Experts question impact of North Bay wildfires on endangered coho salmon

LAKE SONOMA, Calif. (KGO) -- As the North Bay continues to deal with thick smoke from still-smoldering wildfires, some experts are already beginning to wonder about this winter. They're concerned about endangered salmon in the Russian River watershed.

Ground zero is the Warm Springs Fish Hatchery just below Lake Sonoma, at the top of the Dry Creek Valley.

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"We have 200,000 juveniles and about 1,000 to 1,500 adults," said Ben White, who runs the hatchery for the Army Corps of Engineers. He is concerned about them, especially after the Walbridge Fire.

Think of this as a one-two punch. The second hasn't hit yet.

"That fire basically tore through the heart of the steelhead and coho watershed."

The situation is unprecedented in these parts. Between Lake Sonoma and the Russian River watershed, roughly 60,000 acres burned. That means potentially 60,000 acres of debris flowing down and possibly impacting the fish.

"In an event like this, it is the aftermath... reaction to the first rain event that we worry about," said Chris Schooley, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.

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When he says "we," that includes Sonoma Water Agency. They're hoping for money from the state money to study how the Walbridge Fire will impact the coho in particular.

With every drop of water flowing from the hills above, the precious fish a compound ecological puzzle with still too many unknowns, ranging from sediment, to oxygen, to food, to flow.

"Problems occur when you have species with so little numbers. They can only take so many hits," said David Cuneo, an environmental specialist for Sonoma Water.

Within two weeks, the fire has are already changing plans. The hatchery would have released 9-mont- old coho into Old Mill Creek this fall, but experts deem that too risky now. When saving an endangered species, every single specimen becomes precious.

"If you put fish in there, will they survive?" we asked White.

"We don't know. This is the big question."

And the final answer? Years away.

Such are the vagueries of fires, water, and fish.

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