Producer's Notes: California's Lost Salmon

The Russian River is my family river. When my children tip over the canoe, or launch off a rope swing and plop into the quiet green waters, it will hold more religious significance for me than any other baptism ever could. That is how important that place is to my family and me. We love the river.

As we would with any loved one, we care about its health and well being. Over the years we have witnessed wanton pollution from purposeful and "accidental" sewage spills, there has been gravel mining, seemingly unchecked agri-business dumping pesticides and sucking wells dry, and more than anything, precious water has been continuously pumped out and diverted to quench the thirst of the ever-growing populations of Sonoma and Marin Counties. Each one of these factors has taken some of the life and wildness out of the Russian River. And there comes a point when the natural world and The River does not have anything left to give.

California Coho Salmon are listed as federally protected, and are critically endangered
California Coho Salmon are listed as federally protected, and are critically endangered (Richard James)

Still there is the hope that nature is resilient. One of the best indicators of environmental health on the Russian River would be the return of the native salmon. While producing our story on these magnificent fish we had the privilege to witness the incredibly dedicated conservation fishery biologists at the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery at Lake Sonoma. Seeing them work gave me a lot of hope. These men and women literally hold the future of the coho salmon in their hands. Each egg is tenderly cared for-- each little growing fish is carefully identified, numbered and individually tagged before being gently released into the wild. It is an enormous, time-consuming and laborious task. But without them, the critically endangered coho salmon have little or no realistic chance of returning to the Russian River.

Sadly, it seems that much of their work may have gone for naught. In early April 2009, for just one night's frost protection, the wineries of the Russian River valley went against a request by the National Marine Fisheries Service and turned open their taps, taking so much water out of the Russian River watershed that the water-table dramatically dropped resulting in a massive coho salmon die-off. It's another heartbreaking blow to an already perilous situation. The wineries were told specifically about the consequences of their actions last year at a special meeting held by the State Water Resources Control Board. Yet to protect a small percentage of an already glutted crop, the wineries knowingly risked dooming an entire species to extinction.

For more information see:


Quick drop in water level kills coho | The Press Democrat | Santa Rosa, CA
Frost protection measures to save crops stranded fish in Russian River tributary

Coho killed after water diverted to protect crops | SF Chronicle
Endangered coho salmon killed after a sudden drop in the water level...

I have always advocated for The Russian River and its small communities and businesses. I recommend it as the perfect getaway for friends looking for a weekend exploration. Hiking, canoeing, wine-tasting or exploring--The River is the place. In turn I have also regularly recommended and sought out Russian River wines. But I doubt I'll be recommending anything from this year's vintage. I have a feeling the 2009 Russian River wines are going to leave a very bitter taste.