Jacob Katz, director of Central Valley operations for the conservation nonprofit California Trout, looks out on the Sacramento River, near the Rough and Ready Pumping Station. Credit: Liza Gross

Harnessing Rice Fields to Resurrect California’s Endangered Salmon

Jan 7, 2021 at 4:25pm

Liza Gross, Inside Climate News

It’s easy to see how biologists studying the fate of California’s native fish might fall into despair. That’s how Jacob Katz felt when he and his colleagues reported in 2011 that more than three-quarters of the state’s native freshwater fish, including its iconic Chinook salmon, were in sharp decline. 

But Katz, a fly-fishing ecologist who directs Central Valley operations for the conservation nonprofit California Trout, isn’t the despairing type. His eyes lit up as he recalled the moment he realized the same forces leading California’s fish to the brink of extinction could be harnessed to reel them back. 

That epiphany now drives his work. Restoration isn’t about removing any one dam or returning to some mythical pristine condition but about helping salmon recognize the rivers they evolved with, said Katz, walking along a flood-protection levee that cuts off the Sacramento River, California’s longest, from the thousands of farms and towns that occupy its historic floodplains. When you realize “farms or fish” is a false choice, he said, “suddenly you see that you can have both.”

California’s labyrinthine system of dams and levees cut off once roaring rivers from millions of acres of their floodplains, drastically reducing the habitat and food salmon need to thrive. Climate change may hasten extinctions by raising water temperatures and disrupting flows with bigger floods and more frequent and severe droughts, which also threaten to reignite conflicts over increasingly scarce water. 

But such dire prospects have inspired a novel alliance in one of the most productive agricultural valleys in the country, which has turned adversaries into allies to offer salmon and other threatened wildlife a lifeline.

Farmers in the Sacramento Valley have partnered with biologists, water regulators and conservation groups to imagine “a new way forward” to restore wild fish runs. They aim to create what Katz calls a “string of pearls” along the Sacramento River by reconnecting the highly leveed waterway with its floodplains at places most likely to benefit fish. 

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