Air Force, USFWS partner to restore fish habitat

  • Published
  • By Jennifer Schneider
  • AFCEC Environmental Directorate

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Threatened fish at Beale Air Force Base, California, are reaping the benefits of a partnership between the Air Force and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Specialists from Beale, the Air Force Civil Engineer Center and the USFWS recently completed a dam removal and creek restoration project there, making it easier for fish, including the Chinook salmon and federally threatened Central Valley steelhead, to travel upstream and spawn. 

The Army originally built Beale Lake Dam in 1943 as a recreational spot for Soldiers. In the 1980s, the Air Force realized the dam was impacting fish travel and constructed a concrete fish ladder to try to address the issue. In 2015, the Air Force recognized the fish ladder was undersized and outdated.

“The need to address the obsolete dam and fish ladder and improve habitat conditions for sensitive fish species had long been identified as a significant goal in the installation Integrated Natural Resources Management Plan,” said Kevin Porteck, AFCEC natural resources subject matter expert.  “Fortunately, in 2018, we were able to get the funding and the partnerships in place to address the issue.”

AFCEC reached out to USFWS for its expertise. Under the Sikes Act of 1960, the two agencies regularly work together to manage, conserve and rehabilitate natural resources at Department of the Air Force installations. 

“AFCEC initiated a more detailed study of this issue through a habitat assessment by USFWS fisheries biologists,” said Kirsten Christopherson, natural resources specialist for AFCEC’s western regional environmental support office, who led the dam removal project. “The study identified that there were two major barriers impeding fish passage – Beale Lake Dam and a low flow crossing that is 7.35 miles downstream from Beale AFB on private land.”

Around the same time, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study found Beale Lake Dam to be in poor condition.

“Base engineers determined that the long-term maintenance of the dam, and the potential liability for the dam’s failure, presented an unacceptable risk,” Christopherson said.

Air Force engineers and natural resource managers determined it would be cheaper to remove the dam than repair it, and engaged the support of USFWS fisheries biologists.

“We removed something that wasn’t really functional for us anymore and was actually going to be a hazard,” said Tamara Gallentine, natural and cultural resources program manager at Beale. 

USFWS engineers designed a new creek channel, using an area upstream of the dam as a model, and work began with draining the lake for a short period of time during the summer of 2019 in order to further study the channel. In addition to the dam removal, which was completed in October 2020, the team also implemented other aspects to assist fish migration, such as building a “rocky ramp” to help fish pass over a small natural waterfall upstream of the dam. 

“The goal was to raise the water surface elevations and create a jumping pool so fish are able to navigate over the waterfall,” said Jessica Pica, a USFWS fish passage engineer who worked on the project. “We played with different slopes and dimensions to get (a ramp) that worked.”

They also planted native vegetation, including large trees, to prevent erosion and provide shade to help maintain fish-friendly water temperatures.

“The removal of the dam, and associated outdated and ineffective fish ladder, helps to return natural processes to Dry Creek,” said Paul Cadrett, USFWS project manager for the project.  “These natural processes benefit native fish by returning the ecosystem to a more natural state.  This has multiple benefits to native plants and insects, as well as native fish and terrestrial animals.  These ecosystem changes are exciting to see and watch as they continue to evolve.”

The project was unique and particularly challenging compared to previous environmental projects on base, requiring construction crews with heavy equipment in a riparian area full of wildlife and coordination with multiple on- and off-base partners. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands and numerous volunteers provided extensive support in such areas as fish and wildlife relocation, project monitoring and revegetation planning.

“Working with multiple agencies certainly had its challenges, but the overall benefits were realized through technical expertise, expedited environmental permitting, and public confidence in the project,” Christopherson said. “I had not been involved in a project before with so much support, excitement, and interest from Air Force leadership, engineering, and environmental, but also from regulatory agencies and local landowners.”

The Covid-19 pandemic also brought a unique set of challenges.

“This forced everyone involved in the project to take extraordinary steps to shift from in-person meetings to the virtual meetings that have taken over all of our work and personal lives,” Cadrett said. “Service staff that designed the project are from across the United States from Alaska to Massachusetts. Everyone involved in the project had to shift and shuffle plans to cover the onsite observations in order to successfully complete the project.”

While the project successfully restored access to six miles of historic salmonid spawning habitat, Christopherson said they would like to see the remaining barrier downstream from the base removed as well. 

“The USFWS is continuing to pursue funding to implement the off-base work,” she said. “Once the off-base portions have been completed, over 13 miles of fish habitat will have been restored.”

While the Air Force and USFWS played lead roles, several other organizations provided support and assistance as well, including the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board and USACE.

 “The Air Force had a need to repair a failing dam at a high cost,” Christopherson said. “With less money, we were able to remove the dam and restore the site for the benefit of rare fish species. The project was a win-win for the Air Force, the taxpayer, and the environment.”