hang out with few predators while the ocean conditions change to be more salmon friendly.  In another few weeks the Science Team will measure, count and release the fish in to the Toe Drain to swim out to sea. Their report will be available sometime this summer.

Rio Vista: Funky River Town

Today I got my first taste of Rio Vista.  Located next to the Sacramento River on Highway 12. It is a 30 minute drive from Stockton or Fairfield.  It has a couple of small hotels and 9 restaurants in the “downtown”, so it is definitely small town.  You can walk to the end of Main Street with your fishing pole and throw your line in on the dock with the other half dozen fishermen.  And this weekend (October 13-14, 2012) you can compete in a bass tournament or enjoy the carnival in town.  for more information on events:

We ate at Lucy’s (see review), walked around town and poked our heads into Foster’s Bighorn bar & grill.  Foster’s would be fun for a drink, but I can’t imagine keeping my appetite with the head of the gentlest of creatures, a giraffe, looking down at me.  Or an elephant.


There is a farmer’s market on the far side of the bridge and coming in 2013 a Delta Discovery Center.  If you are riding your motorcycle on a Saturday, or going for a Sunday drive with your car club, then Rio Vista is a good destination.  It also appears to be a fishermen’s paradise.  Check it out.