Essential coldwater springs and the birthplace of CalTrout
The Hat Creek Restoration Project is critically important to California’s cold-water biodiversity and wild trout populations:
- Spring-fed rivers provide reliable sources of cold, clean, water for fish, people, and biodiversity: even during extreme drought conditions
- Hat Creek inspired a major paradigm shift in our state’s fisheries management approach: moving away from hatchery dependent systems and towards naturally reproducing, sustainable, wild trout fisheries
- Hat Creek motivated California Trout in the early 70’s to come together as a leading organization dedicated to protecting and restoring CA’s wild and native salmonids and our extraordinary cold-water biodiversity.
Spring-Fed Rivers: More Important Now Than Ever
In the American West, a region characterized by an arid climate, reliable sources of cold, clean water trump all. Few water resources in northern California generate as much reliable, cold, clean water as spring-fed rivers and streams. Hat Creek is no exception.
The spring systems that feed Hat Creek, for instance, generate 400-650 cubic feet per second, every-day, all-day, year-round, for a total of well over 350,000 acre feet per year.
As our climate continues to change, the value of this water—ecological, economic, and cultural value—continues to grow.
Research suggests that these spring systems resist variation in volume and temperature better than watersheds that rely only on surface run-off water. In the context of drought or a warming climate, northern California spring-fed rivers act as refugia for cold-water species. They also provide a dependable municipal water supply for people and consistent flows for generating hydro-electric power.
But it’s not just reliable water quantity that matters.
Spring-fed rivers like Hat Creek also produce a unique water chemistry that contributes to elevated levels of ecological productivity. Hat Creek rests atop an immense lava field known as the Modoc Plateau. Here, volcanic flows overlie marine sedimentary rocks. As groundwater filters through these rocks, it picks up nutrients that otherwise wouldn’t exist in a run-off dominated system. As a result, Hat Creek water chemistry contains elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorous.
This recipe of constant flows, stable temperatures, and abundant nutrients grows aquatic plants, bugs, and fish at extraordinary rates.
The Shasta River for example—a comparable nutrient-rich spring creek on the other side of Mount Shasta— was found to produce invertebrate densities that exceed 80,000 individuals per square meter. A normal surface-fed tail-water system such as the Green River below Flaming Gorge, known by anglers for its productivity, averages only 20,000 individuals per square meter.
California’s First Wild Trout Area
California’s legacy of sustainable wild trout management originated with the Hat Creek Wild Trout Area (WTA). In 1972, CalTrout collaborated with the California Department of Fish and Game (CADFG) to designate Hat Creek as the state’s first protected “Wild Trout Area.” As a result, California would for the first time, begin managing select fisheries to sustain wild, naturally reproducing populations of trout: a major paradigm shift from the traditional hatchery dependent approach. The Hat Creek WTA program was a huge success. Population numbers exploded and California fly-fisherman quickly adapted to catching stronger, healthier, wild fish. Unfortunately, by the mid-1990s habitat conditions began to deteriorate again due to unrestricted cattle grazing, over-fishing, and erosion/sedimentation issues.
The Birth of California Trout
In the 1970’s, Hat Creek inspired thousands of Californians to begin fly-fishing. The spring-creek was so important to the sport that an organization, California Trout, was formed on the idea that our state’s anglers cared enough about conservation to support financially a full time staff committed to protecting the streams they love.