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Cuts to Shasta releases create new uncertainty

Issue Date: June 24, 2015
By Kate Campbell

A water temperature miscalculation at Shasta Dam could send water transfer agreements worth millions of dollars toppling like dominoes from one end of the state to the other.

And, California farmers who've been counting on supplemental water supplies at the height of irrigation season could find that water unavailable.

Due to a miscalculation during the severe drought, state and federal officials said temperatures in Shasta Lake are warmer than originally thought, which could harm protected salmon runs.

Fisheries experts said after reviewing temperature models to determine the amount of cold water—below 56 degrees—in Shasta Lake, there isn't enough to protect temperature-sensitive salmon and still deliver the 75 percent of contract amount promised in the spring to Central Valley Project settlement contractors.

During a briefing last week, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation representatives said the best river temperature they can achieve in the fall through cold pool releases is about 57 degrees, which suggests some damage to salmon will occur, but it may not be catastrophic for the federally protected fall and winter chinook runs.

Warmer-than-expected Sacramento River temperatures in 2014, however, resulted in an estimated 95 percent loss of fall and winter runs and fisheries experts said they cannot afford to losing two runs back-to-back.

Federal and state officials announced a revised water-release plan last week intended to preserve the cold pool through the summer by reducing water deliveries to senior Sacramento River settlement contractors and San Joaquin exchange contractors by about 20 percent.

"Changes in Shasta operations will have a system-wide effect on Central Valley Project and State Water Project operations and water supplies," said David Murillo, the bureau's regional director.

"Every effort will be made to minimize the water supply effects of the adjusted operations and ensure water is provided to meet community needs.," he said.

Officials said they now will begin making water management decisions on a weekly or even daily basis. They also said they will need to balance water quality standards in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which may require releasing water down the Sacramento River to control saltwater intrusion into the delta.

In an average year, releases would be about 12,000 to 14,000 cubic feet per second. The water board is now calling for about 7,250 cfs to preserve the Shasta cold pool through the end of August.

"Every time I think the situation can't get more difficult, it does," said Chuck Bonham of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "The winter-run Chinook salmon may not survive losses in the Sacramento that are similar to last year."

The four-year drought continues to force hard decisions, he said, "on how to allocate limited water supplies to meet ecological, urban and agricultural needs."

Water districts and farmers statewide now are determining the impact of further water delivery cuts and what they would mean for crops already in the ground.

"We're trying to stay abreast of all the things going on between the bureau and the fishery agencies," said Thad Bettner, Glenn Colusa Irrigation District general manager.

"With revision of Shasta release operations, there's going to be a much tighter operation on the Sacramento River for settlement operators and there will be more cutbacks for farmers," Bettner said.

Bettner said that means further limits to water diversions, lower flows and greater demands to meet the needs delta needs.

"Our plan is to do some additional groundwater pumping and work with other agencies and farmers to manage 450,000 acres of farmland by moving and sharing whatever water is in the system," Bettner said. "We're going to try to meet peak irrigation demand for crops in our region."

Bettner said Sacramento River settlement contractors were expecting 75 percent of contract amount and made plans to voluntarily sell and transfer about 20 percent of that water to farmers who need it south of the delta.

Last week's announcement translates into a further supply reduction of 15 percent to 20 percent, bringing settlement contractors' water supplies down suddenly to somewhere between 35 percent and 50 percent of contract amount.

The overall value of the transfer-water contracts that may not be fully honored is not known at this time, he said.

"We're holding landowner meetings this week to see what else can be put on the table," he said, "but, this is going to ripple through the whole water system statewide. It's going to be tough."

Having additional water stored in the proposed Sites Reservoir, which would be built in an off-stream location within the GCID service area, would provide more flexibility in the current situation, he said, if it were built.

"With additional stored water, the environment would have a way to receive needed cold water releases, without cutting so deeply into farmers' contract amounts," said Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director. "This situation highlights the pressing need for building new water storage so it's available for human and environmental needs during dry periods."

Bonham estimated the cold-water pool behind Shasta Dam is about 30 percent smaller than previously thought. Lack of snow melt and warmer temperatures are cited for the warmer water conditions.

Water users who've arranged to buy supplies from contractors with more-senior rights will still have to pay even if they don't get the water. On top of that, they could lose the water itself, which they are counting on to support permanent and seasonal crops.

Meanwhile, Sacramento River Settlement Contractors organization said in a prepared statement the revised Shasta release plan will mean stretching available supplies to meet demands, which may include increased groundwater pumping consistent with the emergency authority approved by the governor this year.

Even so, the water group said there'll need to be more flexible operations this summer than is currently being proposed by the state and federal agencies. Increased releases from Shasta reservoir will be needed during July to adequately meet all beneficial uses required in the Sacramento Valley, as well as providing critical water supplies for other parts of the state, the organization said.

"The severe cuts are going to make it very difficult for settlement contractors on the Sacramento River because the flows will be low. That means little water making it through to the delta," said Chris White, Central California Irrigation District manager. "The summer is going to be very difficult.

He said his agency anticipates little or no pumping from the delta at the federal pumps.

"There's a mismatch here," he said. "We're going into the peak of our irrigation season at the same time pumping will be near zero. We're facing a critical situation in this area."

(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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