Commentary: No-compromise stance will hurt, not help, environment
By Dennis Wyatt
When this photo was taken in mid-January, levels in Folsom Lake were near historic lows, and a tripling of water releases at that time would have cut storage in the reservoir even more sharply.
Photo/Department of Water Resources
The late Stan Nader Sr. was a member of a family whose cattle ranching roots in Placer County go back to the 1870s.
During the 1976 drought, he told of an opportunity he had in the 1940s to buy ranch land that today encompasses the upper middle class American River Bluffs neighborhood in Fair Oaks in Sacramento County. He inspected the land in late August. He checked on the nearest surface water source—the American River. He recalled that he waded across the river, with water never going much higher than his ankle. He passed on the opportunity.
Today, the water in the American River is much deeper despite California struggling with its third year of severe drought. That's because Folsom Dam was completed in 1956. If it weren't for the Bureau of Reclamation facility, the American River today would probably not be much more than a trickle and fish would be struggling not to perish.
The fact a decent amount of water is still flowing in the American River despite the drought isn't good enough for environmental and fishing groups.
As a bureau-operated reservoir, Folsom Dam as of today will not be delivering any water to agricultural users. Instead, what remains behind the concrete structure is designated exclusively to protect the river environment and the fish.
The Save the American River Association, Public Trust Alliance, California Sportsfishing Protection Alliance and California Save Our Streams Council have filed a complaint with the State Water Resources Control Board to force the bureau to increase river flows and lower the water temperature.
The concern is the health and vitality of the fall-run for Chinook salmon and steelhead, the same fish that drive water flow talks on the Stanislaus River impacting South San Joaquin Irrigation District water sources.
The state agency's permit issued to the bureau for the operation of Folsom Dam allows water flows to drop as low as 250 cubic feet per second. That's significantly higher than when Nader waded across the American River 80-some years ago. It dropped that low this past winter due to the drought. Nature, it seems, doesn't have to comply with state agencies or environmental lawsuits when it comes to water flow in rivers.
The groups want the state agency to raise the minimum flow allowed to 750 cubic feet per second, calling it the minimum needed for a healthy fish population. They also want the bureau to draw water from the bottom of the lake for release, since it is cooler. Water temperatures matter to fish. If it rises to 70 degrees or more, not only do fish have a harder time surviving but they won't spawn. American River water temperatures have in the past reached or surpassed that mark, including during previous droughts. The groups want guarantees that temperatures won't exceed 56 degrees in fall or winter and 63 degrees in the summer to protect the fish.
Modifying Folsom Dam to tap into deeper and colder water at the lake for release into the river is reasonable.
Ordering increased minimum flows, though, sets the stage for an ecological disaster of biblical proportions.
Had the 750 cubic feet per second minimum flow been in place during previous droughts, it would have severely curtailed water flows beyond what occurred. That's because increased water releases in winter during a drought cycle mean less water will be available when cities and farms need it in the spring, summer and fall.
The collective memory of the groups involved in the complaint is extremely short. Back just three months ago, Folsom Lake was at a historic low of just 18 percent capacity. Had the releases been tripled to meet the proposed 750 cubic feet per second flows, it would have been much lower.
Depending upon how the drought unfolds in the coming months, higher flows could mean a return to the 1940s flows by August, which would be catastrophic for fish.
And if you keep cutting into Central Valley Project and State Water Project storage as a percentage that is supposedly committed for urban and farm uses, you will place underground aquifers under severe stress up and down California as cities and agriculture scramble for other water sources.
And if hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland is fallowed, you create the potential for severe dust bowls. That in turn will harm the environment and worsen air quality. You could also set the stage for extremely low water flows on many rivers in the state, further threatening fish.
How can one little rule change on one river possibly lead to such a scenario?
It's a domino effect that a precedent would create.
Change the rules of the game in the middle of a drought when there are 38 million people and millions of acres of farmland and no additional downstream water storage facilities to capture whatever excess there is in wet years and you will exacerbate water shortages.
Do that and the environmentalists that take a no-compromise approach in partnership with sportsfishing groups will set the stage for an ecological Armageddon in California.
(Dennis Wyatt is executive editor of the Manteca Bulletin, in which this commentary originally appeared. Reprinted with permission.)