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The majority of human water use occurs in the summer months resulting in the stream going dry over long stretches, and creates tougher survival conditions for the fish.
The majority of human water use occurs in the summer months resulting in the stream going dry over long stretches, and creates tougher survival conditions for the fish.

Dutch Bill Creek
Habitat of the Coho Salmon

Oct 28, 2019
by Tom Austin

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Last month I teased a future column sharing some of the wealth of knowledge I recently discovered about the study of Dutch Bill Creek by biologists and many others (probably too many to list) with respect to the goal of protecting the habitat of the endangered Coho Salmon (and therefore also Steelhead trout and other salmonid species).  This is that column.  I will confess right away, and cheerfully, that I have gotten the bulk of my information from one masterful, comprehensive document: it is entitled “Dutch Bill Creek Streamflow Improvement Plan”.  It can be found on the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) website: https://oaec.org/publications/dutch-bill-creek-streamflow-improvement-plan.  Follow that link, download the free.pdf document (hereafter known as “the document”) and follow along at home!

This document was prepared by the Russian River Coho Water Resources Partnership, the component members of which form a who’s who of environmentally active west county organizations:  (deep breath):  The Sonoma Resource Conservation District (SRCD), the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration (CEMAR), Sea Grant California, the OAEC Water Institute, Trout Unlimited, Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District (GRRCD), with support from the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF).  

I’ll try to give the executive summary of this comprehensive 137-page document: populations of Coho Salmon in the Russian River watershed have been declining steadily since human activity ramped up in the 1870’s and 1880’s, and by 2001 had reached the point where extinction was a real possibility. The Dutch Bill Creek watershed was chosen and a focal watershed because, quoting from the document linked above, “it provides the critical intersection of feasibility of salmon restoration, degree of stream impairment by diminished flows, landowner interest in collaboration, importance to coho salmon, range of land and water uses with the potential to demonstrate a variety of solutions, and federal and state recovery plan prioritization.”

Whew!  As we say in the west county, there’s a lot to unpack there.  I’ll try to hit the high points. The one that always strikes me:  take a look at a map of the Dutch Bill Creek Watershed (many such maps in the document).  Now look at a map of Iran.  Seriously, go on.  Almost exactly the same shape.  Coincidence?  

All right, all right. Moving on to the rest of the high points.  The document details the timeline of stream flow improvement projects already completed (such as the dam removal! Nice work!) To improve stream flow.  There is another lengthy section detailing the research to measure stream flow in Dutch Bill Creek by month, by year, relative to annual rainfall, and so on. There is data on human water use in the watershed (Camp Meeker, Alliance Redwoods, Westminster Woods, Occidental, and just over 300 private residences outside of the listed places) The gist of this section is that the average annual discharge from Dutch Bill Creek is 100 times larger than the total of human use.  Good news, right? The problem is, the vast majority of stream flow occurs in the winter months, and the majority of human water use occurs in the summer months (residential use is more or less constant, but the summer camps and agricultural users use more water in the summer).  This results in the stream going dry over long stretches, more so than its natural historical (pre-modern civilization) pattern.  This results in tougher survival conditions for the fish. 

The next section of The Document details strategies for improving stream flow and therefore fish habitat.  The stream flow projects completed over the last two decades are a big part of that.  Another big part is in convincing (and helping) water users in the watershed to take some of that copious winter stream flow and storing it for summer use, thereby reducing summer time water diversions (natural springs, well water, etc.).  I’m happy to report that Westminster Woods is well ahead of the curve, having completed (as of the report’s 2017 publication) water storage and infrastructure projects that have reduced their summer time water diversion by 99%.  Yes, you read that right!  They used to divert 100-120 gallons per minute.  Now?  1.3 gallons per minute.  That’s some nice work  Alliance Redwoods is in the midst of similar improvements, although their work is not as far along.  I’ve run out of space for this month, but in future columns I will be happy to report on their progress, as well as on work done by other watershed residents.  They are making a difference, and it makes me proud to live among them.

Camp Meeker Beat by Tom Austin

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