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Yurok Tribe Awarded $4 million from California Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

State Funds will Support Monumental River Restoration Project on the Trinity River

The Yurok Tribe recently received a $3,990,587 grant from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for an urgently needed, large-scale river restoration project on the Trinity River.

“These funds will help us transform a severely damaged section of the Trinity into diverse, dynamic and complex habitat for salmon and steelhead,” said Frankie Myers, the Yurok Tribe’s Vice Chairman and President of the Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation. “I sincerely thank California Governor Newsom and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for investing in our effort to rebuild these invaluable fish stocks and make the Klamath Basin more resilient to climate change. These funds could not have come at a better time.”

The Trinity River is the largest Klamath River tributary. The salmon and steelhead spawning stream plays a major role in the Klamath Basin’s fish production and contributes much to the overall health of the interconnected watershed. Dams, widespread habitat degradation and water diversions have reduced the Trinity’s salmon and steelhead runs to a small fraction of their former sizes. The Yurok Tribe is engaged in collaborative, complementary efforts to restore habitat, improve water management and rebuild fish stocks on the Klamath and Trinity Rivers. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife grant is funding a significant portion of the Oregon Gulch Project, which is the largest fish habitat construction initiative in the Trinity River’s history.

“We are extremely grateful for the Newsom Administration’s considerable investment in the Oregon Gulch project on the Trinity River,” said Yurok Chairman Joseph L. James. “This project is part of our long-term plan to recover our fish runs and preserve an essential part of our culture.”

The Yurok Fisheries Department’s multidisciplinary team of restoration biologists, engineers and hydrologists, along with geomorphologists, wetland ecologists and botanists, designed the Oregon Gulch Project. The Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation is leading the implementation of the monumental rewilding initiative. Funded by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Trinity River Restoration Program and US Department of the Interior, the Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation-led Oregon Gulch Project aims to accomplish the following goals:

  • Restore complex floodplain habitat and natural river processes for the benefit of salmon and steelhead

  • Increase habitat diversity for all riparian species (fish, frogs, turtles, birds, insects, etc.…) year-round within an approximately one-mile river segment

  • Remove for than 500,000 cubic yards of mine tailing and restore 32 acres of degraded floodplain, wetland and riparian habitat for fish and wildlife

  • Increase juvenile salmon and steelhead habitat by up to 1000 percent within the project reach

  • Increase groundwater retention and restore riparian corridor

  • Establish conditions for the river to access its valley, allowing the channel to evolve as well as create new fish habitat for many years to come

For most of the last century, the Oregon Gulch floodplain, located near Junction City, has been buried in more than 35 feet of gold mine tailings comprised of bowling ball-sized rocks, gravel and silt. The construction team will remove the dredge mining refuse and reshape the straight river channel into a sweeping arc or meander bend with large-wood elements, deep holes and wetlands. Over time, the approximately one-mile-long river segment is expected to evolve into a complex network of channels spanning a verdant floodplain within the 35-acre valley.

Numerous single logs and groups of whole trees with root wads attached will facilitate the evolution of this river reach. When seasonal high flows collide with the wood elements, the corresponding hydraulic pressure will produce new side channels and/or scour deep holes, where adult salmon and steelhead will rest during the spawning migration. The same pools and secondary channels will offer concealed places for juvenile fish to pick off prey without expending too much energy fighting the fast current. The large wood will also help restore the river’s connections to its sprawling floodplains, where baby salmon and steelhead will find ample food, shelter and respite from high flows. The Oregon Gulch project site is immediately downstream of one of the Trinity River’s most productive salmon spawning grounds. The restoration work will increase juvenile salmon and steelhead habitat by up to one-thousand percent within the targeted area.

In addition to smothering the riparian ecosystem, the towering mine tailings confine this river reach, which better resembles a ditch than a spawning stream. The Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation hired several local contractors, including Yurok citizen-owned V & P Services and Marrufo Trucking, to remove the 516,480 cubic yards or more than 1 billion pounds of rubble to clear the way for the restoration of the riparian corridor. The Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation used a special machine to sort out some of the spawning-sized gravel and alluvial silt from the mine tailing for later use in the restoration project. The majority of the rocky material will be crushed and incorporated into local road projects.

As a result of the removal of the mining refuse, the reconnection of the floodplains and reintroduction of large wood, this river segment will function more like a natural, self-sustaining stream. For example, the large wood elements will trap and store large quantities of fallen leaves and branches. Microbes and invertebrates will breakdown these organic materials and release nutrients back into the riparian environment. Many of the insects will become food for baby salmon and steelhead too. When the river spills onto the porous floodplains, water will recharge underground aquifers at a more rapid rate. This will allow more water to remain in the river for a longer period of time. Additionally, the underground storage system will later release clean and cold water back into the river. Restoring these natural processes will ensure the river valley continues to serve fish and wildlife as the climate changes.

Climate change has already started to reduce annual precipitation amounts in Northern California. The decrease in rainfall and snowpack is contributing to increases in river temperatures and the frequency of fish-killing disease outbreaks in the Lower-and Mid-Klamath because there is often not enough water to flush pathogenic bacteria and parasites from the system. As juveniles and as adults, Trinity-born salmon are often exposed to elevated pathogen levels and water temperatures when travelling the lower 44 miles of Klamath to and from the ocean. After the four Klamath dams are removed in 2024, Klamath and Trinity-origin salmon will not experience such high water temperatures and pathogen densities.

Prior to the installation of the dams, at least one million spring and fall-run salmon spawned in the Klamath Basin each year. In 2022, less than 55,000 fall Chinook salmon (including hatchery fish) and approximately 4,000 spring-run fish returned to the Klamath and Trinity Rivers. In response to the 2023 fall Klamath salmon forecast, fisheries managers are poised to close the ocean commercial fishery in California this year. The Yurok Tribe will be cancelling its commercial fishery for the fifth year in row to protect salmon stocks. More restoration work is required on both rivers to help fish numbers rebound.

“Salmon and steelhead numbers will gradually improve on the Trinity and Klamath Rivers after the four dams are removed,” said Yurok Fisheries Department Director Barry McCovey Jr. “I am confident that we can rebuild salmon stocks through dam removal, habitat restoration, and proper water management, to a level that would support tribal, ocean commercial and recreational fisheries.”

The heavy equipment work on the Oregon Gulch Project will wrap up this fall. After the machines move out, a crew will establish a wide variety of well-adapted plants, including native grasses/forbs, shrubs and trees, at key locations within the project site. The vegetation will further improve habitat for salmon and steelhead as well as many different native wildlife species.

While increasing salmon and steelhead production is the primary goal of the Oregon Gulch Project, the restoration of the immense riparian corridor will benefit other culturally important fish species, such as Pacific lamprey and threatened coho salmon. The restored river valley will also aid a myriad of native amphibians, birds and mammals, due to the abundance of food, water and shelter.

The Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation is owned and operated by the Yurok Tribe. Informed by western science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge, the tribally owned business holistically converts severely degraded aquatic ecosystems into highly productive habitat for salmon as well as many other native fish and wildlife species. The Yurok Fisheries Department regularly plans, designs and monitors the Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation’s projects.

Caption - Yurok Tribe Construction Corporation heavy equipment operators Aldaron McCovey and Thomas Marceau remove historic gold-mining waste from the Trinity River corridor.

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