Category Archives: news

Progress Update on Long-Term Water Efficiency Standards

Posted on Wednesday, June 1st, 2022

Insights from Water Forum Alum Sarah Foley

Sarah Foley has been with CalWEP, previously known as the California Urban Water Conservation Council, since 2012. Sarah oversees the organization’s operations functions. She has extensive experience with both urban and agricultural water organizations in California. From 2002 to 2012 Sarah served as the deputy director of the Water Forum.

In 2018 the California Legislature passed new efficiency standards aimed at reducing water consumption in the urban sector. The new law (passed as SB 606/AB 1668) came in response to the state’s difficult 2014-17 drought, aiming to reduce water use by homes and businesses to ease pain in the next drought.

Well, the next drought is here, and the new standards are still in development. The residential component will require urban water providers to reduce per capita water use. For example, the proposed indoor standard is  47 gallons per capita per day (gpcd) by 2025 decreasing to 42 gpcd by 2030. Present indoor consumption is estimated in the 50 to 55 gpcd range. Separate standards will be imposed for landscape irrigation.

For the latest, we recently spoke with Sarah Foley, executive director/operations at the California Water Efficiency Partnership (CalWEP). The Sacramento-based group is monitoring the process and preparing to help water providers comply. Sarah previously served as deputy director of the Water Forum.

Water Forum: What is CalWEP’s role in shaping the standards? 

Sarah Foley: Our role has been to promote communication with everybody involved and help our members understand what’s going to be required. And then advocate for the funding that water agencies need to make these things happen.

Water Forum: Why will water providers need funding?

Sarah: Because the low-hanging fruit was picked off the tree a long time ago when it comes to water conservation. The early adopters, they’ve already adopted. And for somebody who can afford to remodel their home, well, you can only buy high-efficiency appliances now. But for people who haven’t done these things, that’s going to be hard. You can say a new toilet is cheap, but it’s not necessarily cheap for low-income people. If you want people to install a high-efficiency washing machine, that’s an $800 investment. That may be a significant amount of your monthly income. The thing I tell folks is, we’re getting to the point where if we need all these legacy toilets changed out, we’re going to have show up on doorsteps with the toilet and the plumber ready to go.

Water Forum: Is there any money in the program to help water providers?

Sarah: We hope there will be money. The pickle that we’re in is that people are told they have to conserve, and agencies now have to meet these standards, whatever they end up being. But the funding always comes later. It’s the classic legislative unfunded mandate. You tell people they have to meet X regulation, but the money only comes later, if ever. Some of it will have to be borne at the local level, and folks will just have to figure out how to pay for it.

Water Forum: When will water providers start enforcing the regulations?

Sarah: The first question is, when do they have to start meeting the standards? And we still don’t have total clarity on that. But in short, it’s going to happen over the course of several years. By January 1, 2024, they have to calculate what their targets are going to be. Then, they’ll be reporting to the State Board, and the State Board will have to decide how they’re going to enforce the standards. The first big deadline is 47 gpcd in 2025, which is spelled out in the legislation. The legislation says enforcement is to begin in 2027, but we will see what happens.

Water Forum: Who exactly is obligated to comply? Water providers or their customers?

Sarah: Water providers have to meet the sum of the standards — indoor plus outdoor plus commercial-industrial water use, and water loss (leakage) standards. All of that will align to give the water provider their target. The average consumer might be concerned, thinking, ‘Are the water police going to knock on my door?’ That’s not it. It’s an aggregate of everything used in a water agency’s service area. Nobody’s going to look at each and every household.

Water Forum: Will consumers see rate increases?

Sarah: If people aren’t getting the price signal on their water bills, it’s harder to make the conservation happen. If the water’s cheap, you’re still going to see a lot of gutter flooding. They’re certainly going to have to continue to embrace conservation and probably do more. But it does depend on the rate structure, and that’s a whole process in and of itself. More broadly, the question is, ‘How are we going to pay for all this?’ That’s the million-dollar question.

Water Forum: What should water customers be doing now?

