For the past 80 years life has only gotten worse for winter-run chinook salmon.
When Shasta and Keswick dams were built on the Sacramento River, they kept the salmon from getting to their ancestral spawning grounds, while smaller dams and diversions also were constructed on other streams where the salmon once spawned.
Then recent droughts depleted the cold water the salmon needed for survival in the Sacramento River in Shasta County, the last remaining holdout where the fish hatch in the wild.
But last week a crew from Coleman National Fish Hatchery in Anderson drove a tanker truck full of winter-run salmon up a narrow, winding road in southeast Shasta County and released its load of 29,000 young salmon into the North Fork of Battle Creek.
Federal and state fisheries officials hope those fish will be among the first to re-establish Battle Creek as a spawning stream for winter-run chinook, increasing the species’ chances of survival.
“We’re glad to see winter-run get into a second watershed in this area,” said Doug Killam, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist.
“It’s kind of the jewel of the system, in that if fish have access to the upper reaches they will do quite well,” Killam said. “The department considers it a keystone stream to restore.”
The winter-run once spawned in several North State streams, including Battle Creek. But about 100 years ago numerous dams and diversions were built on the stream to generate hydroelectricity.
Over the past eight years, federal and state agencies and Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which operates the facilities on the creek, have been removing some of the barriers that keep salmon from spawning in the upper reaches of the creek.
“Since then, countless hours, millions of dollars, probably a lot of blood sweat and tears have gone into this project,” said Howard Brown of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The total restoration costs about $110 million and will open up an additional 48 miles of stream to salmon spawning, said Erin Curtis, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said it was good news that the winter-run were getting more spawning habitat.
“I think everyone agrees that we need at least one backup population of winter-run salmon in addition to the one that’s teetering on the brink of extinction in the upper Sacramento River,” McManus said.
“Reintroducing winter-run to Battle Creek is a good step toward stabilizing this unique run of salmon and hopefully rebuilding their numbers to where they can get out of the ICU unit of the Endangered Species Act,” McManus said.
Coleman hatchery officials plan to release 214,000 young salmon into the North Fork of Battle Creek this spring, said Brett Galyean, project leader at Coleman.
The winter-run need colder water than the other three runs of salmon that spawn in the Sacramento River basin. The winter-run are distinct because they evolved to spawn in mountain streams such as the Battle Creek and the McCloud and Sacramento rivers above Lake Shasta.
But after construction of dams and other diversions, the fish could no longer get to those streams.
Since then they have been mainly limited to spawning in the Sacramento River in the Redding area, where they are dependent on cold water being released from the Shasta and Keswick dams.
But the last drought revealed the fish are susceptible when the level of Lake Shasta gets too low.
The lake ran out of cold water in 2014 and 2015 and nearly all of the salmon eggs and young fish in the river were killed by warm water, officials said.
Killam said the upper reaches of Battle Creek provide another source of water from natural springs and snow melt at the lower temperatures winter-run need.
Fisheries officials said they hope the young fish being released will swim out to sea and return after three years to spawn in Battle Creek, creating a self-sustaining population in the stream.
Federal and state officials are also planning to return winter-run to the McCloud River, with the first of those fish being released sometime in 2019, Brown said.
The McCloud salmon would be captured at Keswick Dam and trucked to a location on the McCloud and released.