American River flows at lowest level in 21 years

Fishermen, bicyclists and hikers trudged along the American River on Saturday, surveying the historically low flows and wondering about the impact.

In response to extreme dry conditions, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation cut water releases from Folsom Dam into the river gradually last week from 1,100 cubic feet per second to 500 cfs Friday. About half a million residents in suburban Sacramento rely on the dam for water.

The strict water-conservation measures have created the lowest flows anyone has seen in a generation, which stands in contrast to the median flow for January of 1,700 cfs for the past 15 years.

At William Pond Park, Carmichael native Amy Musial, 32, snapped a couple photos of the exposed rocks and islands.

“It’s crazy,” said Musial, who grew up playing in the river. “I’ve never seen it this low.”

Musial ventured out with her husband and 3-year-old son just to see the water level.

“We would be standing in a few feet of water here,” Musial said, “but not anymore.”

The last time American River flows were dropped to this level was in 1993, according to the Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Folsom and Nimbus dams on the river.

Users of the river parks are watching the developments warily. Sven Lund, organizer of the SacYakkers kayaking club, said 3,000 cfs is ideal for kayaks. At the current rate, several parts are unnavigable, he said.

But it’s fishermen who have the most on the line.

“I can tell it’s different already. All of this should be underwater,” said Garrett Smith, 18, who was getting ready to wade to the other side of the river to catch some fish. “It’s no good seeing the river like this.”

Smith and friend Ian Brady, 16, visit the river year round. During salmon season, the two come out at least four times a week.

Only three fishermen could be spotted from Harold Richey Memorial Bridge, which connects William Pond Park to River Bend Park in Rancho Cordova. They fished amid the backdrop of a gentle current and cloudy skies.

In many cases, the low flows have exposed the eggs of nesting salmon. The Sacramento Water Forum, composed of a consortium of water providers, businesses and environmental interests, estimates that 12 percent of eggs will be “de-watered.”

“It will force fish into tighter places and might actually make fishing easier,” said Tom Gohring, the forum’s executive director. “But fishing activities have the potential to be more harmful because we’ve now concentrated the incubated salmon into smaller areas.”

Gohring said there was a strong chance flows could be reduced even further, to 250 cfs, the minimum allowed by law.

Last week, environmental groups called on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to close the river to fishing. The Sierra Salmon Alliance noted that as the river shrinks, steelhead migrating upstream to spawn will inevitably be hooked by anglers.

Drought warnings have reached fever pitch in the past few days, as officials announced a slew of draconian measures to reduce water usage across the region. Sacramento city officials are proposing a 20 percent to 30 percent reduction in water use by residents, businesses and city agencies. At the state level, the Department of Water Resources is planning to draft an emergency drought declaration for Gov. Jerry Brown’s consideration.

A much-anticipated storm dumped close to nothing in the region Saturday, ending hopes that relief was on the horizon.

Just before 11 a.m., a few drops of rain began falling at William Pond Park, sending people walking the trails ducking for shelter. But the brief showers were so insignificant that the precipitation was unlikely to be measurable, said Drew Peterson, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

Most of the precipitation from Saturday’s storm ended up in the Sierra Nevada, but even there, the results were negligible. The weather service is predicting 2 to 4 inches of white powder for elevations of 6,000 feet and higher.

And, Peterson said, “The snow won’t stick around long. It’s not going to change the situation up there, especially for the resorts that can’t create snow.”

After the weekend, the Sacramento region and the Sierra are expected to move back into a mild, dry pattern, Peterson said.

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