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Water supply: Salmon policy could constrain 2016 deliveries

Issue Date: November 4, 2015
By Kate Campbell

Just as California entered its main precipitation season, federal fishery officials said they doubt whether a rainy winter would be of much benefit to winter-run chinook salmon in the Sacramento River—and raised the prospect that fishery needs will continue to limit water supplies for people in 2016, regardless of the potential storms generated by the El Niño weather pattern.

Irrigation water supplies have been withheld or shifted to protect the salmon, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated last week that 95 percent of 2015 winter-run chinook eggs and juveniles died when Sacramento River temperatures exceeded 56 degrees.

"This situation raises a lot of questions," said Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau Federation environmental attorney. "For example, just how razor thin will the margin of supply be next year for agriculture and urban uses, if the amount of water reserved for fisheries in 2015 didn't help?"

Maria Rea of NOAA said a failed effort to lower Sacramento River temperatures to protect winter-run chinook spawn and juveniles was "not good news."

"This is really a story about the drought and everybody is impacted," she said.

In 2014, she said, only about 400,000 fish migrated downstream, compared with several million usually seen for the period. This spring, people worked hard to put a plan together, Rea said, but only about 200,000 out-migrating chinook were counted.

The 2015 approach to cooling the Sacramento River required significant water delivery cuts and shifts for senior water rights holders in the Sacramento Valley and south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, in what turned out to be an unsuccessful effort to prevent a repeat of the 2014 outcome.

Rea noted that Sacramento Valley irrigation districts worked with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to change the timing and amount of farm-water deliveries and said she was "very grateful to the farmers. They've been really good partners in terms of changing their operations."

Senior project contractors saw their contract allocation cut to 60 percent last spring and they delayed fall water deliveries from Shasta to increase the pool of cold water in the reservoir for release to cool the river and help the fish.

Unknown at this time, officials say, is how much operational flexibility remains in California's water delivery system after four years of drought and supply manipulation to meet required species protections and competing uses.

Rea said she was skeptical a rainy winter would be enough to help the fish in 2016, adding water managers will probably "have to be very conservative with Shasta reservoir next spring."

At the Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region, spokesman Shane Hunt said, "We're all going to have to regroup and reconsider plans while hoping for some good inflow into the reservoirs. Maybe this situation won't be as big an issue next year. Based on how conditions develop, we'll have to figure out what we can do."

Hunt said supply availability and delivery decisions for the bureau's Central Valley Project won't be made until next February and March.

"Weather predictions say it's likely to be warmer this winter, which means more rain than snow, but Shasta is driven more by rain than snow," he said.

But, he acknowledged, "it's highly likely we're not going to have a lot of water to allocate in 2016."

Farm Bureau's Scheuring said fisheries experts should reevaluate their work to manipulate cold water in the Sacramento River. Farmers recognize the need to protect the salmon and have participated in a number of efforts to benefit the fish, he said, but the officials' strategy appears not to be succeeding.

"They held back or pushed water out to save fish, at the expense of farmers, many of whom have been getting zero percent water deliveries," he said. "We understand there are multiple goals on the river right now, but it seems none of them are being met."

Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition noted that although federal agencies had no control over the lack of snow and the need for chilled water during this drought year, "options remain to improve the intelligent management of our water system that can not only reduce the loss of endangered and threatened salmon and other fish, but also improve the reliability of water to farms and cities."

Experts have long known that there are actions that can control damage to natural resources and the state's economy, Wade said, "such as the elimination of invasive and predatory species, reduction of harmful wastewater and runoff, as well as habitat and ecosystem restoration, that can help improve our water future."

(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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