Sarah: About 70 percent of water used at homes is outdoor water, and it’s very hard for people to contemplate how much that is. I don’t necessarily think removing your lawn is the golden ticket to conservation, because not everybody can or will yank out their lawn. But there’s still a lot you can do to be more efficient in landscape irrigation. As we see more landscapes transition to sustainable practices, that will be a sign that things are going well. The average citizen just needs to be very mindful of how they are using water in and around their home.

Water Forum: Any words of wisdom for the Water Forum or water providers?

Sarah: Continue to invest in conservation programs, because they are working. This region has come a long way from when I first started at the Water Forum. The Water Forum Agreement has really positioned this region well in terms of our water supply and being able to meet challenges in dry years. Folks aren’t just doing that because they need to conserve water. They’re also doing it to save water behind Folsom Dam so fish have cold water in the fall. People really value that. And that’s why I say continue to invest in conservation, because climate change is real and its happening, and we want to be able to preserve the things that are important to us, like the Lower American River.

Water Forum: What are some good resources for readers to learn more, and where can they go to stay updated about the emerging water efficiency standards?

Sarah: Learn more at

Secrets from the Water Forum Cyclists

Posted on Monday, May 23rd, 2022

May is National Bike Month. Established in 1956 and promoted by the League of American Bicyclists, National Bike Month is a chance to showcase the many benefits of bicycling—and encourage people to give biking a try.

To celebrate, we asked several Water Forum members who are known cycling enthusiasts to share what they love about biking on the American River Parkway. Read their reflections below to learn about their cycling experiences and even some of their favorite spots along the trail.

Then don your Lycra (or not!), grab your cruiser, tandem or custom racer, and let’s get rolling!

Ansel Lundberg, Originator, SMUD (Public Caucus)

I love seeing all kinds of people spending time on the parkway—families, couples, friends, and maybe even a pro athlete every once in a while! I really enjoy how people feel safe to ride, walk and roll there because they don’t have to worry about cars messing with the vibe.

Sometimes I just ride a few miles across the river from downtown, and other times I’ll ride all the way from Northgate to Sutter Street in Folsom. I really enjoy the north-south section that parallels Howe Avenue and Campus Commons golf course. I ride the trail there to get to the grocery store, a soccer game, or the doctor’s office. It makes me thankful to have a separated bike facility so we can feel safe, and also reminds me of the investments we’ve made to protect our community from flooding while also allowing the river to have some freedom when the flows get high.

Generally. I am focused on bicycling only, although sometimes when crossing the bridge at River Bend or Hazel, I will pause to take in the view of the American. Other times I’ll ride out to William Pond or Watt Ave to have a picnic with friends and see how the river is flowing.

In college, I took a few English classes that focused on how we conceptualize “nature” in literature and culture. My studies helped me understand why I love the parkway: It is contained within an urban environment—a reminder that nature isn’t just “out there” or in the wilderness but can be in our backyard and integrated within our built environment as habitat, recreational space, or ecosystem services.

Bill Busath, Director, City of Sacramento Department of Utilities (Water Caucus)

My wife and I are normally biking on the parkway three to four times per week, and log about 40 miles per week on the parkway itself.

The parkway is one of the great treasures of the region, and the proximity to the river makes riding on the parkway very enjoyable for me. Our favorite stretch is William Pond to Negro Bar. We mostly do not stop along the way.

My only concern about the parkway is bike and foot traffic. Walkers and runners are particularly problematic as they are often not on the correct side of the pathway, and they are often not paying attention to how much of the bike path they are taking up.

Overall we love the parkway and are grateful that we have a world-class amenity like this in the area.

Mike Grinstead, Senior Civil Engineer, Sacramento County Water Agency (Water Caucus)

Years ago, I got to commute on the bike trail. That was awesome. Then I moved jobs downtown and take city streets. I bicycle commute most days. About 1,500 miles a year. The commute is four miles one way, so eight miles a day.

I used to ride from the H Street Bridge to Watt every other day when I worked off of Bradshaw. It was so beautiful. I loved the sunrises when you would hear the birds waking up. Had deer run alongside me. Would see the turkey rituals around spring. Dodged a rattlesnake or two. Even in the evening on hot summer days, the river would add a little cool breeze and the trees provided shade. Very different than the part of my ride along Folsom Blvd.

