Category Archives: news

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.

State Must Cancel San Joaquin’s Application to Claim Water from the Lower American River

Posted on Wednesday, September 29th, 2021

BY JESSICA LAW
SPECIAL TO THE SACRAMENTO BEE

When the Water Forum Agreement was signed over 20 years ago, the occasion marked an unprecedented show of regional cooperation and an end to the water wars that had plagued the Sacramento region for decades. For years, business interests, environmentalists, water suppliers and others had sparred over the water needs of people vs. the environment. At the center of this conflict was the lower American River.

Now, a decades-old application by San Joaquin County is threatening to ignite a new era of water conflict by petitioning California to take 147,000-acre feet of water from the American River — an amount of water equal to 15% of Folsom Lake when full.

As we are painfully aware, Folsom Lake is nowhere near full, raising more urgent concerns about how San Joaquin’s application, if approved, could threaten supplies in times of drought.

Prepare for the Worst, Hope for the Best

Posted on Monday, September 27th, 2021

By Jessica Law

Last week, the State Water Resources Control Board received presentations from the directors at State and Federal agencies focused on the unwelcome new challenge of planning for a worse-case water year, which starts on Friday, October 1st. The presentations echoed messages that Water Forum members recently heard from Reclamation’s Kristin White, that conditions are historically dry not only in California but across the Western United States.

The core message was sobering: prepare for the worst, hope for the best. Each director emphasized that the joint strategy is a risk-management approach to assessing impacts and weighing options to secure California’s water supplies. With a strong focus on planning for another dry year, they outlined a suite of options to ensure that basic health and safety needs are met next year. These include coordinated use of reservoirs and mandatory conservation requirements in the near future. There was also a strong emphasis on local actions and the solid partnership and close coordination between State and Federal agencies.

Check out additional coverage of the meeting here.

Our region has been working on these issues, but can always do more. Over 20 years ago, the Water Forum Agreement was the catalyst for the formation of the Regional Water Authority and the Sacramento Groundwater Authority, which have helped ensure our groundwater basin can be healthy and ready for longer droughts. This conjunctive use effort will be key to our future.

Conservation Update and Local Reductions
The numbers are in! Last week, we learned how we are collectively doing on conserving water around the state. In July, consumers statewide reduced water use by 1.8 percent overall with the state’s North Coast region reaching the highest conservation levels at 16.7 percent, according to the State Water Board and news media reports.

Locally, water use remained about the same in July but saw an encouraging trend downward in August, with a 6 percent decline in overall water use compared to the same period last year, according to the Regional Water Authority (RWA).

RWA is carefully tracking information for the region. Amy Talbot, RWA Water Efficiency Program Manager, says that there has been a 12 percent swing in the Sacramento region’s water use in the last three months. Compared to 2020, regional water use rose in June by 6 percent, leveled off in July, and then declined in August by 6 percent.

“This is exactly the use pattern we would expect to see once we declare a drought and start messaging,” she said.  “Drought response is not like a light switch—it takes time for the message to sink in, for customers to respond and for that response to show up in production data. We are anticipating increased reductions as the year progresses. We know that 6 percent isn’t 15 percent, but we are just getting started.”

In addition, recent reductions are on top of an overall 13 percent decline in regional water use since the 2015 drought and are occurring even during record-breaking summer heat when water use typically increases, she said. RWA recently prepared a fact sheet describing factors impacting the region’s water use in 2021. You can find it here.

Overall, remarks last week echoed what we have been learning over the past several months about the growing water and environmental emergency in the Sacramento region, across California, and the West and reinforces the Water Forum’s August resolution urging a 15 percent reduction in water use.

It is clear that our work is only beginning.

Image credit: State Water Resources Control Board

Drought Report Offers Sobering Assessment and Call to Action

Posted on Monday, September 20th, 2021

By Jessica Law

Folsom Lake, 2014 (Photo Credit: CA DWR)

The Water Forum has been working closely with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to coordinate a response to drought conditions and reduce impacts to regional water supplies and the health of the Lower American River.

