Complaint alleges American River flows too slow, warm in Sacramento area

The federal government’s operation of Folsom and Nimbus dams is harming fall-run Chinook salmon and steelhead in the American River, several environmental and fishing groups allege in a complaint filed this week with the state.

The groups are urging the State Water Resources Control Board to amend the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s permits to require colder and faster river flows from the two dams. The board has authority over water rights issued to the Bureau of Reclamation, as well as responsibility for protecting public trust resources, including fisheries and water quality. The board first issued operating permits for the dams in 1958.

“We’ve got to have a guaranteed higher flow, and there have to be modifications to Folsom Dam that will allow them to tap the coldest (water) pool in the reservoir,” said Stephen Green, president of Save the American River Association. “When temperatures are high and flows are low, we know that fish are being killed, and it’s not just this year. It’s been going on for decades.”

The other groups involved in the complaint are the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, California Save Our Streams Council and the Public Trust Alliance.

The water board is reviewing the complaint, which was received on April 4, said spokesman George Kostyrko. If it decides the complaint has merit, it could be scheduled for a hearing or further investigation.

“It is still early in the process, so we haven’t arrived at that, or any conclusions yet,” Kostyrko said via email.

Reclamation officials said they haven’t reviewed the complaint yet and had no comment.

Reclamation’s permit with the state allows it to reduce flows in the lower American River, which cuts through the Sacramento area, to as low as 250 cubic feet per second under certain conditions. Such flows were reached earlier this winter because of the drought, and may occur again this summer and fall. The complaint alleges this is insufficient to support healthy fish life, and should be raised to at least 750 cfs, Green said.

In addition, the groups want Reclamation ordered to modify Folsom Dam so it can release cold water stored deeper in the reservoir. The water currently released into the American River, after being stored in the reservoir under the hot summer sun, can be too warm to support salmon and steelhead. The latter is a threatened species.

The complaint asks that Reclamation be required to maintain river temperatures at no more than 56 degrees in fall and winter, and 63 degrees in summer to protect fall-run Chinook salmon and steelhead, along with colder flows during specific periods. In reality, according to data filed with the complaint, the lower American River is often much warmer. It has exceeded 70 degrees on occasion, including during previous droughts, which can prevent fish from spawning and lead to illness and death.

The water in most reservoirs becomes “stratified” during storage, meaning the coldest water sinks to the bottom with a warmer layer on top. The water release structures at Folsom Dam are not deep enough to tap into the coldest bottom layer.

The complaint asks that the water board order new operational rules and require significant modifications to Folsom Dam that could cost millions of dollars. This would include modifying at least one of the powerhouse intakes at the dam and constructing a new automated temperature-activated shutter system to release cold water in the reservoir.

The Sacramento Water Forum, a coalition of area water agencies and environmental groups, has been negotiating with Reclamation for years to amend flow requirements governing the dams. But this has not yet resulted in any legally binding permit conditions.

“We have been very frustrated at the Water Forum that nothing could happen,” Green said. “So we decided to do a complaint on our own.”

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