Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 038: Canoeing

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. For six magical years, we lived in Yarmouth Port in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Both my son Marcus and my daughter Anya were born there, and from the beginning, we canoed once or twice a week on Cape Cod Bay, which is just a few steps from my house. Our 17-foot green Mad River canoe was our gateway to the labyrinthian network of marshes and when we were feeling especially brave, we canoed to Sandy Neck Beach, just a few miles of open water away. When we moved back to San Francisco, we left our precious canoe behind and now each time our family sees someone with a canoe on the roof of their car, we get super nostalgic. So, when Barry Nelson called me up to see if I wanted to canoe down the Feather River in northern California, I didn't hesitate. Barry was the head of Save the Bay. He was the lead for the Natural Resources Defense Council on California on water issues and now he runs Western Water strategies. Today’s show is a companion to Episode 28, Gone Fishing, where I found out that the main reason that our local salmon aren't doing well is because of the deteriorating health of California’s river system. It's just gotten light. We're here in Berkeley at Barry's house. 

BARRY NELSON: We're going to throw the canoe on the car and drive up to the Feather River. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When did you get the canoe? 

BARRY NELSON: The canoe was a wedding present from my parents. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I love the canoe. 

BARRY NELSON: It’s seen hundreds of miles on rivers in California and around the West. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, we're go up to the Feather. Where's the drop-in point? 

BARRY NELSON: The drop-in point is right at the Feather River Hatchery, which is right below Oroville dam. And then we're going to take out at a reservoir called the Thermalito Afterbay, which is the largest source of thermal pollution in the Feather River. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It's hard to believe we're in pretty urban California. 

BARRY NELSON: And yet in a couple of hours you can be on a beautiful, relatively wild river.

JARED BLUMENFELD: And then as if by magic, we were at the Feather River.

BARRY NELSON: We're at the fish viewing platform that leads into the Feather River Hatchery. And we're watching a couple of dozen fall run Chinook salmon as a swim up to the hatchery. The big fish we're looking at are probably 30, 35 pounds. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: They are swimming against the current. Pretty ferocious current. 

BARRY NELSON: These fish would normally have spawned in this stretch of the river and upstream into the foothills. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So. what's the purpose of having a hatchery? 

BARRY NELSON: The hatchery is designed to replace the lost habitat upstream there. California has lost about 90 percent of its salmon spawning habitat. And we lost it because we've built a wall of dams on virtually every one of California's major salmon rivers and the hatcheries are designed to replace the spawning habitat that used to exist upstream. So, they swim right into the fish hatchery. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And then what happens? 

 

BARRY NELSON: They cut them open, they pull the eggs out, and then they fertilize those eggs and raise them until they're a couple inches long. And then they release them back into the river. So, this hatchery is designed to release about six to 8 million baby fish every spring of these fish, the fall run salmon, and about 3 million spring run salmon babies every year. And if we're lucky, and in California, we never lucky when it comes to salmon, up to one percent of those fish come back. That's your goal. One percent is a decent return. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And what percentage of all the eggs that hatch come from these hatcheries? 

 

BARRY NELSON: On this river, roughly 90 percent are salmon raised by the hatchery. About roughly 10 percent are actually wild fish that spawn in the wild. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Cool. Let's go put the boat in the water. We canoe down the glassy river with cottonwood trees on the banks and hundreds of slow-moving salmon swimming under our boat, all looking for a place to spawn. After a few miles, we meet up with Dave Steindorf. Dave is the stewardship director of American Whitewater, founded in 1954 with a mission to conserve and restore America's white-water resources and to enhance opportunities to enjoy them safely. David was introduced to rivers the age of seven when his father put a fly rod into his hands and learning to kayak later was a natural progression. I start by asking Dave why it's so hard to find a place to launch our canoe onto the river.

 

DAVE STEINDORF: Access is really key because if you can't get to the river, you can't enjoy it. And many of our rivers are locked up via private property or other water infrastructure that keeps people away from rivers out there. So, I think what you paddled today, you probably clambered down some rocks up at the top and dragged your boat down. It wasn't particularly easy.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, this river is diverted in order to power hydroelectric project for electricity.

