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Imperiled by Massive Water Withdrawals
The Fate of Sacramento River Salmon
by DAN BACHER

Sacramento River Chinook salmon this year are threatened by the relaxation of water temperature standards on the upper river combined with the violation of water quality standards in the Delta, the result of the over-allocation of water during a drought.

The section of the Sacramento River where the water is cold enough for salmon to successfully spawn will be less than half of what is needed this year, violating water temperature standards set to protect salmon.

Fishing groups say that the pool of cold water needed in Lake Shasta to cool the water is being drained to supply corporate agribusiness and other users south of the Delta, threatening the fall and spring run Chinook runs, as well as endangered winter run Chinook salmon.

State and federal water officials are apparently now in a rush to deliver water to agribusiness, oil companies and Southern California water agencies, in spite of it being a drought year, as revealed by the latest river release and water export data provided by the Department of Water Resources.

Current releases to the Sacramento River below Keswick Dam are 14,250 cfs, combined releases to the Feather River below the Thermalito Afterbay Outlet are 5,500 cfs and releases to the American River below Nimbus Dam are 3,250 cfs.

Water exports from the Delta are currently 9,275 cfs, including 5,581 cfs from the State Water Project’s Harvey Banks Pumping Plant and 3,694 cfs from the federal Central Valley Project’s Tracy Pumping Plant in the South Delta. Delta outflows – freshwater flows into the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas – are currently only 5,290 cfs.

You can check out the latest dam releases and export pumping data here.

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Upper river water temperature standards relaxed 

Ron Milligan, the Operation Manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, stated in a June 3 letter to the State Water Resources Control Board that this year’s water plan “does not meet a daily average water temperature of 56 degrees Fahrenheit in the Sacramento River at Red Bluff Diversion Dam for all the periods in 2013 when higher temperatures could be detrimental to the fishery.”

The Bureau said spring run and fall run Chinook salmon spawning typically occurs further downstream in fall than the point in Redding where the 56-degree water cutoff is. “Some adverse effects can be expected if temperatures exceed 56 degrees between Airport Rd and Balls Ferry,” warned Milligan.

Under federal law, water and fishery managers are required to maintain the 56-degree temperature downstream of Balls Ferry during the winter run spawning and incubation months of August, September and October.

It is anticipated only about 20 miles of the Sacramento above Redding will be cold enough, 56 degrees or less, for the fish to successfully spawn, according to Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA) Executive Director John McManus. The stretch over twenty miles downstream of Redding, normally cold enough for spawning, is likely to exceed 56 degrees.

“Salmon eggs laid in northern stretches of the Sacramento River could die from overheated water this year,” said McManus.

Fishing and environmental groups emphasize that the Bureau has just signed off on water sales from the northern Sacramento Valley to San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests with official findings of “No Significant Impact.” These growers have contracts with the Bureau and Department of Water Resources, both junior water rights holders.

Their water supplies are assured only in very wet years when surplus water is available. 2013 has been designated as a dry year.

The water supply contract between Westlands Water District and Reclamation clearly states, “Because the capacity of the Project to deliver Project Water has been constrained in years and may be constrained in the future due to many factors including hydrologic conditions and implementation of Federal and State laws, the likelihood of the Contractor actually receiving the amount of Project Water set out in subdivision (a) of this Article in any given Year is uncertain.”

Groups contest water transfers 

A petition to the state water board by the California Water Impact Network, AquaAlliance and California Sportfishing Protection Alliance on June 3 challenged the controversial water transfers.

“In sum, our organizations protest these petitions for temporary water transfers as injurious to existing water rights holders throughout the Sacramento Valley region, detrimental to the ecosystems of the Bay-Delta Estuary since they involve Delta export pumping and threatening, through groundwater substitution pumping, loss of surface flow to large head differences leading to excessive groundwater recharge from surface streams,” the petition stated.

However, rather than protecting fish populations as it is entrusted to do, the National Marine Fisheries Service joined the Bureau of Reclamation and the US Fish & Wildlife Service in a joint request to the State Water Resources Control Board to reclassify delta salinity measurement stations from “dry” to “critically dry.” Although this was supposedly done to preserve water for salmon spawning in the upper river, it also withholds water needed to keep the Bay-Delta Estuary – and salmon, Delta smelt and other fish populations – healthy.

