American River fish hatcheries evacuated as water is mismanaged

Written By: Dan Bacher, July 3, 2014

American River fish hatcheries evacuated as water is mismanaged

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) evacuated about 1 million rainbow trout from the American River Fish Hatchery and nearly 430,000 fingerling steelhead from Nimbus Fish Hatchery in Rancho Cordova by June 30. 

This was due to concerns that the cold water pool in Folsom Lake will become depleted, resulting in lethally warm water conditions in the American River below Nimbus Dam that supplies the water for both hatcheries. 

The evacuation of the hatcheries and the depletion of the cold water water takes place after 2013, a record drought year when the Bureau of Reclamation drained Folsom Lake to a record low level, 17 percent of capacity and 32 percent of average, in order to export water to corporate agribusiness interests, oil companies conducting fracking and steam injection operations in Kern County, and Southern California water agencies. 

The impact of the plants was obvious on my recent trips to Silver and Caples Lakes. Both lakes were planted with big loads of rainbows by the American River Fish Hatchery - and boat and bank anglers were catching lots of rainbows on a variety of lures and baits. Anglers fishing lakes and streams throughout the region planted by this hatchery are seeing a similar boost in fishing success. 

While these plants will produce an immediate upswing in fishing at many lakes and streams, it means that fish won’t be planted later in the summer as they normally are at many waters. 

The impact on steelhead should also result in less adult fish returning to Nimbus Fish Hatchery in coming years, since the survival rate of the smaller fish is expected to less than when they are planted at a larger size in February. 

Of course, the depletion of the cold water pool in Folsom will also result in potentially lethal warm waters in the lower American when the fall run of Chinooks arrives this fall. 

Before the steelhead and rainbow trout were released, a CDFW news release explained, “With extreme drought conditions reducing the cold water supply available, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) are moving the last rainbow trout out of the American River Hatchery to avoid future losses of young fish to rising water temperatures.” 

CDFW biologists predict that by mid-summer the temperature of the water entering the hatchery will exceed tolerable temperatures for the growing fish, causing extensive -- if not total -- loss of all fish in the two hatcheries. The fall run Chinook salmon were already delivered by truck to acclimation pens and then released into San Pablo Bay this spring, while the steelhead yearlings from adult fish spawned in the winter of 2012-2013 were released into the Sacramento and lower American rivers in February. 

“We are taking proactive actions to avoid catastrophic fish losses,” said Dr. William Cox, CDFW State Hatchery Program Manager. “It is an unavoidable change, and we need to look for unique opportunities to avert major losses. We will track all changes involved in the evacuation and evaluate how fish react to being released early. Ultimately we could develop new release strategies based on what we learn.” 

American River Hatchery operations focus on taking rainbow trout eggs, while Nimbus Hatchery takes both Chinook salmon and steelhead eggs. Cox noted, “This will be the first time all stocks of fish at both hatcheries have been evacuated.” 

The nearly 430,000 fingerling steelhead from Nimbus Hatchery were released six months ahead of the normal February release time. The early release will undoubtedly result in less of this year's steelhead making it back to the river as adults over the next few years, since the fish will be more subject to predation by birds and other fish when released at a much smaller size than normal. 

The remaining 20 state-managed hatcheries are expected to make it through the summer months and into the winter season without having to evacuate fish, according to Cox. 

Cox said the CDFW would normally call on the Bureau of Reclamation to draft water from what is known as the “Deep Water Pool,” in the depths of Folsom Lake. The transfer of cold late water helps to keep hatchery waters acceptably cool for steelhead in NImbus Fish Hatchery and rainbow trout in the American River Fish Hatchery. 

“However, this year, the length and intensity of the drought is so extensive that little, if any water, in the lake is expected to be cool enough to utilize during sizzling summer months. CDFW predicts water temperatures will exceed 78 degrees in the hatcheries – far too warm for the young trout and salmon to survive,” Cox stated. 

CDFW workers mark hundreds of thousands of steelhead trout at Nimbus Hatchery throughout the fall and winter. Unique markings will enable biologists to evaluate what happens to the fish throughout their life cycle and how the drought conditions will ultimately affect the fish. 

“Fall and winter rains, if received in sufficient amounts, will cool water temperatures enough to allow both hatcheries to come back online and resume operations,” Cox added. 

However, the Department failed to mention that the reason for the depletion of the cold water pool in Folsom is largely due to the poor government management of our water resources in a drought. If the water had been better managed, there would undoubtedly have been more carryover storage in Folsom to maintain a cold water pool this year. 

Last summer, high water releases down the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers left Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs at dangerously low levels. By January 2014, Shasta was at 36 percent of capacity and 53 percent of average; Oroville, 36 percent of capacity and 54 percent of average; and Folsom, 17 percent of capacity and 32 percent of average. 

Yet Pyramid Lake in Los Angeles County was at the same time 96 percent of capacity and 101 percent of average, while Castaic Reservoir was 86 percent of capacity and 102 percent of average. Both are State Water Project reservoirs that receive their water from the Delta through the California Aqueduct. 

The state and federal water agencies exported massive quantities of water to agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies, endangering local water supplies and fish populations as the ecosystem continues to collapse. (

Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, explained how the Department of Water Resources and Bureau of Reclamation systematically mismanaged our water resources, exporting 835,000 acre-feet more water than they said they would be able to deliver. 

“We entered 2013 with Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs at 115 percent, 113 percent, and 121 percent of historical average storage. In April, they were still at 101 percent, 108 percent and 96 percent of average," said Jennings. 

"With no rainfall and little snowpack, the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau (of Reclamation) notified their contractors that water deliveries would be reduced. But they didn’t reduce deliveries. Instead, they actually exported 835,000 acre-feet more water than they said they would be able to deliver," said Jennings. (

Ironically, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California will have enough water in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to supply its users while Sacramento, Folsom and other cities have been forced to cut water use by 20 percent. 

“We’ll have plenty of water in 2015,” Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan’s general manager, told the Sacramento Bee. “And even if it’s still a drought, we’ll still have enough water in 2016." (

Jennings said the present crisis could have been avoided, and is a "direct result of egregious mismanagement of the state’s water supply system by the state and federal water projects." 

"Excessive water exports and the failure to prepare for inevitable drought have created a decades-long disaster for fisheries, and placed the people and economic prosperity of northern California at grave risk. The State's obsession with tunneling under the Delta does nothing to address drought, or put us on a path to correct the misuse of limited water supplies," he added. (

Folsom is now holding 482,133 acre-feet of water, 49 percent of capacity and 59 percent of average. The current water level is 414.25 feet, 51.75 feet from full. 

Yet the Bureau of Reclamation is mismanaging the water in Folsom this year also. Reclamation is currently releasing 2500 cfs into the American River from Nimbus Dam, rapidly resulting in the depletion of what's left of the cold water pool. (

When fall run Chinook salmon arrive in the American this fall, they will be "greeted" with low, warm, potentially lethal water conditions. We can only hope that we get early fall rains to cool down the water and put more water in the American River watershed. 

As the mismanagement of water resources by the state and federal governments proceeds, the Brown administration continues its rush to build the peripheral tunnels under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP). The construction of the twin tunnels will hasten the extinction of Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River Chinook salmon, Delta and longfin smelt and green sturgeon, as well as imperiling the salmon and steelhead populations of the Trinity and Klamath rivers. 

Rather than supporting the environmentally destructive peripheral tunnels plan, the state and federal governments should embrace the Environmental Water Caucus Responsible Exports Plan that sets an annual cap on water exports of 3 million acre feet, preventing the draining of Folsom and other reservoirs and imperiling struggling salmon and steelhead populations. (

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