We recently welcomed Kristin White, Operations Manager for Reclamation’s Central Valley Project, to provide an update on drought conditions in California and across the Western United States at the Water Forum Drought Plenary. What she shared was both stark and sobering. It was a glimpse into the problems facing federal and state water managers during this extraordinarily challenging water year.

And she also offered a call to action—a role for all of us to play in reducing water use—as federal and state agencies continue their work to prepare for potentially devastating water supply conditions that could result from continued drought in 2022.

Here are some of the key points Kristin shared during her presentation.

Conditions in the American River Region

In the Sacramento region, 2021 is the third driest year on record for Folsom inflow and the center for major snowpack loss. “What hit us so hard this year was the loss of our snowpack,” Kristin said. The snowpack was deeper this winter than in the drought years of 2014-15 but only a fraction of its runoff made its way into creeks and rivers.

Kristin explained that in normal years, most reservoirs start with low storage at the beginning of the water year (which runs October 1-September 30), increase to a peak storage in the spring and then end low. This year, Folsom started low and will end even lower, noting that peak storage at Folsom this water year occurred on October 1, 2020.

On the other hand, Kristin noted that Folsom has a “very high refill potential,” and there’s a “decent chance” that Folsom will be able to recover to “decent storage” next year even if the weather remains dry into 2022.

Second Driest Year in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Watersheds

This year has been the second driest year on record in the Sacramento-San Joaquin watersheds since the development of the Central Valley and State Water Projects, second only to 1977, Kristin said. Putting this into perspective: The state’s major reservoirs—Shasta, Oroville, Trinity, Folsom and New Melones—held 10 million acre feet of water (MAF) on October1, 2019. Those reservoirs are expected to collectively hold less than 4 MAF of water by October 1, 2021.

Shasta generally represents about a third of total storage for the statewide system. In 2021 Shasta inflow was the driest on record—about 200 thousand acre feet (TAF) worse than in 1977 and 250 TAF worse than in 2014. In addition, Oroville, which has a slower refill rate than Folsom, is at record low levels.

To help relieve pressure on Folsom, Oroville and Shasta this summer, Reclamation for the first time in history was able to draw upon New Melones to meet Delta outflow and water quality regulatory requirements. This was possible because new Melones started relatively high. However, storage levels are now less than we had going into 2014.

Disappearing Snowpack not Limited to California

Across the Western United States, drought conditions cover more than 93 percent of the land in seven Western states with nearly 59 percent of the area experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. This is the highest coverage this century and includes all of Arizona, California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington and most of Utah.

The Colorado Basin, which serves around 40 million people, is experiencing its 22nd year of drought and earlier this summer, the reservoirs hit their lowest levels since they were originally filled. The entire state of Idaho is in a moderate to exceptional drought, and March through June were among the driest on record. To make things worse, June and July have been among the hottest on record. Boise broke heat records in June beyond the two previous worst years of 1876 and 2015.

One key component shared by most of the large western water systems: relying on snowpack as the largest reservoir. The disappearing snowpack experienced in the American River watershed occurred in most of the basins, Kristin said. The Upper Colorado Basin, for example, saw around average snowpack with only 26 percent of average runoff.

“We Need Everyone to Help”

With minimal storage going into winter, continued dry weather into 2022 would be “devastating,” Kristin said. On July 8, 2021, Governor Newsom signed an Executive Order calling on all Californians to voluntarily reduce their water use by 15 percent compared to 2020 levels. Both Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources are working on emergency planning but will need help from all Californians to conserve the limited water supplies that are available. “We will not be able to get through a dry 2022 alone—we just won’t have the storage,” she said. “We will need everyone, all of California, to step up and help prepare for what could be a devastating year.”

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Reclamation selects Levi Johnson for Central Valley Operations Deputy Manager

Congratulations to Reclamation’s Levi Johnson, who was recently named Deputy Manager for the Central Valley Operations Office.

Levi works closely with Water Forum stakeholders and other federal, state, and local agencies; water and power users; the environmental community; and stakeholders to deliver efficient and equitable water solutions. The Water Forum team looks forward to continuing our work together!