 

DAVE STEINDORF: I mean the Feather River is probably one of the hardest working, if not the hardest working rivers in California. You know, starting

clear up in the Sierras and actually in the cascades below Mount Lassen, yield through Lake Almanor and then comes down through PG’s stairway of power where they can effectively put the entire contents of the Feather River in a pipe from Lake Almanor all the way down to Lake Oroville. And then it goes into Lake Oroville where it's stored and then it goes down to the delta and gets pumped out and it goes all the way to southern California. So, it's pretty crazy when you think about how these little water molecules start their lives and then go through this entire system. But, to be clear, California does not exist in its current form without this river.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. I remember crossing the Feather River at Belden. I think it's still running pretty free there. 

 

DAVE STEINDORF: The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which turns 50 this year, was set up as a counterbalance to the damn building of that era in the forties, fifties, and sixties. And it said that, you know, there are special rivers out there that should be protected. And, by providing that designation, it provides that protection in perpetuity from dam building or other things that can degrade those river resources. The middle fork Feather was one of the original eight rivers selected to be a part of that system. Just an amazing river, you know, granite aprons that come off of one side all the way across the river bed, all the way up the other side. I mean, it's Yosemite spectacular up there. We had a river festival just at the end of September up there this year where we had almost 2000 people up there. And not just from across California across the West. We had people actually coming from around the world for that river festival because they realized that it is such a spectacular resource. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What percentage of our electricity comes from hydroelectric dams? 

DAVE STEINDORF: So, we get about 15 to 18 percent of our power from hydro-electricity. In California, there's a bigger and bigger percentage that's coming from renewable energy resources, wind and solar, etc. And interestingly, that's making some hydroelectric facilities somewhat obsolete. Virtually all of California's major rivers are completely dominated by these types of hydropower projects. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Driving through Oroville, I got the impression that the town's really struggling economically. 

 

DAVE STEINDORF: Oroville dam is the tallest dam in the United States, and the city of Oroville that sits below that is actually one of the poorest communities in California. So here you have this project whose economic benefits are literally in the billions of dollars per year, but those benefits are not bestowed upon the community where this project resides. If you drive through downtown Oroville, you wouldn't even know that there's a river there because there's a great big giant levy that separates the town from the river. And if you could sit in downtown Orville and have your cup of coffee or be on a deck and have a burger and a beer and look at the river, that would be a game changer for that community. And that's something that really needs to happen. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Nationally, what are you seeing in terms of these incredible resources, the 50th anniversary of the Wild and scenic River Protection Act, how are we doing as a country?

 

DAVE STEINDORF: I often tell people that 50 years ago congress did something truly amazing. They passed a piece of bipartisan legislation. Just full stop. The only piece of conservation legislation to come out of this congress was designating a wild and scenic river in Montana. Who knew? Even with all the divides that we have out there, rivers are a place where we can come together and realize that these are important resources that are worth protecting. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You’re right, I mean against the backdrop of political gridlock, rivers do bring people together.

 

DAVE STEINDORF: Believe it or not, there are some opportunities out there in California for removing some dams and providing that access to those upper watersheds.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean, the Klamath Dam removal seems pretty exciting and it's going to happen in the next few years.

 

DAVE STEINDORF:  No, the Klamath is really going to be amazing when that finally comes out. That project, you know, it's often touted as the largest dam removal in history, which that is true. I prefer to describe it as the removal of the stupidest project ever built and that's really what we're looking at with these dam removal projects. We're taking out projects that really never should have built in the first place. And I say that relation to Klamath because any one of the powerhouses up on the Feather River produces more power than all five of those Klamath dams combined, and yet it decimated the third largest salmon run on the west coast. So clearly the cost benefit ratio was not in place when that project was built. And we're just getting around to fixing that mistake. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: One of the cool things about your whole organization is that your members are also citizen scientists. 

