A Surprise From Folsom Lake: Conservation Is Helping

Folsom Lake now has slightly more water than it did one year ago, despite the third year of drought conditions across Northern California.

The lake elevation was 390 feet on Thursday.

One year ago, it was 389 feet.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Folsom Dam, credits extensive regional water conservation for allowing lake levels to remain somewhat steady.

“You’re getting a greater decrease in use, so it’s really saving water on a personal level,” said Luis Moore, of the Bureau of Reclamation. “Through those conservation efforts, we’ve been able to stretch this water supply.”

Water agencies that draw from Folsom are taking less because residential and business demand has fallen.

It’s one of the few positive developments in an otherwise dismal state water picture.

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Study: 181 California Dams Key For Fish Survival

UC Davis researchers have identified “high priority” dams for fish survival in California.

In a study, the scientists evaluated 753 large dams in the state. Researchers said 25 percent, or 181 California dams, may need to increase water flows to protect native fish downstream.

Lead study author Ted Grantham said providing more water for fish during the drought may not be popular, but a strategy is needed to keep rivers flowing below dams. Otherwise, he said flows will be too low to sustain health fish populations for the dams on the “high priority” list.

He said those include the Folsom Dam on the American River, the Trinity Dam on the Trinity River and the New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River.

A 2013 UC Davis study showed that salmon and other native freshwater fish in California will likely become extinct within the next century due to climate change if current trends continue.

Grantham said how dams are managed will determine the survival rate of many native fish species.

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Winter Rains Not Likely To Ease California Drought

Drought conditions will likely ease in much of the West this winter, but not in most of California, according to a new climate report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The report, released Thursday, indicates that conditions in the Pacific Ocean, which include a developing El Niño weather pattern, may prompt above-average rainfall for the southern third of California over the next three months.

The Bay Area, however, as well as most of the rest of the state, stands only a one-third chance of seeing above-average rain — and equal chances for below-average rain and a normal amount.

“There’s just not a strong enough climate signal to make a prediction,” said Mike Halpert, acting director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

The forecast bodes poorly for Northern California, where residents are hoping a wet winter erases some of the costs of the state’s driest three-year period on record, including tight drinking-water supplies, fallowed agricultural fields and damaging wildfires.

But even a wetter-than-average winter would provide only a modicum of drought relief.

“It will take significantly above-average precipitation to fill reservoirs and recharge groundwater,” Halpert said.

The only good news for California, according to federal climate experts, is that the stubborn ridge of high-pressure air that consistently formed off the coast in recent years, blocking storms from making shore, won’t be nearly as prevalent.

The probable El Niño, which forms when the jet stream reacts with warm ocean surface waters, will likely push enough moisture across the high sea to keep the ridge from settling in, Halpert said.

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Rains May Bring Danger In Aftermath Of King Fire

ike Murphy is fearing the worst in the aftermath of the King Fire that nearly burned his home last month.

“I’m worried about the big rocks rolling down the hill and into this property and perhaps into my structures that I have here,” Murphy said, as he stood under darkening skies Tuesday afternoon.

He has reason to worry.

“There’s a large risk still of mud slides and debris flows when we start getting rain,” cautioned El Dorado National Forest District Ranger Richard Thornburgh, as he stood beside his headquarters building just a couple of miles southwest of Mike Murphy’s home.

Thornburg said a significant rain event could cause serious damage to the ecology of the 160 square miles of charred national forest land left by the King Fire.

“There’s nothing to really stop the water once it starts flowing over the bare earth once it’s all been burned off,” Thornburgh said. “Inside or even downstream of the fire, there can be flash flooding.”

Flames charred the soil, leaving it powdery white, incinerating tree and plant roots that once held it in place. In some areas, the fire burned so hot that it baked the soil into a water-resistant layer.

“It makes them what we call hydrophobic in some areas and so it actually makes a layer that the water just sheds off,” Thornburgh said.

Above Murphy’s place on the north side of the American River’s south fork, there are loosened boulders that could be sent toppling down onto his property.

“They will come down the hill. There’s just nothing gonna stop ‘em,” Murphy said, looking up at the steep hillside above his property.

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Boat Dwellers Can Be A Problem On Our Rivers

There’s a guy the cops call Mr. Smith who lives on a boat tied to a log in the Sacramento River,just a short skip downriver from the Tower Bridge. He’s rarely seen, but he’s out there, hunkered down in a Bayliner named Takee One that’s barely afloat.

Traci Trapani and Jason Warren have been coming across people like this guy a lot. They’re officers with the Sacramento Police Department’s marine unit, and a big part of their daily routine is monitoring a subculture of boat people living on our rivers.

The cops have pulled about 10 wrecked boats out of the rivers this year alone, many of them from the American River over by Camp Pollock. In just over an hour on a sunny Thursday afternoon last week, Trapani and Warren came across four more old vessels moored in the Sacramento River, plus a makeshift raft of tied-together Styrofoam that someone is living on.

