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Unraveling the mysteries of the Atascadero Creek watershed

By Sarah Nossaman Pierce

Nestled up against a verdant, forested ridge in western Sebastopol lies an idyllic little stream with plenty of cold, clear water and shady pools that look like prime fish habitat.

Redwood Creek is a tributary to Jonive Creek, which weaves under and along Bodega Highway before entering Atascadero Creek at the northwest corner of Ragle Ranch Park. Atascadero Creek then flows through Graton into Green Valley Creek, which meets the Russian River in Forestville.

Green Valley Creek is renowned as a critical and productive stronghold for endangered coho salmon and was the last stream in the Russian River watershed to support three consecutive year classes of coho (representing all year classes, given that coho have a three-year life cycle).

For decades, it has been a focal point of local salmon recovery efforts, but comparably little is known about the potential of Atascadero Creek and its tributary streams to support salmon.

Though the Atascadero sub-watershed comprises a full 60% of the Green Valley Creek watershed, it remains somewhat of a mystery to local biologists and natural resource managers.

The primary challenge is access to the stream channel. Atascadero comes from the Spanish verb "atascar"—meaning to get bogged down—and the name is no accident.

Between the cool, perennial waters of the upper watershed and Green Valley Creek lies the boggy, entangled, braided wetland complex of lower Atascadero. While the Atascadero marsh is designated as critical habitat and is teeming with sensitive plant and animal species, the physical complexity of the system makes accurately documenting water quality, fish presence and habitat a daunting task.

In addition, in order to conduct any sort of fish monitoring or habitat assessment, it is necessary to gain access permission from each of the numerous landowners who own the patchwork of private parcels along the stream banks.

As a result of these challenges, formal assessments of the stream system have been sparse, to say the least, and include one complete survey of Atascadero Creek by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in 1969 and a partial survey of the upper reach in 1995. Jonive Creek was also surveyed by CDFW in 2001. Steelhead were observed in both streams but coho were not, despite the presence of relatively high-quality fish habitat in parts of the upper watershed.

California Sea Grant’s Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program (CSG) monitors the status and trends of native salmonids throughout the Russian River basin and conducts specialized research to support recovery efforts.

They have operated a trap on lower Green Valley Creek in most years since 2007 to temporarily capture and collect data on coho smolts (one year-old fish transitioning to the marine phase of their life cycle) migrating downstream towards the ocean each spring. On multiple occasions, wild coho smolts of unknown origin were found in the Green Valley Creek trap, introducing the possibility that those fish might have originated somewhere in the Atascadero system.

In search of juvenile coho, CSG biologists opportunistically snorkeled a few pools in Jonive Creek in 2015 and Redwood Creek in 2015, 2016, and 2017. They saw steelhead but not coho; however, those few pools represent only a small proportion of the fish habitat in each stream, so the lack of coho presence was not conclusive.

What makes Redwood Creek exceptional is the cold, clear water it contains—and contributes to Jonive Creek—even through the driest summer months. Ample perennial streamflow is a relatively rare and valuable asset in Russian River streams, many of which become intermittent or dry each summer. Indeed, insufficient summer flow is a significant bottleneck to recovery of local salmon and steelhead, who rely on freshwater habitat for juvenile rearing.

Last year, inspired by the perennial flow and instream habitat, the Russian River Coho Salmon Captive Broodstock Program—a collaboration that aims to re-establish a self-sustaining population of endangered coho salmon to the basin—decided to stock juvenile coho into Redwood Creek.

In December 2017, the US Army Corps personnel who raise the fish for the Broodstock Program released 3,041 coho young-of-the-year throughout 1,200 meters of the stream. Just over 600 of them (20%) were tagged with Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT tags) to allow for tracking at CSG fish monitoring stations, or antennas, in Green Valley Creek and throughout the larger Russian River basin.

The following spring, however, only two of the tagged fish released into Redwood Creek were detected passing over the antennas in lower Green Valley Creek on their way to the ocean.

The question of why more fish didn’t show up downstream on their migration to the ocean—a critical step in completing their life cycle—left biologists searching for answers. Is there a barrier along the way? Are they getting “bogged down” in lower Atascadero? Could poor water quality conditions in the marsh be preventing fish from surviving the passage?

As a first step towards identifying the nature and location of the migration bottleneck, CSG biologists decided to trace the salmon’s path downstream, starting with the accessible reaches of the tributaries to Atascadero.

This past fall, they installed a PIT-tag antenna in Jonive Creek below the confluence of Redwood Creek, so they were ready when the Broodstock Program released another 3,050 juvenile coho into Redwood on December 7, 2018.

Antenna detections over the next several months will reveal whether those fish are able to move into Jonive Creek. If most of them make it, CSG biologists will move the antennas further downstream, and so forth—at least as far as access allows.