 

DAVE STEINDORF: Most of our members are white water paddlers, so they can be rafters, canoeists, kayakers, more and more people do stand-up paddleboard. Typically, our constituents are the only people that see virtually every river system in California, top to bottom every year. That's pretty remarkable. And it gives you a lot of firsthand knowledge. It's really powerful.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: As Barry and I head down the river, we encounter Jim, who's wading waist deep with a shovel in his hand. How are you doing today? 

 

JIM THE GOLDMINER: I'm doing fine, thank you. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what are you, what are you looking for? 

JIM THE GOLDMINER: I'm looking for old coins, diamonds and gold. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And have you found any? 

JIM THE GOLDMINER: All of the above. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How do you find them? 

JIM THE GOLDMINER: Just take a shovel and start emptying out a crevice or two, and because that water comes through here, during the flood stage, it deposited so much of the existing gold in a lot of the crevices. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, some of the gold that you're finding is from the gold rush. 

JIM THE GOLDMINER: Well, I mean, all of the gold from the gold rush, pretty much. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What about the diamonds though? 

JIM THE GOLDMINER: Diamonds, I was fortunate enough one time to acquire a 1933, ‘34 and ‘35 county assessors’ books, all hand ledgered, everything from anything and everything to build this town. They also gave you exact coordinates to several mines. So, thank god for a little tom tom and GPS, and I've found a few mines and started checking around their tailings and sure enough, come up with some industrial grade diamonds. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Nice, good luck for the rest of your day. 

JIM THE GOLDMINER: Okay.

JARED BLUMENFELD: We paddle for a few more miles and then bring the canoe ashore and have lunch. It’s been an amazing morning. I love canoeing. 

BARRY NELSON: It is absolutely amazing. We all live such stressful lives and the world slows down when you come out and spend a few hours floating down a river. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: When did you first start canoeing in your life, Barry? 

BARRY NELSON: I don't remember when I didn't. My family has been hanging out on the lower Russian River since my great grandfather won a poker game in 1910 and won a little cabin. And since then my family has been paddling on the lower Russian River on real lovely flat water. And I grew up doing that. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: There is something so peaceful. I mean, it's like unlike other sports where you got to get dressed up and special equipment and you know, do all this stuff. You're just floating. 

BARRY NELSON: Yeah. You just float down these rivers.  You know, a lot of outdoor sports require a lot of fancy gear. For canoeing, you need paddles, a canoe, a life jacket, and off you go. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So many people in California seemed to only want to do sports that involve spandex.

 

BARRY NELSON: This is true. And the middle of California has a couple of dozen beautiful rivers like this that are just delightful to float down. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Did you expect to see gold miners on the river? 

BARRY NELSON: You know, these rivers are valued and used by the communities that surround them. So, you see people poking around the banks of the rivers all the time doing interesting things. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: There's a big history with the gold rush here. The very rocks that we are sitting on have been turned over numerous times. 

 

BARRY NELSON: Dredge goldmining started right around 1900 and we built these enormous floating factories that would literally chew their way through these alluvial plains that surround Central Valley rivers and wash all of the sediment out of them trying to get at the gold that is in that gravel.  And what they left behind were tens of thousands of acres of what are called what are called mine tailings. It's basically piles of gravel. As we canoe down the river, you can still see some of those piles of gravel instead of healthy habitat or productive farmland. The last gold dredge in California stopped working in 1962. From about 1900 to 1960, we did enormous damage to some of these rivers and the good news is that we actually now have a chance repair some of that damage. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I got the biggest rush of the day 10 minutes ago when these two mating, spawning salmon jumped up. They must've been like 25-pound salmon and they just splashed right in front of us as we were going through some ripples. It is pretty magical. You were saying that they need gravel. You can see the floor of the river really clearly.  But there's not a lot of gravel in some places, but as you look on the banks of the river, there's a ridiculous amount of gravel, right? 

