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Butte Creek spring salmon run: The Central Valley exception

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There is one lonely creek, Butte Creek, located in a deep canyon outside of Chico where salmon have been doing relatively well, compared to the Sacramento River’s collapsing winter and fall runs of salmon.

The Butte Creek spring run chinook salmon population was singled out in the court-ordered Biological Opinion, released by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’sNational Marine Fisheries Service June 4, as the most viable wild salmon population left in the Central Valley. The opinion states that the Butte Creek salmon population is at “low risk of extinction.”

The average run in the creek over the last 15 years has been about 10,000 fish, according to Allen Harthorn, executive director of the Friends of Butte Creek. Last year’s run topped out at 11,136, including approximately 1,100 fish that died before spawning. Right now anglers and scientists are estimating a run less than 5,000 for the first time in nine years.

The relatively healthy spring run on Butte Creek is not saying much for a species where California by itself supported more than a dozen salmon canneries, many generations of commercial salmon fishing families, and untold numbers of sport fishing enthusiasts, according to Harthorn.

“That is not enough to recover the species. And putting all your eggs in one basket is not a good management plan for the salmon species and the ecosystems that depend on them.”

UC Davis studies on Butte Creek have shown that the interaction of salmon is an integral part of the whole functioning water catchment basin or watershed.

“When salmon are gone, the bears suffer, the eagles suffer, the ring-tailed cats and mountain lions suffer, right down to the dragonflies that eat the mosquitoes,” emphasized Harthorn. “The whole food web changes.”

In response to the Biological Opinion, Harthorn concluded, “It is long overdue that we need to protect and restore these species. The laws are in place, but we need to rigorously enforce them.”

Similar ecosystem collapses have occurred in Europe and the Atlantic Coast of North America due to lax enforcement of the law.

“We can do better at managing our water and the species that keep the water healthy,” Harthorn added. “Water with no fish is not healthy for anyone. Some people will just have to figure out how to use it more efficiently. Butte Creek is a great recovery story, but the real story will be how we apply those restoration techniques to the rest of the system, that’s the challenge.”

The comparatively healthy run on Butte Creek contrasts with the decline of Sacramento River winter run Chinook salmon and the unprecedented collapse of the river’s fall chinook run in 2007 and 2008.

A record low return of 66,264 adult fall chinooks on the Sacramento River in 2008 led to the closure of salmon fishing off the coast of California and Oregon for the first time in 150 years in 2008. The commercial and recreational fishing seasons are again closed off California this year, with the exception of a 10 day recreational ocean fishing season off the northern California coast in late August and early September.

Only 122,196 fish are expected to return to the Sacramento River this year. The Sacramento run, the driver of West Coast salmon fisheries and the most robust run south of the Columbia River until recently, numbered nearly 800,000 fish only seven years ago.

“Timing is probably the main reason for the relative health of the Butte Creek salmon run,” Harthorn said. “The cross-channel gates connecting the Sacramento River with the Mokelumne River system are supposed to be closed when spring run are migrating.”

This results in less spring run salmon going down the Mokelumne into the San Joaquin River, where the fish are sucked up by reverse flows into the federal and state pumps of the South Delta. Thousands and thousands of salmon, Delta smelt and other fish are killed every year by the pumps that supply massive water exports to corporate agribusiness and southern California.

Harthorn also noted that the health and resilience of Butte Creek spring run probably has a lot to do with the extensive creek habitat throughout the valley.

“Most diversions are now screened on Butte Creek,” explained Harthorn, whose group has led the battle to restore the watershed. “They also have the shortest run in the river of all the upper Sacramento watersheds.”

The biological opinion stated that the current Central Valley Project and State Water Project pumping operations should be changed to increase the long-term survival of winter and spring-run chinook salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales (orcas). The whales rely on chinook salmon for food.

However, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and agribusiness are instead campaigning to increase water exports to the Westlands Water District and southern California by building a peripheral canal and more dams. The construction is expected to exacerbate the decline of Central Valley salmon, green sturgeon, Delta smelt and the southern resident population of killer whales.