Category Archives: News from Other Watersheds

News from other watersheds.

Feds Quietly Double Allowable Kill of Endangered Delta Fish

Just days after the California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported the worst season in history for the federally Endangered delta smelt, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service quietly gave permission in early January for Central Valley water projects to kill more than twice as many smelts at their intake pumps this year.

The state wildlife agency reported January 7 that just eight delta smelt were found in more than 400 fish sampling trawls across the Sacramento Delta in the previous four months, fewer than half the number found in the previous all-time worst year for the smelt, in 2009.

Two days later, USFWS boosted the number of delta smelt it would allow the state and federal water agencies to kill at aqueduct intake pumps in the Delta from 78 to 196 adult smelt. That means those agencies have permission to kill more than 24 times as many delta smelts as the state’s wildlife agency could find last fall.

On January 9, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation reported to USFWS that intake pumps for the federal Central Valley Project and for the State Water Project had killed 56 adult smelt during the current Water Year, which started October 1. The USFWS’ Biological Opinion on the smelt for the combined projects allowed “incidental take” of 78 adult fish.

As those projects’ pumps had killed more than half their allowable take of smelts just a third of the way into the water year, the Bureau was obliged under the U.S. Endangered Species Act to request what’s called “reconsultation” with USFWS over the smelt. Otherwise, pumping of all water from the Delta to southern aqueducts could be halted once that 78th smelt of the year died.

It didn’t take long for the Bureau of Reclamation to get a response. USFWS boosted the allowable incidental take for the Bureau, and for the state Department of Water Resources, which operates the State Water Project, the very same day. Those agencies now have an “interim” allowable incidental take more than twice as high as the level specified in the Biological Opinion.

In granting the increase in allowable take, USFWS pointed to criticism of the assumptions behind the earlier take limit’s numbers by an independent review panel, which pointed out that there was no clear way of establishing how big a percentage of the actual total smelt population was being killed at the pumps each year.

In its response to the Bureau, USFWS says it plans to come up with a more accurate way of estimating just what percentage of the delta smelt population is being killed at the pumps.

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Questions Surfacing On Lake Clementine Hydro Project

Questions are being raised by several Auburn-area residents about a proposal to build a hydroelectric generation facility at the North Fork Dam at Lake Clementine.

Speakers at a public session Monday on the privately funded project wanted to know about its effect on downstream recreation, potential drops in scenic flows over the dam and other potential impacts.

About 25 people attended the session at theCanyon View Community Center,  and the number of questions spurred the project proponent to schedule a special meeting at 6 p.m. Aug. 26 to provide an overview of the project and address queries.

Monday’s session was a public one but meant to concentrate on comments by government agencies and stakeholder groups about study plans by Los Angeles-based  American Renewables and Kruger Energy of Canada.

Project manager Dan Parker agreed to the question-and-answer session after a request for a separate meeting in the evening to allow Monday’s session with government agencies to move forward on time. The location for the Aug. 26 meeting has yet to be determined.

Answering a question Monday from Helga White of Auburn, Parker said that esthetic flows over and environmental flows to aid wildlife and plant life downstream would take precedent over power-generation flows. The picturesque dam was built in 1939 to hold back mining debris but allow river flows downstream.

The proposed 15-megawatt power-generation facility – designed to produce electricity to serve 3,000 households – is to be operated on a “run-of-the-river” basis. It would take advantage of higher flows in the rainy season and go offline in late July, August and September, when flows along the North Fork American River are low.

“We don’t get our water first,” Parker said. “We get our water last.”

Michael Garabedian of the Friends of the North Fork asked whether a survey was being planned – “not just conversations” – on canyon users’ reaction to the project. He was told a survey was planned on recreational use.

The original survey, conducted in 2006 by State Parks in the Auburn State Recreation Area, “didn’t show interest in this type of development or development of any kind, as I recall,” Garabedian said.

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Drought May Already Have Killed Off Central Coast Coho Salmon

As wildlife managers fret over the effects of the ongoing drought on California’s fish, some are saying that a particularly vulnerable population of salmon may already have been wiped out by the drought.

According to reporter Peter Fimrite in the San Francisco Chronicle, coho salmon cannot spawn in coastal creeks along the coast between San Francisco and Santa Cruz County because water levels are too low.

Stafford Lehr, chief of fisheries for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, told Fimrite that the news for Central Coast coho salmon may be very bad indeed. “The Central Coast coho could be gone south of the Golden Gate.”

