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Written By: Dan Bacher, February 15, 2014
The dry bed of Folsom Lake has become an unlikely tourist attraction for visitors to the Sacramento area this year. On any given day this winter, large numbers of people can be seen wandering around the mud flats, granite boulders and rock formations of the lake bed to view ruins of Mormon Island and other communities that were inundated when the lake was formed by the construction of Folsom Dam in the 1950s.
The lake is its lowest level ever, 17 percent of capacity and 32 percent of average, since the Bureau of Reclamation filled the reservoir. Because of the record low level of the lake, the cities of Sacramento, Folsom and other communities face dramatic water shortages this year.
The impact on the American River and its unique urban steelhead and salmon fisheries is just as alarming. The Bureau in early January dropped flows to only 500 cubic feet per second (cfs), compared to winter flows ranging from 2000 to 5,000 cfs that anglers are used to fishing in– and much higher flows during wet years.
While the drought has received major national and regional mainstream and alternative media attention, most media outlets have failed to explain how the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources systematically drained northern California reservoirs last summer, resulting in low flows and endangering salmon and steelhead in the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers while supplying corporate agribusiness interests with subsidized water and filling Southern California water banks and reservoirs.
Last summer, high water releases down the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers left Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs at dangerously low levels. Shasta is 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. (http://cdec.water.ca.gov/cgi-progs/reservoirs/RES)
Yet Pyramid Lake in Los Angeles County is 96 percent of capacity and 101 percent of average, while Castaic Reservoir is 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 water was mismanaged.
“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." (http://www.sacbee.com/2014/01/12/6063205/california-drought-will-test-jerry.html#storylink=cpy)
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,” he stated.
There is no doubt that California’s fish populations are in crisis, due to massive water exports south of the Delta by the state and federal water projects.
The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s fall midwater trawl surveys, initiated in 1967, the same year the State Water Project began exporting water from the Delta, document the steep decline of Delta fish species. They reveal that the population abundance of Delta smelt, striped bass, longfin smelt, threadfin shad and American shad declined 95.6%, 99.6%, 99.8%, 97.8%, 90.9%, respectively, between 1967 and 2013, according to Jennings.
Jennings noted that 2013 was also a bad year for salmon. As many as half of this year’s up-migrating winter-run Chinook salmon were stranded in the Yolo Bypass and Colusa Basin in April-June and Sacramento River temperature requirements to protect spawning winter-run were relaxed in June.
In November, abrupt reductions in Sacramento River flow exposed spawning redds, killed up to 40% of Sacramento River fall-run Chinook salmon eggs and stranded newly emerged fry.
John Herrick, Restore the Delta board member and Counsel and Manager of the South Delta Water Agency, said the failure of the state and federal water projects to plan ahead contributed to the current water shortage – and a looming disaster for salmon, steelhead and other fish species.
"Last winter and spring the projects were concerned about not having enough water to meet fishery or agricultural standards, and so sought changes in their permits to allow for the relaxation of those standards," he said.
“At the same time, they projected the amount of water available for export. As soon as the projections were released, they began to pump MORE water than they projected; thus taking the water needed for fish and endangering future allocations for all purposes. If this had not been allowed, the reservoirs would have 800+ TAF more storage in them than they currently do,” he noted.
Yet in spite of the record drought, Governor Jerry Brown continues his rush to construct the peripheral tunnels under the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) and to expand the water-intensive oil extraction process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) for oil and natural gas in California.
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director of Restore the Delta, urged the state and water agencies to invest in projects that yield new water and jobs, rather than spending billions on the environmentally destructive twin tunnels.
“We have had three dry years in a row and the governor admits the tunnels won’t add one drop of water to our drought-plagued state," said Barrigan-Parrilla. "We need solutions more appropriate to our future water challenges, not this $60 billion mega-project that would misspend the billions needed for sustainable water solutions."
The proposed peripheral tunnels will undoubtedly kill the sensitive Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest estuary on the West Coast of the Americas, according to the Winnemem Wintu Tribe.
“There is no precedent for the killing of an estuary of this size, so how could any study be trusted to protect the Delta for salmon and other fish?’ said Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk. “The end of salmon would also mean the end of Winnemem, so the BDCP is a threat to our very existence as indigenous people.”
When Governor Brown declared a drought state of emergency in January, he said. “We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas.”
Brown can't make it rain, but he can put a moratorium on fracking and he can stop his tunnels project in order to preserve California's precious water resources during an unprecedented drought. While Governor Brown is apparently pushing the construction of the peripheral tunnels as a monument to his “legacy,” his real legacy will be the extinction of Central Valley salmon and steelhead populations and the draining of northern California unless he stops his mad plans to build the tunnels and frack California.
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