News & Operations Blog

If You Build It, Do They Come? Measuring results of the Water Forum’s Habitat Projects on the Lower American River

Posted on Thursday, December 1st, 2022

By Erica Bishop

The Water Forum and its federal and state partners have invested millions of dollars over the past 15 years to enhance salmon spawning and rearing habitat in the Lower American River. In this blog post, we want to highlight one way that the Water Forum, with its consultant, Cramer Fish Sciences, monitors the projects and helps to answer a critical question: If You Build It, Do They Come?

Since 2008, the Water Forum has implemented numerous projects to replenish coarse gravel in the Lower American riverbed to create spawning habitat for fall run Chinook salmon and Central Valley steelhead. These native species require coarse riverbed gravels to create the redds, or nests, for their eggs.

Unfortunately, the gravel they need — ranging from 3/8 up to 4 inches in diameter — can no longer move naturally downstream into the Lower American River to replenish spawning habitat since Folsom and Nimbus Dams were completed nearly 70 years ago. This means the spawning habitat below the dam has degraded as this “right-sized” sediment has been washed away through natural processes and has been replaced with fine sediment and large cobbles that are not good for spawning.

“During field surveys, we see areas where the fish will actually dig up each other’s nests because there’s so little habitat available,” says Kirsten Sellheim, a senior scientist with Cramer. “The Lower American River is so habitat-limited that anything we can do to increase habitat makes a difference.”

This fall, Cramer crews, overseen by Sellheim, and in coordination with California Department

Philip Colombano with Cramer Fish Sciences is part of the team recording redd locations, and measuring the dimensions, water depth, gravel size, and other characteristics of each redd. (October 27, 2022)

of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), are walking and floating along miles of the river to assess the extent of salmon redds, and especially how many of those redds are in the fresh gravel placed by the Water Forum. They record individual redd locations using GPS coordinates, and measure the dimensions, water depth, gravel size and other characteristics of each redd. This helps determine how intensively the enhanced areas are used, as well as the habitat types each fish species prefers.

And, for the first time, the survey data is being uploaded to a new data portal so it can be shared in near real-time with other agencies, including CDFW, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operates Folsom Dam.

The work is funded by a $5 million grant from Proposition 68 administered by the California Natural Resources Agency. The money covers 2022 costs for both construction of the enhanced spawning habitat and pre- and post-construction surveys and monitoring and is combined with funds from Reclamation that supported designs, modeling and permitting for this year’s sites.

Since 2018, 27 acres of spawning habitat and 15 acres of rearing habitat have been enhanced on the American through the Water Forum’s habitat enhancement program. This program, which is funded by local, state, and federal agencies, has been implementing projects since 2008.

In a previous study published in 2013 in the journal River Research and Applications, scientists found that the Lower American River gravel enhancement was effective in increasing Chinook salmon and steelhead spawning. The study analyzed the Water Forum’s habitat projects at the Sailor Bar and Sunrise sites, and recorded thousands of spawning redds where none had been previously seen.

Sellheim, who was a study co-author, said the surveys now underway shed more light on the habitat preferences of salmon and steelhead and the spawning success that occurs as a result of Water Forum’s work in the river. Data from 2021 surveys demonstrated that 32 percent of all Chinook redds recorded during aerial surveys of the entire river were located at Water Forum’s enhanced habitat sites. Additionally, our 2021 project at Ancil Hoffman Park supported 30 percent of all steelhead redds counted on the Lower American River last season. Preliminary information from 2022 spawning surveys shows a similar trend – when we build it, they do come and use the habitat, just as they have for millions of years.

The Water Forum’s work is just one part of a larger effort to sustain wild-spawning anadromous (ocean-going) fish in the Lower American River. Although a hatchery on the river produces millions of juvenile salmonids, wild-spawning fish are known to be more resilient to environmental change. They are also simply a unique natural treasure in an urban river like the American.


Erica Bishop is Program Manager for the Water Forum.

