Kokanee Reappearing After North Shore Stream Restoration

A stream restoration project on Lake Tahoe’s North Shore is reaping environmental benefits as a small, fall run of kokanee salmon was spotted in the lower reaches of the creek earlier this month. The run has gone missing since the 1960s when Lake Forest Meadow was filled and numerous stream channels were diverted into a culvert in anticipation of a construction project that was never built.

Restoration work by the Placer County Department of Public Works Tahoe Engineering Division began in 2009. The project reconstructed the historic stream channel close to how it existed prior to modification in the 1960s. Additionally, the meadow was changed back to its historic contours. In all, 35 acres were restored, which required moving 21,000 yards of soil. To restore the natural grade of the area, 3,000 yards of that soil were actually trucked out of the Tahoe Basin.

Spawning kokanee salmon were seen in the waters below Lake Forest Meadow on North Lake Tahoe
after a restoration project. This is the first time since the early 1960s that the fall kokanee run has
been observed.
The project’s benefits include improved water quality; soil erosion control, native harvesting and planting; erosion control seeding, improved riparian habitat, enhancement of scenic resources; irrigation, wildlife and fisheries habitat enhancement; and increased public access and interpretive opportunities.

“This is wonderful news for everyone who lives in or visits Lake Tahoe,” said Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery, whose 5th District includes a large portion of the Lake Tahoe Basin. “The Department of Public Works, in cooperation with many other entities, has succeeded in correcting environmental damage in the Basin. This restoration has brought back not only the natural beauty of this stream environment zone, but has also brought back the kokanee salmon. They are there again, after being gone for decades, using the stream channel for spawning.”

Kokanee salmon are actually not a native fish species to Lake Tahoe. Their introduction likely occurred in the 1920s when an overflow of troughs in the Tahoe City fish hatchery allowed kokanee fry to escape into the lake. The fish established themselves, despite the belief that they wouldn’t survive in the alpine environment. The salmon have thrived in Lake Tahoe and do not prey on the lake’s native fish.

The kokanee are actually a small, landlocked sockeye salmon. They are perhaps best known in the Tahoe Basin for their annual run up Taylor Creek to Fallen Leaf Lake on the South Shore. During the spawning run, the fish turn red and the males develop a hump on their backs and their jaws change into a hook shape. While the salmon run near Lake Forest Meadow only lasted a short time, it is the first time these fish have been seen in this creek in decades.

The land for the Lake Forest Meadow restoration was acquired by the California Tahoe Conservancy and work began in September 2009. In 2010, work was completed on restoration of 300 feet of channel on the north side of State Route 28, along Old Mill Road three miles east of Tahoe City. The channel runs south through the Lake Forest Meadow and ends at the outlet to Lake Tahoe in Pomin Park. The project was finished earlier this year and took three construction seasons to complete.

When the meadow was filled in the 1960s, it became drier than normal and vegetation was reduced. This lack of riparian vegetation then reduced wildlife habitat, encouraged erosion, and reduced opportunities for the public to enjoy the area.

In the now finished project, water flows through the meadow and has re-established a more natural environment. The finished grade of the meadow is closer to the top of the water table, which encourages greater vitality for the plant community. The restoration has increased species richness associated with riparian, meadow, and wetland habitats.

Funding for the $2.7 million project was provided by:

* U.S. Bureau of Reclamation;
* U.S. Army Corp of Engineers;
* U.S. Forest Service;
* California Tahoe Conservancy; and
* Tahoe Regional Planning Agency.

Other agencies that provided assistance through permits, land use, and/or technical assistance include:

* California Wildlife Conservation Board
* Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board;
* State Water Resources Control Board;
* California Department of Transportation;
* California Department of Fish and Game; and
* Tahoe City Public Utilities District.

Design of the project was done by Wood Rodgers, Mainstream Restoration, and Integrated Environmental Resource Services. The construction team was West Coast Contractors of Nevada, Inc.