Carmel River steelhead impacted by late and sparse rains.
Thursday, August 9, 2012
It’s a sunny, blue-skied morning along the Carmel River. But as he walks along the dried-up riverbed, Frank Emerson sees a critical lack of rain.
Earlier this summer, when the river was low but still trickling, Emerson and fellow volunteers with the Carmel River Steelhead Association counted almost 30 “redds,” or steelhead nests, in the lower section of the river. But they didn’t find the abundant baby steelhead, or fry, the redds should have produced.
“Those nests may have dried up before they hatched,” he says. “That could be 40,000 eggs.”
CRSA volunteers put in 765 hours from May 26 to July 22, scooping 7,237 young steelhead from the river’s drying tributaries. Most of those came from Cachagua Creek. Under an agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service, CRSA relocates them to deeper waters upstream.
While CRSA primarily does rescues in the Carmel’s tributaries, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District leads efforts in its main stem. This year, the district gathered steelhead from the river’s lower 6 miles.
MPWMD Senior Fisheries Biologist Kevan Urquhart says 2012 has brought slightly below-average rainfall and below-median flows. The district mitigates the dry conditions by releasing water from the Los Padres Dam.
The main stem has dried back to Meadows Road in Carmel Valley, about 5.8 miles from the Carmel River Lagoon. The lack of inflow impacts the lagoon’s water quality, Emerson says, harming the juvenile steelhead that build up their strength there before migrating to sea.
The dry conditions contrast with last year, when an unusually wet spring allowed the river’s main stem to flow to the lagoon year-round for the first time since 1998. Emerson credits the high number of rescued juveniles in Cachagua Creek – more than 2,300 steelhead over a year old – to those 2011 rains.
“WE’RE DOING OUR BEST TO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE DISAPPEARING RIVER.”
But the counts in the lower main stem were disappointing. From mid-June to the end of July, MPWMD scooped more than 6,300 juvenile steelhead out of the drying river; the yearly average is 16,600. The district transfers the rescues to its Sleepy Hollow Steelhead Rearing Facility near San Clemente Dam, feeds them, and puts them back where they found them about two weeks after the river re-wets. “We’re doing our best to substitute for the disappearing river,” Urquhart says.
Emerson blames the low fish counts on rain that came too little and late: “It’s the worst of both worlds.”
Urquhart floats an additional suspect: a finny little fish called a riffle sculpin that lives on the river bottom and competes with steelhead for food, sometimes even eating the fry.
The steelhead rescue efforts are necessary as long as California American Water continues to overpump the Carmel River to supply water to the Monterey Peninsula. Private wells and reservoirs drawing from the river’s tributaries also contribute to the problem.
Cal Am is under a state order to reduce its pumping by 70 percent within four and a half years. Another good sign for steelhead: the planned destruction of the 106-foot-tall San Clemente Dam, which is poised to become the biggest dam removal in California history.
“Without changing how we use the Carmel River, steelhead populations will not increase,” Emerson says. “Salmonids are amazingly resilient. If you give them some of their habitat back, they will recover.”