The Russian River, Drought, Fish and Wine

In California by steelheaders

By Sam Davidson

It’s tough times in California right now, water-wise. The Golden State is more like the Vermilion State – that being the color of extreme (or even exceptional) drought conditions in much of the state, in maps such as this.

California’s salmon, steelhead, and trout are suffering as much or more than any other aquatic species in the current four-year drought. Spawning and rearing streams are bone dry or didn’t connect sufficiently to mainstem rivers over the winter. 95% of the eggs and young of winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River died in 2014 because the river was too warm.

However, the drought is giving urgency to many worthy water and fisheries conservation efforts. The State has stepped up to facilitate solutions, such as making it much easier for landowners who want to store diverted water for use later in the year to obtain the required permit. And resource agencies have joined with conservation groups and other stakeholders to empower enterprises such as the Russian River Coho Water Resources Partnership (RRCP), which have been developing collaborative water solutions that benefit agriculture, schools, communities and fisheries.

Trout Unlimited is a member of the RRCP. We work with this partnership – and others – from Eureka to San Luis Obispo to improve streamflows and habitat  conditions for salmon and steelhead as part of TU’s Coastal Streamflow Stewardship Project.

The Martorana Family Winery is one of the RRCP’s real success stories. For more than 30 years, the Martorana family has grown wine grapes in the Dry Creek Valley (Dry Creek is a tributary to the Russian River). The Martoranas are now certified organic growers, and have taken many other steps to “live consciously in harmony” with the land.

One of these steps was to start working with the RRCP several years ago to reduce water withdrawals from Grape Creek, which provides valuable spawning and rearing habitat for coho salmon and steelhead. TU and our RRCP partners helped develop a solution: a fan which provides protection from frost, when otherwise the vineyard would have to spray the grapes with water to keep them from being damaged.

Today that fan provides reliable frost protection for the Martorana Family Winery, and keeps more water in Grape Creek for coho and steelhead. And the Martorana family’s commitment to fisheries conservation earned them the 2014 Wildlife Stewardship Award from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.

The Martoranas’ fan – and leadership in resource conservation – are captured in this new short video from TU about the Russian River Coho Partnership’s work to improve streamflow and water supply reliability in this critical watershed for salmon and steelhead.


Sam Davidson is California Communications Director for Trout Unlimited.