Monday, March 14, 2011

AUBURN RAVINE A Community Effort to Restore one small Sierra Foothills stream that may hold the answer to the future of northern California’s

by Greg Vinci

When just a toddler Jack Sanchez’s mother would take him to the banks of the creek, a mere fifty feet down slope from his boyhood home in the Auburn Ravine, where he would occupy himself by tossing small pebbles into the creek that bordered his parents property in the Sierra foothills. As Jack grew older pebble tossing progressed into exploring the abundant wildlife in and along the creek and eventually he and his buddies would spend summer afternoons sneaking from pool to pool with a spinning rod and a can of worms. Jack spent many hours just sitting on a rock next to the creek, observing the fish in the pool below his house. He observed that each fall, among the school of small Rainbows a few large dark forms would appear seemingly out of nowhere. As the autumn wore on, more and more of these mystery fish would at times be observed and when Jack finally caught one he noted that once out of water the dark hued fish were also Rainbows but much larger and bore a bright chrome hue that could only be present on fish that had at one time been to the sea. Anadromous Steelhead had arrived in the Auburn Ravine. Located along Interstate 80 at the 1000 ft. elevation, Auburn Ravine begins just up the hill from the City of Auburn, California, and flows for about thirty miles to its confluence with the Sacramento River at Verona. Back in the days of the Gold Rush, when it was then known as North fork Dry Diggins, it held the distinction as being one of the very first gold strikes to be established after the initial discovery at Coloma, CA, in 1848. The placer mining method of gold extraction that was utilized on the creek, resulted in an ecological disaster that devastated the creek’s aquatic life. Skip ahead 160 years; placer mining no longer exists, and very little evidence of the damage that placer gold mining caused can be seen.

It’s been over fifty years since Jack discovered his first Steelhead in Auburn Ravine, and during that span of time Jack became acquainted with many others who lived along the creek and who shared similar experiences, and mutual concern that fewer and fewer Steelhead and Salmon were observed in the creek each year. That concern was the catalyst that inspired the Ophir Property Owners Inc. and the Auburn Ravine Preservation Committee to begin searching for ways to protect the AR’s habitat for resident fish and migrating Steelhead and Salmon. They were able to work with the DFG in the early 90s to initiate studies of the potential of the AR to support Steelhead and Salmon spawning. SARSAS, which is an acronym for Save Auburn Ravine Salmon And Steelhead, came about in the first part of the new century, and began formulating a plan to convince the stakeholders which were primarily water districts, to help in their efforts. Many of them had heard stories from old timers about fishing for twenty inch Steelhead and large Chinook Salmon. Some of the members like Jack Sanchez, who had regularly fished the ravine as youngsters, had been witness to the predictable runs of Steelhead that existed there prior to the nineteen sixties. They knew that if they were going to convince the many stakeholders along the stream such as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Nevada Irrigation District (NID) and the South Sutter Water District (SSWD) to name a few, they would need to gather all of the scientific research that had been done over the years to plead their case. They found for example that the California Dept. of Fish & Game had completed several aquatic surveys in 2004 and 2005 that corroborated the anecdotal evidence of the old timers. Interestingly, they found that 34% of the fish in the AR were Rainbow Trout/Steelhead. The balance of the fish were split between Sacramento Sucker, Lamprey, Sculpin, and Hitch, all of which are indigenous. Non-indigenous fish such as, Green Sunfish, Pumpkinseed, Redear (sic), Sunfish, Red Shiner and Spotted Bass were also found. On one stretch near Ophir, an amazing 7,985 Rainbows (some of which may have been Steelhead) were found per mile. They also identified several issues that were impeding the spawning migrations of Salmon and Steelhead in the AR such as dams (some seasonal and some permanent) that blocked passage of anadromous fish, eratic water flows in the creek caused by irrigation and power needs, and bank erosion that created siltation in the spawning gravels. With this information in hand, they began contacting the stakeholders to see what level of cooperation could be forthcoming.

Since efforts to get stakeholder cooperation in the early nineteen nineties had met with little success, they were fully prepared to hear the word “no” when they contacted the water districts. This time around they were amazed that they received encouragement from all of the agencies that they contacted. Everyone wanted to help, but of course the bureaucracies of each organization needed to be navigated, and money had to be found.

High on their list, was finding a way to assure reasonable minimum flows. The Wise Powerhouse owned by PG&E supplies some of the water to the AR which is transported through ditches and tunnels from storage at higher elevations to the powerhouse which then provides small amount to NID via the creek. There had been several times during the late summer or early fall that the spigot had been turned off so to speak causing many of the land owners along the stream to gather dying fish in the shallows and transport them to the deeper pools that remained. Though some of the AR water comes from springs located along its course in the dry months, much of its flow during that period is dependent on water releases by the various water agencies in the area. NID uses the creek to transport water from higher elevation impoundments to its agricultural customers in the valley below during the summer months and if the stream dries up, chances are that NID had a maintenance project that required turning off the valve. One would think that trying to get a water district to change its policy would be like trying to beat a dead Salmon, but Jack Sanchez says that working with Ron Nelson, NID’s general manager, resulted in restoring the water flow, and it has remained stable during the summer months ever since. Getting the other water district stakeholders was important too. For example the Placer County Water District (PCWD) pumps up to 100 cfs per second at various times of the year and PG&E provides up to 80 cfs to NID via the ravine. As you can see, everyone needs to be on the same page.

