There’s a newly restored wetland at the edge of Prairie Creek, a stream that crosses ancestral Yurok land in Northern California’s Redwood National Park. The site is humble at first glance: an expanse of mud along the streamside, where starts of native vegetation dot the ground, and quiet pools branch off from the main flow of the creek. But this carefully rebuilt backwater holds an array of rare young fish. On Monday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom stood by as researchers pulled juvenile chinook and coho salmon along with steelhead and cutthroat trout from the water and displayed them in a clear plastic box.

Newsom and his entourage paid a visit to this area to see salmon restoration in action – and to announce a sweeping new plan intended to protect California’s iconic fish. The state’s once-abundant salmon have been devastated by sediment pollution from logging, overfishing and massive habitat loss due to decades of dam construction. As summer temperatures soar and snowpack dwindles due to human-caused climate change, there’s increasingly less of the cold water the remaining salmon need to survive.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a fish trap while touring a salmon restoration project at Prairie Creek, California, in late January.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom holds a fish trap while touring a salmon restoration project at Prairie Creek, California, in late January. Credit: Terry Chea/AP Photo

Newsom’s new plan puts the governor’s guarantee on actions that only a few years ago appeared radical, such as taking down multiple old dams, or building infrastructure that would allow salmon to skirt them and reach the streams where they lay eggs. The plan also emphasizes creative means of restoring salmon habitat. Many of the projects build on long-term efforts by tribes and conservation groups, and some, like a program in which Central Valley rice farmers allow their flooded fields to be used as rearing habitat for fish, offer hope that agriculture and restoration can be combined.

I’m operating with a completely different mindset, in terms of how we approach these old issues.”

“The reality is, we just have to disabuse ourselves that we can operate with the old rules,” Newsom told High Country News. “Across the board, Mother Nature’s not cooperating with that. It’s just a different world, so I’m operating with a completely different mindset, in terms of how we approach these old issues. I try to pave a little bit of a different path.”

Newsom was joined by top state wildlife officials, as well as representatives from the Yurok Tribe. Frankie Myers, the tribe’s vice-chair, described the Prairie Creek project as a small but inspirational part of his people’s effort to reclaim a landscape that sustains salmon. Decades ago, when a lumber mill was built at the stream’s edge, the banks were lined with stone riprap, forming a narrow channel where water blasted through at high speeds. This was no place for a salmon or trout to spend time. By removing the riprap and reshaping shallow banks where the stream can form quiet pools, Yurok workers have created vital rearing habitat for salmonids: a place where young fish can rest, feed and grow until they’re ready to swim out to the Pacific.

Central Valley Chinook salmon are released at Nimbus Hatchery in Gold River, California.
Central Valley Chinook salmon are released at Nimbus Hatchery in Gold River, California. Credit: Kori Suzuki

In spring of 2023, Yurok fishery biologists tagged juvenile salmon in the Klamath River. By July, some of those tagged juveniles were found at the Prairie Creek restoration site. Myers explained that the young fish had to swim down the Klamath River to the ocean, then came up Redwood Creek, which joins Prairie Creek just below the restored wetland. The salmon recognized the site as a safe place to rear.

The Prairie Creek restoration, supported by state funding, was done in partnership with Save the Redwoods League and other conservation groups, but it was the Yurok people who removed riprap, shaped the streambank and planted native vegetation. “This is a model that we need more of,” Myers told Newsom. “This is restoration of salmon, but also of our people.”

“This is restoration of salmon, but also of our people.”

The Yurok Tribe and its partners are also working on dismantling four obsolete hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, a project that comprises the largest salmon restoration effort in American history. Salmon have always been necessary to the Yurok people, central to both their diet and their culture. But fish populations have plummeted, and in some years the tribe has not been able to harvest any salmon – a situation that bringing down the dams should improve dramatically.

Newsom’s new plan also supports the removal of one dam and the replacement of another with fish-friendly infrastructure on the Eel River, which, if completed, would create the longest unimpeded river in the state. Newsom pledged to remove the Rindge Dam in Los Angeles County and the Matilija Dam on a tributary of the Ventura River before he leaves office at the end of his second term in 2026. In addition, the plan mentions dozens of fish infrastructure projects, as well as restoring spring chinook populations in the North Fork Feather and North Fork Yuba Rivers.

The plan emphasizes that dam removal and other salmon restoration efforts should be done collaboratively with tribes. These activities include an idea that came from the Karuk Tribe, as well as other Indigenous groups, to reintroduce beaver, which act as natural engineers of stream habitats that benefit fish. Chuck Bonham, director of California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), acknowledged that this is a major shift for his agency. Until recently CDFW refused to treat beaver as a species native to California, despite ample historical and biological evidence. Landowners who found beaver inconvenient were free to shoot them, and state biologists never relocated beaver. Now CDFW offers to trap and relocate problem beavers, and rebuilding their population is part of the new salmon strategy.

The most controversial aspect of Newsom’s plan is likely to be its approach to water flows, which relies on voluntary agreements with agricultural water districts and cities to cut back on water use.

Flows through the Central Valley and San Francisco Bay Delta have long been the focus of intense conflict. Farmers in the San Joaquin Valley rely on water diverted from the Delta, but federal regulations for endangered chinook salmon and Delta smelt require that a certain amount of water be allowed to flow through the Delta and down to the Pacific. Agribusiness and environmental groups have traded lawsuits for years, snarling management of the California’s complex water system in a series of shifting court decisions.

In January 2022, in the third year of a severe drought, Newsom announced a new initiative, a voluntary agreement signed by some of the biggest urban and agricultural users that take water from the Central Valley and the Delta. Under the agreement, farms and cities would lower their water use and help fund restoration of fish habitats. Conservation groups criticized the deal, saying that the amount of water freed up would not be nearly enough to sustain salmon.

In recent drought years, and even in the wet winter of 2023, Newsom waived flow requirements meant to protect salmon in the Delta to allow more water to reach farms.

During the Monday visit to the two salmon restoration sites in Humboldt County, the governor’s staff and agency heads spoke of “cutting green tape” and finding ways to work around laws like the California Environmental Quality Act, which was signed into law in 1970 and puts obstacles in the way of many habitat restoration efforts.

Bonham, the CDFW director, pointed out that voluntary agreements succeeded at freeing up water for fish on a small scale in the past. “Two summers ago, with the governor’s leadership, we had the ability to pay alfalfa growers on the Scott River to lay off groundwater pumping.” That allowed the Scott to keep flowing during the drought, reaching its connection with the Klamath instead of being sucked dry.

As California grows ever hotter and drier, the sheer scarcity of water becomes an ever more urgent problem. Bonham sees the survival of salmon as a complex challenge that needs to be attacked from multiple angles: dam removal, habitat restoration, negotiating for flows, modernizing hatcheries and creating passages for fish around dams that won’t be coming down.

“If we don’t do something about it our kids won’t see these fish in these waters,” he said. “And we can do something about it.”

Sharon Levy is a freelance writer based in Humboldt County, California. She is the author of The Marsh Builders and has written for Undark, Knowable, BioScience, Nature, New Scientist and other magazines. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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