 

BARRY NELSON: There's a pretty obvious solution there. The dam upstream captures all of the gravel that naturally comes down the Feather River watershed. What that means is if you don't do something to augment that gravel, the river will eventually scour out all that gravel, and what we're left with are cobbles that are from the size of your fist to the size of your head. That's lousy spawning habitat. They need to smaller grain that they can move asIde, lay their eggs, and then rebury their eggs with that same gravel. In this same stretch the river, ironically, if you move some of that gravel in the river, it's beneficial for salmon in two ways. First, you're recreating spawning habitat so that the gravel is of a size that salmon can use to spawn, but second, if you re-carve some of these random hills of gravel around us, you can basically recreate floodplains that work as natural floodplains. So, it's, it's a great way to reduce flood risk and it's a great way to help restore salmon populations.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So why is the Feather River just in terms of all the rivers in California, why is it an important one? 

BARRY NELSON: Well, the Feather is traditionally one of California’s biggest salmon producing rivers, and right now it's feast or famine. We will occasionally get a good year. That almost always happens right after a big flood. That's when salmon have the flow conditions and the food they need to survive, but then we'll wind up just a few years later when that population will crash. We have turned the hydrograph of these rivers upside down. We used to see high flows in the in the winter and the spring when it's raining and the snow melts, and now we see high flows in the summer when we release water for irrigation and that has really wreaked havoc on our salmon populations. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That's kind of shocking, Barry, that at the time that the water comes isn't the natural cycle.  I mean, I think we imagine as we do with nature, that is like a wilderness, that these rivers really are untouched. And yet they're very engineered. It's a very managed system and the water goes on and off is not when nature intends it.

 

BARRY NELSON: These are highly managed, highly engineered systems and a lot of what we're learning is how we can reverse that in ways that still allow us to meet our needs, but that also allow us to restore healthy environments, restore healthy salmon runs, and maintain a salmon fishing industry. And this river is a great example of ways we can do that. We can restore salmon in ways that are broadly supported, cost effective, keep our salmon runs going, keep our salmon fishing communities going and will help strengthen the economies of these local communities that would really benefit from a really thriving river.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: There's lots of great ideas. There's no shortage of plans that are cost effective. So why isn't stuff happening?

 

BARRY NELSON: Politicians have limited attention spans and there are a number of remarkably promising restoration projects, just on this river alone, that have kind of been ignored. There are a number of them that have been stalled for more than a decade, where despite the fact that folks have

agreed to pay for them, that there is remarkably broad support for some of these restoration projects. And this could be a world-class salmon restoration program. Some of those restoration projects had just been sitting on the drawing boards for a decade and nothing's happened.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I thought the answer to that question, Barry, would be, well, you know, there's gridlock in Sacramento. No one can agree on it. Or, they have agreed to it, but no one could come up with the money. In this case, they both agreed and came up with the money and yet nothing's happened. 

 

BARRY NELSON: Oh, that's a hard question to answer. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I think that long sigh is a sign that I should move on and find more uplifting issues to talk about. So, tell us about the dead fish. So, I noticed, and you were kind of telling me, some have white splotches on them, some are completely black, what's happening to them? And some of them get covered with this awful green fungus, right?

 

BARRY NELSON: Mother nature has designed salmon to swim upstream, spawn and die. And that's actually important for a couple of reasons. The reason they do that is because their bodies really change when they enter fresh water. They go from looking like polished stainless steel to being dark, almost black, almost a reddish black, and their jaws get hooked. They lose the slime that protects their skin, their scales, out in the ocean, and that makes them vulnerable to fungal infection. But these fish are dying. These fish will spawn, and then quite soon after they spawn, they'll die. Every fish will leave 10 to 30 pounds of nutrients up here in these rivers, and as we paddle down the river today, you can see how that supports the web of life all around us.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It was amazing to see just how many of them have floating dead by. I would've been shocked if I wasn't with you. I would have thought like there was some kind of hideous die off, but that's the natural cycle.

