Water & Drought

California drought regulators back off controversial salmon-rescue plan

As regulators consider how best to manage the state’s meager water supplies – decisions that have life-and-death impact on Chinook salmon – new data is showing that the species is faring worse than ever.
As regulators consider how best to manage the state’s meager water supplies – decisions that have life-and-death impact on Chinook salmon – new data is showing that the species is faring worse than ever. AP

California drought regulators on Tuesday backed off a controversial plan to withhold water from farms and cities next year in an effort to preserve an endangered species of salmon, instead choosing a more flexible approach they said still could do the trick.

The State Water Resources Control Board, after a four-hour meeting, voted 4-0 to require that regulators work to ensure Sacramento River temperatures don’t exceed 56 degrees next year, the maximum at which juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon can survive. But the board decided to give the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation considerable leeway in determining how best to meet that temperature threshold.

The board was contemplating a plan that would have required the bureau to hold back an additional 200,000 acre-feet of water at Lake Shasta through next October. That would help ensure that the water released into the Sacramento River would be cool enough to keep the juvenile salmon alive during next year’s run. The plan would have kept 1.6 million acre-feet in Shasta much of next year, up from 1.4 million acre-feet this year.

Farmers and groups representing downstream cities complained that the plan was too rigid and would deprive them of badly needed supplies. Environmentalists, conversely, complained it didn’t go far enough to guarantee the species’ survival. Practically everyone agreed that the proposal was premature and that the water board should wait to see how heavy the winter rain and snow gets.

Board members said their substitute order will benefit fish while keeping river and reservoir operations flexible.

Frances Spivy-Weber, the water board’s vice chair, said the board wasn’t walking away from its responsibility to the winter-run Chinook, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act. She said the substitute plan gives the Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Water Resources, which run the state’s major dams, the breathing room to make sure the water stays cold without dictating terms.

The new order establishes 1.6 million acre-feet in Shasta as “a planning target,” not a requirement.

She noted that the Bureau of Reclamation and DWR are required under the order to submit a definitive temperature plan by March 15, a requirement that was lacking this year. “By then, we’ll know how much snow there is, how much rain there is,” she said in an interview.

Plenty is at stake. The winter-run Chinook have a three-year spawning cycle, and the juvenile fish have nearly been wiped out the past two years. Barely 5 percent of the young fish survived in 2014 because of the drought, and the figures are worse this year: The National Marine Fisheries Service estimated Tuesday that there are 29 percent fewer juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River compared with a year ago.

“There’s been the ‘E word’ tossed around: extinction,” Garwin Yip, a branch chief with the fisheries agency, told the water board. He said researchers believe only 3 to 5 percent of the juvenile fish survived this year.

The board’s order requires that Folsom Lake levels not sink below 200,000 acre-feet, bringing some relief to suburban Sacramento water agencies. Folsom has fallen to around 134,000 acre-feet this fall, as more water than usual has been released to make up for the lack of flows from Shasta. The extra water from Folsom is needed to tamp down salinity levels in the Delta.

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler

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