Our family rides to Sac State and up around the Guy West Bridge often. We enjoy stopping in the middle and watching the river in hopes of seeing a shadow of a large fish. If I had to pick a favorite place, I would say Guy West Bridge. The view is awesome, and I have shared smiles from there with my family often.

Anne Sanger, Government Affairs Manager, City of Sacramento Department of Utilities (Water Caucus)

Bicycling on the American River Parkway is a great family activity! I bicycle about once a week, but our family’s annual Mother’s Day ride to Dos Coyotes in Folsom was a great tradition.

We ride for fun, so we stop often. My favorite stretch is William B. Pond, because the river is wide and you can cross the river on the foot bridge.

How the Water Forum will use fish ear bones to help evaluate flow management

Posted on Wednesday, April 27th, 2022

The Water Forum is using the ear bones of fish to learn insight into how different water release patterns and wetter vs. dryer years affect survival of different cohorts of juvenile salmonids.

Ear bones, you ask? Yes, ear bones. Specifically, the bones scientists know as the “otolith,” oval-

Credit: Cramer Fish Sciences

shaped bones in the inner ear that help fish sense gravity and movement. These bones record the life history of fish much like the growth rings in a tree trunk, except in miniature form: Most otolith bones are no more than 5 millimeters in size.

Otoliths are extraordinarily valuable because they contain daily growth rings. The size of the ring can tell us how fast a fish grew. Chemical information stored in the bone provides insight about the fish’s environment and food. Laser transects of the otoliths can tell us the entire life history of a salmon, including if the fish reared as a juvenile on the Lower American River, was released from the Nimbus Hatchery, or came from other tributary or hatchery in the Central Valley.

For the past four years, the Water Forum’s science team has been collecting otolith bones from dead fall-run Chinook salmon that spawned in the Lower American River. We now have amassed over 1,000 of these delicate gems.

Thanks to recent grant funding through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Water Forum team is cleaning and polishing the ear bones to expose the growth rings, which will then be analyzed at UC Davis using a mass spectrometer to reveal their microchemical make-up.

To ensure we analyze American River fish, we are looking for a unique strontium isotope — a kind of alkaline earth metal — that is different from all other tributaries and hatcheries in the Central Valley.

After spending time in the ocean, Chinook salmon generally return as 2-, 3-, and 4-year-old adults, with this return (known as escapement) dominated by 3-year-old salmon. In addition to looking at the chemical make-up, we will count annual growth rings in the otolith to understand the age of the fish and the year it left the American River (or outmigrated).  Since we collected otoliths over several years, during different water-year types, and from different run sizes, we are gaining valuable insight into the life history of fish that experienced significantly different environments and seasonal flow regimes as juveniles.

On a micro level, results from otolith analysis will provide critical insight into the extent to which different age classes contribute to a successful spawning population on the Lower American River, which is currently unknown.

At a broader level, this project is part of a larger, multi-faceted study that will be completed in 2023 focused on helping us understand whether one type of habitat restoration works better than others, and how to potentially fine-tune water releases to benefit salmon.

Since 2008, the Water Forum and its federal, state and local partners have invested millions of dollars to improve fall-run Chinook salmon and steelhead trout spawning and rearing habitat affected by the construction of Folsom and Nimbus dams. The Water Forum also provides scientific data to support Reclamation’s flow management decisions on the Lower American River. This study is important to evaluating and adapting this work to ensure these important species are with us for generations to come.

Join Your Water Forum Colleagues for Coffee, Conversation and Cleanup!

Posted on Thursday, April 7th, 2022

Saturday, April 23, 2022
8 a.m. breakfast, 9 a.m. clean-up
River Bend Park at 2300 Rod Beaudry Drive, Sacramento 95827

Join your Water Forum colleagues as we fuel up and then head out to cleanup the American River Parkway on Saturday, April 23, at 8 a.m. at River Bend Park, as part of the American River Parkway Foundation’s Spring Cleanup event.