“Some of these boats are about to sink,” Trapani said, skippering a police boat past Old Sac.

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Vast Landscape Charred By King Fire Will Receive Emergency Treatment

Rugged and isolated, the Rubicon River Valley on the border of El Dorado and Placer counties was for many years an idyll of old growth trees and icy swimming holes. Then the King fire roared through last month, turning a 20-mile stretch of the canyon into a vast dead zone of ashen earth and smoldering stumps.

Experts now worry that the devastation and the extreme temperatures of the fire, which scorched much of the soil and reduced its ability to hold together and absorb runoff, could lead to floods and mudslides when winter storms arrive. The same conditions affect parts of the south fork of the American River near Pollock Pines, where an arsonist allegedly started the 98,000-acre King fire on Sept. 13.

Members of the U.S. Forest Service’s Burned Area Emergency Response team, or BAER, swooped in last week, as the fire was finally contained, to assess the immediate dangers remaining in its aftermath. Members include botanists, hydrologists and geologists. Their job is to deal with such immediate threats as falling trees and crumbling roads.

BAER coordinator Eric Nicita said possible mudslides are a major concern, because when the top layer of soil cooks, it looses the fungi, bacteria and other organic material that hold it together and allow it to absorb water. In these conditions, rain runs through soil and tears it down instead of percolating into the earth.

“The only thing the water can do is roll downslope,” said Nicita, a soil scientist with the Forest Service. “All of a sudden, your flow is increasing incredibly.”

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Man Pulled From American River Near Howe Avenue

Firefighter rescue crews Thursday morning pulled a man from the American River near Howe Avenue.

A Sacramento Fire Department spokesman said that at about 8 a.m. reports were received of a fisherman who developed trouble in the water when he tried to cross the river.

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Western States Trail, Other Routes Reopen After King Fire Closures

Tahoe National Forest officials announced that the Western States Trail and other routes closed due to the King fire have reopened.

Given the progress in fire suppression and repair efforts, the road and trail closures associated with the fire in the American River Ranger District have been lifted, according to a Forest Service news release.

Officials announced late Monday that repairs to the Western States Trail and reconstruction of the Swinging Bridge and smaller Pacific Slab Bridge are complete as a result of thousands of hours of volunteer and Forest Service efforts. The trail closure across the north and middle forks of the American River has been lifted.

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California Tries Giant Water Coolers To Save Fish

State and federal wildlife officials are resorting to installing giant water chillers in some of California’s fish hatcheries, as drought, over-allocation of water and climate change all combine this year to make temperatures too warm for some baby salmon and other fish to survive.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service workers installed the coolers at the Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery at the foot of northern California’s Shasta Dam this summer when water temperatures hit the mid-60s — too tepid for the half-million winter-run baby salmon growing there, said Scott Hamelberg, a federal hatchery manager.

The winter-run salmon are endangered, and the coolers lower the water temperature to a more livable 60 degrees, he said.

The big water coolers are a first for the federal hatchery, necessitated by warmer-than-normal water in California’s third year of drought.

At the American River hatchery east of Sacramento, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife also are installing giant coolers to bring down water temperatures for the hatchery’s young salmon and trout, hatchery manager Gary Novak said.

Certain endangered species of trout at that fishery “don’t really tolerate the heat too well,” Novak said.

Smaller coolers in tanks are cooling various other fish rescued by wildlife officials after California’s drought dried up their home stretch of rivers and streams entirely.

The fish refrigerators are the latest unusual measure taken by fish and wildlife managers to protect fish and California’s $1.4 billion commercial and recreational fishing industry while most of the state remains in the most severe category of drought. In June, state wildlife officials used tanker trucks to evacuate 2 million fish from hatcheries deemed dangerously warm.

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California Drought Prompting Extraordinary Measures To Protect Salmon

State and federal wildlife officials this month are preparing extraordinary measures to protect Chinook salmon returning to spawn in California’s drought-depleted rivers.

Sacramento River fall-run Chinook salmon are making their way upstream from the Pacific Ocean to begin their annual spawning ritual. These fish, primarily produced in hatcheries, make up the most abundant salmon run in California and are the primary catch for an ocean fishery that sustains thousand of jobs.

But the species has had wild population swings over the past decade because of droughts, poor ocean conditions and loss of habitat. Officials are hoping to avoid another wild swing by taking action to help this year’s run, including some measures that have never been tried in California.

At the American River Hatchery near Sacramento, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is installing water chillers at a cost of nearly $1 million to ensure water coursing through the hatchery doesn’t become lethally warm for salmon and other species hatched and raised there. The chillers, essentially giant refrigeration units, are in place at a few hatcheries around the state but had never before been used on the American River.

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