January 31, 2014

California orders dozens of streams closed to fishing as drought worsens

California wildlife officials have banned recreational fishing on dozens of streams across the state as a result of low water flows caused by the ongoing drought, and more such closures are expected in coming weeks.

California wildlife officials have banned recreational fishing on dozens of streams across the state as a result of low water flows caused by the ongoing drought, and more such closures are expected in coming weeks.

The action, announced this week by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, is intended to protect threatened salmon and steelhead fish. A persistent statewide drought has shrunk aquatic habitat for these species, subjecting them to intensified fishing pressure.

Officials at the wildlife agency said they could not recall an earlier occasion when such broad fishing bans were ordered because of drought. Similar closures occurred during the 1976-1977 drought, but never so many at the same time across such a wide area of the state.

“To the best of our knowledge, this is the first time the department has taken this type of emergency action,” spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said via email. “This epic drought changes everything.”

On Thursday, the California Department of Water Resources conducted its second Sierra Nevada snow survey of the winter. The first storm in weeks had just provided a fresh blanket of snow over many survey areas. But it would take many more such storms to lift the state out of drought.

The survey found the statewide snowpack to be 12 percent of average for the date. This is the smallest snowpack ever recorded at this point in winter, based on survey records that date back to 1960, DWR reported.

In the northern Sierra region – crucial because it feeds the state’s largest water-supply reservoirs – the snowpack remains at just 6 percent of average.

“This winter remains dry, making it very unlikely our record drought will be broken this year,” said DWR Director Mark Cowin. “Now more than ever, we all need to save every drop we can in our homes and places of work.”

Fishing groups largely supported the move to close some rivers to recreational fishing, citing concern for imperiled fish.

The bans do not affect the American River in Sacramento, even though fishing groups have called for such an action. That is because the Department of Fish and Wildlife does not have legal standing to close the river by administrative action. Instead, the closure must be approved by the California Fish and Game Commission, an appointed body.

The department will urge the commission to ban recreational fishing on the American River, as well as the Russian River, until April 30 at its meeting Wednesday in Sacramento.

Tyrone Gorre, a fishing guide and co-founder of the Sierra Salmon Alliance, also wants the commission to close the Yuba River, Butte Creek and Auburn Ravine, which are home to important native fish species and also facing drought-related risks. He said the commission should amend regulations to give the Department of Fish and Wildlife authority to close these streams administratively in the future.

“We really appreciate the state taking action,” Gorre said. “But they should be able to move closures much faster. There’s a lot at stake right now.”

The closures ordered Wednesday primarily affect coastal streams, among them: Big Sur River; Pescadero Creek; San Lorenzo River; Aptos Creek; Soquel Creek; Pajaro River; Carmel River; and Salinas River. In addition, many smaller coastal creeks in the vicinity of these waterways have been closed to fishing.

The department closed other coastal streams. However, in this case, its authority to do so extended only until today. It is asking the commission to extend closures until April 30 on the Eel River, Van Duzen River, Mad River, Mattole River, Redwood Creek and Smith River.

“Under these extreme drought conditions, it is prudent to conserve and protect as many adult fish as possible to help ensure the future of fishing in California,” said fish and wildlife director Charlton Bonham.

There is not much relief in the forecast. The high-pressure ridge that has been diverting storms away from California is expected to rebuild next week. On Thursday, a long-range forecast from the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service indicated most of the state will see below-average rainfall through Feb. 13. On the bright side, the northernmost region of the state – approximately from Lake Oroville north – could see above-normal rainfall in the same period.

Looking farther out, a three-month forecast by the center predicts below-average rainfall is likely for all of California through April.

To prepare for dry conditions, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection announced this week it has hired 125 seasonal firefighters, an unusual event in midwinter.

The state Department of Public Health released a list of 17 communities that could run out of water within 100 days. Most are small, rural communities, with the exception of Healdsburg and Cloverdale in Sonoma County and Willits in Mendocino County.

In the Sacramento area, virtually all water providers have asked customers to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent. The exceptions are Sacramento and Folsom, which have made that goal a mandatory target. Sacramento is retraining 34 employees to be on watch for water-waste violations as they patrol the city.

On Tuesday, the El Dorado Irrigation District board of directors, based in Placerville, will vote on whether to ask customers for a voluntary 15 percent reduction in water use. It also will consider adopting a pricing incentive by raising water rates 15 percent to encourage conservation.

Two of the largest municipal water providers in the state also are planning conservation measures. Today, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission plans to ask its 2.6 million customers to voluntarily cut water use by 10 percent.

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California announced Thursday that it may ask customers to voluntarily reduce their water use by 20 percent. The district sells water to 26 agencies that, in turn, serve 19 million people.

This comes after the district had reported it has enough water stored to last through the calendar year without further conservation. District general manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said he nevertheless would ask his board of directors to approve the move as an expression of solidarity with the governor’s emergency drought declaration. He proposes to double spending on conservation activities, from $20 million to $40 million.

“This region stands united with the governor in supporting his call for a statewide approach to a statewide problem,” Kightlinger said in a statement.

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