Coho salmon, Oncorhynchus kisutch, generally mass just offshore before spawning season, where they wait for winter rains to fill creeks sufficiently to allow them to swim upstream. This year, those rains never came, and the coho have been unable to make it past the sandbars at the mouths of their home creeks.

One watershed north of the Golden Gate does have enough water in it for coho to have made it upstream, reports Fimrite: the Lagunitas Creek watershed, home of the state’s largest run of wild, non-hatchery-raised coho. The Marin Municipal Water District has been stepping up releases of water from Kent Dam to help the coho out.

But even in Lagunitas Creek and its tributary San Geronimo Creek, biologists have only counted 57 of the gravel bed nests, or “redds,” in which female salmon lay their eggs. That’s not a record low: the disastrous 2009 spawning run consisted of just 26 redds. But it is down by half from last winter’s count, and well below the thousands of redds generally found in the watershed in the 1940s.

Coho that spawn in creeks between the San Lorenzo River in Santa Cruz and Punta Gorda in Humboldt County are considered a distinct population, called the Central California Coast Evolutionarily Significant Unit (ESU) by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With the legal status of a distinct species, the Central Coast Coho ESU is listed as Endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A coho’s typical lifespan is three years from hatching to spawning. Most coastal streams will thus have three distinct cohorts of coho salmon that call it home. Young fish may stay in their home streams for up to a year and a half before heading downstream and out to sea. If the drought keeps fish that hatched last winter from reaching the ocean in addition to barring this year’s cohort from heading upstream to spawn, creeks between San Francisco and Santa Cruz stand to lose two of those three cohorts.

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Conservation Groups Object To Lack Of Fish Protection In YCWA Relicensing Application

While some groups are excited about what the Yuba County Water Agency’s FERC relicensing applications contains, other groups are lamenting what is missing — namely, provisions that address removing barriers to native spawning habitat for endangered fish.

Numerous conservation groups called for the YCWA to look into developing fish passage through, or removing entirely, Englebright Dam, which is a direct barrier to more than 120 miles of salmon habitat, according to comments submitted by the Foothills Water Network, which represents a group of water resource stakeholders in the Yuba, Bear and American River watersheds.

“The ultimate goal is to restore salmon to their native habitat,” said Tyrone Gorre, co-founder of the Sierra Salmon Alliance. “In order to restore habitat, we have to have passage through the dam.”

Chinook salmon and steelhead and rainbow trout are both native to the upper Yuba River watershed.

The problem with those requests is that the Englebright Dam is not within the FERC boundary of YCWA’s project and is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers.

“There’s not a connection between that dam and the FERC relicensing,” said Yuba County Supervisor Mary Jane Griego. “Some of the river agencies would like to connect those so there’s a requirement for us (to install fish passages), but the FERC relicensing really separates those issues.”

The Foothills Water Network said excluding Englebright from the relicensing process is a mistake, arguing that because YCWA operates its reservoir levels and releases, it should be included in their FERC license.

“We have maintained that fish passage is not part of our FERC relicensing. YCWA facilities don’t block fish passage; the major barrier is Englebright Dam,” said Curt Aikens, YCWA general manager. “We do realize that this is a significant issue in the Yuba watershed, and we’ve helped lead and facilitate different fish passage studies and programs.”

Aikens said the colder water released from the higher elevation of New Bullards Bar dam has helped improve salmon habitat in the lower Yuba River.

The salmon population has recovered since a stark decrease around 2007 caused a temporary halt in the salmon fishing industry, but reported numbers from the Yuba River in recent years are below those of the decades prior.

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Placer Water Has 2014 Supply Concerns

The Placer County Water Agency is saying that a good rainfall year is needed in 2014 to restock mountain reservoirs.

And the Water Agency is already looking at the possibility of water-use reductions.

The Auburn-based agency is expressing concerns as a very dry 2013 draws to a close. Tony Firenzi, deputy director of technical services, said a dry 2014 could cause problems.

“Right now, our water storage is at 90 percent of average for this time of year, so we’re in good shape for the time being,” Firenzi said, “but we’re very concerned about the continuing dry forecasts.”

Looking into the coming year’s projections, Firenzi said better-than-average precipitation would be needed to restore average storage levels on the upper Yuba-Bear and American river watersheds. Placer Water depends on the two watersheds for its surface water supplies.

Water storage in reservoirs that serve Water Agency customers has remained at or near average levels despite back-to-back unusual water years. The 2011-12 water year (measured from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30) was dry but ended near average after the so-called “Miracle March” in spring 2012. It was followed by a 2012-13 water year that produced near record precipitation in November and December 2012 but then turned unusually dry.