Delta Watermaster Craig Wilson said he “would not object or take any action” if the Bureau and Department operate to meet “critically dry year” objectives for Western and Interior Delta agricultural beneficial uses instead of operating to meeting “dry year” objectives though August 15, 2013, thus giving the green light to massive water exports from the Delta.

“This will not only violate the temperature standards on the Sacramento River, but it is expected to violate virtually every standard to designed for fishery and other beneficial uses throughout the Delta,” responded Bill Jennings, Executive Director/Chairman of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. “These standards are routinely violated – that is one of the major reasons why fisheries are collapsing.”

Water is oversubcribed five times 

“The problem is that the water is oversubscribed – we just don’t have the water,” emphasized Jennings. “The average unimpaired annual flow of the Sacramento River is 21.6 million feet of water, while the total consumptive water rights claims total 120.5 million acre feet of water. Oversubscription of water is the great, ugly secret, the crazy aunt locked in the basement, that nobody wants to talk about.”

A large return of spawning chinook salmon is expected this fall on the Sacramento River, based on pre-season forecasts by federal and state biologists and the recreational and commercial catch reported so far this season in the ocean off California and Oregon.

“If anything, we need more cold water, not less, if we expect to get the benefits of this large return,” said Zeke Grader, Vice-President of GGSA and Executive Director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. “The transfer of this water, needed by salmon, south this summer will have significant and devastating impact.”

Grader said Sacramento River’s fall-run Chinook salmon account for nearly 90 percent of California’s salmon catch in a typical year and provide upwards of 50 percent of Oregon’s ocean salmon harvest.

The once massive runs of Sacramento winter and spring run Chinook salmon, now protected under the Endangered Species Act, have declined dramatically over the past several decades due to the operation of the Delta pumps, upstream dam operations and loss of habitat.

Winter run could be decimated 

The Sacramento winter run numbered 117,000 in 1969, but has dwindled to several thousand fish in recent years. Spawner escapement of endangered winter Chinook salmon in 2012 was estimated to be only 2,529 adults and 145 jacks.

Faced with a similar situation to this year in 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service warned that 50 to 75 percent of that year’s winter run could be lost due to lethally hot water in the upper river, according to McManus.

“Very few progeny of the 2009 winter run survived,” said McManus. “Low winter run numbers in 2012 put the fish in further jeopardy and led to steep cuts in the ocean fishing season this year, even though fishing is not the cause of the winter run shortage.

McManus said winter run salmon faced another obstacle earlier in 2013 when over 300 were rescued from agricultural canals they mistakenly swam into near Williams. Officials estimate another 300 were never captured for relocation and will likely die in the canals without successfully spawning.

“Winter run salmon could be decimated this year,” said McManus. “We’re already concerned about what kind of return we’ll see in 2015 due to the drought conditions juvenile salmon faced trying to out migrate down the Sacramento River and through the delta earlier this year. We could see some real problems in the fishery a few years from now.”

Federal officials agree with fishing groups about the threat to salmon posed by warmer water temperatures, but nonetheless supported the relaxation of standards anyway to extend the cold water pool as long as possible.

Maria Rea, National Marine Fisheries Service Regional Supervisor, said, “We could have some serious temperature-related impacts on winter run this year.”

The dilemna facing salmon this year was created years of over-appropriation of water and bad water management – and can only be stopped when California comes to grips with the “paper water” that drives water policy.

“Solving California water problems has to come from the demand side, not from the supply side,” said Jennings. “If we had new reservoirs, they would be empty. We can pour all of the concrete we want, but we can’t pour rain.”

There is no doubt that Sacramento River winter, spring and fall run Chinook salmon are threatened by the relaxation of water standards on the upper river and the violation of water quality standards in the Bay-Delta Estuary in order to export massive quantities of water south of the Delta.

Meanwhile, the Brown and Obama administrations are fast-tracking the Bay Delta Conservation Plan to build the peripheral tunnels, a $54.1 billion boondoggle that will hasten the extinction of Sacramento River Chinook salmon, steelhead, Delta smelt, longfin smelt and other fish species.

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento. He can be reached at: Dan Bacher danielbacher@fishsniffer.com.