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A Thing for the Salmon; their Now-or Never Point

This will be my last post from California as I’m heading back shortly for my home in the Rockies.  Its’ been a great month with highly unusual weather–every day is cloudless, gorgeous and in the 60’s–a foreboding omen.  Northern California used to begin its’ serious rains around Thanksgiving.  Over the last 10 or 15 years, that timetable has moved up, with January and February being the rainy months.  Now, it seems even that is no longer predictable.

All that is important for many reasons, but particularly for this post.  This post is all about salmon restoration and the $11 million project going on here at Muir Beach.

Restored, widened lagoon leading to beach. This is the old picnic area

Years ago, I used to guide school children here.  We began at Muir Woods, then after several hours, we’d finish by driving the 10 minutes down to Muir Beach.  The point of that was to show them the creek, Redwood creek, one of the last free flowing creeks in California and one of the last unstocked winter river courses for coho silver salmon in the world.  Here, at the mouth of the creek, much of the year a sand bar separates the river from the sea.  During heavy storms in December and January, the sand bar breaks free, the river rushes, and the salmon, guided mostly by smell and other unknown mysteries, return after two years at sea to spawn and die upstream.  I’ve watched them in the creek in December in Muir Woods, with the young children by my side marveling at them.  At that time, around 10-15 years ago, only 200-300 were left running this seven mile course.  The creek, over many years, had gotten degraded through developed picnic areas, parking lots, and a choked out watershed.

In the three years since I was last here, a massive restoration project has been going on to re-alter the creek back to its natural, historical course.  Using old photos, this could be mapped out.  The nearby drainage was widened so more rainwater could flow into the stream, non native invasive kikuyu grass that was choking the stream beds was bulldozed out and natives were planted, the marshy inlet was widened (ducks are there all the time these days), and a 100 year flood bridge was built.  The project is taking a rest in 2012 and in 2013 the present parking lot will be restored to natural habitat and parking moved farther away from the stream.  The work is done during the summer months to minimize wildlife impact.

Creekbed restoration area to be planted


$1 million bridge

Since I’ve been here this month, several times a week Park Service employees come to monitor the water, and at least once a week a crew of volunteers arrive to plant natives.  Last year with all the rains 90% of the plantings survived.  This year they expect only 30% to live.

A Park service employee told me that only 8 salmon were counted last year.  Last year Northern California had some of its heaviest rains in decades…a good time for salmon to spawn.  The young woman I was talking to was shocked to find out that only 15 years ago 300 salmon were counted.  300 were low then.  Today, she would have been happy with that 300.

Sunset at Muir Beach

This is a good project.  Too bad it took so long for this to happen.  I’m not sure why it took this long.  Even when I was guiding, little changes were occurring.  Years ago they took out the picnic tables and let the native marsh return.  Over 12 years ago the Park Service corded off certain areas in order to restore the native dunes.  They were also doing studies way back then on nesting Peregrines at Muir Beach.  Maybe this was planned all along, and the massive amounts of money it took to do this project, plus the coordination, took a lot of time.  The salmon didn’t have that kind of time.

One hopes the rains will come and the salmon will begin returning in numbers.  But remember, as recently as the early 1900’s, when salmon entered the San Francisco Bay to journey up the Sacramento River and spawn, they clogged the neck of the Carquinez Strait leading into the river.  “there were so many salmon you could cross the strait on their backs” said an old timer.

Looking up the drainage from Muir Beach

Soon salmon might be just a fading memory, written in the history books.  But I’m glad the Park Service is trying, and they are doing a good job with this project.  Another stream in Marin, Lagunitas Creek, had a lot of effort put into it years ago to encourage salmon to run there again.  I understand some salmon have returned.  Unfortunately, their complete river course will always be blocked by Peters Dam which forms Kent Lake, a reservoir containing the drinking water for Marin County, built in 1954.  The provided link above says we are in an extinction vortex, the “now-or-never point”.

Salmon on Redwood Creek, a creek that no one uses for water; a creek without a dam, spurs little controversy nor objections for salmon restoration.  This is in direct contrast to the Sage Grouse plan by the BLM.  They watered down all the science and are trying to meld cattle into their plan even though livestock grazing accounts for the decline of sage grouse habitat in the first place.   The Feds won’t list Sage Grouse as endangered yet either.  Too many other priority endangered species are ahead of them, they say.  Until we value what little we have left, politics and short-sightedness will be thrown into the mix of habitat restoration, and it might be too little, too late, like its’ been with the California salmon.

Muir beach allows off-leash dogs. My non-native friend at Muir Beach