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History of the Russian River and Its Anadromous Fisheries

The Indians called it Shabaikai or Misallaako, meaning "Long Snake". The Pomo Indians of the Ukiah Valley called it simply the River. The Spanish called it the San Ygnacio River. The Russians called it Slavianka, or "little Slavic maiden." But, in an 1843 Spanish petition for the Bodega grant, the name appeared as Rio Russo, and it has been called the Russian River ever since.

The Russian River is the second largest river in the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. Its mainstem is 110 miles long and it drains 1,485 square miles of Mendocino, Sonoma and Lake counties in Northern California. The river springs from the Laughlin Mountain Range about 5 miles east of Willits in Mendocino County. From its headwaters, the river flows 69 miles in a southeastward direction and is joined by the East Fork below Lake Mendocino. South of Healdsburg it makes an abrupt turn west and flows for 41 miles through Sonoma County opening out into the Pacific Ocean between Goat Rock Beach and Jenner. Its major tributaries include Big Sulphur Creek, Myacama Creek, Dry Creek, Mark West Creek, Austin Creek, Pieta Creek, Feliz Creek and the East and West forks.

Early History

Hundreds of years ago the Russian River was the source of life for Pomo Indians, whose encampments lined its low banks. Bands of Pomos hunted small game and gathered acorns in the nearby woodlands. They trapped salmon in its pools and wove baskets from the willows that grew on its sandbars. The Pomo Indians lived along the river for thousands of years without altering it.

Upon their arrival, European pioneers described the Russian River system as swamp-like, with many side channels, sloughs and oxbow lakes. When floods came, the river spread out across a wide area of backwaters and wetlands. The river stopped running in the summer and the fish survived in deep, shaded pools until the next rains.

Nineteenth Century

By the late 1800s, European settlers began filling in the Russian River's wetlands for orchards and fields began. Farmers built earthen levees along the river to protect their lands from winter floods. They converted more and more of the river's old flood plain to farmland, confining the river to an ever-narrower channel.

Later, Sonoma County and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would embark on the construction of a more substantial levee system to protect the homes, farms and businesses sprouting up along the river.

The biggest alteration to the river came about in 1908 when the Potter Valley Hydroelectric Plant was built and water from the Eel River was taken to supply electricity to Mendocino, Sonoma, Lake and Napa Counties. After passing through the plant, the water was than diverted into the headwaters of the Russian River, creating a permanent summer flow and year-round source of irrigation water for agriculture. A second Eel River dam, Lake Pillsbury, was built to provide still more electricity and it became the main source of the Russian River's summer flow.

These diversions continued to spur the growth of agriculture and towns along the Russian River in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. As development increased, so did calls for additional water and flood control. Channelizing increased the velocity of winter flows and caused more erosion, but it didn't stop flooding. After major floods in the 1930s and '40s, residents clamored for the federal government to build a dam on the river. In 1949, Sonoma County created a special district -- now the Sonoma County Water Agency -- to control winter flooding and develop a permanent water supply.

In the mid 1900’s the Army Corps of Engineers and the Sonoma County’s water agency became a powerful political force that successfully fought for the creation of more dams on the Russian River. Coyote Dam was completed in 1959 on the river's East Fork near Ukiah, making Lake Mendocino water available for Santa Rosa households. The building of the Warm Springs Dam was to follow. The corps dammed the confluence of two river tributaries, Dry Creek and Warm Springs Creek, creating Lake Sonoma, the largest reservoir in the Russian River system.

One hundred and fifty years ago, the Russian River was the heart of a complex interdependent ecological system consisting of floodplains, riparian forests, seasonal marshes, woodland streams, oak grasslands and coastal coniferous forests that worked together to support a high productive fishery and wildlife habitats.

In a brief span of geological time this system had been transformed from its natural conditions into what is now essentially a heavily controlled urban water conveyance. “Two major dams, interbasin water transfers, channelization, water diversions, resource harvest, agricultural and urban land use practices and lack of foresight in management practices have all contributed to a significantly compromised function of the biological systems. The changes in the Russian River basin present a classic study of the modern anthropogenic impacts on interrelated ecological communities.”