 

BARRY NELSON: You know it, it's one of those natural cycles. So, a salmon's job biologically is to swim out on the ocean, collect an enormous amount of ocean nutrients, and then swim upstream into the rivers they were born in, spawn, and then leave those nutrients up in that river. The salmon get eaten by bugs which get eaten by fish, which get eaten by birds, which get eaten by a hawk. And eventually those nutrients find their way throughout the entire ecosystem. If you look at the pine needles on a pine tree in a salmon river, you can actually test the nitrogen and that pine needle and find out how much of that nitrogen came from the ocean because of the salmon run.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And bizarrely, we're very far from the ocean, but because of all the salmon and their rotting, it actually smells a lot like the ocean. 

 

BARRY NELSON: It does smell like the ocean here, that's one of the advantages to a salmon river. When the salmon are spawning, all those ocean

 

nutrients are released.

JARED BLUMENFELD: Or does the ocean actually smell like salmon? 

BARRY NELSON: Maybe that's it. Maybe the ocean just smells like salmon. And that's the answer. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Most people wouldn't think that temperature could be pollution, but salmon need like, what temperature water do they like to spawn in? And what happens if the temperature is too high?

BARRY NELSON: The magic number for salmon is 56 degrees. Above 56 degrees Fahrenheit, salmon eggs are just cooked as they're lying in the gravel. So salmon rivers have to be below 56 degrees. And here in what's called the low flow channel of the Feather, the water is reasonably cold. It's called the low flow channel because most of the water from the river is run through a parallel, basically a parallel river, a parallel channel that runs that water through a powerhouse. And then it runs it through an enormous flat reservoir called the Thermalito Afterbay, remarkably the Thermolito Afterbay is named after the town that is at the bottom of the Thermolito Afterbay. There used to be a town, but it's now under water. The problem is it's an enormous flat, shallow bowl sitting in the middle of the Central Valley, which is a hot place. So, the water could come out of the dam, the Oroville dam at 50 degrees, and come out a week later of the Thermalito Afterbay at 61 degrees. And because of that, the water downstream of where we're going to finish today, is lethally hot for salmon. If salmon spawn in that reach, their eggs are cooked and die. So, if we re-engineer the Thermalito Afterbay, just an easy, cheap thing to do, we can basically double the natural spawning habitat in this river. There's no opposition, there is funding for it. It's just been sitting on the drawing boards for 12 years.

JARED BLUMENFELD: Let's get off the drawing boards. But before we do that, let's get back in the canoe.

BARRY NELSON: I can tell you tell you paddle. When you paddle a canoe and you get in touch with that canoe, you can feel the stroke of the other person in the canoe tugging that canoe forward. So, I can tell how strong you are paddling. You're actually working when we're out there.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Canoeing down the Feather River, which next time, I'll have to try on a standup paddleboard, we paddle on for a few more tranquil miles. Barry does an amazing job of navigating a small set of rapids and we arrive at a huge $22,000,000 flood mitigation project with Matt on the riverbanks by Mike Inamine, who is the executive director of the Sutter Butte flood control agency and by Kevin Barker, who is the assistant resident engineer for WSP, who are the construction managers for the Oroville wildlife area flood reduction project. Mike, where are we right now? 

 

MIKE INAMINE:We're in the west bank of the Feather River just below the Oroville Dam complex. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It was on the news. Tell us what happened.

 

MIKE INAMINE:So, in 2017 was a big water year, actually, arguably the biggest water year and the service spillway for Oroville Dam suffered a bunch of damage. When that spillway was shut down, there's a second spillway, the emergency spillway, which was in danger of overtopping and eventually overtopped. There were nearly 200,000 people downstream of Oroville Dam that evacuated. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And people were really nervous. 

