Drought Forces Water Cuts in California’s Wine Country

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – In an effort to protect salmon from dwindling river and tributary levels, California’s water regulator approved further emergency water restrictions Wednesday for a Northern California watershed dealing with historic drought.
     The regulations concern four Russian River-tributaries and prohibit ornamental lawn watering and other urban water use for approximately 13,000 properties. The cutbacks were recommended by state and federal agencies in order to protect juvenile Coho salmon and steelhead by providing more water during the summer months.
     “This is one of the harder decisions that we’ve had, I didn’t expect that until I came in,” said Felicia Marcus, State Water Resources Control Board chair, following five hours of testimony.
     The emergency plan will last nine months and could go into effect as early as June 29.
     Juvenile Coho salmon rear in pools in the creeks during the summer and decreased flows during the drought have eliminated crucial pooling areas by disconnecting them from the main water stream. In various parts of the state, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife has been transporting juvenile salmon upstream into cooler water areas.
     Several members of the communities affected by the emergency plan echoed similar sentiment that the creeks aren’t running low from drought, but from surrounding vineyards’ depletion of the groundwater.
     Growers meanwhile scoffed at the notion of being forced to buy expensive monitoring equipment to measure their groundwater use.
     Wednesday’s announcement enhances mandatory water restrictions already in place across the state and prohibits residents from washing cars, watering lawns and filling fountains with anything but gray or recycled water. Property owners will be forced to report surface and groundwater use and will be monitored for the first time by state agencies.
     The emergency measures largely ignore commercial agriculture use and riparian land owners and farmers are still allowed to divert water from the streams per their water right claims, but curtailments are still a possibility this summer.
     Residents in the watershed were given the option of enrolling in a voluntary conservation program which would clear them from the water board’s increased restrictions voted in Wednesday. Only 24 property owners signed up for the voluntary measures out of more than 650 applications sent out, according to the DFW.
     Commercial fisherman harvested an average of 13,000 Coho salmon during the river’s peak run, yet by the 2000s, as few as two Coho salmon were recorded.
     With salmon populations shrinking over the last two decades, the water board asked the California Department of Fish and Wildlife why it waited so long to create the program in the Russian River tributaries.
     “It looks to me like the danger signs were there and it would have helped to build community support for this if we had started earlier, rather than when it’s such an emergency,” said Frances Spivey-Weber, vice chair of the State Water Resources Board.
     The Golden State’s struggle with record-breaking heat and stringent drought has been well documented, with residents and farmers forced to forgo old water-use habits. While Gov. Jerry Brown continues to advocate and speed up the construction of two massive tunnels to transport water from the Sacramento River, the state continues to search for ways to make the most of its minimal supply.
     With the enduring drought and a diminished snowpack, state officials continue to be tasked with protecting valuable wildlife and providing water to commercial growers which help drive the state’s economy. Along with the Russian River watershed water restrictions, the water board announced another emergency program aimed at protecting salmon in Northern California.
     State and federal officials introduced a plan that will alter the current Sacramento River Temperature Plan in hopes of lowering water temperatures on the Sacramento River and protecting Chinook salmon. Last year, despite a similar program, juvenile salmon populations suffered catastrophic losses due to warm water temperatures in the state’s longest and most important river.
     “The situation is grim for everyone and everything,” said Charlton Bonham, DFW director in a statement. “The winter-run Chinook salmon may not survive losses in the Sacramento River similar to last year.”
     The plan involves increasing the amount of water available in Shasta Reservoir and as a result decrease the supply of water available for farmers across the state. Cold water released from Shasta Reservoir goes directly into the Sacramento River and officials hope it will keep temperatures under 56 degrees, a critical temperature for the survival of juvenile salmon.
     Last year, officials overestimated the amount of cold water available in Shasta Reservoir and the program failed as nearly the entire population of Chinook salmon was killed off by water mismanagement.
     “This year is all about balancing unavoidable bad risks across the board and choosing a careful course given the uncertainties of what the summer will bring,” said Will Stelle, administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “As we do so, we are collectively determined to avoid last year’s loss of nearly the entire population of spawning winter-run Chinook salmon because of high water temperatures.”

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