Every year, the Baykeeper team takes a field trip to explore the San Francisco Bay we work to protect. We’ve toured the Bay Model in Sausalito, visited the Fisher Bay Observatory at the Exploratorium, explored the SF shoreline with Kayaks Unlimited, and cruised the Bay with the Marine Science Institute.
While we missed bonding this way in 2020 because of the pandemic, the Baykeeper team’s fall 2019 field trip to the Yuba River was memorable enough to last a lifetime. Our sister organization, Yuba River Waterkeeper, hosted us and our families for a rafting adventure to experience the Bay’s upper watershed firsthand.
We spent a beautiful morning rafting the river, then stopped for lunch and hiked along the riverbank. It was Chinook salmon spawning season, so we were hoping we might get lucky to see nature in action.
We came to a pool in a part of the river that had been badly damaged by a gravel mining operation—an area where the Yuba Riverkeeper had prioritized their restoration efforts. And there, the storied salmon were busily building gravel nests, called redds, to lay their eggs. They were so close, we could reach out and touch them (we didn’t, of course!). My kids were astonished by the gigantic fish, and Baykeeper's senior scientist, Jon Rosenfield, riveted them with tales of the salmon's life cycle.
Chinook salmon are born in the San Francisco Bay's river tributaries, they make their way through the Bay to the open ocean, and then they dramatically return to the place of their birth to lay their eggs: the foundation for the next generation.
When salmon die after spawning, their bodies nourish the river's entire ecosystem. Coyotes and foxes eat the carcasses, as do raccoons, vultures, and bugs—and much to my kids’ surprise, even deer! Each adult salmon weighs between 20-40 pounds, and in years past hundreds of thousands of salmon have contributed nutrients in this way back to the local environment. Scientists can trace the nutrient signature of salmon to the region’s trees—and even local wine grapes!
But there’s a serious risk that the salmon might not return to Central Valley rivers like the Yuba one day, if we continue to destroy the salmon's habitat by building hard walls along the riverbanks, and sending too much of the river's cool, fresh water—which the salmon need to survive—to Central Valley rice paddies and nut farms. Unfortunately, it's possible that the entirety of this year's endangered winter-run Chinook salmon brood will die before they leave the Bay.
That's why Baykeeper is urging Governor Newsom to direct the State Water Resources Control Board to cut deliveries to crops that require an extravagant amount of water during a drought—and you can take action as well.
This unique year’s Earth Month has come to a close, and the memory of our Yuba River field trip brings to focus how people and the natural world are interconnected. So Baykeeper will continue finding ways to protect the diversity of life we know today–and for future generations to enjoy.
And the next time you raise a glass of local wine, please remember to celebrate our connections to the Bay and the natural world—and you can even salute the salmon for those helpful nutrients!