12/21/2012: Gifts from the River

Peter Vorster celebrates salmon death and renewal during a holiday bike ride on the American River

Peter Vorster has over 36 years of experience as a hydrogeographer, much of it focused on California's water resources and the landmark environmental water conflicts in the Eastern Sierra (Mono Lake and the Owens Valley) and the San Francisco Bay-Delta watershed. At The Bay Institute, Peter heads up the San Joaquin River Restoration Initiative and is a principal for the Ecological Scorecard project. He also works with the Oakland Museum on their urban creek and watershed map series.

December 21, 2012
There is much to be thankful over the holidays. The sight of salmon on the American River this past Thanksgiving brought this message home to me in an unforgettable way. The truth is, these fish were dead or dying — but the fact that they were able to return here at the end of their lifecycle, just as nature intended, is truly something to celebrate.

As a holiday tradition, every year my family takes a bike ride along the lower American River Parkway. The highlight of our ride this year was to see the many fall-run Chinook salmon spawning in river gravels and (the dead ones) decomposing along the riverside. The birds seemed to be enjoying the feast as well.

This fall’s salmon returns on the lower American River are shaping up to be the best in a decade, a remarkable rebound from the dismal returns of the last 5 years that led to the multi-year shut down of the commercial salmon industry in California. During our bike rides over the last decade, we had witnessed this decline. My kids were as happy as I was to see the salmon back; three years ago we did not see any spawning or dead salmon. I was energized by the number of people visiting the river, engaged as we were by one of Nature’s great cycles.

Scientists can trace salmon isotopes in riparian and upland ecosystems, evidence of the essential contribution salmon make to healthy terrestrial habitats by bringing ocean nutrients on their journey towards spawning grounds. But my encounter along the river remains the strongest evidence that we need salmon returns to validate our place in nature, be it molecular, caloric, or spiritual.

The increased returns of the fall run Chinook may be attributed to a fortuitous combination of factors including pumping restrictions, improved outflow, better ocean conditions, and reduced harvest. The Bay Institute helped avoid high salmon losses at critical times in the migration period by helping to secure better outflows and reduce Delta pumping. I am proud of the fact that my colleagues and I played a part in achieving these new protections, which began to be implemented in 2009.

Despite this year’s returns, the long-term trend is towards decline in California’s Chinook salmon population and still a far cry from the state and federal mandates to double salmon populations over their average abundance in the 1967-1991 period. Overall, the runs still average less than a fifth of the overall target. To counter this trend, TBI is working to ensure that the restoration of the endangered spring run to the upper San Joaquin River moves ahead as quickly as possible. We are working to ensure the new, stronger flow and water quality standards are adopted by the state in 2013, requiring higher San Joaquin inflows to help out-migrating salmon reach San Francisco Bay and the ocean.

To see salmon spawning in the wild, check out TBI’s Salmon Viewing Map and drive, bike, or walk to the nearest spot. The lower American River Parkway has many accessible places to see the fall-run in the next month and come January the steelhead should be returning. Let’s hope that they too will have a good year.