Water & Drought

How plans to save fish species could cut summer water supply

Then and now: The photo on the left shows Bridge Bay Marina at Shasta Lake in June 2014, amid severe drought. On the right is the lake in May 2016, following a relatively wet winter.
Then and now: The photo on the left shows Bridge Bay Marina at Shasta Lake in June 2014, amid severe drought. On the right is the lake in May 2016, following a relatively wet winter. Los Angeles Times

This year was supposed to be different. With Northern California’s reservoirs finally brimming and cities liberated from stringent conservation rules, farmers were expecting more water for their crops. The worst of the drought seemed over.

Or maybe not.

Despite a winter of fairly abundant rain and snow in the north state, federal fisheries regulators are considering a set of plans that would put Sacramento Valley reservoirs on a tight leash again this summer. Their aim is to prevent two endangered California fish species from going extinct.

Critics say two federal plans under discussion could cause another year of water shortages in farms and cities across the state. The Sacramento area’s main reservoir, Folsom Lake, could get drawn down below average levels once more, although the situation wouldn’t be as severe as last year’s record low. On Thursday, 15 members of Congress from California sent a letter urging the Obama administration to reject the dam-management proposals, saying they would “significantly reduce the water supply available to Californians.”

“Potentially, we’re looking at two train wrecks occurring,” said Rep. Jim Costa, a Fresno Democrat who was among the House members who signed the letter.

At their core, the proposals under discussion represent a drastic – some would say desperate – effort to bolster the populations of fish species that have been decimated by years of drought and environmental decline in California’s overdrafted watersheds.

The first proposal involves holding back substantial volumes of water at Shasta Lake into the summer to protect juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon. Maintaining a deeper pool of water behind Shasta makes for colder water. The idea is to release that colder water later in the year, when the salmon make their annual return to their spawning grounds below the dam.

The past two summers, excessively warm water in the Sacramento River killed off nearly all of the juveniles. Scientists say a third year of die-offs could mean the extinction of the winter-run as a wild species.

The second plan aims to rescue the Delta smelt, which also teeter on the brink of extinction. The Bureau of Reclamation, which operates dams in the federal government’s Central Valley Project, is considering letting more water flow to the Pacific Ocean through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta this summer, said spokesman Shane Hunt.

Both fish are protected by the Endangered Species Act, meaning the federal agencies that oversee California’s fisheries are bound by law to try to save them.

But the plans would have human consequences as well. Holding more water behind Shasta would curtail water deliveries to Central Valley farmers at crucial times in the growing season. Letting more river water flow to sea could mean less water for farms and cities south of the Delta.

That it’s come to this is astounding to many in California’s water community, who say a winter of precipitation should have eased the supply situation.

“We’ve really been blessed this year with snowpack and precipitation,” said David Guy of the Northern California Water Association, an umbrella group of water agencies. “You would think in a year like this, we’d be able to use that water ... for urban use, for farmers, for birds, for fish.”

The federal agencies involved in the discussion – the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – hold considerable sway over how the Bureau of Reclamation operates dams in the Central Valley Project, power granted by a series of court rulings involving the Endangered Species Act. The State Water Resources Control Board also will need to sign off on the plan, but so far, everything “is still up in the air,” said spokesman Tim Moran.

Maria Rea, assistant regional manager for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the federal agencies are trying to balance competing demands for a water supply that remains surprisingly taut.

“All the agencies are working together on a daily basis to try to find a scenario that work best for smelt and salmon, and for water supply and operations,” she said. “It’s a challenging year.”

Rea said 2016 started out with promise. Shasta Lake gained nearly 1 million acre-feet of water during a two-week period in March. With the reservoir projected to fill, the Bureau of Reclamation gave Rea’s office a flow-control model that appeared to meet the temperature requirement to keep the winter-run Chinook from dying. On April 1, the bureau announced its water-delivery projections to its contractors.

“Then – fairly familiar story here – about two weeks later they sent us an email that said the lake was setting up much warmer than they had predicted, and their projections and predictions about ability to meet temperatures were no longer valid,” Rea said.

In 2014, a similar scenario played out: Federal and state officials announced a plan to keep temperatures in key portions of the Sacramento River below 56 degrees, the point above which young salmon start to die. The bureau calculated the water would be cold enough to ensure survival of 30 percent of the fish. But its calculations proved faulty, and only 5 percent of the juveniles lived. Last year was even worse; water temperatures exceeded the maximum 1,600 times and only 3 percent of the juveniles survived.

