Salmon Remain Elusive On Trinity Despite Millions Spent

Oct 24, 2016

As legal battles continue over the fate of three dams that impede salmon and steelhead on the Klamath River, work aimed at aiding the iconic, but imperiled fish was wrapping up on one the Klamath’s key tributaries, the Trinity River. NSPR’s Marc Albert has more.

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If it all works out, no one will even know they were here.

On a recent Monday, though, that was hard to imagine.    

Wisps of dust rose and fell with the breeze as excavators and graders rolled over what should be vital riparian habitat. To the uninitiated, the scene is troubling. But these heavy equipment operators near Lewiston are trying to reverse damage done over a century and a half.

“Ecology tends to be about how things are falling apart lately, and this is a place where we’re actually putting things back together.”

Once conceptual, Environmental Scientist F. Brandt Gutermuth of the US Bureau of Reclamation points to a spot on a map near the Buckhorn boat launch where workers created a new river channel. A slower, more meandering river should benefit fish.
Credit Marc Albert

That’s Eric Peterson, whose title is data steward for the Trinity River Restoration Program, a consortium of federal agencies implementing a legal settlement between Washington and Native American Tribes. His hands are more than full.

A decade and a half into what was envisioned as an eight-year project, definitive proof of success — more salmon — remains elusive. It turns out, reversing over a century of abuse is hugely complex. Meanwhile, some locals are growing impatient, questioning some of the science and wondering if the millions spent and economic tradeoffs are worth it.

To outsiders, the Trinity is a wild, liquid ribbon. Rambling through remote canyons and roiling rapids. Looks are deceptive. This river’s depth is determined not by rains and snowmelt, but court orders and control rooms run by the federal Bureau of Reclamation.

Hydraulic gold mining and logging took a severe toll on salmon and their habitat. A half-century ago, the river itself was harnessed. New dams created Trinity and Whiskeytown Lakes. A water tunnel funneled much of the Trinity into the Sacramento, and California’s vast network of irrigation canals. Studies before the dams promised negligible impacts on fish. The studies were wrong.

It took decades, but an epic legal battle mounted by the Hoopa and Yurok yielded a legally binding Record of Decision in 2000, committing the federal government to an extraordinary effort: restoring the river below Trinity Dam until salmon recover to pre-dam numbers.

Turns out, that’s a tall order. Since being dammed and tapped, the river doesn’t meander as much. Historic flood plains are high and dry. Gravel — where salmon lay their eggs — is trapped upstream by the dam. Fewer trees now wash away, robbing young salmon of refuge from predators.

Mike Dixon is the implementation branch chief for the Trinity River Restoration Program.

Equipment operator Kevin Orcutt, a member of the Hoopa Valley Tribe loads earth onto a dump truck as part of ecological restoration work along the Trinity River near Lewiston Calif., (9-6-16), in foreground: Fred Meyer, River Restoration Project Manager Fred Meyer (left), and F. Brandt Gutermuth (center) an Environmental Scientist with the US Bureau of Reclamation.
Credit Marc Albert

“We’re trying to restore that process of having a dynamic river,” Dixon said. “That’s really what we’re shooting for.”

Operating from an office in a Weaverville shopping center, scientists working for an assortment of federal agencies meticulously monitor conditions and plot next steps.

A few miles upstream at the Bucktail Boat Ramp, a crew is turning theory into practice. It is one of dozens of sites spread across 40 river miles. By moving rock and strategically placing debris including downed trees, a river bend becomes more pronounced and young fish gain critical hiding places.

Fred Meyer is a project manager with the Hoopa Tribe.

“Without turning, with the river straight, there’s no, there’s nowhere, no protection for juvenile fish,” Meyer said.

Meyer points to two recently added features: ELJ1 and ELJ2 — Engineered Log Jam 1 and Engineered Log Jam 2 — that slow the river. Meanwhile, a small team in wading boots is assembling what they call a BDA, Beaver Dam, Analog.

“It’s really low impact, low effort, right?” Meyer said. “You stick some poles in the ground and you weave some willow and cottonwood cuttings around it, that all. But the impacts are that if, if it backwaters, an area like this, all of the sudden you’ve got, you go from an acre of wetland to five acres of wetland, right.”

The hope is that real beavers will find, adopt and maintain the dam. If successful, this contrived wetland, with its slow moving water, will support an explosion of insects that will, in turn feed hungry young salmon.

As promising as Bucktail and other sites are, patience among locals is flagging. Less water is being held in Trinity Lake. Important to tourism in an area otherwise dependent on logging and mining, locals gripe that the lake is already being tapped before the summer gets underway — conditions that deter visitors. Kelli Gant, a local businesswoman who is also on one of the official bodies overseeing the project, said that in recent years, even the lake’s boat ramps have been left high and dry.

Gant says she supports the restoration. But, like others, she’s concerned about the amount of money spent, the impact on commerce and the lack of measurable progress.

Geomorphologist David Gaeuman points downstream at a completed restoration site downstream from Douglas City Calif. The major work here, completed several years ago, is invisible to the untrained eye.
Credit Marc Albert / NSPR

Operating under a concept called “adaptive management,” scientists can tinker with plans and try new strategies without intense and time-consuming studies.

But operational flexibility generates unease. An official’s reference to the project as a “grand experiment” is sometimes cited by critics as evidence that these experts don’t really know what they’re doing.

And 16 years into an eight-year project, that’s not a totally unreasonable conclusion.

“People have an expectation that there’s going to be quickly observable changes and the timeframe that these changes happen is longer than what people hope or expect,” Dixon said. “Even partner agencies. I mean, I think a lot of people within the program are impatient. That when are we going to start seeing these salmon come back.”

There’s no clear date. Salmon typically spend three years at sea before returning to spawn. No matter how much the Trinity is restored, once the young reach the ocean, they are on their own. Currents, upwelling and ocean temperatures can mean feast or famine at sea. Then there’s the bigger fish, birds and of course seals and sea lions, over which the tribes and agencies have no control. Like everyone else, they’ll have to wait and see.