Held at eight locations throughout the Parkway, this is the Foundation’s second-largest annual cleanup and helps remove more than 10,000 pounds of trash from the Parkway.

The Water Forum will be offering breakfast, coffee and the great company of your colleagues starting at 8 a.m. before joining the Foundation’s cleanup event at 9 a.m. The Foundation will provide a safety briefing, as well as trash bags, gloves, water and a light snack for volunteers.

There are TWO STEPS to take to join us:

1:  Register for the Parkway Foundation’s River Bend cleanup event here.

2: RSVP to the Water Forum by Wednesday, April 20th (so we know how much food to bring) here.

Hope to see you there!


A creek thrives again in Rancho Cordova… with a little help from nature’s “ecosystem engineers”

Posted on Wednesday, April 6th, 2022

By Erica Bishop

Habitat naturalization works, and we have Cordova Creek to show for it.

The creek in Rancho Cordova actually didn’t have a name, as far as we know, until the 1960s. That’s when it was lined with concrete and became known as Clifton Drain, named after the gentleman who initiated the lining project to protect area soils from erosion. However, as this area became part of the American River Parkway, the community became more aware of its potential and interested in revitalizing it.

In 2016, the Water Forum began working to restore the sterile concrete-lined storm drain into a more natural state in partnership with the Sacramento County Regional Parks Department, Wildlife Conservation Board, California Native Plant Society, SAFCA, City of Rancho Cordova, and Soil Born Farms.

The project team removed all the concrete in the channel, used native cobbles to help slow down flows, and planted native riparian and upland vegetation, including willow trees.

Finished in 2017, the newly-named Cordova Creek was soon recognized with an award for “outstanding environmental stewardship” by the Sacramento Environmental Commission. And they weren’t the only ones to notice the project—beaver families soon moved into the area.

Beavers are nature’s original ecosystem engineers, and their dams can help bring deep incised channels back to life by backing up water and making it available for riparian trees and plants, which once established, serve as food and habitat for birds and other species.

Currently, there are four beaver dams and one lodge in Cordova Creek, which enrich

Adorable video of Cordova Creek’s beavers. Many thanks to wildlife photographer Carl Salmonsen for sharing his wildlife cam footage!

the naturalization project in several ways:

  • Beaver dams create slow-moving pools, enhancing conditions for other fish and wildlife by providing shade and woody material, and helping to filter fine sediment from the water.
  • They help protect the Lower American River by trapping litter from upstream neighborhoods before it can wash into the river.
  • They offer a great place for the Water Forum to compare temperatures around the dams with temperatures recorded in the rest of the channel.
  • Finally, they provide a great opportunity to observe the natural interaction between a native species and the dynamic riparian corridor along the creek.

Click to expand

That said, the beaver dams present several challenges since the backed-up water can flood portions of the nearby interpretive trail and low-water crossing built in 2017. Also, since the beavers never stop building, flow patterns around the creek can change from one day to the next. Devices called “pond levelers” can help mitigate high-water impacts from beavers without affecting their health or habitat.

Today, what was once a concrete drainage now resembles a natural creek, with a tree canopy providing deep shade to keep the water cool, along with a wealth of other vegetation that attracts wildlife. The willows are huge, and deer often visit the creek. The creek is an amazing spot to step into the shade and enjoy the sound of the birds. The riparian plantings have done so well that it’s actually hard to get to the creek in a few places now. Although it has taken a few years, the native upland vegetation planted during the project is also established enough that the irrigation can be removed.

The creek is especially important because it is one of the few tributaries of the Lower American

Check out this engaging interactive from the High Desert Museum’s experience “Dam It! Beavers and Us” that demonstrates how beavers can transform a riparian habitat into a thriving, lush spot teeming with wildlife.

River in which water flows year-round, providing vital refuge for many species even during hot summer and fall months. That’s because it benefits from treated groundwater discharged from the nearby Aerojet industrial facility.

Cordova Creek also has become a major asset for the community, which includes the adjoining Cordova Meadows neighborhood and Soil Born Farms, providing educational opportunities for Parkway visitors and local school groups to learn about the ecosystem, often led by the team at Soil Born Farms.