All the agencies are working together on a daily basis to try to find a scenario that work best for smelt and salmon, and for water supply and operations. It’s a challenging year.

Maria Rea, assistant regional manager, National Marine Fisheries Service

Sparked by “long-standing” concerns with the bureau’s modeling, Rea said, the fisheries regulators are trying to build in extra cushion this year. They’ve told the bureau to keep the water temperature directly over the spawning beds below Shasta Dam at 55 degrees or lower.

Hunt said Friday that meeting that goal may not be realistic. “We’re not sure the parameters that ... they want us to meet are possible,” he said.

Maintaining that 1-degree difference would translate into additional water held back longer at Shasta – and considerable anxiety for downstream farmers awaiting deliveries.

After two years of heavy fallowing of fields, rice farmers significantly ramped up their planting this spring in the expectation that water deliveries were returning to normal, said Tim Johnson of the California Rice Commission. But already some farmers say they’re grappling with Sacramento River flows that are lower than expected, and worry whether they’ll have enough water to sustain their crops.

“The expectation had been that the same sorts of sacrifice would not be required, because we have water behind Shasta,” said Lewis Bair of Reclamation District 108, an irrigation agency in Grimes.

In Sutter County, the small Meridian Farms Water Co. shut off one of its three pumps several weeks ago because the Sacramento was so low it was getting harder to pull water out.

“The river was dropping, and we were in danger of damaging (the pump),” said manager Andy Duffey. Farmers who rely on that pump are drawing on groundwater instead, but are worried about making it through the summer, he said.

Holding water back at Shasta could have implications beyond the Valley’s rice fields. It may mean a second year in which regulators draw more heavily on Folsom Lake to help control salinity levels in the Delta.

State and federal dam operators are required to maintain flows that ensure downstream fish survive. They’re also supposed to ensure enough fresh water flowing through the Delta to keep seawater from rushing into the estuary and compromising salinity levels. The fresh water pumped from the Delta supplies irrigation for millions of acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley and drinking water for 25 million residents.

Costa, the Fresno congressman, said preliminary modeling his staff has performed, based on the federal proposal, show that regulators would need to drain Folsom down to 300,000 acre-feet, less than a third of its total capacity.

Hunt, the Bureau of Reclamation spokesman, said a number of scenarios are being discussed. “Some of them do rely more heavily on Folsom than others,” he said, “probably not to the extent that we saw last year, because Folsom is in such a better place than it was a year ago. But there are real possibilities that it could impact Folsom.”

The expectation had been that the same sorts of sacrifice would not be required, because we have water behind Shasta.

Lewis Bair, Reclamation District 108

Tom Gohring, executive director of the Sacramento Water Forum, said urban water districts that rely on Folsom for their supply shouldn’t have a problem providing for their customers, but some are getting anxious because the feds haven’t offered a precise plan.

“The uncertainty that we’re feeling right now is really hard to deal with,” Gorhing said.

Costa said the Shasta scenario would have ripple effects on agricultural operations throughout California. Farmers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley could see zero water deliveries from the Delta for a third straight year, despite having been promised a 5 percent allocation, he said. Eastside farmers could lose half of the federal water deliveries they were told in April to expect, according to Costa’s calculations.

That could force farmers to crank on their groundwater pumps for yet another year, a troublesome prospect in parts of the Central Valley where groundwater basins have been declared critically overdrafted.

“That’s not sustainable,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager at the sprawling Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley. “Pumping that much groundwater is not sustainable.”

Efforts to save the tiny Delta smelt might translate into additional shortfalls in water deliveries.

Based on abysmal spring trawling surveys for adult smelt, scientists say only a few thousand of the estuary’s namesake fish remain, after numbering in the millions just a few decades ago. Steve Martarano, a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that because the fish live only a year, the juveniles that are left must be kept alive through the hot summer so they can grow into adults and spawn next winter and spring.


Hunt said the bureau is considering “augmenting Delta outflow” this summer – that is, letting more water than usual flow to the ocean “to make sure the babies that were produced this year thrive and survive.” He said the bureau might try to buy the water rather than just cut deliveries to contractors, but funds are limited and there’s not much water available to purchase.

Like the fisheries agencies, the Bureau of Reclamation finds itself in a difficult balancing act: While the water situation improved this spring, the drought never went away.

“This is still just the drought affecting us,” Hunt said. “We’re not out of the woods. Everything is not fixed.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow