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Fish Passage in Auburn Ravine Impeded: Fall Run Chinook Threatened


North Ravine Restoration Coordinator, Robert Hane, with Save Auburn Ravine Salmon and Steelhead organization (SARSAS) joined Sarah McCormick in KAHI’s studios today to discuss the fall run Chinook salmon in the Auburn Ravine.

Though they haven’t reached the Hemphill Dam area, Hane says the salmon will be headed that way soon. He says it usually takes a heavy rain event to trigger the fish to head upstream.

Hane says the fish navigate up to 20-30 miles in a day, and are expected to reach the Hemphill Dam, east of Lincoln any day now.  Where Auburn Ravine empties into the Sacramento River at Verona is where Hane expects the fish are today.

As the warming waters of Northern California spell danger to several fish species, the fall run Chinook salmon are in dire need. SARSAS and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife say the Hemphill facility is currently impassable to the upstream swimmers.

Hemphill Dam spawning grounds are important. Hane and SARSAS organizers say the spawning grounds downstream from Hemphill are sandy, rather than full of healthy spawning aggregate.  The sandy areas below Hemphill prove to be significantly less fruitful, as salmon eggs become smothered in the sand, and eaten by predators.

The aggregate that they need to deposit their eggs, like that above the Hemphill Dam, allows salmon eggs to settle into rocks and to have less exposure, and more protection.

A key point in this debate is semantics. While, according to SARSAS, the agency who operates the Hemphill Dam, the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) distinguishes Hemphill as a dam with no natural flow of water, SARSAS says Hemphill is really a “diversion” of natural flow of the ravine’s waters.

Hane says a dam usually means water storage is involved, whereas a diversion simply diverts the natural flow of water. This is part of the issue between the Nevada Irrigation District (NID), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Department of the Interior and groups such as SARSAS.

Hane says the Hemphill location currently has a structure in the water that is approximately 8 feet tall and 100 feet across the Auburn Ravine. Hane said that salmon have a hard time getting over the diversion, if they are able to at all.  Some have warned that when the salmon do get to the Hemphill location, they’ll beat themselves on the structure in the water, amidst rebar and concrete.

He says under the Brown Act, SARSAS received a copy of a letter sent to the NID from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) in March, 2015. In the letter, from Tina Bartlett, Regional Manager for the CDFW, there are two specific codes in violation.  1.)  The dam violates Fish and Game Code section 5901 because it “prevents, impedes… the passing of fish up and downstream.  2.) The dam substantially diverts the natural flow of Auburn Ravine Creek into Hemphill Canal, but that NID has yet to notify the Department under Fish and Game Code section 1602 for the diversion.

NID does not want to address the natural flow of water to the dam, according to Hane.

Last month, in the Sacramento Bee, reporter Ryan Sabalow wrote, “The Department of Fish and Wildlife hasn’t filed a case with the Placer County District Attorney’s Office, “although we have not seen steps taken by NID to address the issues despite our continued efforts,” spokesman Clark Blanchard said in an email. “However, we have had some preliminary discussions with the DA’s office about potential violations.”

While the citations, meetings, letters and other correspondence move back and forth between several agencies and organizations, this year’s salmon seem to be days away from their doom.

Earlier this year, SARSAS asked the Department of Fish and Wildlife if they could hand move some of the salmon up and over the Hemphill Dam at a meeting with the department on October 13.

SARSAS, according to Hane, had worked with professionals, scientists & wildlife officials to pass salmon man-to-man in a production style line over the dam. Hane says the request was denied “at this time.” He is hoping for a reversal of that decision within the next 20 days.

The big picture includes the immediate death of the salmon trying to but unable to go over Hemphill Dam. The impact is not only a one time loss. Hane says the Chinook have a 4-year life cycle.  The inability for the fall run Chinook to swim upstream now, will have a huge impact on the food chain for years to come.

According to Hane, “We’re not trying to put NID out of business, or take anyone’s water.” He said the best case scenario would be a common sense approach.  “There’s a lot of different ways to remove water without detriment to the streams.”

Not only does SARSAS work for the passage of fish throughout the Auburn Ravine, they work on the entire habitat surrounding the waterways. As Coordinator for the North Ravine, Hane says they are currently working with the vegetation surrounding the waterways.  He says they’re removing Himalayan Blackberries and planting non-deciduous trees along the banks for shade to help lower water temperatures and provide better habitats.  Other plantings include Red Twig Dogwood and Aptos Blue Redwoods.  Working on the entire ecological balance, Hane says, involves planning for 5-7 years in some cases.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has said that the water delivery system in the Auburn area is the most complex in the nation, according to SARSAS website.

While Hane says there is no one organization or person with specific blame, until all of the information is on the table, the issue will continue to be unresolved. Hane said SARSAS will continue to work for awareness and positive action.

Hane says they’ve made major strides. He hopes to keep working with everyone involved to produce positive outcomes.  There are a vast number of entities competing for the precious water in the Auburn Ravine and they continue to be complex. The issues revolving around our drinking water, delta salinity, the survival of many fish species and more will continue to be an ongoing conversation.


For more information on SARSAS, go to:

For information on the Nevada Irrigation District, go to:

The next Board meeting of the NID will be: October 28 at 9am at 1036 West Main Street, Grass Valley, CA

Sacramento Bee Article by Ryan Sabalow:

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