Folsom Reservoir Power Bypass Underway

Posted on Wednesday, October 26th, 2022

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is implementing a Power Bypass at Folsom Reservoir 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 penstocks at the reservoir, thereby reducing river water temperatures to benefit rearing steelhead and spawning fall-run Chinook salmon.

Reclamation initiated the bypass on October 20, 2022. Since then, temperatures have decreased by 2 to 3 degrees. The bypass will last several weeks until ambient temperatures drop further to assist Reclamation with its target temperature of 56°F towards the end of November.

Cheers to the Water Education Foundation

Posted on Wednesday, October 26th, 2022

Fostering informed discussion and leadership in California water

By Jessica Law

Today we write to share a hearty “happy anniversary” shoutout to the Water Education Foundation, a longtime friend of the Water Forum, for their longtime dedication to fostering informed discussion around California water issues.

On Oct. 26, the foundation hosts a reunion to mark the 25th anniversary of its Water Leaders Program.

The Water Forum is proud to have two employees who are alums of the Water Leaders program: Erica Bishop and Ashlee Casey. Water Leaders annually brings together 20 or so early- to mid-career water professionals in a program designed to deepen knowledge on water, enhance leadership skills and help participants take an active, cooperative approach to decision-making.

Ashlee Casey was part of the 2018 WEF Water Leaders class

Ashlee, our senior engineer, was part of the 2018 Water Leaders class while working for her previous employer, a civil engineering consulting firm. She says the experience not only boosted her knowledge about California water, but also broadened her perspective on this complicated subject.

“For me, the biggest thing was just getting to meet other water resources professionals that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” she says. “In getting to know those people from different facets of the water industry in California, I feel like I’m able to understand better where people are coming from in different settings.”

Another benefit of the Water Education Foundation is its many field tours of California’s water landscape. That’s how Erica, our program manager, first got involved with the foundation. Soon after moving to California from Wyoming in 2008, she joined a foundation tour of the Sacramento Valley.

“That really helped orient me toward the resources I was working on,” she says.

Erica was selected for the foundation’s 2019 Water Leaders class.

Erica Bishop was part of the 2019 WEF Water Leaders class

“It was a great opportunity and a real confidence builder to see myself as a future leader in the industry,” Erica says. “It made me excited to take that step into leadership in my career, which I did when I came to Water Forum.”

A year after that, she was asked to become a board member of the foundation, and gladly accepted.

“The Water Education Foundation is really important because they bring together such broad perspectives, and they don’t exclude anyone,” she says. “So you really get the bigger picture. That’s just such an important niche in our industry and our world. They’re really trying to get all the information out there so folks are educated about this vital resource we all need.”

The Water Leaders reunion will be held the day before the foundation’s Water Summit on Oct. 27, an annual event designed to share the latest information on key issues affecting water in California. The theme of the event, now in its 38th year, is “Rethinking Water in the West.”

Water Forum Welcomes CivicSpark Fellow Liana Huang

Posted on Wednesday, October 26th, 2022

The Water Forum this month is pleased to announce the arrival of our newest CivicSpark Fellow, Liana Huang.

CivicSpark is a Governor’s Initiative AmeriCorps program dedicated to building capacity for nonprofits and local governments to address emerging environmental and social equity challenges. The Water Forum has hosted CivicSpark fellows for several years. It has been a vital program to provide extra hands for special projects while providing early professional experience for recent college graduates.

Liana was raised in downtown Sacramento and in West Sacramento. She recently completed a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, with a concentration in environmental engineering, from UCLA. She also has a minor in GIS technology. She’s interested in forging a career in the field of climate mitigation and adaptation, and hopes her experience with the Water Forum will help focus her professional choices moving forward.

“I am excited to see first-hand how water governance is formed through compromise and science,” Liana says. “I hope to grow my competency with public communications, and simply learn more about the large, complicated world of water resource management.”  

