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Drain, Drain, Drain...

The Emptying of Northern California Reservoirs

by DAN BACHER

The lake is its lowest level ever, 17 percent of capacity and 32 percent of average, since the Bureau of Reclamation filled the reservoir with the clear waters of the North, Middle and South Forks of the American River that drain the Sierra Nevada Range. Because of the record low level of the lake, the cities of Sacramento, Folsom and other communities face dramatic water shortages this year.

The impact on the American River and its unique urban steelhead and salmon fisheries is just as alarming. The Bureau in early January dropped flows to only 500 cubic feet per second (cfs), compared to winter flows ranging from 2000 to 5,000 cfs that anglers are used to fishing in– and much higher flows during wet years.

Because of the threat to steelhead and Chinook salmon posed by the low water conditions, the Department of Fish and Wildlife voted for an emergency fishing closure on the upper section of the lower American on Wednesday, February 5, along with closures on the Russian River and coastal streams threatened by drought.

Stafford Lehr, CDFW Fisheries Branch Chief of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, explained to the Commission the dire situation that steelhead, salmon and other fish face in the low flows.

“The snowpack in the American River watershed is only 12 percent of normal and Folsom Lake is only 17 percent of capacity,” said Lehr. “We are trying to maximize the protection of as many wild salmon and steelhead in the American and other rivers as possible. We are implementing the emergency closures on some waters to reduce mortality caused by angling.”

Lerh stated, “We are fully aware of the impacts these closures will have on anglers and related businesses. However, anglers have overwhelmingly supported the decision to close fisheries because they are the original conservationists. They understand the severity of this drought.”

Southern California reservoirs are 96 and 86 percent of capacity

While the drought has received major national and regional mainstream and alternative media attention, most media outlets have failed to explain how the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources systematically drained northern California reservoirs last summer, resulting in low flows and endangering salmon and steelhead in the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers while filling Southern California water banks and reservoirs.

Last summer, high water releases down the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers left Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs at dangerously low levels. Shasta is at 36 percent of capacity and 53 percent of average; Oroville, 36 percent of capacity and 54 percent of average; and Folsom, 17 percent of capacity and 32 percent of average.

Yet Pyramid Lake in Southern California is at 96 percent of capacity and 101 percent of average, while Castaic Reservoir is 86 percent of capacity and 102 percent of average.

The state and federal water agencies exported massive quantities of water to agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies, endangering local water supplies and fish populations as the ecosystem continues to collapse.

Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, explained how the water was mismanaged.

“We entered 2013 with Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs at 115 percent, 113 percent, and 121 percent of historical average storage. In April, they were still at 101 percent, 108 percent and 96 percent of average,” said Jennings.

“With no rainfall and little snowpack, the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau (of Reclamation) notified their contractors that water deliveries would be reduced. But they didn’t reduce deliveries. Instead, they actually exported 835,000 acre-feet more water than they said they would be able to deliver,” said Jennings.

Ironically, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will have enough water in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to supply its users while Sacramento, Folsom and other cities have been forced to cut water use by 20 percent.

“We’ll have plenty of water in 2015,” Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, told the Sacramento Bee. “And even if it’s still a drought, we’ll still have enough water in 2016.”

Jennings said the present crisis could have been avoided, and is a “direct result of egregious mismanagement of the state’s water supply system by the state and federal water projects.”

“Excessive water exports and the failure to prepare for inevitable drought have created a decades-long disaster for fisheries, and placed the people and economic prosperity of northern California at grave risk. The State’s obsession with tunneling under the Delta does nothing to address drought, or put us on a path to correct the misuse of limited water supplies,” he added.

There is no doubt that California’s fish populations are in unprecedented crisis, due to massive water exports south of the Delta by the state and federal water projects.

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Pyramid Lake.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fall midwater trawl surveys, initiated in 1967, the same year the State Water Project began exporting water from the Delta, document the steep decline of Delta fish species. They reveal that the population abundance of Delta smelt, striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and American shad declined 95.6%, 99.6%, 99.8%, 97.8%, 90.9%, respectively, between 1967 and 2013, according to Jennings. The 2013 abundance estimates for Sacramento splittail, a native minnow, were not released, but results from 2012 reveal that splittail abundance indices have dropped 98.5% from 1967 levels.

Jennings noted that 2013 was also a bad year for salmon. As many as half of this year’s up-migrating winter-run Chinook salmon were stranded in the Yolo Bypass and Colusa Basin in April-June and Sacramento River temperature requirements to protect spawning winter-run were relaxed in June.

In November, abrupt reductions in Sacramento River flow exposed spawning redds, killed up to 40% of Sacramento River fall-run Chinook salmon eggs and stranded newly emerged fry. “And low reservoir levels will likely lead to inadequate flows for young salmon out-migration this coming spring,” said Jennings.