But the work isn’t done. Funding for the first project wasn’t sufficient to naturalize the final 400 feet of creek, where it connects with the American River. The Water Forum is currently working with a large stakeholder group to plan the next phase for this short, but complex portion of the creek.

Once complete, this formerly paved ditch will be connected to the Lower American River in a functional way, serving as a vital refuge area for wildlife, demonstrating how successful projects are the result of great (if sometimes unexpected) partnerships.

Will there be a Miracle March?

Posted on Thursday, March 3rd, 2022

By Jessica Law

California has just concluded the driest January-February period in recorded history. The March 1 survey of the Sierra Nevada snowpack, key to water supplies across much of the state, reflects the trend as well, showing the snow water content at 62 percent of average for the date.

We at the Water Forum are hoping for a “Miracle March” that brings in above-average precipitation to reverse this trend. But we are also prepared for the reality that missing out on all that moisture in January and February—normally the wettest months of the year—likely means we will face a third consecutive drought year ahead.

As we discussed in our last blog about “weather whiplash,” early storms in October and December delivered

PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Innerarity/California Department of Water Resources (October 28, 2021)

lots of rain and snow to the central part of the state. That means the American River watershed and Folsom Reservoir, which serve the Sacramento region, are in slightly better shape than the rest of the state. The Central Sierra snowpack stands at 65 percent of average—whereas the Northern Sierra is currently at 57 percent.

Folsom Reservoir is currently about as full as it’s allowed to be at this time of year, given flood-storage requirements present during winter. As of March 2, it stood at 106 percent of historical average capacity for this time of year—a much better position than the significantly larger Shasta and Oroville Reservoirs, which are near historic low storage levels.

Looking ahead, it currently seems likely that Folsom Reservoir—operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—will be able to end the calendar year with about 300,000 acre-feet of stored water. That’s a better outlook than last year at this time.

However, because of low storage elsewhere in the state, Reclamation may need to more heavily rely on Folsom Reservoir to serve other areas of the state that normally rely on Shasta and Oroville, and to satisfy water quality requirements in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Water Forum is already watching this unfolding picture very carefully. We look forward to continuing our partnership with Reclamation as they manage Folsom to support our local water quality needs in the American River and ensure wildlife, like our fall-run Chinook salmon, remain in good shape all year long.

Could we get a Miracle March? A long-range forecast by the Climate Prediction Center at the National Weather Service indicates an increased likelihood for wet conditions across the northern quarter of the state during March. If that benefits Shasta Reservoir, it could significantly relieve pressure on Folsom Reservoir and the American River.

Also, a storm moving our way this week brings a bit of hope. Through Friday, the Sacramento region could see a half-inch of rain, while the Sierra Nevada could see as much as a foot of snow above 4,000 feet.

So, while we remain hopeful, Water Forum members are also staying focused on addressing climate change and severe conditions projected over the long term. Dry periods like this one are expected to become more frequent and to last longer in our region as climate change worsens. Rain or no rain, we must also prepare for another drought year and continue doing our part to conserve water.

Weather whiplash’ brings challenges to the American River this winter

Posted on Monday, February 7th, 2022

By Jessica Law

Winter is historically a time of relative ease for American River salmon and steelhead. The punishing dry months of summer and fall are in the past, and winter storms have returned to cool down water temperatures and provide adequate flow for feeding and spawning. That hasn’t necessarily been the case this winter, which now presents our native fish with a number of new challenges.

In the 2022 water year so far, the river has been hit with a double-whammy of big storms first in October, then in December. January was especially dry, and there is no precipitation in the near-term forecast for February. Meanwhile, in the river, adult steelhead and fall-run Chinook salmon are setting up nests (known as redds), as the spawning and incubation season begins.

All this is a symptom of “weather whiplash,” a rapid shift from drought to wet and back to dry weather that is expected to become more common due to climate change. At the Water Forum, we are carefully watching what this means for water supply and the health of the American River.

