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Cut in Shasta flows increases water concerns

Issue Date: June 10, 2015
By Kate Campbell

Uncertainties have grown about the state's ability to deliver water for multiple uses, as officials reviewed river and reservoir temperature models for cold water being released from the state's largest reservoir, Shasta Lake, to protect salmon.

The State Water Resources Control Board has temporarily suspended releases from Shasta Lake into the Sacramento River. Officials said after four years of drought and very little snow melt, water temperatures are higher than expected.

Salmon and their eggs are very sensitive to water temperatures and are damaged or destroyed when water temperatures rise above 56 degrees.

In a May 29 letter to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates the dam as part of the Central Valley Project, the water board said it was suspending a federal water management plan it previously approved April 6.

SWRCB Executive Director Tom Howard said the water board heard "significant concerns" about the bureau's provisional temperature-control plan at a May 20 drought workshop in Sacramento. Taking a closer look later, water board members called for a plan that adds a greater margin of safety for fisheries.

At about the same time, the bureau told the board that temperatures in Shasta Lake are significantly warmer than expected and will likely make it impossible for the federal agency to meet the 56 degrees maximum temperature requirement at Clear Creek throughout the temperature-control season—through summer and early fall.

Chris Scheuring, an environmental attorney for the California Farm Bureau Federation, said that while the temporary cutback in releases from Shasta Lake represents a small fraction of agricultural water supply in an average year, farmers remain concerned that the inability to manage temperature requirements could lead to longer, deeper cutbacks.

"We're in a bad situation and there's just no slack in the system for anything," Scheuring said. "We're scraping the bottom of the barrel for human use, as well as for protected fisheries. The only reasonable conclusion we can draw from this is that additional storage might help in critical drought years like this."

Scheuring said additional water storage capacity would certainly give water managers "more options to operate the system and still manipulate temperatures in a way that supports fisheries, without detracting from reliable water supplies for cities and farms."

In the case of the current problems with water temperatures and the potential harm for salmon and steelhead, he said a project such as the proposed Sites Reservoir in Colusa County could add water to the system and increase flexibility.

Raising Shasta Dam would increase both water storage levels and expand the cold water pool behind the dam to protect fisheries during the next, inevitable drought, Scheuring said.

"Additional storage projects built with Proposition 1 bond money, which California voters approved by a wide margin, would enhance our ability to take protective actions—particularly in critical drought years—without shutting down water deliveries to human beings," he said.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said water temperatures coming from Whiskeytown Dam into Clear Creek have been about 2 degrees warmer than last year and 3 degrees warmer than average.

Because of what it called deteriorating watershed conditions in Antelope, Deer and Mill creeks, which drain into the Sacramento, the state water board also suspended all water rights within those watersheds. Because fisheries experts found salmon in the creeks, officials ordered flushing releases to clear them from the creeks.

On the Russian River, state Department of Fish and Wildlife experts, working in collaboration with the National Marine Fisheries Service, have advised the water board and property owners that low-flow conditions in the river's tributaries have resulted in "significant declines in salmonid production and survival" during the 2014 season and the continued drought conditions in 2015.

Because Central California coho salmon and steelhead are protected under the state and federal Endangered Species Acts and because of what they called a large and not fully known number of summer diversions for residential gardens and domestic water use, the agencies warned of the possibility of curtailments in the Russian River watershed.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife said it is in discussions with several landowners, including representatives from the wine sector, to develop agreements to release stored water to improve instream flow for coho salmon.

"It's incumbent upon California to bring some solutions to water supplies generally and new cold water assets, in particular," Scheuring said. "We cannot give up on the need for human water supplies. We must think about new projects for more flexible and reliable management of the state system.

"California voters overwhelmingly agree that we need more storage," he said. "The time is now."

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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