 

MIKE INAMINE:It could have been very, very bad. The original alarm that went out when this water came up in a very quick decision was made at the dam to evacuate. It wasn't well thought out so, you can imagine what this place looked like. Highway 99 to the southwest was a parking lot. It was a pretty panicked scene. The damn made national news. But sort of the dirty little secret is that a lot of these levees that had not been improved yet. And so, while there was national attention that was paid to the dam and to the evacuation, engineers on these levies, these sort of innocuous looking piles of dirt on the banks of the river, the engineers on the ground, were more worried about a mundane levy failure just due to high water. These levees were constructed by pioneer farmers 150 years ago. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You have an opportunity to think about redesigning it, making it more secure from a flooding perspective.  How does that also help the environment? 

 

MIKE INAMINE:There is a need for shallow habitat for outgoing salmon and there's not a whole lot of areas on the Feather River.  And so, if you, when you paddle, if you're paddling downstream, you'll see, the beginnings of a low-level outlet construction that will allow a large area up to about 850 acres that will allow the river to get back into what it normally flooded to provide the kind of habitat that fish like. And these young salmon can go in there away from predators.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Kevin, so you're managing that. This is a pretty cool project.

 

KEVIN BARKER: The Feather River is pretty wonderful, especially when you get to see it as much as we do up here. It's very peaceful, you know, hearing the river rush against the different berms and a lot of the rock sort of environment out here and getting to see the fish swimming around is pretty nice, especially in the morning as the sun's coming up. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: This earth’s been moved a lot. Hopefully you, you are the last guys to move it. 

 

KEVIN BARKER: It's definitely been moved a lot and thank dredge boats that would come down by the river looking for gold and spinning out all this rock out the side. And now standing here all these years later getting to see all these different rock piles and you just think about the history that, you know, went through this area. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What makes this particular project you're working on unique? 

 

KEVIN BARKER: As the water recedes from the high-water event, they'll be able to escape out through that box culvert area and thus mitigating the stranding issue. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So right now, we're at the top of an overlook where we can see the flood control measure. It looks like you're building the national mall in Washington, D.C. 

 

KEVIN BARKER: So essentially, it's these wire baskets, and when we're doing, we're laying them out on this portion of the berm that we've excavated and filling them back, filling them with rock.  And so, they act as a form of rock soil protection and rose soil projection as well as an area for the water to flow through. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, Mike, how's this going to help the fish? 

 

MIKE INAMINE:There's a big bass pond located way off in the distance, and that bass pond of course, the bass, they like to eat young salmon, and that’s an area where salmon can get stranded in. So, we're constructing a large berm to set up a big barrier between where the young salmon are headed out to the ocean, separate them from a predatory fish. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I think we've got to get back to the canoe. 

 

BARRY NELSON: Let's do that. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean, Barry is in sandals. We've been hiking around; hey, you're doing a good job. 

 

BARRY NELSON: I've been hiking in these sandals for a lot of years.

 

AMBER CROSS SINGING “San Joaquin”

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That was Amber Cross singing a song she wrote called San Joaquin.Back on the river, Barry and I on the last leg of our journey. So, Barry, it got cold quickly. 

 

BARRY NELSON: It does that when fall approaches on the river. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I mean, but it's really cold. 

 

BARRY NELSON: It is now chilly out here.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, talking of cold, we were talking to Dave from American Whitewater about the Thermalito Afterbay and how all this hot water - you and I were talking about this at lunch - all this hot water is actually preventing salmon from spawning on the lower parts of the Feather River. I thought this could be solved. 

 

BARRY NELSON: This is an easy fix. Some water project problems in California are hard. This one's easy. All you need to do is to is to install a bypass so that you move the cold water around that big, flat, hot after bay and move that cold water right back into the river. It's an easy thing to do. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What will it take to make this project so that we can double the amount of spawning habitat on the Feather River?

 

BARRY NELSON: The big change that creates an opportunity there is the fact that the state of California just elected a new governor deeply interested in environmental issues and new ideas to solve problems. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, 10 years from now the project could have been done and what would we see in the river? Just we'd be able to canoe further down the river and see more spawning habitat?

