Eric Larsen, a fish biologist with the Department of Fish and Wildlife, stands on a cliff overlooking the ocean in Pescadero. This is where water flows from Pescadero Creek into the ocean. At least, it normally would this time of year. Instead, Larsen points to a sandbar.
“Because there’s no flow in the river, there’s no counterforce to keep the sandbar open," says Larsen. "So you have a closed system when you normally would have an open system, which does not allow for fish to come in and spawn.”
The drought has caused sandbars to block almost all the creeks from the Golden Gate to Monterrey Bay, stranding fish that normally move upriver to prime spawning areas.
Larsen says of particular concern is the fate of the endangered Central Coast Coho salmon. He says their populations are crashing.
“It’s extremely low, it’s at risk of extinction," he says. "It’s listed by both the state and the federal government as endangered and it’s in a critical state so a loss of a year like this has a dramatic impact on its lifecycle.”
Wild Coho were once abundant enough to support a commercial fishery, but now they can’t be fished even recreationally.
Threatened Steelhead trout are also waiting offshore at the same streams. Larsen says there’s not a lot the Department can do, even if biologists were to physically breach the sandbars. To understand why, he takes me upstream where just a small trickle of water flows.
“We’re standing on the river bed that is dry, next to the remaining flow in the system. This would normally be winter flow conditions and we’d be standing in water now under normal rainy years.”
Normally water flows at about 30 to 40 cubic feet per second here. Earlier this week, it was less than one cubic foot. That’s not enough flowing water for a fish to spawn in even it makes it past a sandbar.
Fisheries Biologist Stafford Lehr with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says the drought is posing more of a risk to fish in this area than in any other part of the state. He studied the Coho Salmon population in the area in the 1980’s.
“Never thought that we would be where we’re at today, because there were still fish there, we could still study them, now it’s tough to find them,” he says.
Fish biologists fear that the Coho salmon could be a bellweather for other migrating fish in California. At a Fish and Game Commission meeting Wednesday, Lehr urged fishing bans on coastal streams west of highway one from San Mateo to San Luis Obispo Counties. He also requested fishing bans on parts of the American and Russian Rivers, which the Commission unanimously approved.
“All projected water flow situations as we look forward, it’s only going to get worse for the fish in the system.”
He says mortality from angling is small, but in this drought with such small populations, every little bit helps. None of the anglers who spoke at the meeting opposed the closures.
John McManus with the Golden Gate Salmon Association is worried about commercial hatchery salmon. He wants the Department to truck salmon to the ocean so they can avoid what he called “horrific” drought conditions in rivers.
“What we’re talking about is the impacts not only on one of California’s natural resources, the salmon fishery, but also on tens of thousands of jobs that are related to the salmon fishery that hang in the balance right now depending upon actions taken to conserve and preserve salmon,” says McManus.
The commercial salmon industry shut down in 2009 because of the dry years that preceded it. McManus fears that could happen again. The Fish and Game commission approved the fishing bans until April 30th. They’re the broadest drought-related fishing bans the state has ever seen.
Closures approved Feb. 5:
-American River from Nimbus Dam to southwest boundary of Ancil Hoffman Park until April 30
-Closure of Russian River below the confluence of the East Branch of the Russian River until April 30
-Extension of low flow restrictions angling closures for the north coast and central coast areas (above the San Francisco Bay) through April 30
-Closure of all portions of coastal stream west of any Highway 1 bridge in the South Coast district including San Mateo, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties until April 30.
Historically the Central California Coast coho salmon were on creeks and streams from Mendecino County all the way to Santa Cruz. By 2007, researchers found that the population declined 99 percent from 1930s levels. Here's a brief history of conservation efforts:
1996 – Listed as threatened
2005 – Relisted to endangered
2006 - 2007 – About 500 to 1,000 adults spawning
2012 – Release of salmon Final Recovery Plan, which later resulted in the creation of hatcheries
2012 - 2013 – 500 adult Central California Coho Salmon returned to Russian River to spawn
January brought above-average rainfall and snow to much of California, partly due to El Niño. But forecasters say the ocean warming condition is "taking a break" for the next week or longer.
The U.S. Drought Monitor says, other than a slight reduction in exceptional drought in the northern Sierra, it needs more time to assess impacts of the recent moisture on California's long-term drought.
California regulators have made modest adjustments to water conservation requirements for cities.
The second measurement this winter of snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was 130 percent of average. State water officials say the snowpack will help reservoir recovery.
California's water conservation rate dropped to 18 percent in December. But water regulators say the state continues to meet its long term goals.