In the meantime, the Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District (RCD) will be working collaboratively with this effort to further disentangle the mysteries of Atascadero. The RCD recently spearheaded the Atascadero Subwatershed Coho Habitat Assessment Project, funded by Proposition 1 and administered through CDFW.

This project seeks to conduct a comprehensive assessment of stream habitat, migration passage and watershed function of the Atascadero subwatershed in order to prioritize and define actions necessary for the long-term restoration of coho salmon to the system.

This ambitious effort includes 1) compiling all historical and recent records of salmonid use and stream conditions; 2) extensive landowner outreach to acquire access and support in key stream reaches; 3) identification and prioritization of site-specific habitat enhancement projects to address limiting factors to coho; and 4) inclusion of the Atascadero subwatershed in the Green Valley Creek Watershed Management Plan.

While the collaboration between the RCD, CSG and the Broodstock Program builds an integral foundation for restoring coho to the Atascadero subwatershed, community support is the most crucial element for success when it comes to broad-scale ecosystem restoration and endangered species recovery.

Community Involvement:

To that end, it’s invaluable to have landowners like John Dierke on board. John first came to the watershed as a young boy in 1947, when his grandfather bought the property with the first house ever built on Furlong Road back in the 1800s.

When he wasn’t helping on his grandfather’s farm or at the family’s road-side produce stand, Bill’s Farm Basket, John spent much of his time exploring the forests and streams on the property—Redwood, Sexton (tributary to Jonive) and Jonive creeks.

He discovered shell middens, acorn milling stations, spearheads, bowls and other artifacts from the Miwok camp that once existed in the lush valley bottom. He and the neighbors also caught big, beautiful steelhead and salmon back before fishing on the tributaries was banned.

Growing up in the wild beauty of west Sonoma County, inextricably connected to the streams that flow through his properties, John developed a deep understanding of how all of the pieces of the ecosystem fit together to create a delicate balance.

He recognizes that his land stewardship actions have a direct effect on the health of the creeks, on which not only salmon and steelhead but endangered California freshwater shrimp and other aquatic species depend.

That is why he is adamant about conserving resources and using best land management practices in his sustainable agricultural operations. Over the years, he has farmed apples, hay, vegetables, and a variety of livestock—“everything that grows in or on the Earth,” he jokes.

Currently, he uses cutting-edge water conservation technology to grow microgreens, pinot and late-harvest syrah grapes. He also participates in the RCD’s well monitoring program, embraced CSG’s requests to install the Jonive Creek PIT-tag antenna on his property (which today can be seen from the side of Bodega Highway) and happily joined in to help the Broodstock Program release coho during the recent stocking.

“It’s on my bucket list to leave things better than I found them,” says John.

Releasing coho into Redwood Creek was particularly meaningful to him. John is an enthusiastic advocate of salmon reintroduction and habitat restoration efforts and hopes they will “help to restore things to the way they were and help nature get back into balance.”

John believes that concerted efforts to educate the public, and the youth in particular, is the key to creating a more conservation-minded community. He envisions a world where everyone shares his bucket-list goal to leave things better than they found them and believes that recovering coho salmon to the Atascadero subwatershed is an important positive step towards achieving that goal.

While gaining access to each of the many private land parcels in the Atascadero subwatershed is necessary in order to complete assessment efforts, it will require a good deal of time and dedication.

Fortunately, the RCD and CSG have plenty of experience in this arena. Collectively, they have built productive relationships with thousands of private landowners throughout the Russian River basin.

This effort offers them a welcome opportunity to connect with more local residents, who they’ve found are often the best source of background information, given their intimate knowledge of the streams and local history. Landowners also tend to be the most invested and passionate stakeholders in recovery efforts.

CSG has already started contacting individuals in the upper Atascadero subwatershed to ask for permission to conduct fish monitoring and the RCD will begin reaching out to landowners throughout the system in January. Both groups look forward to building new partnerships with local residents, like John, which are vital to successful scientific endeavors and conservation of our treasured natural resources.

Given the recent reintroduction of salmon into the Atascadero subwatershed, the need for a comprehensive effort to better understand and define actions necessary for their survival has never been more compelling.

The collaboration between the RCD, CSG, the Broodstock Program and the local community offers a promising opportunity to enhance coho salmon recovery in the lower Russian River Watershed.

After all, salmon form a fundamental and cherished part of our history here. With so many stakeholders dedicated to their support, perhaps they can become an integral part of our future as well.

If you are a streamside landowner in the Atascadero Creek subwatershed who is interested in supporting salmon research and recovery efforts, we would be very grateful for the permission to access the stream on your property.

If you own property on Redwood or Jonive creeks, please contact Nick Bauer (CSG) at or 707-687-0996 to grant access or to receive more information.

If you own property on Atascadero Creek or any other creeks in the system, please contact Sierra Cantor (RCD) at or 707-823-5244.

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