In October, the American River watershed received a historic amount of early rainfall, bringing Folsom Reservoir out of extreme drought. Another winter wallop during the holidays resulted in the reservoir encroaching 20,000 acre-feet into the flood space at 566,934 acre-feet for the first time since 2019. This was vitally important for water supply in the region: The reservoir added over 200,000 acre-feet of storage in just six weeks.

The Water Forum has no authority over flood-control releases from Folsom Dam which is regulated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

During winter, Reclamation is required to maintain 400,000 acre-feet of flood reservation in Folsom Reservoir to accommodate major storms. This helps protect downstream communities like Sacramento from flooding. The Water Forum is working closely with these agencies, providing data and expert advice, to anticipate how this influx of early season rain could affect wildlife and habitat.

Rapid fluctuations in water releases are not necessarily a bad thing. Our analysis has shown that releases under 10,000 cubic feet per second are unlikely to harm redds through scouring or damage to newly constructed restoration sites. Also, limiting such flows to a brief period (one to three days), followed by a gradual reduction, will not necessarily harm salmon and steelhead. In fact, it would more closely mimic natural storm runoff conditions, before Folsom Dam was constructed.

But it is a delicate balance. If flood releases are too high and no additional storms arrive, there could be inadequate water supply to serve homes and businesses, as well as to protect cold-water resources to support fisheries in the fall and summer months. And if redds are too high on the river bed due to temporary high flows, they could be left disconnected from the main channel or high and dry when the river drops after flood releases, and juvenile salmon (fry) could be stranded as well because they are not strong swimmers.

But so far so good. In January, Reclamation dropped release rates from 5000 cfs to 2000 cfs over the course of several days in time to avoid the peak of steelhead spawning and protect storage.

Throughout the winter the Water Forum will be supporting Reclamation’s Folsom Reservoir operations by coordinating information from its members, including: (1) inflow forecasts from Placer County Water Agency and SMUD, whose upstream projects regulate the majority of the basin’s flows; (2) diversion forecasts from area water purveyors; (3) water temperature modeling to support temperature management decisions; and (4) fishery conditions in the river to inform tradeoffs between release decisions.

This winter is an important reminder that, thanks to climate change, we are in a completely different flow regime, where decisions must be made quickly and based on real-time information. The Water Forum is watching closely to support our partner agencies and help provide optimal conditions for fish and water supply in these uncertain times.

Image credit: Darin Reintjes, Placer County Water Agency

Reflecting on 2021, Welcoming 2022

Posted on Friday, January 14th, 2022

By Jessica Law

When I started as the new Water Forum Executive Director a year ago, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. As life would have it, 2021 was full of surprises. I am incredibly proud of the work we accomplished together in 2021—even with the continued challenges and disruption posed by COVID-19 and the sudden emergence of a drought emergency.

Here are just a few of my favorite highlights from the year:

Strong coordination and open communication with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation: The sudden emergence of a drought emergency in 2021 put tremendous pressure on our federal and state partners working to balance the water supply and environmental needs of the statewide water system. The Water Forum worked closely with Reclamation to reduce impacts to our local water supplies and the health of the Lower American River. One critical measure was a Memorandum of Understanding with Reclamation to preserve cold water in Folsom Reservoir for fall Chinook salmon run. This included setting a storage planning goal of 200,000 acre-feet by end of September. Though challenging to achieve, Reclamation indeed hit the mark.

Cutting-edge science: One of the Water Forum’s essential roles in 2021 was to monitor how drought conditions in the Lower American River impacted the health of steelhead trout and fall-run Chinook salmon (salmonids). Water Forum consultant Cramer Fish Sciences-Genidaqs Laboratory deployed a newer monitoring process, known as an environmental DNA (eDNA) survey, to confirm if salmonids were present in the river. This was augmented with underwater video monitoring to provide visual cues to locate and identify fish. The results provided important insight to support both short-term flow decisions and long-term adaptive management.

