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Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Posted on Thursday, November 3rd, 2016

Sacramento water agencies work together, adapting to drought and planning for a future of growth

Dr. Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, is the godfather of research on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. When he says it took John Sutter eight days to wind his way from San Francisco Bay through the Delta to find the narrow Sacramento River in 1839, you can bet that’s the truth. Not until 1913 was the mouth of the river dredged to make it a mile wide. Grizzly bears roamed the wildness, feasting on an abundance of native fish, until they were hunted to local extinction. Today in the Delta, the largest estuary on the west coast of North America, only remnants remain of the natural landscape before it was irreversibly altered at the hands of people.

The Delta is a system of canals. In places, you can stand on a man-made levee with high water on one side and sunken land on the other. For 7,000 years, sediment accumulated to form deposits of organically-rich peat soil, but the last 170 years of farming have undone this natural process. About 2,300 dump trucks worth of soil is lost per day, oxidized as carbon dioxide and all told, about half of the Delta’s soil material is now gone, says Curt Schmutte, a civil engineer who specializes in Delta issues. We named plots of land in the Delta “islands,” but scientists refer to them — the majority below sea level — as “holes.”

I’m with a tour group on a hot September afternoon, and we hold onto our hats and brace ourselves as the boat tears through the water at 40 miles per hour, past invasive water hyacinth, tules, fishermen, houseboats, farmland and cattle. The Delta accumulates water from California’s largest watershed and acts as the hub of the state’s water supply system, linking water from the north to the two biggest water projects, which play a major role in sustaining the world’s sixth largest economy and much of its industry, agriculture and 39 million people.

But the Delta exists under unrelenting pressure: from land-use change, population growth, nutrient pollution from wastewater treatment plants, earthquakes, agriculture, sea-level rise and more. Even with money, there’s no silver bullet to fix this ecosystem — but there are plenty of battling sides. “It’s like a game of chicken,” Lund says. “How do you break a game of chicken?”

Dr. Jay Lund, director of the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, while on a tour of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. (Photo by Sonya Doctorian)

Was it Mark Twain who proclaimed, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over”? When it comes to this natural resource, our state is rife with conflict. And, perhaps, in the Sacramento region, open to resolution. While the state is all-consumed with water wars, the region’s efforts toward collaboration are easy to overlook. The best example is the landmark Water Forum Agreement, which 22 water agencies from Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer counties signed in 2000 to balance the environmental and human needs of the lower American River.

Now, water agencies have joined together again to launch the River Arc Project. Proponents say the project has the potential for a groundbreaking impact. It would help recharge groundwater through a management practice called “conjunctive use.” It would also allow for ongoing growth by creating an additional source of water to lessen demand on the lower American River and Folsom Lake, which already provide drinking water to 1 million residents, says Andy Fecko, director of resource development at Placer County Water Agency. “What’s unique about our region is we’re doing this before we have a crisis.”

Duking It Out Over Water

First, to understand why it’s so unusual for a story of optimism when it comes to water, we have to understand why water in California is often tied with conflict: Our water supply is limited and dispersed unevenly. And our water rights system is often deemed “byzantine” and “antiquated.”

Throughout the American West, precipitation falls in a different place than where most of us live. Early settlers realized that towns and agriculture in the frontier could only be sustained by moving water. So we built a complex system of dams, reservoirs, canals, aqueducts, pumps and tunnels. Who exactly has access to our state’s water has been a point of contention ever since. “It’s a Western pastime to argue over water rights,” says Rita Sudman, who served for 34 years as executive director of the nonprofit Water Education Foundation in Sacramento.

California has a dual water rights system when it comes to surface water. The system incorporates both riparian rights (for those who own land next to water) and prior appropriation (“first in time, first in right”). The Water Commission Act of 1914 established the permit process for obtaining surface water and formed the State Water Resources Control Board. Those legislators failed to regulate groundwater, not foreseeing what would come decades later as most of the state battles severe drought and the Central Valley sinks in places due to over-pumped aquifers. In some places throughout the state, groundwater extraction exceeds natural recharge (something the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 aims to remedy).

