LAKE SONOMA, Calif. – Led by South Pacific Division Commander Brig. Gen. Mark Toy, leaders from across the region held three days of discussion last week on a range of division operations at the San Francisco District’s Lake Sonoma -- everything from enhancing communications and team building to viewing the effects of a drought now in its fourth year and its impact on Corps environmental and fish habitat restoration projects.
The Lake Sonoma setting served as a reminder to the Regional Governance Board of how severely the drought has affected California. Discussions reflected some of the most pressing water-conservation issues facing the San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles districts. The Corps is working with federal, state and local water agencies and environmental organizations along with property owners in the region to help strike a balance between preserving water levels in the lake -- a reservoir that is the source of water for some 600,000 Sonoma County residents -- while ensuring that severely reduced flows in the Russian River Basin do not threaten endangered salmon and steelhead trout with extinction for a second time.
“We know that the state is going through some unprecedented drought that we’ve never experienced,” said Gen. Toy, adding that the Corps is working with California water authorities and other stakeholders to mitigate the drought’s impact including monitoring levels in Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino farther to the north, as well as keeping a close eye on local Coho and Chinook salmon and trout.
“It’s a responsibility we have as a Corps to be a teammate and a partner with them. It’s clearly going to be something that’s not going away and we’re going to have to meet that challenge head on,” the general said.
MANAGING LOCAL FISH STOCKS
The nearby Russian River, which winds through the heart of California’s wine country, was once home to the region’s largest population of Coho salmon but their numbers fell to near extinction by 2001, in part because of high water flows released by Warm Springs Dam and the consequential blockage of upstream migration. On a tour of the Dry Creek tributary, San Francisco District’s Chief of Operations and Readiness Mike Dillabough briefed division leaders on a 12-year project to enhance a six-mile stretch of the creek that will provide a sanctuary for salmon and steelhead from faster moving currents.
DON CLAUSEN FISH HATCHERY
During the conference, division leaders got a close-up look at salmon at Sonoma’s Don Clausen Fish Hatchery, the only recovery hatchery north of the San Francisco Bay built to replenish self-sustaining populations of salmon in the Russian River watershed. Owned by the Corps and managed jointly with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the hatchery raises and releases an estimated 500,000 offspring every year. But low water levels are raising concerns that the Corps may have to step in to ensure that released salmon are not threatened again, this time by low water levels triggered by the continuing drought.
ABOVE ALL, TAKING CARE OF PEOPLE REMAINS TOY’S TOP CONCERN
Despite the on-going drought, Toy described the environmental challenges it poses for the Corps as just one of many issues he faces as leader of the South Pacific Division, which covers parts of 10 states across the Southwest. “I spend a lot of my time trying to deal with the higher level issues because I’ve got four great commanders and four great deputy project managers who can handle the day to day issues,” he said. Overall, he believes the face-to-face contact he had with division leaders in the relaxed setting of the Lake Sonoma resort will pay dividends. “What’s important to me is not only taking care of people who are our partners, stakeholders and sponsors but taking care of our own workforce. That’s our big challenge here.”