TU in California: 2015 highlights

The Steelhead Whisperer works his magic on the Klamath River.


By Brian Johnson

It’s the time of year to reflect on the highlights of the past twelve months. As California Director for Trout Unlimited, this retrospection is a welcome part of my job. Over my ten years with TU, we’ve had a lot of cold water conservation progress to celebrate. And this year was no exception—TU’s California Program had a banner year in 2015.

A few of our highlights:

Trout Unlimited has been a key architect and advocate for three landmark agreements between agricultural interests, tribes, and fish and wildlife managers in the Klamath River basin—the third most productive watershed for salmon and steelhead on the West Coast. The agreements are a model for how Western interests could set aside their differences and forge a common future. Unfortunately, key members of the House of Representatives were unable to follow the local stakeholders’ example and set aside their ideology and partisanship, and Congress left town for the year without ratifying the agreements. At the end of 2015, one of the three settlements will expire and the other two could unravel. But the people who live in and love the

Klamath Basin have tremendous spirit and resolve, and we are hopeful that the relationships we built through the agreements will endure. I don’t know what the future holds, and I fear that people in the basin will suffer needlessly because of the lack of leadership in Congress. In the end, the setback only increases our determination never to rest until the Klamath water wars are truly ended and the river can be restored to its full potential. To learn more about the history and potential of the Klamath people, please check out this new documentary film, A River Between Us, produced in partnership with TU and available online.

Wild Steelheaders United made big progress in the Golden State in 2015. We hosted two well-attended “Steelhead Science for Anglers” events in Long Beach and Davis. We surveyed steelhead anglers in California, Oregon and Washington and found a strong majority from all tackle types support strong conservation measures to protect and restore wild steelhead runs while maintaining a balanced approach to providing steelhead angling opportunity. We began fusing our policy work in Sacramento with the work of our Science Team and TU’s Conservation Success Index to identify key stream segments and even entire watersheds that have the best potential to be managed as wild steelhead strongholds. And through our Coastal Streamflow and North Coast Salmon and Steelhead Restoration programs, we played a lead role in dozens of partnerships with farmers, timber companies, and private landowners from Eureka to San Luis Obispo to implement innovative conservation tools and strategies that improve fish passage and boost streamflows at times when steelhead need it most.

On the public lands front, TU continued to be the “sportsmen’s voice” for habitat conservation. We helped convince the president to designate the new Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, permanently protecting the headwaters of the Eel River and the popular trout fisheries in Putah Creek and Cache Creek.  We continued to advocate for cold water fish in the multi-year process of updating management plans for national forests in California, in particular the Sierra, Sequoia, and Inyo national forests. Our staff and grassroots combined forces to accomplish major habitat restoration projects on public lands in the Truckee River, West Walker, and South Fork Kern River watersheds.

From San Luis Obispo to Eureka, in 2015 TU was the driving force behind vital habitat restoration projects in coastal streams, through large scale habitat restoration and on-the-ground streamflow improvement projects. These projects improve habitat and fish passage for all life stages of coho salmon and steelhead. Our North Coast restoration program, for example, completed seven large construction projects with a total value of $1.6 million from the Eel River to Pudding Creek. We also hosted the second annual Salmon Run/Walk on the Big River, which will benefit a barrier removal project in the Manly Gulch reach of that river. Looking ahead, we will implement at least 13 already funded restoration projects in six different watersheds on the Eel and other North Coast streams, worth over $3.5 million. Among other benefits for fish, these projects will storm-proof more than 18 miles of forest road which will prevent over 52,000 cubic yards of sediment (5,200 fully loaded dump trucks) from entering streams.

We also expanded our on-the-ground project work to increase dry season streamflow. On the Mattole River, for example, we completed a 120,000-gallon storage project for Whitethorn Construction, a construction company and small water supplier—this will enable the company to forego diversion from the Mattole when flows drop to critical levels for salmon and steelhead. On San Gregorio Creek (San Mateo County), we completed a Phase I pump and irrigation system upgrade that reduced a commercial nursery’s rate of diversion by 75%. On Pescadero Creek, we are facilitating an electrical system

upgrade that will allow a farmer to switch from creek diversion to a deep well between May and November, and a new water system that will collect an entire season’s worth of rainwater from a farm’s greenhouse roofs and store it in a newly-constructed pond. In Little Arthur Creek (Pajaro River watershed), we completed the first two projects in our broad effort to install a suite of ten water storage tank systems at residential properties, thereby eliminating more than 80% of summer diversions in the reach where steelhead spawn and rear. Finally, we created two videos to promote our projects and partnerships: A Fan for the Fish and Martorana Family Winery and Water for Fish, Water for School.

TU helped advance salmon restoration and recovery in Central Valley watersheds by participating in the Yuba Salmon Partnership Initiative, which if completed would help salmon and steelhead runs in this important tributary to the Sacramento River by improving water management practices and providing fish access to high quality habitat above Englebright and New Bullard’s Bar dams. We also hosted the third annual

Fresno SalmonFest celebrating the return of Chinook salmon to the San Joaquin River, and participated in collaborative efforts with farmers and fisheries managers from Red Bluff to Fresno to utilize floodplain cropland as habitat for juvenile salmon.

TU staff from all over the country helped deliver a revised rule under the federal Clean Water Act that will better protect water quality in headwater streams and seasonal water bodies that we rely on to deliver cold, clean water to downstream fisheries and provide refuge for trout as climate change impacts lower elevation streams.

Over the past year, TU significantly increased our work in Sacramento and in local communities to address the impacts of marijuana cultivation on salmon and steelhead habitat. TU conducted outreach to landowners interested in adopting better water practices and coming into compliance with state fisheries and water laws, while at the same time advocating strongly for more enforcement against growers who choose to remain outside the law.

What’s perhaps most impressive about our accomplishments is the vital role TU’s members played in achieving them. Our California Council and all of our eleven chapters in California contributed a remarkable investment of time and resources toward our cold water conservation objectives, both broad and place-specific (nationwide, in 2015 TU volunteers contributed 666,386 volunteer hours to our mission; participated in 1,089 conservation projects on local streams and 1,597 youth education projects or programs; and raised and spent more than $9 million on conservation, education and stream stewardship). Please join me in saluting our grassroots in the Golden State – we literally could not do it without you.

Wishing all of you a happy and safe holiday season, with plenty of fishy days in 2016.


Brian Johnson is TU's California Program Director and Senior Attorney.



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