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Habitat Improvements Reduce Flooding, Recover Fish

As part of NOAA’s Habitat Blueprint, we are working to improve habitat for fish like endangered coho and threatened Chinook salmon and steelhead trout. Dry Creek is a tributary of California’s Russian River, one of the habitat focus areas recently selected for the Blueprint. In Dry Creek, NOAA is working with partners to make habitat improvements that can protect private property and help recover these fish.

You might think that, for fish, the more water you have flowing through a creek, the better. But if the water flows too fast, fish have to spend too much energy just to stay in the habitat they prefer.

That’s the case in Dry Creek, which has been channelized, or straightened, so that it’s almost like a luge—nothing slows the flow of water. When the Sonoma County Water Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers releases water into the creek for consumers—or, during heavy storms—the flows are so fast that fish can’t find areas to rest.

So NOAA developed a plan, called a “programmatic biological opinion,” which requires the Water Agency and Army Corps to improve habitat along six miles of the creek and reduce flows. The key was to get local landowners to provide some of their land to make the improvements.

As an example, the Water Agency and Army Corps worked with several NOAA offices to create refuge habitat on private property owned by the Quivira Winery. They were able to slow the flow of water in the creek by:

  • Installing large woody debris
  • Creating contours in the creek to reduce the effects of channelization
  • Creating a channel to the side of the main creek, where fish could rest

These actions also reduced flooding and erosion on the winery’s property. Since these improvements were made, we have seen an increase in the number of fish using this new habitat. A few years ago, fish were returning to the creek in single digits—we are now seeing hundreds of fish, and their offspring, returning to the creek to spawn. The project has been so successful that several other landowners have now signed up to make similar improvements.

Posted January 23, 2013

Recovered ghost traps on a lobster boat.

Workers cable logs and boulders together to create places for coho to hide from high flows during the winter. Courtesy: Sonoma County Water Agency