Category Archives: news

Happy New (Water) Year! Reflecting on the wild ride that was 2021-22… and what’s to come

Posted on Thursday, September 29th, 2022

By Ashlee Casey

September 30th will mark the end of the current water year, and it was a wild ride!

It all started with a roar on October 24, 2021, when Sacramento saw its wettest single day ever, recording 5.44 inches of rainfall. The subsequent runoff over the following week added close to 100,000 acre-feet to Folsom Reservoir storage.

November 2021 was relatively dry. Then December 2021 ended up being another wet month. In fact, the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory on Donner Summit set a new snowfall record in December 2021. In the first few weeks of January 2022, Reclamation was making releases from Folsom Reservoir to preserve flood control capacity. Unfortunately, this precipitation missed the northern Sacramento Valley, and Shasta Reservoir missed out on most of the runoff.

But then it all came to a halt. The January-through-March 2022 period had the lowest precipitation on record for Sacramento and the Sierra Nevada region as a whole. These three months are normally the wettest of the year, so this was a big blow to water supply. The result was another drought year for the state, although the picture for the American River Basin ended up being about average thanks to some favorable storm tracks. So, while Folsom Reservoir reached near-average levels in the summer months of 2022, other major reservoirs in the state fell to near-record low storage levels.

Fast forward to September 2022, and we saw a brutal heat wave that lasted more than a week. Sacramento even notched a new all-time high-temperature record on September 6th at 116 degrees. That was not only the hottest September day the city has seen (beating the previous record for the month by a full 7 degrees) but the hottest day in Sacramento’s recorded history, period.

September 6th also marked the beginning of the Mosquito Fire, which erupted that evening near Oxbow Reservoir in the Tahoe National Forest, and would grow to threaten the infrastructure and water supplies for the Placer County Water Agency.

Just a week later, an unusual series of typhoon-driven storms broke more records. September 2022 rainfall for downtown Sacramento was 0.49 inches, eclipsing the monthly normal of 0.15 inches.

It’s been an off-the-chart’s year for weather.

The extreme and disparate precipitation patterns across the state created extra challenges for already stressed systems (and water managers). While trying to balance the varying needs for the available water supplies across the municipal, agricultural, and environmental demands, water managers have also been looking for solutions outside the typical management toolbox. For example, agricultural growers in the Sacramento Valley, who are typically first in line for federal Central Valley Project water in the Sacramento River, saw their entitlements reduced to less than 20 percent, the lowest allocation in history. This reduction was an effort to meet environmental demands within the Sacramento River and in the Delta.

Riverine temperatures are an important management target when considering environmental needs. October and November conditions in the American River often make it difficult to provide quality water temperatures for fall-run Chinook Salmon due to continuing warm days and seasonal rains not yet beginning.  This fall, the Water Forum is continuing to support efforts to improve conditions on the Lower American River by conducting modeling and analysis to help the National Marine Fisheries Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife determine potential options that could produce favorable conditions while considering different operational scenarios.

Also, let’s not forget the role of conservation in keeping our rivers flowing. Every household is being asked to reduce water use by 15 percent to keep California thriving. It’s important to all do our part to encourage local residents and businesses to use less water.

Unfortunately, this past water year—and the swings from intense highs to lows—is just another case study demonstrating the impacts of climate change. Those huge oscillations between record-breaking dry and record-breaking precipitation make it incredibly hard to do the kind of seasonal water planning that needs to be done.

There is still a high level of uncertainty about what the 2022-2023 Water Year will bring. The National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center forecasts a 54 percent chance of La Niña conditions for January-through-March 2023, which would mean a third-straight La Niña winter and potentially another dry year. But it’s still a coin toss: Sacramento and the American River Basin can go either way, depending on seasonal variability. In our area, La Niña sometimes produces wet winters.

Don’t throw out your umbrella yet.


Ashlee Casey is a Senior Engineer at the Water Forum.

Water Forum Launches Nimbus Basin Phase of 2022 Habitat Projects

Posted on Thursday, September 8th, 2022

The Water Forum this week launched the second phase of its 2022 Habitat Projects on the Lower American River.