“In fact, the 2013 calendar year is on track to close as one of the driest ever measured, which is the basis for serious concern as we look ahead at water availability for 2014,” Firenzi said.

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Central Valley Salmon Runs Could Be Restored

Salmon advocates say they know how to restore sustainable salmon runs in the Central Valley – 26 different ways.

The Golden Gate Salmon Association says two years of study have resulted in a 26-project salmon rebuilding plan to reverse the steep decline of California’s four salmon runs, including two considered endangered and threatened under the Federal Endangered Species Act — the winter and spring runs.

The fall and late fall-runs, which support the sport and commercial fishery, declined by 90 percent and 87 percent respectively from 2001 to 2011, the association says.

“The salmon problems are not in the ocean but rather in the freshwater rivers where salmon reproduce and then try to migrate downstream through the many hurdles that exist on their journey to ocean waters,” says GGSA Chairman Roger Thomas.

The 26 projects are divided into three tiers to prioritize completion. In April the first eight high priority projects were selected with most underway or in the pipeline for 2014. The second tier is currently being considered by federal agencies for implementation.

The rebuilding plan can be broadly broken into two categories of projects, says the association. The first calls for better flows for salmon in the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The second are projects aimed at healing manmade structural impediments built in and along the rivers.

The loss of many baby salmon at the pumping facilities that divert water from the Delta for export south is another problem the GGSA says its plans address.

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Some Species In Delta Still At Risk From Water Diversion Tunnel Project

Despite a 34,000 page long environmental study, the California Department of Water Resources cannot say exactly what a massive water diversion and habitat restoration program will do to at least nine of fifty Northern California delta species.The irony is that the Sacramento/San Joaquin valley water restoration and conservation project was expected to help endangered species, according to a Dec. 18 Sacramento Bee article.

The giant water diversion project will cost $25 billion and will use three massive tunnels to divert water from the Sacramento River.

The Bay Delta Conservation Plan’s first complete draft was released to the public this week. It will be available for a 120 day public review, notice and comment period.

The environmental impact report was supposed to clear up any issues with affected species, like salmon, cranes, fish and more. There are actually 57 endangered species that might be affected.

The problem is with several “not determined” findings from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Fish and Marine Fisheries Service. These federal agencies are at odds with the State Department of Fish and Wildlife service, which finds a “less than significant” effect on the nine species.

The federal agencies say it is too early to make a final determination. The state appears to be in a rush for approval, but the only support for any conclusions comes from computer modeling.

In other words, until this unprecedented and massive habitat restoration and water diversion project is actually built and operating, no one knows for sure what will happen to individual species or their habitats.

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In Other Watershed News: San Joaquin Valley Salmon Make Small Gains Against Tough Odds

With a flash of silver and pink, a male salmon signaled its arrival in a stretch of the Tuolumne River near La Grange.

It sought to fertilize eggs laid in the shallow stream bed gravel by a female that also had returned from a few years in the Pacific Ocean.

Chinook salmon spawning has been going on since September on San Joaquin Valley rivers. It’s a stirring sight for people who love nature, but important as well to farmers and other water users who could face cutbacks if the fish numbers stay low.

This year, at least, they are not doing too badly. Many of the spawning fish were born on the rivers in 2010 and 2011, when the water ran high, and they enjoyed healthy conditions at sea. They return to streams shrunken by drought, but well-timed reservoir releases have provided some of the flows they need.

“This is where they want to be,” said Gretchen Murphey, an environmental scientist for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, during an early December visit to the La Grange stretch. “This is the habitat they’re looking for.”

As of Monday, 3,607 salmon had passed through a fish-counting device on their way to the Tuolumne’s spawning stretch in the low foothills, up from 2,152 a year earlier, and just 255 in 2009.

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Feds May Have Harmed Sacramento River Salmon

The federal agency that regulates water releases from the Shasta Dam in Northern California drastically cut those releases in November, and one fisheries group is afraid that the move could have killed millions of eggs laid by fall-run chinook salmon in the Sacramento River below the dam.

According to the Golden Gate Salmon Association (GGSA), the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BuRec) cut releases from Lake Shasta from 6,000 cubic feet per second (CFS) to 3,750 CFS between November 1 and 25. This caused river levels downstream to drop dramatically, which means that any salmon eggs laid in parts of the river that died up will almost certainly be lost.

This isn’t the first year BuRec has cut November water releases from the dam, and those cuts have hurt salmon in previous years. As many as 15 percent of the Sacramento river’s fall-run eggs were lost after a similar move in 2012, and almost a quarter of the run’s 2011 eggs were killed the same way, according to GGSA.

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