But outside the walls of Warm Springs, so much is beyond the control of the recovery team. By nature, salmon transcend boundaries and boundaries, exposing them to a pile of threats. In rivers, fish face warmer water, droughts, forest fires, landslides, predators and pollution; at sea, more predators, fishing and food competition. By exacerbating these dangers, climate change is placing increasing demands on fish and their users to adapt. For the program to succeed, many things must go right.
“We’ve never really had big years of returns, but we’ve also never really had everything in line, like ocean conditions, water, our production here,” White says. “It’s always something.”
Even before by the summer of 2020, the people working to bring the Russian River Coho back had known of a lot of climate chaos. The series of major wildfires they have endured over the past five years are blurred in memory. Most of the Sea Grant employees have been evacuated from the area at least once. Obedzinski has had a fire burned within 50 meters of his house and once wrote a project report from temporary housing with the family. One late night in 2019, as the Kincade fire approached the town of Windsor, where the Sea Grant program is based, Ruiz took an Uber to the office to back up important data if the building burned down. Two years earlier, another team member lost his family home. From late June to November, everyone is on edge.
In mid-August 2020, temperatures rose to almost 40 ° C. Nearly 90 days had passed without significant rainfall, and the Sea Grant office received frequent messages from the power company warning of potential outages to prevent fires triggered by wind damage to power lines. On August 17, dry lightning ignited the Walbridge fire, which spread southeast into the Mill Creek Valley, northeast toward Lake Sonoma and Warm Springs, and south into protected forests. Within two days, 10,000 people were ordered to evacuate. On the edge of the evacuation zone, the hatchery moved to a skeletal herd that did the essential work of keeping the coho alive.
“It was a big eye opener,” White says. The power to the area was out and the diesel supply tank was working poorly so someone had to refuel one of the hatchery’s backup generators every six to eight hours, otherwise the water pumps would stop. “We want those generators to be able to run for days at a time, so if someone can not be here, we at least know the fish have water,” he says. By mid-September, the Walbridge fire had burned an area the size of Seattle and destroyed 293 buildings, including homes for landowners helping to restore coho.
The fire was finally fought in early October, but California’s drought continued. The salmon were still in danger. Earlier this year, the Sea Grant team had counted a record number of wild-born coho in the watershed; that fall they returned to basins that had kept fish to find some completely dry. The winter rains came late, and very few streams had enough water for adults to spawn. In the spring of 2021, just as 30,000 six-month-old hatchery coho were trying to swim out to the Pacific Ocean, the drought again stopped many tributaries from flowing. On overtime, the Sea Grant team helped the Fish and Wildlife staff rescue stranded fish.