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Jenner Jottings -Tim McKusick - October 2016

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Jenner Jottings -Tim McKusick - October 2016

Good news from the Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program. According to Nicolas Bauer, Fisheries Scientist, (ca-sgep.ucsd.edu/russianrivercoho) as relayed to Mike Keller, spokesperson for the Friends of Sheephouse Creek, results from the 2016 snorkel survey of Sheephouse Creek show a slight uptick in numbers of Coho Salmon and Steelhead over last year’s count. 2016 had 434 Coho Salmon ‘year of young’, 138 Steelhead ‘year of young’, and 8 Steelhead residents.

In this world of ‘living on the brink’ where our native aquatic species are threatened with possible Extinction, and we hold our breath with each spawning season, this is welcome news!

“A minor miracle”, said Keller, whose family has owned the property at the confluence of Sheephouse Creek and the Russian River for generations. “It is amazing what a little extra water will do for the survival rate of these endangered species”.  Pray for rain, indeed!

Sheephouse Creek is one of the few watercourses that feed directly into the Russian River Estuary; a ‘perched stream’ whose lower reaches are directly influenced by the tidal and estuarine forces and flows. When the mouth of the river is closed, or in a high-tide event the lower river water level increases visibly, backing up into the perched streams as far inland as Austin Creek. 

At this time of year, a glance at the mouth of Austin Creek from the River Road bridge will tell the tale, if water is backing up into Austin Creek, the mouth of the river is closed or it is an amazingly high tide ocean event. An amazing length of the lower Russian River is directly linked to the tidal-estuarine influence.  

It is no wonder that a majority of fish counted in this year’s Sheephouse Creek survey were found in pools on the lower estuarine-affected reaches of the creek.  With water readily available from either the closed river mouth or a high tide event, the conditions are in favor of a good survival rate for the young fish who call these special ‘close to the ocean’ streams Home. 

This unique scenario where the native fish can reach their home spawning grounds even when the upper Russian River is seemingly dry, give the fish who call these perched streams home a “Fin Up” on their cousins who originate up-river and have to compete with urban and agricultural water diversions to be able to survive and reproduce. 

Quality of habitat is the next most important survival factor for our nearly-extinct species. In the Sheephouse Creek watershed, much has been done to improve conditions for the fish. 

Sheephouse Creek’s headwaters are located in the Jenner Headlands Preserve. Sheephouse flows from the Preserve to the river estuary through private lands, all logged at some point and some earmarked for future logging activity. The most often cited source of spawning stream degradation is sedimentation due to improper logging road and culvert installation and maintenance. 

The Sonoma Resource Conservation District  performed Sediment Source Assessments in the Jenner Headlands Preserve as well as the entire Sheephouse Creek Watershed in 2011. 

The RCD Headlands study, after assessing 48 miles of road in the Preserve and 30 miles of road within the Sheephouse Creek watershed for point sources of erosion, resulted in a sediment reduction plan for the entire Jenner Headlands property where the Wildlands Conservancy has implemented some sections of the plan on their own. 

The resulting Sheephouse Creek Sediment Source Reduction Project in the Summer of 2013 is projected to prevent over 13,000 cubic yards of fine sediment from reaching Sheephouse Creek and its tributaries over the next decade. 

This critical habitat restoration project was funded for implementation from California Department of Fish and Game with match funds from Sonoma Land Trust and materials match from local landowners in 2012. Construction efforts for the project were completed over the next three seasons between September 2012 and October 2014 where almost 7 miles of hydrologically connected roads were upgraded and another 2 miles were decommissioned. 

This Sheephouse Creek watershed wide road-related sediment reduction project was completed in 2014. To date this has been the main work in the watershed. It has made a significant improvement in Coho habitat and increases the likelihood of success with the Captive Broodstock Program (caseagrant.ucsd.edu/project/coho-salmon-monitoring/captive-broodstock-program).

According to Kevin Cullinen, Project Manager at Sonoma RCD, the Broodstock Program has been stocking Sheephouse Creek with juvenile Coho Salmon since 2004 with the last stocking taking place in 2014. Cullinen states that Sonoma RCD has no immediate plans for future habitat enhancement work in the Sheephouse Creek watershed. “The roads project was quite an undertaking and addressed the main limiting factor for Coho survival which is sediment impairment.” Cullinen acknowledges requests for more instream habitat enhancement be done, especially in the lower reach of Sheephouse Creek, but states that there are simply too many other Coho streams in need of attention. 

This is not the time to cut back on these vital programs. Programs that are paramount in the fight for the very survival of our native fish populations. Instead of throwing in the towel on these species whose future is in our hands because ‘we can’t afford it’ and ‘there are too many streams that need work’, we should emphatically embrace this quest. 

We are up for the challenge. This coastal stream, so small that the entire watershed can be viewed in a small aerial photograph should be our posterchild for a new beginning. A renewed commitment to heal the lands that sustain us all.

The restoration of upper Sheephouse Creek within the Jenner Headlands is going well. The philosophy of the Headlands is to restore the previously over-logged forests to eventually mimic an old growth forest. It will take generations, but by encouraging the thinning of the lesser quality ‘suckers’ and leaving the big trees to continue to grow, in time a much healthier habitat will be the result. 

If we could simply manage the entire Sheephouse Creek Watershed from top to bottom in this manner, consistently, the end result would be something worth bragging about. It would certainly be a feather in the cap of those who had the vision and determination to see it through.

Think about it: Visitors could hike the headwaters and witness the ongoing stream restoration and reforestation. They could spend the day hiking the Coho Trail down by streams shaded by Big Trees (that will only get bigger!). Perhaps spending some time at the creekside Coho and Steelhead oriented visitor center where the Broodstock Program is explained and demonstrated, and then ending the day with a sunset kayak paddle in the Estuary. 

We would be The Eco-Tourism Destination on everyone’s lists.