Where have all the salmon gone?

Spring-run Butte Creek count way down in recent years

The author is executive director of Friends of Butte Creek.

The annual snorkel survey of the Butte Creek spring-run chinook salmon is completed, and the results are dismal.

Despite rosy, enthusiastic predictions for the Sacramento fall-run salmon, things aren’t so cheery for the spring run. This year’s numbers are slightly higher than last year’s, but lower than two years ago. Statistically there has been no change in three years.

Prior to that, Butte Creek was averaging a whopping 10,000 salmon per year; now we are closer to 2,000. What happened?

The drier-than-normal winters several years ago didn’t help. Although conditions in the creek weren’t that much different, conditions for out-migration and return migration were less than desirable. It is the out-migration during which problems are easily exacerbated by increased pumping in the Delta. The 3-inch juvenile salmon don’t stand much of a chance against the combined sucking of the state and federal pumps. Once off course, the juveniles rarely find their way to the ocean.

The last two springs were wet enough to flush them out naturally (all that “wasted water”) and should bring back a robust population next year. However, a recent research project by UC Davis and the Stockholm Environmental Institute paints a bleak picture for their future in this century. Climate change and hydroelectric operations could combine to end it all for them (read: extinction). Only a better water-management plan for the PG&E Centerville powerhouse and extended habitat to upper reaches of the creek may give them a chance.

We must stay vigilant to ensure we encourage every opportunity to keep this resource viable. Losing our salmon means a lot more than we can imagine.

Join the Friends of Butte Creek for the fifth annual Wild and Scenic Film Festival at the Sierra Nevada Big Room on Friday, Sept. 16. Help us keep salmon preservation in the forefront of local environmental issues. For more information, go to www.buttecreek.org.