Spencer Callahan donned a pair of waders and stepped into the Stanislaus River on a chilly morning last week.
He was helping to count the chinook salmon that have swum up the river this fall after spending a few years at sea.
As of Wednesday, 1,268 fish have been tallied, better than the dismal 595 for all of last fall but still far less than the 10,000-plus in some years past.
Callahan, who works for a consulting firm called FishBio, was as undaunted by this fact as he was by the 48-degree water at the counting station near Riverbank.
"I have high hopes for the salmon," he said. "I think we're getting better and better fish coming up, more every year."
Plenty rides on the backs of these sleek native swimmers. The decline in salmon has led to cutbacks in Central Valley irrigation supplies — mild to moderate in most places, but severe in parts of the West Side in recent drought years.
State and federal officials have warned that greatly increased river flows could be needed to aid salmon, smelt and other fish at risk. That could mean further cuts in water for California cities and for the farms that are the foundation of the valley economy.
Hence the welcome, however cautious, for this fall's uptick in the salmon count.
"We're pleased with that, but they're still pretty meager," said Walt Ward, assistant general manager for water operations at the Modesto Irrigation District.
As of Wednesday, 684 salmon had been counted on the Tuolumne River, which supplies the MID and the Turlock Irrigation District. Last year, it was 124.
"We're not popping any champagne," said Jesse Roseman of the Tuolumne River Trust, an environmental group. "While any increase in returns is appreciated and at least guardedly celebrated, the numbers are still disastrously low."
The numbers are up as well in Sacramento Valley rivers, which account for the vast majority of the Central Valley total in any year.
Ward said he was surprised by the increase because the drought of 2007 to 2009 should have stressed the salmon.
Cold ocean water beneficial
On the other hand, experts said the fish have benefited from improved conditions in the Pacific Ocean, including a recent upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich water off the coast. Survival also was aided by a ban on commercial salmon fishing off California in 2008 and 2009, prompted by the low counts on the rivers.
But the fish face plenty of challenges. Dams block parts of the river stretches where they lay eggs. Mining and other human activities have disturbed streamside vegetation and the riverbed gravel where the baby fish hatch. Some stretches of water are too warm for these cold-loving creatures.
Downstream in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, salmon contend with pollution and with the massive pumps that send water south.
Then there's the striped bass, an introduced species that feasts on young salmon.
"It's clear that fish aren't making it out of the south delta, because they're getting eaten," Ward said.
MID officials contend that this predation is not getting enough attention from state and federal agencies that are more interested in boosting river flows.
The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, which tap the Stanislaus River, have taken up the predation issue, too. On a Web site, they refer to it as "the real and solvable problem" and call for lifting the limits on bass fishing.
These two districts pay for salmon counting on the Stanislaus by FishBio, a 33-employee firm based in Oakdale.
At the site near Riverbank, the company has installed a temporary weir — a series of grates that stretch about 120 feet across the river. Salmon headed upstream can only get through a passage about a foot wide, which leads to a chamber where high-tech equipment photographs and measures them.
It's sometimes rugged work for Callahan, who is an aquatic research specialist, and for Jacque Demko, a biologist working alongside him last week. They collect the fish data and clean debris off the weir, which is designed to allow small boats to pass. Sometimes, they snorkel in the river to count the salmon.
FishBio also monitors salmon on the Tuolumne for the MID, the TID, and the city and county of San Francisco, another user of this water.
Doug Demko, who is the firm's president and uncle of Jacque Demko, agrees that factors other than stream flows are hindering the salmon.
The irrigation districts have helped pay for habitat improvements that do not involve flows — creating gravel bars, restoring riverside vegetation and the like.
"They know that if they want to keep their water flowing, they need more fish in the river," Demko said.
Roseman, who is the Central Valley program director for the Tuolumne River Trust, said salmon need the habitat improvements and flows that mimic natural conditions.
"We have great conditions for an agricultural economy," he said, "and we hope to also have similarly great conditions for local fisheries."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.
Read more: http://www.modbee.com/2010/12/05/1459096/salmon-count-rising.html#ixzz17SUIUvmj