Habitat restoration project and partnership with the Effie Yeaw Nature Center: After a year delay due to COVID-19, we implemented an outstanding project at Ancil Hoffman Park in Carmichael, laying 15,800 cubic yards of clean gravel into the flowing Lower American River for spawning and creating a 1,000-foot long alcove for rearing. This project could not have been accomplished without the incredible construction crew at the City of Sacramento Department of Utilities and California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Erica Bishop, the Water Forum’s new (extraordinary!) project manager, provided seamless leadership and expertise. Also, a huge “thank you” to John Hannon, Reclamation, and the entire consultant team, which included cbec eco engineering, GEI, IN Communications and MMS Strategies. Our partnership with Effie Yeaw Nature Center continues to grow and we are looking forward to the opening of a new salmon exhibit in 2022.

Reinvigorating the Water Forum’s Public Caucus: In 2021, we began to build on insight shared during the Water Forum’s 20th Anniversary Climate Symposium, which spotlighted environmental justice and equity, and climate change’s impacts on sensitive communities. Our reinvigorated Public Caucus brings new and diverse voices to the Water Forum 2.0 negotiations to help shape the Water Forum’s vision and work for the next 30 years.

Partnership with the Regional Water Authority (RWA): Throughout 2021, the Water Forum and RWA, which marked its 20th anniversary last year, worked together to advocate for increasing conservation and shifting to groundwater to reduce pressure on the American River environment. This included a joint opinion piece urging conservation by Water Forum members Ralph Propper of ECOS and Tom Gray of the Fair Oaks Water District published in the Sacramento Bee. I am also proud of our joint advocacy work focused on raising the American River region’s profile with state and federal policymakers and leaders.

Supporting the development of Groundwater Sustainability Plans: The Water Forum played an important supporting role in the region’s path toward groundwater sustainability by supporting the Consumnes Groundwater SGMA Working Group and potential merger of the Sacramento Groundwater Authority and Sacramento Central Groundwater Authority. Thanks to these organizations, three Groundwater Sustainability Plans were developed—roadmaps for sustainably managing the American River region’s groundwater basins over the next 20 years.

A solid foundation for Water Forum 2.0 negotiations: In spite of the challenges caused by COVID-19 and a drought emergency, we came together as Water Forum members and partners to identify many of the core issues facing the region’s water supply reliability and the health of the Lower American River. And if we learned one thing last year, it’s that climate change is already here and impacting our work on a day-to-day basis. Much of Phase 1 in 2021 focused on establishing a shared understanding about the issues that will impact the final Agreement such as climate change, fisheries, and the interaction between groundwater and surface water. We also developed and shared caucus interest statements to identify alignment.

In 2022, we will work together to further define and frame how climate change will impact the coequal objectives and the region through plenary meetings, information sessions and tours, and working groups.

In addition, our habitat and science work in the next year will expand significantly. In 2022, the Water Forum will undertake two new habitat projects—at Upper Sailor Bar and Nimbus Basin. Our science program will launch a new, two-year grant-funded effort to monitor fish returning to the river. The project, funded through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will utilize genetics research that can connect salmon and steelhead returning to the Lower American River to the Water Forum’s habitat restoration sites on the river.

Water Forum members have a proud history of working in partnership even under the most challenging circumstances. This is an important part of the “Water Forum Way” and foundation for all that we accomplished together in 2021, and path to addressing whatever surprise comes our way in 2022.

Surviving the Summer: Monitoring conditions for salmonids on the Lower American River

Posted on Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

By Jessica Law

The Water Forum and its members maintained a strong focus on water operations and temperature management as we moved through the drought this year. In weekly cross-caucus meetings we poured over the latest projections, debated the merits of actions, and learned how to read buzz graphs and temperature modeling results. One long-standing member of the Water Forum, Ron Stork, Friends of the River, said that we might as well be getting college credit for a water operations and hydrology course.

But that’s just one half of the story. Water Forum members are also focused on how the low flows, high water temperatures, and extreme heat have impacted the health of steelhead trout and fall-run Chinook salmon (salmonids) this year. While Reclamation worked hard to maintain viable flow rates and temperatures during the long hot summer, well, we anticipated that it was going to be a hard year for fish to survive, much less reproduce and thrive.

But how bad were the conditions for juvenile steelhead that stayed in the river over the summer? Were there any cool spots for them to hide? Did adult Chinook return in early fall? For any of the fish that were present, were conditions tolerable?

