California Adopts Landmark River Plan to Bring Back Salmon
December 13, 2018
In a landmark vote, California water officials adopted a revolutionary water plan on Wednesday, aimed at restoring the state’s ailing rivers. But they left the door open for a future compromise with the water districts that would bear the brunt of the plan.
The state water board’s plan, almost 10 years in the making and delayed several times, was thrown another curveball by last-minute negotiations between water districts and the Brown Administration.
In the face of tightening supplies, the board asked water users several years ago to put together their own agreement to share water and boost habitat for salmon.
In the hours before the water board’s vote, a tentative agreement had been reached on one river, but not others, so the board voted 4-1 to move ahead.
“Commercial salmon fisherman have experienced decades of disastrous decline,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Association. “Today’s vote could be the turning of the tide.”
The vote means that some water districts, such as San Francisco's, would likely get less water in order to keep more in the rivers where salmon populations have crashed.
The voluntary agreements are still on the table and could be adopted later on. State officials say they could include an even broader array of water districts with millions of dollars in restoration, potentially becoming a “great compromise” of California’s water wars.
What’s at Stake
The plan affects rivers flowing down from the Sierra Nevada, which are heavily used by both farms and cities. In some years, 90 percent of the water is siphoned off.
That’s contributed to a crash in salmon populations, down from around 70,000 in the mid-1980s to about 10,000 in 2017.
So, the state water board has drafted a plan to boost the flows on three rivers, the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced, as part of a water quality analysis for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta that hasn’t been updated for more than 20 years.
“Science shows the delta has been out of balance far too long and is in ecological crisis,” said water board chair Felicia Marcus.
Water districts cried foul, saying the plan would mean losing water that feeds their local economies. That included the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which supplies millions of Bay Area residents with water from the Tuolumne River.
Wildlife groups said the flows wouldn’t be nearly enough to bring salmon back.
“This is not easy,” said Marcus. “This is one of the hardest decisions the board has had to make.”
The divisive debate fit a familiar script in California water of “fish vs. farms,” so the water board put out a challenge: Water districts could come up with their own plan to share water.
The negotiations began, stalled and picked up again. The water board delayed its vote, twice, to give the parties more time.
On Wednesday, state officials presented the water board with the outline of a settlement on the Tuolumne River. Water users on the Stanislaus and Merced couldn’t come to an agreement.
Still, the agreement went beyond the Tuolumne River, including the Sacramento River and other tributaries. The water board is scheduled to consider the flows on those rivers in the next phase of its water quality plan.
Depending on your view, the agreements are either a rare moment of groundbreaking cooperation or a last-ditch effort to delay something long overdue.
“I view this as a way to come up with a comprehensive solution for the Bay-Delta,” said Michael Carlin of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. “If you look at the whole system, that’s how you recover the fishery.”
The plans include habitat restoration, seasonal water flows for salmon and fallowing thousands of acres of land to free up water.
Still, environmental groups were quick to point out, the plans likely won’t provide the river flows currently in the water board’s plan.
“On the Tuolumne River, it really doesn’t represent that significant an improvement over existing conditions in many ways,” said Gary Bobker of the Bay Institute.
“While there was a lot of lipstick that was presented today, underlying that seems to be a pig in the poke,” said Doug Obegi of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The water board plans to do an environmental analysis on the voluntary agreements, which are expected to be more fleshed out by March.
Some water districts cautioned that the agreements may fall apart if the board voted to adopt the flow plan.
“There’s a risk, in my opinion, that we’re all going to be diverted into other processes and that very elusive thing called momentum might be lost,” said Kevin O'Brien, an attorney representing water districts on the Sacramento River.
To actually return water to the rivers, the water board will undertake a water rights review, which could limit some of the oldest water rights holders in the state. Litigation will almost certainly follow.
State Board Demands More Water for Salmon/
December 13, 2018
Los Angles Times By Bettina Boxall
In an unprecedented step, state regulators Wednesday adopted standards that would force San Francisco and several big San Joaquin Valley irrigation districts to give some of their river supplies back to the environment.
But they also left the door open to agreements that would significantly undercut those flow requirements — underscoring the winding path that marks any significant change in California water policy.
The vote by the State Water Resources Control Board is by no means the final say on the matter. Settlement discussions will continue next year. And water users have vowed to challenge the flow mandates in court.
Under the new requirements, water districts would have to reduce their historic diversions from three salmon-bearing rivers, the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced. Average flows on the three tributaries of the San Joaquin River now range from 21% to 40% of what they would be without dams and diversions. At times the river beds hold as little as 10% of the natural flow.
Not only would greater river flows improve conditions for struggling salmon populations, they would ultimately boost needed inflow to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the ecologically ailing center of California’s water system.
Many of the water users have diversion rights that date back a century or more. They have fiercely criticized the board plan, which would collectively cost them 300,000 acre feet of supply — or roughly 15% of their total diversions on all three tributaries.
Irrigation districts argued Wednesday that if the board adopted the flow requirements, it would start a years-long legal war and hinder progress in improving environmental conditions in the delta watershed.
They urged the board instead to give them more time to forge settlements with state water and fish and wildlife agencies.
Officials with those departments have spent the last month in intense negotiations, trying to strike accords — which the state board has encouraged but cannot take part in.
California Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham told board members an agreement had been reached on the Tuolumne River, but not on the Stanislaus and Merced rivers.