Liana will be with us for a year. Among other duties, she will help with research related to Water Forum 2.0, our work to negotiate an updated Water Forum Agreement wedded to the climate challenges that lie ahead.

Construction Complete on Water Forum 2022 Habitat Projects

Posted on Thursday, October 13th, 2022

Water Forum teams are in the final clean-up stages at the Water Forum’s Habitat Project at Nimbus Basin, signaling the successful on-time completion of the Water Forum’s 2022 Habitat Projects at the Basin and Lower Sailor Bar.

Since August 1, teams have been working to enhance crucial habitat in the Lower American River for native fall-run Chinook salmon and steelhead trout, which return to the river to spawn during their annual migration from October through February.

In the egg-laying process, females create a “nest” (called a redd) in loose gravel in flowing water, depositing their eggs and then covering them up with more gravel. Once hatched, young salmon move to the river’s shallow, slower-moving areas to find protection from predators and grow before eventually swimming out to the Pacific Ocean.

To aid this natural process, Water Forum teams collectively laid approximately 41,000 cubic yards of clean gravel into the flowing river and carved side channels into existing gravel bars. They also added large woody material into the side channels to create places for young fish to hide from predators, provide shade, and a place for insects to grow for feeding the fish and provide habitat for many other Parkway species.

The Water Forum now moves into the monitoring stage for the projects, carefully tracking and counting the number of redds over the next several months to monitor results. Previous projects have created a surge in native fish nests within several months following construction.

You can learn more about the 2022 Projects at waterforum.org/habitat2022.

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.

Jonas Minton, a guiding light of the Water Forum

Posted on Tuesday, June 28th, 2022

Here at the Water Forum, we are deeply saddened by the recent news that Jonas Minton has passed away. Our first full-time executive director, Jonas was a vital guiding hand in our work and left a huge imprint on many aspects of California water policy. He died June 22, 2022, due to a heart condition at the age of 73.

Jonas worked for the California Department of Water Resources starting in 1978, and rose to become a deputy director from 2000 to 2004, where he was responsible for divisions of Planning, Local Assistance, Dam Safety, Water Conservation, and Flood Management. Among other accomplishments, he served on the team that secured federal Wild and Scenic River protection in 1981 for more than 1,200 miles of California rivers.

Jonas helped shape the Water Forum in its formative stages and then served as executive director from 1995 to 2000. Susan Sherry, who guided the negotiations that created the Water Forum while at the Center for Collaborative Policy at Sacramento State University, recalled Jonas’s value as a guiding hand during those tense, early days.

“He was able to bring all these adversarial parties together, because he really believed in dialogue & seeking common ground,” she said. “So people trusted him even though they knew he was this activist. He did not put his thumb on the scale at all.”

Photo of Jonas Minton by Brad Zweerink

After retiring from DWR in 2004, he served as senior water policy advisor at the Planning and Conservation League until his death. In that capacity, he was a tireless advocate for the state’s rivers and for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. His work helped lead to the removal of San Clemente Dam on the Carmel River in 2015. He also led the effort for a comprehensive statewide flood management package, which became law in 2007. More recently, he convened water law and policy experts to develop 11 detailed proposals on water rights, climate change, drought and water justice, a number of which are now before the California legislature.

Jonas was a generous friend who spent countless hours mentoring young people, recruiting volunteers and encouraging others with his relentless optimism. He also expressed his love for the water as an expert kayaker and rafter who enjoyed sharing the paddling life with others.

“He used to tell me that when he was on the river, it was spiritual for him,” Sherry said.

Jonas is survived by his wife of 42 years, Julie Carrasco-Minton, as well as numerous sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews. A celebration of his life is being planned for September. In the meantime, friends and colleagues are invited to make donations in his honor to Friends of the River, the Sacramento Food Bank or the American Heart Association.


Read “Jonas Minton, California environmentalist and water-policy expert, dies at 73” in the Sacramento Bee 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/