They also needed to get the cooperation of federal agencies involved in the restoration of Steelhead and Salmon habitat in the central valley. Such cooperation could provide a possible source of federal funding for any future construction projects such as fish ladders. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had drafted a Central Valley Salmon and Steelhead Recovery Plan that had placed the Auburn Ravine relatively low on the priority list. Armed with the DFG fish survey from 2004 & 2005 plus several other studies that had been compiled since the nineteen eighties, they approached NOAA and were able to convince them of the AR’s viability as a potential spawning waterway for Steelhead and Salmon. Since then they have been very cooperative and their special agent Don Tanner has worked alongside DFG warden Mark Jeter each year to meet with agricultural interests along the creek to make sure that any man made barriers are removed during the spawning migration period between October 15th and April 15th.

(Having a stable flow of water is only part of the equation which allows the fish to travel to the spawning area in the upper reaches of the stream the goal of SARSAS will be partially unfulfilled as will the full potential of the stream.) REWRITE Threee of the twelve dams and diversions along the AR are owned and controlled by NID (Hemphill diversion/dam, Hwy 65 Lincoln Gauging Station Dam, and Auburn Ravine #1 Gold Hill diversion/dam). The other nine dams in the valley portion of the stream are diversion projects owned and controlled by the South Sutter Water District (SSWD), private owners and one private duck club. Several are what are known as flashboard dams that back up the ravine at certain times of the year to divert water into canals that transport it for irrigation. Such diversions also divert fry and smolt in canals where the die in fields as they attempt to return to the estuaries and Pacific Ocean where they will grow to adults. NID has agreed to build a fish ladder on the Lincoln Gauging Station in the Fall of 2011 and is working on a plan to either install a fish ladder and fish screen on the HH Canal or to completely remove the Hemphill Dam. No plans for retrofitting the Gold Hill Diversion Dams have been made. Ron Nelson his wants to retrofit the first two successfully before NID addresses the Gold Hill Dam which will need a large fish ladder and a big fish screen. The SSWD owns two permanent dams and diversions and 23 pumps in the lower valley section of the ravine. SSWD has applied to the Family Water Alliance for $300,000 to put a fish screen on the Pleasant Grove Canal behind the Aitken Ranch Dam to allow fish passage and screen the diversion. PG&E has offered up to $45,000.00 in matching funds to place fish screens on nine privately owned the pumps. Finally, most of the dams are up for re-licensing by FERC, which is an opportunity for the public to ask that the dams be managed for wildlife preservation as a requirement for the renewal of the license. The wheels of progress are moving slowly, but they are moving forward, nonetheless.

The story of the successful steps that have been undertaken to get the project this far on the Auburn Ravine can be a blueprint for conservation organizations up and down the west slope of the Sierras where Salmon and Steelhead have historically spawned. Keeping in mind that it is pretty much an accepted fact that hatchery fish do not survive as well in the environment as do naturally spawned fish, the maintenance and improvement of spawning habitat that will result in more wild fish is very important to the survival of the resource. By doing simple math the potential of the Sierra’s west slope creeks to save this important fisheries resource is huge. There are roughly seven hundred thirty-eight streams on the west slope that comprise the Feather River, Yuba River, American River, and San Joaquin River water sheds to name a few. Keeping in mind that one female Chinook Salmon carries about 3000 eggs, (and on average 3% survive to fry stage and ultimately return to spawn) so if only one female successfully spawns in each of the seven hundred streams of the central valley the consequential 2,100,000. eggs will result in 63,000 wild adult Salmon returning to the valley’s waterways each year. So you can see that the restoration of west slope creeks have the potential to provide the means to save one of California’s most valuable wildlife resources. The same equation can be applied to Steelhead who have been affected by the same problems with degradation of habitat and the introduction of hatchery fish.
It took twenty years of effort by concerned individuals, starting with the Property Owners Association of Ophir, the Auburn Ravine Preservation Association and finally SARSAS, to get this far, and it will be only a short time when Steelhead and Salmon can make an unimpeded journey to the spawning gravel of the upper Auburn Ravine. If conservation groups throughout the valley take the same course as SARSAS, the dismal runs of Salmon and Steelhead that we’ve witnessed over the last few years will be a thing of the past(see The SARSAS Plan for Saving Salmon and Steelhead in the Pacific Marine Fishery at

Send donations to SARSAS, PO Box 4269,Auburn, CA 95604.

Colin Purdy: (916)358-2832 CEL (530)333-7749
Mike Healey (916)358-4334
Robert Vincik (916)358-2933

NOAA (National Marine Fisheries Service-special agent)
Donald Tanner (916)930-3658 CEL (916)871-4862

Dan Cox

Otis Bay Environmental
Chad Gurly

US Bureau of Reclamation
John Hanon

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