A Model for Salmon Recovery

Situated along the active floodplain of the Sacramento River, Willow Bend is 175 acres of former agricultural fields that were too flood-prone to turn a profit. In 2009, River Partners acquired the 175-acre preserve, protected it into perpetuity with a conservation easement, and established native grasses across much of the former fields.

The property had been disconnected flooding by a series of berms created by the prior farmers. After buying the property, we watched it flood four times and discovered that each time floodwaters overtop those berms, they wash in thousands of tiny particulate baby salmon. These are salmon so small that they can’t control their own movement in the river flow. They wash onto the site and enjoy a smorgasbord of phytoplankton, growing at an alarming clip. But, there is no way for them to escape back out to the river to complete their lifecycle.

Our fisheries are collapsing. With water acting as the biggest political catalyst in California, our fisheries are at the center of our most important debates. We have over-allocated our water, and the fish have responded with devastating population crashes. What suite of solutions can we use to recover them? We can allocate more water to fish, a proposition that meets decades of legal challenge while the populations drive toward extinction. We can tighten regulations, which generate administration hurdles and costs that will make your head spin. Or we can take a close look at the science and the demonstration projects that exist today to fine-tune exactly how we manage all of our available resources.

We’re certain that inundated floodplains are a critical and limiting component of salmon sustainability. There are thousands of acres just like Willow Bend that are disconnected from flooding by small berms. River Partners want to fix this. We’re certain that the timing and duration of floodplain inundation is key to the restoration of its ecological function.

River Partners has been working with agency and science partners to design a structure to fix the drainage problem at Willow Bend while optimizing foraging habitat value on the site for salmon. Turns out that the brightest minds in California agricultural engineering had the solution all along: do what the Irrigation Districts do… articulate exactly what flow rate you want and what controls you need, then design something that works as efficiently and simply as possible. This model has created the most productive agricultural region in the world, delivering water to places that our grandparents never imagined that we could. In fact, our agricultural legacy has created the robust academic setting to cultivate sophisticated water engineering solutions – now we are aiming this tool directly at improving the environment. If our no-frills durable design can make it through the permitting gauntlet, we will have a model that would be a game-changer for salmon throughout the Central Valley.

1.2
River miles restored
8
Priority species