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Salmon Road to Recovery Arduous, Iffy

by Bart Jansen, Associated Press
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 25, 1999

Western states prepare for long-term, expensive effort

WASHINGTON -- Safe passage for migrating salmon wasn't a top priority when flood-control projects were built on California rivers and streams during the 1950s, and fixing the problems now is threatening to be costly.

In Santa Rosa, for example, Matanzas Creek was turned into a concrete-lined flood-control channel and City Hall was built atop the tunnel. The stretch is a roadblock for migrating fish because water races through after rain and it runs dry between storms.

Excellent fish habitat remains several miles upstream, but salmon returning from the ocean to spawn can't reach it.

Obstacles to migration aren't the only problems facing salmon. The fish also are affected by the loss of riverside trees that keep water cool and by muddy erosion that blankets riverbed gravel that is crucial to spawning.

"There are a few steelhead, but they're almost white or opaque because they live their whole life in that stream," said Tim Smith, a Sonoma County supervisor whose district includes the creek. "We've got basically every urban problem you can imagine with a very precious fishery."

Local officials in California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska realized last year that they were all lobbying -- and getting rejected -- for federal help in restoring salmon listed as endangered or threatened species across the West.

The governors and federal delegations united to ask for $200 million a year in federal funding for six years. They won $58 million this year under the advocacy of Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-San Francisco, and Slade Gorton, R-Wash.

"The fish are a national treasure and the national treasury should help pay for their restoration," said Paul Kelley, another Sonoma County supervisor who traveled to Washington three times this year to lobby for funding.

California's initial share is $9 million, to be spread among 14 counties from Humboldt to Ventura. In addition, two state bond issues on the March 7 ballot include another $45 million to match the federal program.

In California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, 26 salmon stocks are listed federally as endangered or threatened. Spring and summer chinook, for example, face likely extinction within 10 years if conditions don't improve. Six stocks are listed in California rivers from the northern border to Malibu, spanning the majority of the coast.

Salmon have been declining since the turn of the century from overfishing, ocean conditions that produce less food, and habitat loss due to dams, logging, agriculture and urban development. Scientists and federal officials are studying salmon harvest, hatcheries, habitat and hydroelectric dams as they plan to restore salmon.

The National Marine Fisheries Service in 1995 ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to study the possible removal of four 100-foot-high dams along the Snake River in southeastern Washington state. But a decision expected this month has been postponed until spring.

In July 1998, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt took a sledgehammer to McPherrin Dam about 25 miles south of Chico that kept salmon from spawning. Two dams along Butte Creek, which flows into the Sacramento River near Colusa, were removed and 20 miles of the river restored to create an unimpeded flow for the first time since the 1920s.

While dam removal provokes heated debate in the Northwest, restoration projects in California are focusing on planting trees along rivers, removing debris from streams or building fish ladders.

"We think it's critical to try to restore the habitat," said Randy Poole, general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency. "The counties are trying to work together for on-the-ground projects we could fund this year."

Each project can be expensive. A fish ladder proposed for a dam along the Russian River in Healdsburg is budgeted at $2 million, with $500,000 in state and federal funding. Santa Rosa is spending more than $3 million to restore part of Matanzas Creek, while asking for $200,000 in state and federal assistance.

"What I don't want to see is paralysis through analysis," Kelley said. "We've seen too much of that already."

Environmentalists caution that planning the projects is more important than getting the money. The problem is that even if trees are planted along a stretch of river to cool the water or prevent erosion, a badly made road or poorly cut timber upstream could wash out the improvements.

"Money is a wonderful tool, but it's just a tool," said Elyssa Rosen, regional representative for the Sierra Club. "What we need to do is reform the practices that are happening in the upstream habitat."

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, which represents commercial fishing operations, is pushing for permanent fixes, including reforms in the timber industry. The lack of reliability of native fisheries has led customers to import farm-raised salmon from other countries.

"We're trying to make sure the moneys are spent pursuant to plans, that they're not just frittered away by any agency coming in," said Zeke Grader, the association's executive director.

State Sen. Welsey Chesbro, D-Arcata, drafted a bill pending in the Assembly that would set up three regional advisory councils of property owners, environmentalists and fishing industry members to recommend which projects should be funded.

A point of contention is how much power the stakeholder groups should wield with the state Resources Agency in distributing the money, Chesbro said.

In the meantime, proposals will be reviewed at several levels. City and county officials are assembling proposals for review at the Resources Agency, the state Department of Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The list should arrive on Gov. Gray Davis' desk by the end of January, Poole, of the Sonoma water agency, said. Construction could begin in late summer. In the meantime, advocates hope to give tours of the proposed projects to members of Congress, to demonstrate why they are needed.

"I don't know if they recognize at the federal or state level how much really needs to be done," Poole said.

The Russian River, for example, has 2,500 miles of tributaries, and if half are degraded, a 30-year restoration schedule would require fixing 40 miles a year, Poole said.

"That's an astronomical amount when we're talking about local groups doing one or two miles a year," he said. "We have a long way to go."

Despite support from all four governors to win the funding, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized the program as "pork-barrel spending" because it was slipped into the budget bill at the last minute.

"We found it amusing that it's considered pork barrel, when in reality we're trying to help the endangered species while keeping the West Coast fishing economy going," Poole said.

Bart Jansen, Associated Press
Salmon Road to Recovery Arduous, Iffy
San Diego Union-Tribune, December 25, 1999

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