But outside the walls of Warm Springs, so much is beyond the recovery team’s control. By nature, salmon transcend borders and boundaries, which exposes them to a gauntlet of threats. In rivers, fish face warmer water, droughts, wildfires, landslides, predators, and pollution; At sea, more predators, fishing, and competition for food. By amplifying these hazards, climate change places ever-greater demands on the fish, and their keepers, 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 line up, like ocean conditions, water, our production here,” White says. “It’s always something.”
Even before the summer of 2020, the people working to bring back Russian River coho had known a lot of climate chaos. The series of major wildfires they’ve endured in the last five years are blurring together in memory. Most of the Sea Grant staff have been evacuated from the area at least once. Obedzinski has had a fire burn within 50 meters of her house and once authored a project report from temporary accommodations with family. Late one 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 crucial data in case the building burned down. Two years earlier, another team member lost his family home. From the end of June until November, everyone is on the edge.
In mid-August 2020, temperatures spiked to almost 40 °C. Nearly 90 days had passed without significant rain, and the Sea Grant office was getting frequent notices from the electrical company, warning of potential outages to prevent fires sparked by wind damage to power lines. On August 17, dry lightning ignited the Walbridge Fire, which spreads 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 skeleton crew, doing the essential work to keep the coho alive.
“It was a big eye-opener,” White says. Power to the area was out and the diesel supply tank was malfunctioning, so someone had to refuel one of the hatchery’s backup generators every six to eight hours or the water pumps would stall. “We want those generators to be able to run for days at a time, so if somebody can’t be here, at least we know the fish have water,” he says. By mid-September, the Walbridge Fire had burned an area the size of Seattle and destroyed 293 structures, including the homes of landowners who helped with coho recovery.
The fire was finally contained in early October, but California’s drought continued. The salmon were still in danger. Earlier in the year, the Sea Grant team had counted record numbers of wild-born coho in the watershed; that fall, they returned to pools that had held fish to find some completely dry. 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, drought again stopped many tributaries from flowing. Working overtime, the Sea Grant team helped Fish and Wildlife staff rescue stranded fish.