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No One Digs California’s Salmon Water Plan

SACRAMENTO (CN) - California regulators Tuesday scaled back a drought plan to protect endangered salmon from deadly warm water and agreed to give federal officials more control over water plans in the future.

The State Water Resources Control Board voted unanimously to remove a clause setting minimum water levels at Shasta Lake, after heated testimony from water agencies, farmers and environmentalists.

The plan would have held back extra water at Shasta Lake next fall, to cool the Sacramento River and send less water south to farmers and thirsty Central Valley cities.

Water board staff recommended the plan after two years of catastrophic juvenile salmon die-offs, but the board was persuaded to trim the emergency plan by testimony from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and numerous water districts.

The Bureau of Reclamation said the plan was rushed, and cited recent forecasts predicting above average rainfall for much of California, due to El Niño. Ron Milligan, operations manager for the bureau, encouraged the board to nix the Shasta Lake clause, wait out the wet winter and conduct more research with the bureau and other water agencies.

"As we sit here in December, we see a lot of significant uncertainty in front of us," Milligan said. "There is still a potential trend toward higher and wetter conditions."

Opponents said that setting minimum water levels to protect fish nearly a year from now would hurt farmers already reeling from drought. Only one of 22 groups that submitted written comments supported the "arbitrary" water target, and most questioned the scientific reasoning behind the 1.6 million acre-feet requirement for Shasta Lake.

Shasta Lake shrank to 1.4 million acre-feet this fall. It is one of the state's largest reservoirs and the cold-water source for the Sacramento River.

(One acre-foot traditionally was assumed to be the average water use of a typical suburban family for a year. Water conservation measures, however, have shown that a home's annual use can be reduced drastically, by one-half or even more.)

Environmentalists too bashed the water board's proposal on Tuesday, deriding the regulator for failing to protect salmon and other endangered species during the past two years of drought.

The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, which sued the water board this year over water quality plans, said the regulator and state officials had the information necessary to prevent temperatures in the Sacramento River from rising above 56 degrees: the maximum temperature at which juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon can survive.

In its public comment letter, the alliance said the water board has delayed protecting salmon for years while California farmers' profits skyrocket.

"Like last year and the year before, subsequent events have established that our predictions on the consequences of weakening water quality standards were accurate and the State Board's claims and projections were grievously wrong," the alliance's executive director Bill Jennings wrote. "Fallow fields can be replanted, but extinction is forever."

Winter-run Chinook have a three-year spawning cycle, and just 5 percent of the 2014 class survived.

The National Marine Fisheries Service on Tuesday estimated that there are nearly 30 percent fewer juvenile fish in the Sacramento River than in 2014, putting more pressure on California agencies to keep river temperatures below 56 degrees.

"I hate to use a sports metaphor, but the count is 0 and 2 on temperature management," said water board member Steven Moore . "We can't strike out."

The only agencies that supported the plan Tuesday were a group of cities in the Sacramento area that divert water directly from Folsom Lake.

The board did vote to create a 200,000 acre-feet limit on that reservoir, to preserve water sent to control salinity levels in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Folsom Lake fell to a record-low 134,000 acre-feet this month, due to additional releases for the Delta.

After more than four hours of discussion, the board voted 4-0 to pass the amended water plan and set a March 15, 2016 deadline for creating a new water temperature plan. The board said the 1.6 million acre-feet for Shasta Lake will be used a "planning target" and the final plan will be driven by input from the Bureau of Reclamation and state water resource agencies.

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