MENDOCINO Co, CA, 5/8/23 — Linda MacElwee, watershed coordinator for the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District (MCRCD), still receives numerous calls every fall as a bar of sediment builds up at the mouth of the Navarro River. She explained that the state used to open up this bar, which is created by low flows and big waves and blocks fish passage into the river.
“What we have kind of come to understand is, we don’t want to open up that bar,” she said. “It means that we would be inviting fish into the system when there isn’t really sufficient flow to support them, even once they got in.”
The Navarro estuary has been a “black box” of research on salmon habitat, MacElwee explained. But this year, it was included in an $8.3 million grant proposal by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) pursuing floodplain reconnection and habitat restoration for Central California Coast (CCC) coho salmon and threatened California Coastal Chinook at three different rivers and seven different sites in Mendocino County.
The proposal came out of successful restoration work in the Ten Mile and Garcia watersheds, explained TNC North Coast Restoration Project Manager Peter van de Burgt.
“We’ve had a pretty robust restoration program going in the Ten Mile watershed, where we have done comprehensive planning and had three rounds of construction so far,” he told The Voice. “We’ve built three separate projects there since 2018. Then last year, we built a large estuary project in the Garcia River, near the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands. We’re at this point where we’ve established a blueprint that we’ve seen is pretty successful.”
With this new project, TNC will expand its program in the Ten Mile and Garcia watersheds while beginning work in the Navarro, over what Van de Burgt estimates will be four years from the time of project approval. The Department of Commerce has currently recommended funding approval for the project, in addition to another $52 million for Northern California climate resiliency efforts.
These and other restoration projects revolve around hitting NOAA Fisheries’ goals for Central California Coast coho spawners returning to the rivers each year. According to recent recovery plans from NOAA, “all populations remain depressed and well below recovery targets.”
“We’re a long way off from that,” van de Burgt said. “But we’ve seen some indicators of progress. To me, that means we just need to keep doing these active restoration projects, trying to create habitat for salmon and create the physical conditions that they need to survive and thrive. Hopefully we’ll start getting the numbers in our favor over time.”
Van de Burgt also emphasized that what’s good for fish can be good for humans. That’s part of why floodplain reconnection is a critical component of TNC’s proposal.
“One of the reasons why flooding is such a big problem in many of our communities right now is because we have systematically disconnected our entire river systems from their adjacent floodplain,” he explained. “So when we get these peak flow events, when we get storms, we end up with really high velocities and we can end up with really acute flooding. But under more natural conditions, where floodplains are connected to the channel, water will get up onto the floodplain during storms [and] we won’t have these really sudden spikes or as dramatic peaks. The general notion is that the more that we’re able to connect floodplains, the more it’s going to slow water down, retain water on the landscape for a longer period of time, and attenuate downstream flood impacts.”
He’s especially excited about the potential to aid downstream communities in the Navarro and Garcia watersheds.
For MacElwee, a greater exploration of the lower Navarro estuary in service of bolstering fish habitat is an exciting prospect. MCRCD will partner with TNC for this investigation, assessing three different gulches for the opportunity to build large wood structures to foster salmon habitat.
“There’ll be a technical advisory group that will review all of the data and the science and what the findings of those three preliminary designs look like, and make recommendations,” she explained. “Then one of those projects will get designed.”
She added, “They just give an opportunity for the fish to get off of that major highway, to get into some more protected areas and get out of the high flows. It’s important for food resources, for putting on size and weight. If they are getting what they need, especially if they have some off-channel habitat where they can rest, that actually is super helpful.”
With these projects, van de Burgt also hopes to expand community outreach and involvement with adjacent tribes and landowners.
“For the Garcia restoration plan that we’re planning to do with this grant, a huge part of that is going to be reaching out to the local Manchester-Point Arena Band of Pomo and trying to meaningfully engage them on the project,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll forge a good relationship and a close collaboration on whatever we plan to do in that watershed in terms of restoration.”
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.