Cache Slough Complex Restoration
The Cache Slough Complex is in the lower (southern) Yolo Bypass in the north Delta region (Figure 1). It is the focus of the state’s tidal wetland restoration EcoRestore Program that spans 16,000 acres in the Cache Slough region of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
The 53,000-acre Cache Slough Complex is located in the northwest corner of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in Solano and Yolo counties (Figure 1). The Yolo Bypass receives inflow directly from the Sacramento River (Fremont Weir), the Colusa Basin Drain, Putah and Cache creeks, and agricultural and municipal discharges. The Cache Slough Complex exits the Yolo Bypass via Cache Slough, first connecting to the outlets of Miner and Steamboat Sloughs, before entering the tidal Sacramento River channel near Rio Vista.
The Cache Slough Complex has been identified as an area with great potential for tidal restoration as a result of its connectivity with the Yolo Bypass floodplain, suitable elevations, high turbidity, high primary and secondary productivity, and use by Delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus), Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), and other native fishes. Both federal and state wildlife agencies consider the Cache Slough Complex to be a prime area to advance habitat conservation to benefit endangered species in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and incorporate improvements to the regional flood management system.
The latest project approved for construction is the Lookout Slough Project, a 3000-acre tidal marsh restoration immediately to the west of Liberty Island. The Project was certified by DWR in 2020 as mitigation/compensation for the Delta Tunnel Project. The Delta Stewardship Council recently denied appeals1 to the state’s certification of the Lookout Slough tidal marsh restoration project. Once completed, Lookout Slough will be the Delta’s largest single tidal habitat restoration project to date.
Most of the tidal “restoration projects” in the Cache Slough Complex involve breeching leveed tracts of agricultural land to create subtidal or intertidal habitat. Tidal waters once confined to narrow floodplain channel are now allowed to pour through breaches onto over 10,000 acres of formerly diked farmlands. The process started between 1980 and 2000 when Little Holland Tract (1456 acres) and Liberty Island (4340 acres) levees failed and were not repaired, leaving these lands open to the tides. Because these reclaimed wetlands had subsided during active farming, most of the “restored tidelands” became sub-tidal, year-round, warm, shallow, open-water habitat. Such habitat is too warm for Delta native fishes except during the winter.
The enhanced tidal exchange and warm productive winter and early-spring habitat attracts migratory Delta native fishes like smelt, splittail, and salmon to the Cache Slough Complex. While such habitat is considered beneficial in winter, it warms excessively in spring and summer, reducing the period of quality rearing, and can reduce overall survival and production. Native fishes have succumbed to the heat, stranding in the uneven landforms, and predation by non-native warm-water fish.
The latest projects, Lower Yolo Ranch (1749 acres), Yolo Flyway Farms (300 acres), and Lookout Slough (3000 acres), will add 5000 acres of mostly shallow intertidal habitat. Tidewater will flood onto these lands twice a day to warm in the California sun and then return to cooler deep, shaded, sub-tidal sloughs long considered prime Delta smelt and salmon rearing habitat. Not only will the new inter-tidal “wetlands” be too warm, but they will contribute to warming adjacent sub-tidal sloughs that convey water to and from other parts of the north Delta. This water quality degradation gets worse with each new project and has resulted in the degradation of the entire north Delta as a viable spawning, rearing, and critical habitat of Delta smelt. The effect has measurably contributed to the near extinction of Delta smelt.
The United States Geological Service has many water quality and flow monitoring gages in the Cache Slough Complex (Figure 2) that provide considerable evidence of the above-described problem. Specific gages with pertinent data records reviewed for this post are highlighted in Figure 2.
Waters in the northern Cache Slough Complex become too warm for salmon and smelt (>20ºC) by spring (Figure 3). In summer (Figure 4), water tidally flooded into subtidal island-tracts can warm 5-7ºC over a day before draining back into adjacent sloughs. Water temperatures in the northern sloughs of the Cache Slough Complex reach 25ºC (lethal to smelt) or higher in summer, even in wet and normal water years (2016-2018, Figure 5). Water temperatures in the southern Cache Slough Complex are only slightly lower (Figure 6). Over the past decade, water temperatures in the Cache Slough Complex overall have been gradually increasing (Figures 7 and 8), to the detriment of Delta native fishes.
The problem can be lessened or even reversed at existing and future restoration projects by:
- Limiting tidal access to sub-tidal sites to winter, when water and air temperatures are colder.
- Building projects with flow-through tidal channel features rather than a single opening.
- Ensuring that projects are inter-tidal with small, narrow, shaded channels, or tule benches.
- Narrowing, deepening, and shading connecting tidal sloughs.
- Limiting discharge of warm agricultural wastewater into tidal channels.
- Providing supplementary inflow of Sacramento River water from the Fremont Weir, from the entrance gates of the Sacramento Deepwater Shipping Channel, or from other locations.
- Retrofitting existing restoration sites and designing future projects as outlined above.