Central Valley Project Improvement Act Constructs Key Habitat Features on the Sacramento River
Along the banks of the Sacramento River near Redding, the ancestral home of Chinook salmon, a major project is making the waters more hospitable for the juvenile fish as they begin their annual migration downstream toward the Pacific Ocean.
Crews have carved a side river channel and supplemented the main riverbed with gravel. From there, it’s a matter of watching the natural process unfold.
The results are “almost immediate,” said Aurelia Gonzalez, program manager with the Sacramento River Forum. “Fish come back,” she said. “You provide the habitat and they're there.”
The Kapusta 1B Side Channel Project is one of many projects funded under a $10 million Central Valley Project Improvement Act competitive solicitation to restore fish habitat for critically endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. Kapusta features a 2,150-foot side channel that will give the finger-sized juvenile salmon a fighting chance for survival, sheltering them from predators while they prepare for the long, arduous journey to the ocean.
“There is substantial scientific evidence that shows that juveniles that can shelter and feed in low-flowing wetland habitat for longer periods are more likely to survive out at sea and return to their head waters to reproduce than other juveniles that do not,” Gonzalez said.
The fish, 2 to 3 inches long and between one and five months old, stay in the river for as long as five months before swimming down the river, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to the ocean. They spend as many as three years in the ocean before returning to their native spawning grounds to repeat the lifecycle.
Kapusta resembles past side channel projects such as Nur Pon Open Space, Lake California, and Anderson River Park. While it’s specifically focused on restoring juvenile fish habitat for winter-run Chinook salmon, its features benefit all fish, including trout. Located on the western bank of the mainstem river, the former site of an aggregate mining operation has not previously had any active side channels or wetland habitat, with minimal riparian oak woodland habitat along the mainstem river.
Gonzalez said the mining activity significantly degraded the site. The land was left scoured with compacted soil and rock with large mounds of river rock piled and scattered about the site.
“Because the old gravel mining operation scoured and compacted soils in this area, it would have been very difficult for this site to have naturally been modified or flooded by the river in high flow events,” she said. “The land was impenetrable.”
In comparison to fish passage, hatchery programs, or gravel injection projects, side channel projects directly increase fish habitat on the Sacramento River by creating habitat that wouldn’t otherwise be there, she said.
Besides Reclamation, participating agencies include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Chico State Enterprises, the nonprofit auxiliary of California State University, Chico, Sacramento River Forum, California Department of Water Resources, River Partners, city of Redding, the Yurok Tribe, and Tussing Ecological Sciences.
Michael Beakes, supervisory fish biologist with Reclamation’s Bay-Delta Office, said restoring spawning and rearing habitat is an important step towards recovering salmon populations. “Completing projects like Kapusta up and down the river helps ensure there is high-quality habitat available to spawning and rearing fish throughout the system,” he said.
For Gonzalez, Kapusta is an intriguing chapter in a career spent pursuing environmental restoration opportunities.
“I have always wanted be a part of restoring streams and our waterways,” she said. “This is my first project that I actually get to see groundwork being done where we're directly creating habitat for the environment.”
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