Geology and Ecology of the Upper Russian River

The upper Russian River, flows mostly in Mendocino County, from its source, through Ukiah Valley to Cloverdale. (The river is) “underlain by Central Franciscan melange of Jurassic-Cretaceous age, over 130 million years old. Along the eastern side of Ukiah Valley, from south southeast to north northwest, runs the recently active Maacama Fault." The fault runs closely parallel to the Russian River and crosses the river just east of The Forks and west of Coyote Dam, then runs northward along the west side of Redwood Valley, toward Willits.

"The uplifted terrace deposits can be seen along the east side of the Russian River, from The Forks down through Talmage. The old valley floor north of Ukiah is buried 1000 feet below the principal high terrace level. The riverbed and valley floor of today are about 200 to 400 feet below this high terrace, at approximately 600 feet in elevation."         

It is possible, that prior to the early 1800’s, the natural flow of the Upper Russian River was much greater than it is today. An enormous landslide blocked off the westward flow of Cold Creek, a tributary to the river. This had the effect of diverting the flow of the creek away from the river and into Clear Lake.

Early 20th Century accounts describe the soils of Ukiah Valley as river loam, black clover land, and gravelly wash from the hills. The climate and soils supported coastal prairie, oak savannah, and northern coastal scrub types. Several kinds of oak, fir, pine, madrone, tan oak, chestnut oak, and Manzanita grew on the hills.

Small stands of redwood grew in a few of the stream heads are now practically exterminated. Smaller woods included hazel, chemissal, blue blossom, mountain mahogany, nutmeg, yew, and laurel. Some white oaks. in the valley had trunks 6 feet in diameter and were 150 feet high. Golden oaks in the canyons were 4 feet in diameter and also 150 feet high. Blue oaks grow over much of the Laughlin soils in southeastern Mendocino County.

After European settlement, changes to the distribution and composition of the pristine Upper Russian River coastal prairie ecosystem were dramatic. These changes were due to the introduction of highly competitive, exotic vegetative species, grazing pressures, the elimination of annual fires, and crop cultivation.

The middle Russian River flows from Cloverdale to Healdsburg in the Alexander and Santa Rosa Valleys. One of it tributaries, the westward flowing Big Sulfur Creek originates on Pine Mountain in the Geysers area near Lake County, emerges into the northern end of Alexander Valley and empties into the Russian River north of Cloverdale.


Since 1870, approximately 40 million hatchery-reared salmonids have been planted in the Russian River System to mitigate against the loss of salmon. Nearly all of stocked salmon came from outside of the Russian River basin. In 1980, a change in understanding about ecological distinctness and genetic fitness of local salmon stocks took place. Beginning in 1990 all steelhead and chinook and most of the coho salmon planted in the Russian River basin are the progeny of adults propagated locally in the Warm Springs Hatchery or the Coyote Valley Fish Facility.

Unfortunately consensus is growing that hatchery supplementation has had a major negative impact on the native and naturally reproducing salmonid populations. Hatchery programs have lead to the loss of genetic diversity, the production of stock that is less fit for survival, increased competition and pressure on wild fish, disease and increased angler pressure.

Anadromous Fisheries of the Russian River

For thousands of years the anadromous chinook salmon (oncorhynchus tshawytscha), coho salmon (O. kisutch), pink salmon (O. gorbuscha) and steelhead (O. mykiss) ran upstream from the ocean to the pools and sand bars of the river and its tributaries to spawn and die. Some still migrate as far as 100 miles upstream. Once born, they live in fresh water for various lengths of time before migrating to the ocean where they spend several years before returning to their natal streams to spawn.

Salmon need clean gravel and clear, cold water for successful spawning. Once a female has found a satisfactory spawning site, the fish form pairs and the female begins digging a redd up to 10 sq meters and 30 to 40 cm deep. Once dug, the female releases her eggs while the male simultaneously fertilizes them. The female then covers the eggs with gravel.

