Salmon and Steelhead find “Safe Harbor” in First-Ever Agreement

March 2016

NOAA Fisheries and the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) signed NOAA’s first-ever “Safe Harbor Agreement” at a ceremony in northern California on March 3rd, offering private landowners in the Russian River watershed incentives to enhance their property for the sake of federally protected salmon and steelhead. 

Under the Safe Harbor Agreement, NOAA Fisheries is able to provide incentives encouraging property owners to restore, enhance, or maintain habitat for species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).  A safe harbor agreement assures landowners that additional land, water, and/or natural resource use restrictions will not be imposed as a result of their voluntary conservation actions to benefit covered species.

“This is the first time the Safe Harbor Agreement will be employed for ESA-listed salmon and steelhead anywhere in the United States,” said Sam Rauch, NOAA Fisheries Deputy Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Programs. “We appreciate that  Sonoma County Water Agency entered into this agreement and hope it will serve as an example for others to follow across the nation.”

made made pool out of main current for fish to rest

A new, connected pool gives ESA protected salmon and steelhead space to live outside of the river's strong current. Photo: Sonoma County Water Agency

The Agreement will allow participating property-owners to assist in the enhancement of salmon and steelhead habitat along six miles of Dry Creek below Warm Springs Dam. Approximately ninety-nine percent of the habitat in Dry Creek Valley is privately owned and used for viticulture operations.  Dry Creek Winery will be the first to enroll in the Safe Harbor Agreement.

“My goal, at the beginning of my tenure at Dry Creek Vineyard was, and continues to be, to leave our land in better condition than which I found it. The salmon in Dry Creek Valley are a crucial measure to the health and vitality of our ecosystem. The Dry Creek Safe Harbor Agreement recognizes the stewardship role played by farmers in helping salmon recovery," said Don Wallace, Proprietor of Dry Creek Vineyard.

Warm Springs Dam was constructed in 1983 by the Army Corps of Engineers and designed to control flooding in the winter and deliver more water to nearby cities. Unfortunately, the increased flow rates in the summer resulting from the dam operation could have a negative impact on juvenile salmon and steelhead.  The habitat restoration project is part of the federal requirements for operating the dam to slow the flow rate and provide hiding places for young fish.

Enrollment in the Agreement is completely voluntary. Landowners who participate will not be penalized should there be incidental harm or mortality of fish due to the habitat improvements and will not be restricted in their routine viticulture activities, as long as the agreed upon baseline conditions of the habitat on the property are maintained.

“This historic agreement recognizes the important role that farmers can play in restoring salmon and steelhead to the Russian River watershed,” said Efren Carrillo, chair of the Sonoma County Water Agency Board of Directors. “So much of the land surrounding the river and creeks is privately owned, that cooperative landowners are key to successful restoration efforts.”

“Government simply can’t do it alone,” said Lisa Van Atta, NOAA Fisheries’ Assistant Regional Administrator for the West Coast Region’s California Coastal Office.  “Conserving and recovering endangered species encompasses the values we share as a community and provides a brighter environmental  legacy for our future generations.”

The species covered in the Agreement are threatened California Coastal Chinook salmon, Central California Coast (CCC) steelhead, and endangered CCC coho salmon.  NOAA Fisheries has identified CCC coho salmon in its “Species in the Spotlight” initiative as one of the eight species in the nation most at risk of extinction.

Dry Creek has been identified in the NOAA Fisheries CCC Coho Recovery Plan as one of the primary tributaries to the Russian River for recovery of the species and increasing their overall population numbers in the watershed.

Central California Coast Coho Salmon Recovery Plan

Landowners interested in receiving more information should contact Bob Coey, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, California Coastal Office, at

Home page photo: NOAA Ocean Service