Bonham and Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth supported voluntary agreements as the best way to quickly achieve environmental improvements.
They presented the outlines of a settlement framework for the entire delta watershed, including the Sacramento River Basin, which is next in line for new flow standards.
Under their proposed agreements, water districts would make habitat improvements, such as expanding floodplains and building up spawning beds with gravel.
They would also boost fish flows — but to a lesser degree than mandated by the board. Farmers would fallow land to free up irrigation supplies.
Over a 15-year-period, the state would contribute $900 million and water users, $800 million, to a fund to pay for habitat improvements and water purchases for the environment.
The proposed framework would “make things actually happen in a timely way,” said Nemeth, who called it a historic collaboration.
But environmentalists — who have criticized the board’s standards as too weak — condemned the proposed settlement terms as wholly inadequate.
“The settlement is less than half of what the water board asked for,” said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“Without any protections for the delta itself and a proposal that the public would pay for a lot of the water, it looks like the state’s strategy has been to ask for less to get to yes,” he added.
The board vote caps years of discussions and staff work on a long overdue update of water quality standards for the delta.
Regulators have until now principally focused on the harmful environmental effects of the delta’s pumping operations that send water south and have helped push native delta smelt and salmon to the brink of extinction.
The tributary flow standards extend the onus of meeting delta protections to upstream diverters who have long escaped responsibility for the delta’s ecological woes, despite their massive withdrawals from the river systems that feed the delta.
Commercial salmon fishing groups, which have suffered closed seasons and declining catches, praised the board action.
“Today’s vote represents the setting of the bar, and water users will either rise to meet it or get beaten in court,” Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, said in a statement.
Lagunitas Creek spawner update
December 13, 2018
Marin Municipal Water District by Eric Ettlinger
The first big storm of the season arrived on November 28, just as I was sending out the last spawner update. Lagunitas Creek flows increased to over 200 cubic feet per second, prompting a surge of coho salmon to swim upstream. Surveys last week found three coho in Devil’s Gulch, 34 coho in San Geronimo Creek, and 52 coho in Lagunitas Creek. Most of these coho congregated in deep pools to await the next rain and higher stream flows. A school of 32 coho is currently holding in the “Swimming Hole” in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, although they’re very difficult to see. Getting a precise count required lowering a camera on a rope and then post-processing the murky footage. That effort was worth it, however, because among the coho we observed one chum salmon and two adult steelhead. We don’t typically see steelhead until January, and these are the earliest steelhead seen since 2005.
Rain is forecast for Sunday, which will hopefully raise stream flows enough to get large numbers of coho moving and spawning. Monday may be a good day to look for coho jumping through the Inkwells into San Geronimo Creek.
The steelhead seen this week bring our salmonid species total to five, for the second year in a row. We’ll conduct one more survey tomorrow, which will increase this week’s coho count, and possibly the counts of Chinook, chum, and maybe even steelhead.
A preliminary summary of the adult fish count from the Dept. of Fish and Wildlife for Shasta River, Bogus Creek and Scott River has been published.
December 4, 2018
Department of Fish and Wildlife
The attached in season summary of the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Klamath River Project 2018 adult fish counting facility monitoring data. The Shasta River station was installed and operational on September 4, 2018 and through October 12, 2018 17,592 adult Chinook Salmon have been observed. The Bogus Creek adult fish counting facility was installed and operational on September 7, 2018 and 1,226 adult Chinook Salmon have been observed through October 18, 2018. The Scott River station was installed on September 20th and 348 adult Chinook Salmon and 3 Coho Salmon have been observed through November 23, 2018. Just a reminder that the 2018 data provided is preliminary. The Shasta River station was installed and operational on September 4, 2018 and through October 12, 2018 17,592 adult Chinook Salmon have been observed. The Bogus Creek adult fish counting facility was installed and operational on September 7, 2018 and 1,226 adult Chinook Salmon have been observed through October 18, 2018. The Scott River station was installed on September 20th and 348 adult Chinook Salmon and 3 Coho Salmon have been observed through November 23, 2018. See the preliminary 2018 data here.
Salmon spawning tours offered Dec. 9th, 16th
December 4, 2018
Del Norte Triplicate
Del Norters will have a chance to see coho salmon spawn in the Mill Creek Watershed this weekend and next.
The Redwood Parks Conservancy and Redwood National and State Parks are offering free guided trips to view the annual fall migration and salmon spawning this Sunday and on Dec. 16.
The Mill Creek Watershed is regarded as one of California’s most ecologically sensitive areas and a top productive stream for coho salmon, according to a Redwood Parks Conservancy press release. The National Parks Service and California State Parks have been working on several watershed restoration projects for more than 30 years. As habitat conditions improve, more salmon are able to return to the streams of their birth to reproduce, according to the press release.
Under the guidance of Redwood Parks Conservancy volunteer Rick Hiser, participants will carpool in their own vehicles on gravel roads to special viewing locations. Walking over uneven ground for short distances may be required, according to a press release from the nonprofit. Wet weather gear and sturdy hiking shoes are recommended. Polarized glasses and binoculars are suggested, but not required, for best fish viewing. The program will be canceled if it rains or if water clarity is otherwise altered.
The outings are 12:30 p.m.-4 p.m. Dec. 9 and Dec. 16. Space is limited and pre-registration is required. To pre-register, call Hiser at 707-465-6191.