Crews began work enhancing spawning and rearing areas in the Nimbus Basin, near the Sacramento State Aquatic Center. Over the coming weeks, they will add clean gravel sourced from tailings piles at Mississippi Bar to the river for salmon and steelhead to build redds (nests) and excavate a side channel complex for juvenile fish to hide and grow. Gravel from the tailings (discarded rock from the gold mining era) has been carefully sorted to the sizes that salmonids prefer.

Habitat Project crews are staying safe during this record heat wave by following all City of Sacramento extreme heat protocols, which include frequent breaks, access to hydration and shade stations, and following the buddy system. Another way they beat the heat—all of the heavy equipment onsite has air-conditioning in the cab.

The Water Forum last worked in the area about a decade ago and is now providing a “tune-up,” understanding that the Nimbus Basin is heavily utilized by spawning fish every year and that gravel naturally moves downstream over time.

“Previous habitat enhancement projects have nurtured dramatic increases in redds, including a 1,000 percent increase after the Water Forum’s 2019 habitat enhancement project at Upper Sailor Bar,” said Program Manager Erica Bishop. “We are optimistic that we will see similar—or better results—with the projected higher flows and expected cooler temperatures in the river this year.”

This week also marks the halfway point for the Habitat Project at Lower Sailor Bar. Crews from

the City of Sacramento Department of Utilities are now finished with excavating and sorting gravel and are using river-friendly equipment to push gravel into the river. Over 100,000 cubic yards of gravel were sorted to achieve the 37,000 cubic yards needed for the Lower Sailor Bar project.

Crews have also carved the side channel and are placing woody habitat structures during the next few weeks to provide protected places for young fish. They are utilizing surveying equipment and drone footage to measure progress and ensure the design follows

The Habitat Projects have been receiving significant media attention, including segments by KCRA Channel 3, Fox 40, CBS 13 and several local publications. You can find the KCRA 3 story and other coverage on the project page.

site plans.

The 2022 Habitat Projects are the most ambitious of the Water Forum’s spawning and rearing work to date. The Lower Sailor Bar project alone includes three spawning riffles and an extra-long side channel measuring over half-a mile end-to-end.

The work is made possible with the support of Water Forum members, project partners, and grant funding from the federal Central Valley Improvement Act and state Proposition 68—the “California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access for All Act,” passed by voters in 2018. Prop 68 funding is intended for projects that plan, develop and implement climate adaptation and resiliency projects, including those that protect natural resources and water supplies.

The Lower Sailor Bar project is on target to finish in late September, with the Nimbus Basin project taking place through early October.

Water Forum Business Strategy Set for 2022-2030

Posted on Thursday, July 28th, 2022

Water Forum members on July 28, 2022, confirmed the Business Strategy (2022-2030) that describes priorities and provides an overall guide for the organization’s operations for the next eight years.

The strategy discusses how the Water Forum will implement core programs for habitat management, flows and operations, science and monitoring, communications, and administration of the Water Forum Successor Effort.

“While the past two-plus years have presented challenges on so many levels, the Water Forum has continued to prioritize negotiations to renew the original agreement, signed over 20 years ago,” said Water Forum Executive Director Jessica Law. “As we continue with the Water Forum 2.0 process as a top priority, the Business Strategy delineates the level of effort for ongoing implementation of the original Water Forum Agreement.”

Representatives from each of the Water Forum’s caucuses—water, environment, business and public—shaped, reviewed and provided input on the plan.

“The Business Plan is a way to focus the Water Forum’s work on the actions that are most important to member agencies, as well as to anticipate potential issues that are years in the future,” said Kerry Schmitz, a member of the Coordinating Committee and Water Caucus.

Added Gary Bardini, a member of the Coordinating Committee and Public Caucus, “The plan brings focus to the Water Forum’s core business areas and funding, and prioritizes those efforts for the coming years.”

The Business Strategy is a living document that is expected to be adjusted on an annual basis. You can find the Final Plan here.

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 https://calwep.org/framework-updates/

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!

#WeLoveOurRiver

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