August 1, 2007

Steelhead population gets help from Sacramento State professor and students

Sac State hydrogeologist Professor Tim Horner Sac State hydrogeologist Professor Tim Horner monitors steelhead trout spawning grounds on the American River.

Sacramento State professor Tim Horner spends a lot of time fishing the American River. He’s not trying to hook any fish; he’s trying to reel in answers.

Horner, a hydrogeologist, is trying to help repair the habitat of the steelhead trout, a threatened species that spawns in the river. A large sand bar in a portion of the river by Hazel Avenue is reducing the steelhead population by exposing eggs laid by the fish. Horner received a state grant to help correct the problem.

“The fish spawn in January and February when the river is high and the sand bar is covered,” says Horner. “They scoop out a pocket in the gravel and lay their eggs. When the flow begins to go down in April and May, the eggs are left high and dry.”

Horner estimates 6 percent to 10 percent of the spawning occurs in that area. “In a good year we get 2,000 to 3,000 steelhead in the river. If 10 percent don’t make it, it’s a big deal. If we can do anything to help them out, it’s good.”

Horner and his students began studying the area five or six years ago to determine why steelhead were drawn to it. “Turns out, this is an ideal steelhead habitat when the flow is high,” he says. “The eggs need oxygen to survive and stream water forced through the gravel in that area creates a hyper-oxygenated environment.”

To repair the habitat, construction crews will cut out a new channel and deepen another. “The idea is to have at least a foot of water flowing in the channels even when it is in a low flow situation,” he says. “When the steelhead come in, hopefully they will lay their eggs in the channels and not the high areas.”

Repair work begins next summer and will last about two weeks. The project is part of a $500,000 grant funded through Proposition 50, a bond measure passed in 2002 to support a variety of water and wetlands projects throughout California. Sacramento State is a partner in the project with the California Department of Fish and Game, the California Water Forum and a consulting firm, William Phillips Associates.

“Our portion of the grant is relatively small, about $10,000, but it is paying big benefits for our students,” Horner says. “I’ve had five or six graduate students and can’t count the number of undergrads who have worked on this project. They all have gotten real world skills they can tout when they start looking for jobs.’”

For more information about the steelhead habitat restoration project, contact Horner at (916) 278-1018. For media assistance, contact the Sacramento State Public Affairs office at (916) 278-6156.

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