Here’s what we learned …

Traditional snorkel surveys and seining surveys did not yield sufficient information about conditions to reach conclusions about the presence of salmonids. California Department of Fish and Wildlife was restricted in the amount and types of surveys because of the extreme conditions, and hours spent in the river did not result in significant information.

Cramer Fish Sciences-Genidaqs Laboratory, a Water Forum consultant, deployed a newer monitoring process, known as an environmental DNA (eDNA) survey, to confirm if salmonids were present in the river.  By collecting and filtering water samples Genidaqs can detect and analyze eDNA for specific fish species. The eDNA sampling was conducted at numerous locations throughout the river and was augmented with underwater video monitoring to provide visual cues to locate and identify fish.

These initial results indicate that the early arriving Chinook are finding poor water quality and temperature conditions when returning to the American River. And in these same conditions, steelhead are hard to find. The figure below shows that Cramer Fish Sciences-Genidaqs found relatively higher concentrations of Chinook eDNA compared to steelhead (O. mykiss) eDNA. This was also consistent with video documentation and field observations, and typical Chinook immigration and spawning behavior in the LAR.

There were at least two small areas of temperature refuge at the mouths of Cordova and Buffalo creeks where the streams created better water quality and water that was 1-2°C cooler than ambient river conditions immediately upstream this summer. The Water Forum is actively pursuing funding to study how these creek confluences could provide refuge during future drought periods and under climate change.

These eDNA data are intended to complement ongoing monitoring and modeling efforts on the LAR to support both short-term flow decisions and long-term adaptive management. And while this is the first time the Water Forum has utilized an eDNA survey, it will likely not be the last time. In future years these surveys, when done at regular intervals over longer periods of time, could help us understand more about relative abundance and use of habitat.

We will have additional data to share early next year as populations continue to be monitored by CDFW, including pre-spawn mortality estimates for Chinook and spawning estimates based on redd (salmon nest) counts and carcass surveys. And as we work with State and Federal agencies to synthesize results from these monitoring actions, the result will be making use of poor conditions this year to adjust and improve management actions should dry conditions persist next year and in the future.

Learn more about conditions for fish this year here.

Read more about the details of the eDNA study here.

Reclamation Implements Folsom Reservoir Power Bypass to Help Protect Salmon on the Lower American River

Posted on Thursday, October 14th, 2021

This week, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation initiated a Folsom Power Bypass to reduce river water temperatures and protect salmonids as spawning season begins on the Lower American River.

A power bypass allows Reclamation to access and release cold water below the power unit

Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

penstocks at Folsom Reservoir, thereby reducing river water temperatures to benefit rearing steelhead and spawning fall-run Chinook salmon. This is especially critical given that the LAR this summer was operated to a temperature of 71° F due to the extremely dry hydrology and low Folsom Reservoir storage. Technical analysis showed that the power bypass will not deplete the Folsom cold-water pool prior to the end of November, when ambient air temperatures are expected to lower water temperatures to a point where a power bypass is no longer needed.

Reclamation performed an analysis on the benefit to fisheries and impacts of the lost power generation. Given the extreme conditions this year, it was agreed that an early power bypass approach is warranted and will have significant biological benefits. Beginning October 11, Reclamation began to increase cold-water releases in increments of 50 cfs to reach 150-350 cfs of cold water until daily average water temperatures reach 62° F.  On or around October 25, Reclamation will increase the bypass, not to exceed 350 cfs, to maintain daily average water temperature of 56° F measured at Hazel Avenue.

“A power bypass is a critical tool for lowering temperatures in the Lower American River just as salmon are beginning their return to our region,” said Water Forum Executive Director Jessica Law. “We appreciate Reclamation’s partnership and flexibility in implementing this tool during this exceedingly challenging year.”

This decision was informed with technical analysis completed by the Water Forum’s consultant team, CBEC ecoengineering and Cardno, and reflects broad agreement from the State and Federal agencies that participate in the American River Group, a multi-agency and stakeholder technical team that coordinates fishery and operational requirements for the Lower American River.