Salmonid Restoration Federation

Evolution of the Fisheries Restoration Field in California

Written by Don Allan, Vice President of the Board of Directors

Fisheries restoration in California has come a long way since the first Salmonid Restoration Conference in 1983. Truly a whole new generation has come and a number of the restoration “pioneers” have gone in that time. Many of today’s restorationists grew up in an era with a growing public awareness and concern over the state of our streams and our fisheries. Salmon in the classroom, painting storm drains with a “drains to creek” message, and outdoor education helped raise the awareness of salmon and watershed issues so they became topics of conversation around the dinner table. The public and our legislators became more aware of the plight of salmon, largely as a result of the work done by the restoration community, and the result was public support for the programs that support the work we do. The increase in public awareness and application of a more methodical and scientific approach to fisheries restoration are encouraging. We’ve gone from a scatter-gun approach of treating symptoms caused by old-style resource extraction and a lack of understanding of watershed science, to developing a systematic approach for collecting and analyzing data, assessing watersheds, identifying critical issues, and formulating watershed plans to address the critical issues.

As we have developed and grown in the art and science of watershed restoration, we have overcome some of the old challenges and see new challenges arising. Some of the old challenges seem simple looking back—now we take for granted that we should start with a watershed assessment before we develop a watershed restoration plan and start implementing projects, but that wasn’t necessarily how things were done in the early days of fisheries restoration. Partly we were hampered by the funding restrictions of the day, and partly we were still working out a systematic approach for assessing and prioritizing watershed issues. SB 271 in 1997 was landmark legislation that added new categories for funding under the California Department of Fish & Game’s Fisheries Restoration Grants Program (FRGP). Watershed planning, upslope erosion control, organizational support, and monitoring became new funding categories under the FRGP. We expanded our understanding of the importance of high-flow refugia, estuary habitat, and the impacts of floodplain development. Assessing and replacing fish-barrier culverts rose to the highest of priorities. In the first decade of the 21st century we had the luxury of numerous opportunities for funding and in response we saw an expansion in the number of watershed groups, professional consultants, and engineering firms working in fisheries restoration, and the number of watershed plans developed and projects implemented.
As we embark on the next generation of watershed recovery, it is interesting to see the evolution of the fisheries restoration movement over the past 30 years. With global warming and shrinking government funding new factors in the equation, we have more evolving and adapting to do. SRF has been a facilitator in the evolution of watershed restoration, bringing the restoration community, scientists, funders, and land managers together to share advances in science and approaches to restoration. SRF strives to achieve, and attain, a more robust scientific approach to watershed restoration, and provide a forum for discussion where all can engage in open discourse.