Bulldozers collect and rearrange gravel to improve habitat for fish in the lower American River. (Photo by Sena Christian)

Water battles led to an amendment to California’s constitution declaring that all water — surface water, groundwater, marshes and wetlands — must be for a reasonable and beneficial use, such as agriculture, commercial fishing, hydroelectric generation, municipal use, endangered species and recreation (like swimming or whitewater rafting). The definition allows for changing interpretations, and groups who perceive their interests to be in conflict — farmers, industry, environmentalists, outdoor recreationists — continually maneuver for their position to be prioritized. Arguments ensue.

Ultimately, our system works because it’s flexible, Fecko says. Californians get around labyrinthine water rights through water transfers (although experts say informal sales are inadequately tracked and come with their own problems on the open market, like skyrocketing costs for farmers whose water allotments have been curtailed). PCWA often sells surplus reservoir water to other water-strapped purveyors, which keeps rates low for its customers. The mechanisms currently in place get water to where it needs to be, Fecko says, adding, “There’s a better way to spend our time than unravel 102 years of jurisprudence.”

Areas of Agreement

The world of water districts is diffusive. We have a lot of them in California — over 1,200 and that’s only counting those elected by voters, or governed by a county board of supervisors or a city council. (That figure comes from the Legislative Analyst’s Office and is more than a decade old; other sources estimate around 2,000 districts, when including entities such as mobile home parks and mutual water companies.) The state also has 108 investor-owned water companies regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

Around 25 water purveyors operate in Sacramento County. These agencies work in the same river, the same watershed, the same groundwater basin. Theoretically, this poses a problem. “They each have their own boards, politics, priorities, water sources and water rights, and ways of doing things,” says Dr. Jeff Loux, an environmental planning professor and associate dean at UC Davis Extension. “Getting them to work together is a monumental task.” But, he says, that’s what the Sacramento region has done for two decades.

“We need to plan for a 10-year drought or more. If we are not planning, then we are not planning for the world we live in with climate change,” Loux says. To be able to effectively plan, agencies need to agree on stuff. They need to collaborate. “That is, to me, the place where progress gets made,” Loux says. He points to a prime example: the Water Forum Agreement.

“We’re doing good stuff, and we have the cooperation of water suppliers in the region. It’s not their primary mission to take care of the environment, but they realize it also takes care of their primary mission, which is delivering water to their customers at the lowest possible cost.” TOM GOHRING, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, WATER FORUM

Member utilities provide $3.80 per water connection per year for the nonprofit organization that oversees the agreement. “For the cost of a latte per family, we get the Water Forum,” says Executive Director Tom Gohring. The agreement outlines the management of the lower American River. Fed by the Sierra Nevada, the American River is the second-largest tributary to the Sacramento River, which empties into the Delta and eventually the San Francisco Bay. But hydraulic mining during the Gold Rush and dams built along the American River dramatically changed the geology.

Read the full article here.

Water Forum Awarded Highest Environmental Honor by Governor Brown

Posted on Thursday, February 4th, 2016

Sacramento region recognized for innovative and sustainable stewardship of the lower American River

The Water Forum earned the Governor’s Environmental and Economic Leadership Award (GEELA), the State’s highest environmental honor, in recognition of their work to improve the lower American River riparian habitat and parkway, and to protect the Sacramento region’s water supply.GEELA 57 - Lauren Alisse Photography 2


Accepting the GEELA: Tom Gohring, Water Forum; Sacramento County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan; Sacramento City Councilwoman Angelique Ashby; California Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird; Andy Fecko, Placer County Water Agency; Bill Busath, City of Sacramento; Lilly Allen, Water Forum; Jim Ray, North State BIA; Ron Stork, Friends of the River; Paul Bratovich, Water Forum; John Woodling, Regional Water Authority

The GEELA award recognizes individuals, organizations, and businesses that demonstrated remarkable leadership through efforts in conserving California’s natural resources and the environment.

GEELA 56 - Lauren Alisse Photography“This award celebrates the sustained partnership of the Water Forum and their members who have demonstrated their value to our region for more than 22 years,” said City of Sacramento Councilmember Angelique Ashby.  “The City of Sacramento is a proud investor in the Water Forum and we look forward to continued collaboration in water management.”

The Water Forum Agreement approaches the stewardship of the lower American River with two co-equal objectives: to provide a safe and reliable water supply to support the region’s economy and to preserve the environment of the lower American River. The Agreement provides a foundation for collaborating on water issues and challenges amongst diverse stakeholders, including water providers, environmental groups, and business leaders.

