Photo by Sharyn Cornelius: Fish Biologist Brenda Olson from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service speaks to the crowd at the Oct. 11 meeting at the Grange.

The Cow Creek Watershed landowners who attended the meeting put on by the Western Shasta RCD to learn about the upcoming fish passage barrier survey seemed to be very interested in increasing salmon and steelhead numbers in local creeks, but they were also concerned about what might happen to them if a barrier on their property was placed on a government list.

Brenda Olson, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), led off the meeting by presenting the numbers of fall run Chinook salmon recorded entering the mouth of Cow Creek over the past five years.  The video weir had initially recorded 4200 salmon in 2006, its first year of operation.  In 2007 it recorded 2600 fish, but only 200 in 2008, 400 in 2009 and 50 in 2010.

Olson also said that the Cow Creek Watershed was unique in the North State for the large number of irrigation diversions on its streams.  She said the goal of the fish passage barrier inventory, which is funded by the USFWS, was to learn where the diversions are, what they look like, and how they affect the adult fish going upstream to spawn and the young fish heading downstream to the sea.  She also noted that the data base produced will be useful in applying for grants to provide fish ladders and screens for diversions that have been shown to be barriers to fish passage.

Adam Wagschal, of H. T. Harvey and Associates, which has been hired by the USFWS to conduct the inventory, explained the process in more detail.  He said one of the first steps would be to identify natural barriers to fish passage on each of the five main tributaries to Cow Creek.  He said that only Clover Creek Falls had been verified as a 100 percent barrier, so they would be looking at and using calculations to determine whether any other water falls such as Whitmore and Diddy Wells Falls could block fish passage.  If such water falls are determined to be barriers, they would focus their fish passage barrier inventory downstream from them.  Wagschal said that after the inventory is complete, the final step would be to prioritize which barriers had the greatest effect on the most fish, with those furthest downstream probably at the top of the list.

At this point the questions began.  One man observed that if the long-term goal of the study was to produce a salmon run of 4600, the cost of the study was “quite a bit per fish.”  Wagschal answered that while true, work in other areas had shown that mitigating barriers provided “a lot of bang for the buck” in improving fish habitat.

Another landowner asked if the study identified 16 barriers to fish passage on a stream, would all 16 have to be fixed to make a difference for the fish.  The answer was no, but work would probably start downstream and work upstream.

Several people asked how the USFWS was going to measure the success, since they had already said there was no money for biological studies.  The agency representatives said that for the time being, they would have to rely on the fish count at the video weir to show them if the work was effective.

One gentleman who said he had grown up on Cow Creek stated that he hadn’t seen any major changes in the number of type of diversions on the creeks over the years, but in the old days there were lots of fish and now there weren’t any.  He said he believes that whatever is causing the fish numbers to fall must be located outside the watershed.  California Fish and Game biologist Trish Bratcher agreed.  She said that she believes the Red Buff Diversion Dam has had the largest impact on fish in the northern Sacramento River and she is anxious to see the effect of leaving it open year round.

Sensing the concerns of the audience, a representative of the NRCS said that the conflict between ranchers and Fish and Game in the Scott River Valley in Siskiyou County had created a climate of fear among water rights holders, so he felt it was very important for the USFWS to make it clear to property owners in the Cow Creek Watershed that any data collected would not be used to make trouble for them down the road.

Brenda Olson answered that the USFWS was not planning any regulatory follow-up to the inventory.  “We’re just collecting data,” she said, “trying to get ahead of the game and fix problems before they become an issue for regulators.”  She added that no agency personnel were planning to enter private property during the survey.  The only persons seeking entry permits will be the contractors.