Failure to plan ahead contributed to water shortage

John Herrick, Restore the Delta board member and Counsel and Manager of the South Delta Water Agency, said the failure of the state and federal water projects to plan ahead contributed to the current water shortage – and a looming disaster for salmon, steelhead and other fish species.

“Last winter and spring the projects were concerned about not having enough water to meet fishery or agricultural standards, and so sought changes in their permits to allow for the relaxation of those standards,” he said.

“At the same time, they projected the amount of water available for export. As soon as the projections were released, they began to pump MORE water than they projected; thus taking the water needed for fish and endangering future allocations for all purposes. If this had not been allowed, the reservoirs would have 800+ TAF more storage in them than they currently do,” he noted.

“The Urgency Petition process is for actual, unforeseeable emergencies,” said Herrick. “The State has known since at least September that we might be facing a horrible water supply year due to the lack of precipitation during the first 9 months of 2013. Knowing that reservoir levels were getting very low, and that the prior year had insufficient water for fish and water quality standards, the projects simply waited to see what would happen. Not until the very last minute did they file their Urgency Petition (to the State Water Resources Board – SWRCB),” he explained.

Herrick noted that Urgency Petitions require no public notice or input, but must be based on a finding that the petitioner exercised due diligence in getting the permit change under the normal petition process if possible.

“Since the projects have known for months that this scenario was facing them, they should have made their petition months ago. But that would have resulted in public notice, public hearing and input by the interests who depend on the current standards being met,” he said.

Herrick said, “It appears that, as in the past, the projects manipulated the process to make sure there was no official opposition to their requests to violate the water quality standards. Worse, it appears the regulators (SWRCB staff) were working with the regulated projects outside of the public purview to make sure the petition remained unknown. Therefore, there was no contrary data submitted to contradict the pre-agreed to order granting the petition.

Herrick asked, “What would have been the findings of the SWRCB Board if the information of the projects taking too much water last season were in the record?”

Tunnels and fracking will only amplify California’s water and fish crisis

In spite of the record drought, Governor Jerry Brown continues his plan to build the fish killing-peripheral tunnels under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and to expand the water-intensive oil extraction process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) for oil and natural gas in California.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, the Executive Director of Restore the Delta, urged the state and water agencies to invest in projects that yield new water and jobs, rather than spending billions on the environmentally destructive twin tunnels.

“We have had three dry years in a row and the governor admits the tunnels won’t add one drop of water to our drought-plagued state,” said Barrigan-Parrilla. “We need solutions more appropriate to our future water challenges, not this $60 billion mega-project that would misspend the billions needed for sustainable water solutions.”

“The better approach would be to invest wisely in projects that actually produce new water and local jobs. California needs more water recycling projects, such as Orange County’s that is producing enough water for 600,000 residents each year. By cleaning up groundwater, we will create another new supply and room to store water when it is truly available,” concluded Barrigan-Parrilla.

The proposed peripheral tunnels will undoubtedly kill the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a delicate mix of salt and freshwater, that is vital to the life cycle of Central Valley Chinook salmon, as well as thousands of other fish and species, according to the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.

“There is no precedent for the killing of an estuary of this size, so how could any study be trusted to protect the Delta for salmon and other fish? How can they even know what the effects will be?” said Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk. “The end of salmon would also mean the end of Winnemem, so the BDCP is a threat to our very existence as indigenous people.”

Referring to Shasta, Oroville and Folsom dams, Sisk said, “These dams are supposed to be efficient in times like these, but they will never work when water mongers are in charge. They want the dumbed down public to believe now that building the twin tunnels and raising Shasta Dam are what MUST BE DONE…to keep golf courses green, and fallow farms wet with drinking water! Why don’t they use their ‘reclaimed water’ project there like they did on the San Francisco Peaks?”

The massive tunnels won’t create any new water, but they will divert huge quantities of precious water from the Sacramento River to corporate agribusiness interests, Southern California water agencies, and oil companies conducting steam injection and fracking operations in Kern County. The construction of the tunnels would hasten the extinction of Central Valley salmon and Delta fish populations, as well as imperil salmon and steelhead populations on the Trinity River, the largest tributary of the Klamath River.

“We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas,” said Governor Brown when he declared a drought state of emergency in January. “I’ve declared this emergency and I’m calling all Californians to conserve water in every way possible.”

Brown can’t make it rain, but he can can put a moratorium on fracking and he can stop his tunnels project in order to preserve California’s precious water resources during an unprecedented drought. While Governor Brown is apparently pushing the construction of the peripheral tunnels as a monument to his “legacy,” his real legacy will be the extinction of Central Valley salmon and steelhead populations and the draining of northern California unless he stops his mad plans to build the tunnels and frack California.

For more information, go to: http://www.restorethedelta.org

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