But beyond the walls of Warm Springs, there are too many things beyond the recovery team’s control. Essentially, salmon transcend borders and boundaries, which puts them under serious threat. In rivers, fish face rising water temperatures, droughts, wildfires, landslides, predators and pollution; at sea, more predators, fishing and food competition. By amplifying these hazards, climate change places increasing demands on fish and their breeders to adapt. For the plan to be successful, many things must go smoothly.
“We’ve never really had a multi-year payoff, but we’ve also never really gotten everything right, like the ocean conditions, the water, our production here,” White said. “It’s always something.”
even before In the summer of 2020, the people working to bring back the Russian River Silver Grey already know a lot about the climate mess. The series of major wildfires they have endured over the past five years are blurring together in memory. Most Sea Grant staff have been evacuated from the area at least once. Obedzinski, who has been in a fire within 50 meters of her home, has written a project report in her temporary home with her family. Late one night in 2019, as the Kincaid fire approached the town of Windsor, where the Sea Grant project is based, Ruiz took an Uber to the office to back up critical data in case the building burned down. Another team member lost his home two years ago. From the end of June to November, everyone is on edge.
In mid-August 2020, temperatures soared to nearly 40 °C. Nearly 90 days have passed without heavy rain, and the Sea Grant office is regularly notified by the power company warning of possible power outages to prevent fires caused by wind-damaged power lines. On August 17, dry lightning ignited the Walbridge Fire, which spread southeast to Mill Creek Valley, northeast to Sonoma Lake and Warm Springs, and south to protected forest. Within two days, 10,000 people were ordered to evacuate. On the edge of the evacuation area, the hatchery was transferred to a skeleton crew doing the necessary work to keep the whitebait alive.
“It was an eye-opener for me,” White said. There was a power outage in the area and diesel supply tanks had failed, so a backup generator at the hatchery had to be refueled every six to eight hours or the pumps would stop running. “We want these generators to run for days at a time, so if someone can’t be here, at least we know the fish has water,” he said. By mid-September, the Walbridge Fire had burned an area the size of Seattle and destroyed 293 structures, including homes for landowners who helped Silver Ash recover.
The fires were finally brought under control in early October, but California’s drought continued. Salmon are still at risk. Earlier this year, the Sea Grant team tallied record numbers of wild whitebait in the watershed. That fall, they returned to the ponds where the fish had been kept, and found some had completely dried up. Winter rains come late, and few streams have enough water for adults to lay their eggs. In the spring of 2021, just as 30,000 6-month-old hatchery silver herons tried to swim out of the Pacific Ocean, drought again stopped the flow of many tributaries. The Sea Grant team works overtime to help fish and wildlife crews rescue stranded fish.