After spawning has occurred the adult chinook and coho salmon die. Steelhead, on the other hand, may return to the ocean up to five times in subsequent years. Once hatched, the alevin stay in the gravel until their yolk sac has been absorbed. They then move up through the gravel and emerge into the stream as fry seeking cover and beginning their freshwater rearing stage. (Steiner)

The table below shows timing and locations of spawning and out-migration of chinook salmon, coho salmon, and steelhead in the Russian River.

Species Spawning (Time) Spawning (Location) Instream Residence Emigration Ocean Residence (Time)
Chinook Nov-Jan Mainstem, Dry Creek Rare March-May 1-7 years
Coho December Lower tributaries, low flow mainstem Pools with ample cover 1 year later in Spring 1-3 years
Steelhead January-April Tributaries as high as flow permits 1-4 years
Upper tributaries;
young in riffles, older in pools
January-June pools
Must have cover;

Verifiable historical records for the fish numbers are sparse, often anecdotal, or limited to gross estimates. Having said that, each year the combined anadromous fish runs were in the tens of thousands. "… despite lack of specificity, reports from all sources depict a system where dominant salmonids have declined dramatically due to changes in the flow regime, loss of habitat, and numerous other anthropogenic factors." Dam development and other human activities have damaged the river ecosystem and its capacity to sustain healthy salmonid fisheries.

Degradation of the Russian River Ecosytem and Salmon Decline

As recently as 40 years ago, the Russian River was considered one of California's best steelhead-producing streams, with estimated annual runs of 60,000 adult fish. Since 1980, the returning steelhead population has ranged from 300 to 10,000 fish.

Chinook and coho salmon are considered at high risk of extinction, pink salmon are now functionally extinct, and steelhead runs are proposed for federal listing as endangered. The federal government has not yet come up with a plan to restore their populations. In addition to salmon and steelhead, several species of Russian River frogs, turtles, freshwater shrimp and other fish are in trouble, according to state and federal wildlife officials. Native plants also are endangered because of erosion, land-clearing and the introduction of exotic species.

The cumulative human impacts on the river and its fisheries have led to significant habitat loss and changed channel morphology. The change in flow through dam construction, with accompanying modified water temperature and habitat loss, introduction of exotic fishes, gravel mining, increased sport and commercial fishing, and land use practices such as logging, road building, agriculture and urbanization all have played a part in the decline of native salmonid population. These factors have come together to transform the watershed and significantly compromise its biological functioning.

There are 509 licensed dams and many other unlicensed obstructions to the flow of water in the Russian River basin. Most dams in the basin are on tributaries where they degrade critical spawning and rearing habitat. Dams and water diversions tend to decrease habitat and increase water temperatures down stream. They also block movement of sediment limiting downstream spawning gravel. The increased summer water flows from Coyote dam, contrary to expectation, decreased rearing habitat by inundating cover and increasing water velocity. The loss of tributary habitat through the construction of dams is the primary factor limiting the recovery of the anadromous fishery in the Russian River.

Salmon need clean gravel and clear, cold water for successful spawning, but with dam development on the river, water now carries too much silt and not enough clean gravel for suitable spawning. Human activity has resulted in conditions no longer favorable for continued existence of fish populations. They are in dramatic decline and the river is no longer crowded with salmon and steelhead as they once were.


In conclusion there are many anthropogenic factors impacting salmonid populations on the Russian River. Dams, habitat loss, flow and temperature changes, introduction of exotic species, ocean conditions, and hatcheries are all major negative impacts. Agriculture, timber harvest, urbanization, sport-fishing unprotected water diversions are also factors that contribute to salmonid decline. While individually these factors may not be significant, cumulatively they are formidable. Salmonid recovery requires lessening all impacts and community cooperation is necessary to protect entire watersheds, not just streams or forests, if the Russian River salmonid fishery is to remain viable.


With appreciation, the writing of this article has relied heavily on articles and information from the KRIS Russian project, funded by the Sonoma County Water Agency and especially from the following articles contained within KRIS Project site:
• Early Conditions and History of the Upper Russian River
• A History of the Salmonid Decline in the Russian River, Prepared by Steiner Environmental Consulting