GEELA 54 - Lauren Alisse Photography“The Water Forum continues to serve as a good example of how regional collaborative approaches can address challenges and resolve conflicts around competing uses of water,” said Sacramento County Supervisor Roberta MacGlashan.  “As California enters the fourth year of a severe drought, the Water Forum is important now more than ever.”

Last year, as the drought persisted, the Sacramento region needed to reduce water consumption by 29 percent to meet state water reduction regulations.  The region worked together, and collectively achieved a 42 percent water reduction between January and October 2015.

“The Water Forum Agreement continues to be the foundation of critical water management activities in the Sacramento Region,” said John Woodling, Executive Director of the Regional Water Authority.  032715_RiverFlows_BN0129“Water providers have been implementing groundwater management, water conservation, and drought response actions while the Water Forum Successor Effort concentrates on protecting and restoring the lower American River.  It’s a really valuable partnership.”

Last spring the Water Forum stepped into action when warm temperatures and low water levels threatened endangered fish.  The Water Forum partnered with the Bureau of Reclamation to manage water temperatures in real-time through daily river temperature testing coupled with strategic cold water releases from Folsom Dam.  As a result, the vast majority of the 2015 Steelhead trout brood survived that critical life stage.  The Water Forum, in partnership with Federal and State agencies, has also created essential spawning and rearing habitat through yearly gravel restoration projects for endangered Chinook salmon and Steelhead along the lower American River.

Water Forum photo 4 - Soil Born Farms Education Program“The Water Forum continues to implement projects aimed at stabilizing and enhancing salmonid habitat in the lower American River, including naturalizing channelized creeks,” said Ron Stork, Friends of the River Senior Policy Advocate.  “Local projects sponsored by the Water Forum benefit the river’s ecosystem and native species, but also provide invaluable public health benefits through the addition of public spaces to recreate and enjoy the outdoors.”

In addition to habitat enhancement projects, the Water Forum developed an innovative method to manage releases from Folsom Dam.  This new approach, called the Modified Flow Management Standard (Modified FMS) not only improves conditions for the native species in the lower American River, but also helps proactively manage water supply in Folsom Reservoir, the source of drinking water for more than 500,000 people.

FMS“Implementing farsighted flow standard solutions for the lower American River is one of the most critical elements and significant challenges in implementing the Water Forum Agreement,” said Einar Maisch, Placer County Water Agency General Manager.  “An improved flow standard will offer another tool for the region to continue protecting the lower American River and ensuring our region has a dependable water supply.”

The Modified FMS is the result of more than 15 years of rigorous, science-based work.  The Modified FMS was unanimously endorsed by members in 2015, and the Water Forum is working collaboratively with the Bureau of Reclamation to fine tune and implement this approach.

“On behalf of the Water Forum and our members, I am honored that our work has been recognized with this prestigious award,” said Water Forum Executive Director Tom Gohring.  “I look forward to continuing to work together to implement the Water Forum Agreement.”

The Water Forum has a new website and a new blog! Please scroll up and sign up to receive a notification when there is a new blog post.  If you were previously subscribed to the LAR blog, please re-subscribe as well. Thanks!

Warming Trend Continues – Water Quality Holding

Posted on Monday, April 27th, 2015

Water temperatures in the LAR have continued to rise over the past weeks.  The graph below shows that gravel temperatures are exceeding 63 degree F every day.  The literature indicates that Steelhead eggs and alevin cannot survive long at these high temperatures.temp trace

However, this figure shows that overall, the dissolved oxygen level continues to be mostly healthy.  Although DO is trending down, only 2.5% of samples demonstrated unhealthy DO within gravel samples this past week.DO 4-27-15b

Water is Warming Up

Posted on Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

We have been posting temperature updates over the last few weeks to gauge how incubating Steelhead may be fairing in the lower American River.  Our most recent data show that water temperature is trending up.  The graph below shows that the daily high temperature at our monitoring Roosmoor Bar and Sunrise sites is actually getting warmer than the William Pond thermometer (a cdec gauge).  However, the lows at Rossmoor and Sunrise are lower than at William Pond.  We think this is due to sunlight exposure of the river bottom and gravel.