 

BARRY NELSON: Right. We saw spawning salmon for about eight miles and there aren't many salmon that spawn downstream from where we took our canoe out. And if that Afterbay is fixed, we could go another dozen miles down the stream and see more than that many salmon again. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: If the temperature was cooler, would it mean that less fish ended up in the hatchery?

 

BARRY NELSON: Oh, absolutely. Everyone's goal is for us to have healthy rivers, healthy salmon runs, and that means more wild fish and being less reliant on hatcheries. And this is how you do it. You restore healthy rivers by giving them enough habitat, enough flow, and temperatures that they can literally survive in.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Say, Barry, one of my pet peeves is when we flush the toilet, that water is potable water, that then it's just completely wasted. And at the same time, we're saying fish don't have enough water. There must be a better way of thinking about this whole system. 

 

BARRY NELSON: There's a great example in the Feather where people are really rethinking how we use water. There is an agency in southern California, the Inland Empire Utilities Agency, that has said to the state, if you fund this project, we'll build a new recycling project, storing that water underground and we'll trade that water for water from the Feather River.  So southern California would take the recycled water and the water that they're currently using, some of it, would stay in the Feather River and be used by fish when they're most vulnerable, in the springs of dry years when conditions in the Feather River are at their worst. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So rather than that wasting that water, they recycle it. They use it for different things, and they trade it all the way up north to be released at the proper time when the salmon need it. It would help restore some of that equilibrium.

 

BARRY NELSON: And the result is really remarkable. You've got a more reliable water supply for southern California from this project and new water supply to protect fish in the Feather River and nobody loses any water. California has got an enormously complicated water system and we're just really learning how to rethink that system so that it works better for fishing people.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: In Israel, 80 percent of the waste water is recycled. They said the next largest country is Spain, which has 40, like why is California using? It's like in the single digits. 

 

BARRY NELSON: We reuse a tiny amount of our water. If we capture that water and reuse it. it's like building another massive water project in California and we do that by reducing waste, not by building more dams. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what's the state's goal in terms of recycled water or water to recycle?

 

BARRY NELSON: It’s to capture storm water, almost 10 percent of what the state uses on average.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Just thinking about it, isn't that an ambitious goal? You know, California just passed a 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. We got Cap and Trade. You know, you got a lot on the energy side of the house. If someone said to you, Barry, you know what, we're going to have this ambitious goal, we're going to recycle 10 percent. I mean the state has a 75 percent recycling goal for municipal solid waste. How come that only has a 10 percent? It just seems very low.

 

BARRY NELSON: California water has a long, complicated history. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It's also very emotional. People don't get emotionally invested in, in renewable energy, but you talk about water, their face turns red and they just feel very personally vested. 

 

BARRY NELSON: Water is not just something we drink. It's not just something we irrigate with. Water, especially in the west, has historical significance. It's culturally important. Water and water projects have tremendous importance to people in California, and in the west. And I think that's just not true with energy, and your local natural gas power plant.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: This is a fun day out on the river. Where you going to go canoeing next? 

 

BARRY NELSON: I'm hoping to go sea kayaking in Scotland.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That will be cool. 

BARRY NELSON: And also, cold.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Thanks to Barry Nelson, Mike Inamine, Kevin Barker, and Jim the Gold Miner for a fantastic canoe trip down the Feather River. When congress passedThe Wild and Scenic Rivers Act50 years ago, the stretch of the Feather River that we canoe today had been destroyed by dredge gold mining. This was only banned six years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed this new river protection law. Just like then, today rivers remain an issue where we can find bipartisan support. Mike, Kevin, and many others are directly engaged in reshaping the health of the river so that salmon can once again thrive, and in the process, towns like Oroville can reimagine their futures. Next week, Brenna Sheldon and I meet up with Tim Anderson, the inventor of 3D printing and a reuse superhero. Thank you so much for being part of the Podship Earth journey. A big thanks to sound engineer Will Wilkins who's kindly helping out while Rob Speight is sipping pina coladas while on vacation in Mexico. From producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and from me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a great week and canoe if you can.