Watch water pour down Oroville spillway for first time since 2017
It was a big milestone for the state officials who manage Oroville Dam: For several days in early April, they sent water down the dam’s flood control spillway, showing that the concrete chute was finally functional after a two-year, $1.1 billion repair job.
But downstream from the dam, fishing guides on the Feather River say they found thousands of baby salmon that turned up dead after the state Department of Water Resources reduced flows down the spillway and water levels on the river abruptly receded. They provided The Sacramento Bee with photos of dead and dying fish on the riverbanks to back up their allegations.
Now the Trump administration is demanding answers. On Tuesday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — which holds the dam’s license — sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration asking for detailed information on how many fish died and what DWR would do to prevent future fish kills. The move could lead to more tension between the Trump and Newsom administration over Oroville Dam.
In March, Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it wasn’t going to reimburse the state for $306 million in repairs stemming from the 2017 spillway crisis. The agency said federal taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for problems that existed prior to a massive hole forming in the dam’s concrete.
State officials say the federal government’s concerns about the dead fish are overblown. They say biologists spent two days surveying the Feather River and only found a few dead fish — not enough to raise alarms.
“Along the 60-some miles surveyed, there were some mortalities, but nothing that we believed was significant enough to warrant rescues,” Jordan Traverso, a spokeswoman for the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said Friday in an email.
Fishing guides are incredulous. They say state biologists didn’t look very hard, if at all, for the stranded fish they were finding all along the Feather River’s banks. On social media, the guides shared videos and pictures of dead and dying fish along the river banks.
“They’re full of it. They don’t want to get caught with their pants down,” said James Stone, president of The Nor-Cal Guides & Sportsmen’s Association. “The truth is there were thousands of fish that died.”
At issue is how quickly the Department of Water Resources ramped down spillway flows from Oroville Dam this spring, and whether dam operators gave enough time for fish downstream to return to safety as the waters Feather River rapidly receded.
In 2017, similar rapid drops in river flows after the spillway failed led to thousands of fish stranded along the river banks. Citing the risk to imperiled fish, federal fisheries regulators at the time urged the state to avoid the sudden shutoffs, but the DWR declined. State biologists subsequently conducted a massive rescue operation along the Feather that winter to try to save as many fish as possible that were dying along the river banks.
Now, the Trump administration wants to know if something similar happened in early April, when Oroville Dam managers began releasing water from the spillway for the first time since it was rebuilt. The flows continued for five days, according to the letter to DWR from Thomas LoVullo, the chief of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s aquatic resources branch.
On April 8, in a matter of a few hours, dam managers dropped flows from 25,000 cubic feet of water per second to 15,000. Two days later, the flows dropped again in a matter of hours, down to 10,000 feet per second, LoVullo wrote.
Anglers on the Feather River soon began reporting that the river levels plummeted so quickly fish that had been swimming in the inundated areas beside the river’s main channel didn’t have time to swim back into the current, and the salmon died. Some of the fish were juvenile spring-run Chinook salmon that had just been released from the state’s Feather River Fish Hatchery below the dam, LoVullo said.
Central Valley spring-run salmon were listed as threatened under both the federal Endangered Species Act in 1999. However, hatchery-raised spring-run aren’t protected under the law.
In his letter, LoVullo said the California Department of Fish and Wildlife told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission “that the flow reductions resulted in stranded fish.” He wanted to know how many — and what the state planned to do prevent fish from getting stranded when the spillway’s used again.
“Your project licenses requires that you operate the project in such a manner that changes in rates of release from Oroville Reservoir ... will be gradual and minimal at all times insofar as this is consistent with operation requirements,” LoVullo said.
Mark Smith, a lobbyist for the guides, said that with so many hatchery fish in the river, the DWR should have at least coordinated with wildlife officials on the timing of the releases.
“(DWR) doesn’t seem to know what it’s sister agencies are doing, and when it does it doesn’t seem to care,” Smith said.
Department of Water Resources spokeswoman Erin Mellon disputes that. She said her agency works with fisheries officials and LoVullo’s agency, “balancing a number of factors including public safety, flood control, environmental needs, water supply and more.”
“Whenever there is a change in flows — whether as a result of operations or natural conditions — there is a potential for stranding,” she said. “We try to avoid impacts wherever possible, but sometimes operational changes can affect fish.”
To compensate, the Department of Water Resources invests $2.5 million every year to produce 8 million salmon and 450,000 steelhead each year at the hatchery, Mellon said.
Stone and other fishing guides say DWR hasn’t done early enough to restore the Feather River fishery following the Oroville Dam crisis.
After the spillway crumbled, the DWR abruptly shut down the flows on the spillway four times to inspect damage and make repairs.
The seesawing river levels caused mile after mile of riverbanks near Live Oak and Yuba City to fall into the main channel. Several farmers along the river have sued DWR alleging their orchards were damaged as the riverbanks crumbled. Their cases are pending.
After one particularly abrupt draw-down, thousands of fish were unable to follow the rapidly receding water back into the main channel and became stranded in shallow pools along the flood plain.
During the crisis, the National Marine Fisheries Service urged state dam operators to ramp down the releases more gradually to protect Chinook salmon, sturgeon, steelhead and other fish.
The state declined, citing the urgent threat to people downstream of the dam.
State biologists spent several days rescuing stranded fish. In total, they returned nearly 4,000 fish, including 24 endangered and threatened salmon, to the river.
It’s not clear how many were dead by the time the biologists found them or how many fish they missed.
Lately, the problem of stranded fish from DWR facilities isn’t limited to area immediately downstream of Oroville Dam.
In late April, a Sacramento Bee reporter discovered dozens of fish carcasses — 13 of them Chinook salmon protected by the Endangered Species Act — rotting in the sun a couple hundred yards from a new $6.3 million fish passage structure managed by DWR along the Sacramento River.
Neither DWR or the wildlife agency had alerted the public to the fish kill at Fremont Weir at the top of the Yolo Bypass along the Sacramento River.
In response to The Bee finding the dead fish, DWR revealed that an automated gate on the new fish passageway was supposed to open once water levels got high enough to overflow into the bypass, allowing fish to swim back into the Sacramento River.
But in February, DWR noticed it wasn’t working right. Too much water was pouring through the passage, eroding the structure. Officials had to close the gate almost entirely, meaning fewer fish could escape. The agency plans to repair the structure to get it back to working order in time for the next rainy season.
Mellon, the DWR spokeswoman, said Thursday that even though the structure didn’t work as well as it could have, it served its purpose.
“It actually saved hundreds if not thousands of fish this year,” Mellon said. “Some fish were stranded at one point ... but it’s clear that many more fish successfully moved through the facility.”