Water and Gravel temps 4-14-15

Updated: Steelhead Emergence Forecast

Posted on Sunday, April 12th, 2015

Using temperature data that we collected at several locations, we have estimated the amount of Steelhead that have already emerged from the gravel AND we have forecasted when the rest of this year’s brood will emerge.  While in the gravel, the Steelhead eggs and Alevin are very sensitive to temperatures.  Once they emerge, they are both less sensitive and able to seek cooler water.


This graph shows that as of 4-8-15, we estimate that about 88% of the Steelhead have emerged.  This emergence rate is a bit slower than when last estimated (about a week ago) because water temperatures have been cooler.  However, the cooler water temperatures also means that the survival rate of the emerging Steelhead will be higher.  We estimate that we should hit about 90% emergence on Moday 4-13-15 and 99% around  April 22nd.SH emergence 4-8-15Additional notes:  We have estimated and forecasted emergence using measured water temperatures and redd surveys at three different river reaches:

  • Lower (L):  Between Watt Ave and William Pond
  • Middle (M): Around Roosmoor Bar
  • Upper (H): Around Sunrise

Each point on the graph represents a group of redds that emerge at the given date.  The code next to each point tells the location (river reach) and number of those emerging redds.


Steelhead: Water Temp and Quality Mostly Healthy as of 4-8-15

Posted on Sunday, April 12th, 2015

HI folks.  I’m sorry that we’re posting this data when it’s already 4-5 days old.  We’re trying to be timely, but other priorities sometimes take over.  The plots below shows that inter-gravel temperature and water quality has been mostly healthy for incubating Steelhead.  That’s thanks to cooler days last week and Reclamation’s temperature management actions (see previous posts).

This graph shows that temperatures have been (mostly) cool enough for healthy incubation.  I hope to update these on Monday or Tuesday:LAR temps 4-8-15

This graph (courtesy of Cramer Fish Sciences) shows dissolved oxygen has also been in a healthy range (above 8 mg/L) at our three monitoring sites: DO v location 4-7-15

An finally, this graph shows that DO levels have been (mostly) healthy over time:DO v gravel depth 4-7-15

Chinook Embryo Impacts from 2013-14

Posted on Monday, April 6th, 2015

Hi, a stakeholder requested this report recently so we thought we’d post it here.  This is the final report from Cramer Fish Sciences (sponsored by the Water Forum) on impacts of reduced LAR flows on last winter’s emerging Chinook Salmon.  As always, please don’t hesitate contact one of us if you have questions or concerns.

Final Embyo Impacts, Cramer Fish Sciences   pdf

February, 2014

Cooler Days = Cooler River

Posted on Sunday, April 5th, 2015

Nature has been a friend to the Steelhead these past few days.  The cooler air temperatures (coupled with Reclamation’s power bypass) have resulted in healthier conditions for incubating Steelhead.

LAR temps 4-5-15

Steelhead Incubation: “We Dodged a Bullet”

Posted on Thursday, April 2nd, 2015

The results of recent field work indicate that the recent hot spell has NOT been lethal to the incubating Steelhead in the lower American River.  Actions by Reclamation to keep water temperatures and reduced daytime air temperatures are responsible for this favorable outcome.

Water Forum staff and consultants have estimates that 85% of the 2015 brood of have Steelhead emerged at this point.

Given this positive news and predictions of cooler weather ahead, Reclamation told stakeholders in a special session of the American River Group today that they will continue releasing 500 cfs from Folsom for the foreseeable future and will continue the power bypass until middle of next week.   After that, the chunk of cold water accessible to the bypass will be mostly used up and Reclamation will end it.

Here is a graph showing that air and water temperatures declining yesterday.March American River Temperatures

River Temperature Still High – Monday 3-30

Posted on Monday, March 30th, 2015

River temperatures on Sunday remained high.  This is due to record warm daily temperatures and windy conditions.  The wind apparently stirred up Lake Natoma and and resulted in warmer water being released from Nimbus (see the Hazel temperature spike below).  As reclamation operator said, “wind is not our friend.”

Today we had some decent cloud cover, and tomorrow we expect cooler days and the cooler water from Folsom power bypass will show up.River Temps 3-30-15

You can see the wind gust on Saturday in in this graph:Wind Gusts