Water & Drought

Shasta water release plan has no cutbacks to farmers – for now

In drought-stricken California, the drops that divide farmers and tribes

In times of drought, state officials find it increasingly difficult to fulfill their legal and contractual obligations to distribute water.
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In times of drought, state officials find it increasingly difficult to fulfill their legal and contractual obligations to distribute water.

After weeks of uncertainty and pressure from members of Congress, federal officials on Wednesday announced a plan for managing water releases from California’s largest reservoir this summer in a manner that will not involve cutbacks in farm water deliveries – at least if all goes as hoped.

For more than a month, federal agencies have battled behind the scenes over how to balance the needs of California farms and two endangered fish species whose populations have been decimated by years of drought and environmental decline.

Federal fisheries officials – who hold considerable sway over how the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates Shasta Dam and other federal reservoirs – had been weighing whether to hold back substantial volumes of water at Shasta Lake into the summer to protect juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon. A companion proposal called for letting more water flow to the Pacific Ocean through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta during summer, in hopes of bolstering survival rates for another species teetering on the brink of extinction, the Delta smelt.

Both plans met with forceful opposition from Central Valley farmers, who rely heavily on Shasta water deliveries for irrigation. The proposals would have meant another year of curtailed deliveries during key portions of the growing season.

Instead, the Shasta plan released Wednesday marked a victory for farm interests and a significant about-face for fisheries officials. Rather than the more drastic proposal under discussion, the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reverted to a model for operating Shasta Dam that stays the course for giving farmers more water deliveries than in recent years.

Agency officials said their compromise plan should still result in ample cool water to keep endangered winter-run Chinook from dying in the Sacramento River. The bureau will be required to closely monitor temperatures in Shasta Lake to ensure that cold-water releases are possible through summer and fall. If they determine that Shasta is too warm, they will cut back releases to ensure there is enough cool water for later in the year.

Barry Thom, a deputy regional administrator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, acknowledged in a letter signing off on the plan that, even with the monitoring, “some temperature-dependent mortality is expected” for the winter-run Chinook.

Reclamation spokesman Shane Hunt said the less drastic approach was justified following a relatively wet winter in Northern California after four dry years. The reservoir has almost twice as much water this year as it did last year, he said.

But he noted that uncertainty remains for California’s water supply, and farm deliveries still could be curtailed if the bureau isn’t able to maintain stable temperatures.

“It’s possible there could be changes,” Hunt said. “That’s always a possibility.”

Salmon fishing groups and environmentalists expressed disappointment in the more tepid approach outlined Wednesday, and also skepticism about the federal government’s commitment to rescuing endangered Delta fish.

“They agreed to something earlier in the year that would have been more protective; they failed to make that, and now they’re falling back from that,” said Jonathan Rosenfield, a conservation biologist at the nonprofit Bay Institute of San Francisco. “That’s not a good start.”

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 that 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 worse; water temperatures exceeded the maximum 1,600 times and only 3 percent of the juveniles survived.

Earlier this year, with Shasta Lake temperatures yet again outpacing predictions, federal fisheries officials expressed frustration with the bureau’s forecasting models, and discussed setting even lower temperature requirements through summer to provide a cushion for the winter run’s survival.

Concerned at the prospect of cutbacks, California’s powerful farm lobby and its congressional allies began pressuring the agencies to ensure that promises of increased water deliveries made to Central Valley farmers last spring would be met. On June 9, 15 House members from California sent a letter urging the Obama administration to reject the more stringent Shasta plan under discussion, saying it would cripple the state’s farming economy and possibly lead to water shortages for cities.

In addition, individual lawmakers followed up with the kind of personal lobbying that can amplify influence.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, for instance, talked to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, who oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service, and Deputy Interior Secretary Michael L. Connor, a Westerner who has immersed himself in California water issues. The staff of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield was in contact with Bureau of Reclamation officials.

On Wednesday, Costa celebrated the announcement of the revised Shasta proposal.

“It is a fair outcome in a very challenging water year,” Costa said in a prepared statement, “but now, it is incumbent upon the Bureau of Reclamation to meet these performance standards to ensure that communities in the San Joaquin Valley do not have their water supplies cut further, and that the third-year class of winter-run Chinook salmon is not put further at risk.”

Michael Milstein, a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said improved temperature monitoring this year, among other guarantees, should help avoid a crisis. “We made some significant additions to the plan to ensure that the cold-water pool is protected for these fish,” he said.

The Shasta operating plan is subject to approval by the State Water Resources Control Board. Spokesman Tim Moran said the board will hear an update at its July 6 meeting.

Meanwhile, the federal government still has no formal plan to rescue the Delta smelt. Once the plan for Shasta – the linchpin in the federal Central Valley Project – is in place, Hunt said, officials will turn their attention to how other reservoirs could be managed this summer to aid in the species’ survival.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow

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