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A Native Plan to Restore the Winter Run Chinook

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The Shasta Dam, end of the line for the Sacramento River's winter-run Chinook salmon | Photo: Oleg Alexandrov, some rights reserved 

California is well known as an agricultural powerhouse, feeding the world with almonds, rice, avocados, stone fruits and wine. But long ago, from its coastal watersheds to its interior mountains, this state was shaped by another force altogether: salmon.

Caleen Sisk, chief of the Winnemem Wintu people, wants to see California embrace its natural – and cultural – heritage and restore its salmon runs.

“We could be a salmon state, not an industrial agriculture state,” says Sisk, whose people historically lived in the upper reaches of the Sacramento River watershed. They ate Chinook salmon all year long.

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The 20th century decline of the once-magnificent returns paralleled the fall of Sisk’s ancestors. Today, just 126 Winnemem Wintu live near Lake Shasta, according to Sisk. They are a culture as at risk of vanishing as the endangered winter-run Chinook itself – one of the main runs of salmon that Sisk’s ancestors depended on and which she is now lobbying not just to protect but to bring back to fishable numbers.

Sisk and her relatives live mostly in the Jones Valley, near the Pit River arm of Lake Shasta. The summer here, as in the Central Valley to the south, is as hot as it is dry. The temperature may hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit every day for weeks with spikes to 100 or more. No rain may fall for 150 days, and by July each year, the country has turned dusty brown.

It seems an unlikely place for salmon. Yet, spectacular runs of Chinook stormed up the Sacramento like they did nowhere else in their geographical range. In fact, in spite of the Mediterranean climate, the habitat was perfect: Cold water poured off the high, snow-capped mountains abutting the valley, creating ideal spawning habitat for millions of the ocean-fattened fish.

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Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu | Photo: Christopher McLeod

Even in the very hottest months of the year, salmon could find cold water in the mountains in which to lay and fertilize their eggs. This was precisely the survival strategy of the winter-run Chinook, a genetic strain unique to the Sacramento River that naturally occurs nowhere else – and they barely occur at all anymore. The fish are nearly extinct, thanks in large part to Shasta Dam. Built during World War II, this barrier made it impossible for the salmon to access the high-elevation headwaters of the Sacramento where they spawned – especially the McCloud River.

More on the Winnemem Wintu

The winter-run Chinook depended on this river. While the fish entered freshwater in the cold, wet months of winter (thus their name), by the time they were spawning it was high summer – a challenging time for salmon. However, because the McCloud is fed by icy springs gurgling from the flanks of Mount Shasta, it remains cold all year. Even in years of low snowpack, the springs that feed the McCloud keep flowing, making the river resilient to drought.

It was a perfect spawning stream. The fish also spawned in lesser numbers in several other Sacramento tributaries, and scientists guess hundreds of thousands of adult winter-run Chinook migrated upstream each year. Their offspring emerged from the gravel beds in the autumn and swam downstream toward the ocean – seasonal timing that worked out well: The temperatures in the Central Valley would be dropping by then, and the first rains of the season boosted river flows and helped push the juveniles out to sea. Between two and four years later, they would come back.

“We ate salmon from all the runs, but the winter-run was important because it was the last of the year,” Sisk says. “If you missed the other ones, you still had another chance to get your fish for the year.”

Watch Tending the Wild's segment on Salmon: Keeping the River

Today, Sisk and her people mainly eat wild salmon during ceremonial gatherings – and they don’t even fish in the Sacramento anymore. They must travel to the Trinity River in order to catch salmon – usually just a few dozen per year. The Sacramento tributaries that flow into Lake Shasta have been without sea-run Chinook since about 1940.

But in the cold riffles of the McCloud River, upstream of the sun-warmed waters of the reservoir, Sisk sees hope for the Chinook. She says there are several miles left of ideal spawning habitat on the McCloud where as many as 10,000 Chinook could lay and fertilize eggs each year.

She is demanding that the federal agency that built Shasta Dam now build a system of fish ladders around the otherwise impassable barrier. This would help undo some of the damage the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation did to salmon – and to her displaced tribe, which Sisk says received no compensation for the inconvenience of having their land and their food source destroyed.

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Winter-run Chinook salmon | Illustration: NOAA Fisheries

Officials with the Bureau of Reclamation have personally discussed the matter with Sisk. She says they told her building a swim-way — a creek-like passage around the dam — would be too expensive.

“I asked how expensive it would be,” she says. “And they tell me they don’t know because they haven’t actually studied the idea. I don’t think they really even want to.”

Louis Moore, a public information officer with the Bureau of Reclamation, says building a fish passageway around the dam would probably not do the salmon much good. He says such structures tend not to be effective for dams higher than about 150 feet.

What the Bureau of Reclamation would rather do is raise Shasta Dam by nearly 20 feet. This idea, backed by many farmers and ag-friendly politicians like Dianne Feinstein and Jerry Brown, would increase the storage capacity of Lake Shasta by about 14 percent at a cost, according to Moore, of about $1.3 billion dollars. About 40 percent of that cost would go toward a long-term supplemental program of trucking adult winter-run salmon around Shasta Dam to allow them to spawn in the McCloud. This “trap-and-haul” program would also require capturing juvenile salmon and transporting them downstream of the dam.

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Salmon habitat on the lower McCloud River | Photo: jenkinson2455, some rights reserved

The trouble is that the dam raise will flood several more miles of the McCloud River, submerging precious river miles of potential spawning habitat.

That would partially offset the effort to restore the McCloud’s salmon runs, whether by trap-and-haul or building a fish passageway, according to U.C. Davis fishery biologist Peter Moyle.

“They’d have even less area [in the McCloud] to spawn in,” Moyle tells KCET.

Moore acknowledges this but says the Bureau of Reclamation will weigh all the public costs and benefits of raising the dam and initiating the trap-and-haul salmon support program. Eventually, Congress will decide how to proceed, he says.

The fact that the same agency that wants to raise Shasta Dam is also tasked with deciding how to restore the watershed’s salmon is an unsurpassable conflict of interest, Sisk says. She believes the Bureau’s top priority in the Lake Shasta-McCloud region is increasing the volume of the state’s largest reservoir, mainly for the sake of the agriculture industry.

“They want to raise the dam, and they’re going to make a half-assed effort to bring back the salmon at the same time knowing that it won’t work, and when it doesn’t work they’ll say, ‘Well, look, we tried,’” she says.

Sisk fears the federal government is simply ignoring her concerns and will forcibly displace her culture for the second time. She says enlarging Lake Shasta will put underwater the last of Winnemem Wintu’s sacred ceremonial grounds that were flooded by the initial installation of Shasta Dam.

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Winnemem Wintu dancers in 2009 | Photo: Michael Marmarou, some rights reserved

“They won’t even consider making a fish passage around the dam, but they want to snuff out the rest of the Winnemem for a second time,” Sisk says. “What does [Dianne Feinstein] think about wiping out the Winnemem Wintu a second time for the sake of industrial agriculture?”

Senator Feinstein’s office did not return an email seeking comment.

Government spokespeople have said enlarging Lake Shasta will help salmon below the dam – and there could be a morsel of truth to this. While Shasta Dam made it impossible for Chinook to reach about 70 percent of their historic spawning grounds, the concrete wall is ironically the very feature of the landscape that keeps them alive today. Cold water from the chilly depths of the reservoir flows out the base of the dam – an artificial spring that provides summertime spawning conditions suitable for the winter-run salmon and which did not exist in the Central Valley before the dam was built.

Government biologists have said that raising the height of Shasta Dam would increase the amount of cold water available, allowing dam operators to maintain suitable spawning conditions for wild salmon more consistently.

Boosting salmon numbers below Shasta Dam won’t much help the Winnemem Wintu. Anyway, Sisk is not convinced that enlarging the very dam that so severely impacted the Sacramento’s salmon in the first place will help them now.

“The cold water pool in the lake never really helped the winter run,” Sisk says. “So, doing what they propose and releasing more cold water down the same stretch of river isn’t going to help.”

When Shasta Dam was built, fisheries biologists foresaw the problems that would face salmon. They figured that releasing cold water into the lower Sacramento River could make up for the loss of upstream habitat.  

They were wrong. The salmon population began declining, and while more than 100,000 were still spawning annually in the 1960s, the winter run’s numbers rapidly decreased in the decades afterward. Moyle, at U.C. Davis, says this delayed crash in salmon abundance was in part a result of critical gravel spawning beds downstream of the dam being slowly inundated by sediment draining from the reservoir. Following a few years of drought in the late 1980s, an all-time low of about 200 winter-run spawners returned in 1992. Quickly, the federal government put the fish on a costly life-support system.

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Winter-run Chinook juveniles at the Livingston Stone hatchery being readied for release into the lower Sacramento | Photo: Steve Martorano, USFWS

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service built the Livingston-Stone National Fish Hatchery just beneath Shasta Dam. The facility’s purpose is explicitly to keep the winter run and its genome alive. At about the same time, the Bureau of Reclamation spent $80 million bolting a huge steel box to the face of Shasta Dam. Fitted with a vertical arrangement of shutters that could be opened or closed, this 300-foot tall “temperature control device” was intended to allow dam operators to precisely set the temperature of the water leaving the dam. When salmon were spawning and in the months following, the deepest shutters would be opened to allow icy water to enter the dam’s water intake. 

But the “temperature control device” hasn’t worked very well. It leaks around the edges, causing warm water to flow over spawning salmon when it should be contained in the lake. It also allows cold water to escape during times when there are no salmon spawning in the river.

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Winter-run juveniles from Livingston Stone being released into the Sacramento near Redding | Photo: Steve Martorano, USFWS

In 2014 and 2015, the Bureau of Reclamation’s sloppy management of Lake Shasta’s water took a huge toll on the winter-run Chinook. In the spring of both those years, dam operators released so much water from the reservoir that, by the time the winter-run adults had arrived at the gravel beds downstream of the dam to spawn, there wasn’t enough cold water left to keep their fertilized eggs alive. Scientists guess that 98 percent of the winter-run salmon’s progeny were destroyed in both those years.

Moyle isn’t sure there is much hope for a winter-run Chinook revival. He doesn’t expect that the National Marine Fisheries Service’s proposed “trap-and-haul” program – the idea that the Bureau of Reclamation wants to try out – will do much good. Moyle tells KCET these programs, which have been tried on the Columbia River system, are costly, laborious and only marginally effective, if at all.

“Talk about an expensive life-support system,” he says.

As for the Bureau of Reclamation’s claim that increasing the size of Lake Shasta would produce more cold water for the fish downstream, Moyle is a little skeptical.

“With climate change, we’re going to have warmer water entering the lake in the first place,” he says.

Even if salmon runs are successfully restored above Shasta Dam, they will face challenges that did not exist a century ago. Moyle points out that the McCloud today is nothing like the McCloud of history, which was such a great place for spawning salmon because its spring-fed flows were both cold and consistent all year, even if there was low snowpack. But today, PG&E generates electricity at a small dam on the McCloud just a few miles upstream of Lake Shasta. This hydroelectric facility doesn’t just create a barrier to fish. It also diverts 80 percent of the McCloud’s water to the Pit River system. By the time it gets there, it is warm – useless for salmon – and the water left in the McCloud trickles downstream. Indeed, it is a very different river than the one that the winter-run salmon evolved to spawn in.  

There is furthermore uncertainty that true winter-run salmon even exist anymore. The genetic integrity has likely been lost, in part due to accidental blending of fish of different runs in the Sacramento River’s hatcheries. Sisk wants the McCloud to be seeded with fish built exactly like those that fed her ancestors – and to find them, she and her tribe members want to go to New Zealand. Sacramento Chinook were introduced to the islands in the first years of the 1900s. Today, New Zealand’s rivers support thriving populations of sea-run Chinook. Moyle says it isn’t certain by any means that those introduced fish were of winter-run stock, but genetic analysis could answer that question.

Sisk wants the Bureau of Reclamation to host a small field trip to the island nation to collect some winter-run eggs and bring them back to California.

“It might cost $25,000,” she says.

There are projects underway that aim to bring back the lower Sacramento watershed’s capacity to support salmon. There is, for instance, the organization California Trout’s so-called “Nigiri Project” – a plan to restore wetland and floodplain habitat alongside many miles of the lower Sacramento River. CalTrout’s biologists have demonstrated clearly that allowing juvenile salmon to access flooded rice paddies and other seasonal cropland, where food is plentiful, makes them as much as seven times more likely to survive their migration to the sea than young salmon confined to the main river channel, where food is scarcer and predator ambush points numerous. 

There is also talk of requiring more water to be kept in the Delta rather than pumped out of the estuary for use by farmers. The powerful Delta pumps, which divert about twice as much water today as they did in the 1970s, are widely recognized as a major cause of fish declines – something the agriculture industry generally denies. 

But even if fish populations below Shasta Dam rebound, the Winnemem Wintu will remain without their culture’s lifeblood, and Sisk says her people cannot live without salmon.

“We believe that when the salmon go, we also go,” she says.

Banner: Lower Falls on the McCloud River. Photo: David Welch, some rights reserved

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition. 

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