Executive Summary for October 29th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary.

Published on Oct. 29, 2015 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Endangered Salmon Run Likely Slammed by Drought Again

For the second year in a row, it appears the Sacramento River’s endangered winter-run Chinook salmon run has been devastated again by drought.

It appears the fish once again baked to death because the river became too warm and there wasn’t enough cold water preserved to sustain them through the hot summer months. This occurred even though regulators ordered more cold water held behind Shasta Dam for the salmon run, angering farmers who felt they were entitled to the water instead.

“Chinook salmon are among the hardiest, most robust fish that we know of,” Jon Rosenfield, a biologist at the Bay Institute, told the Sacramento Bee. “Even if you don’t care about fish, the fact that Chinook salmon can’t survive in the Sacramento River is a testament to how poorly we treat our rivers.”

Rosenfield was referencing recent research showing that state regulators have allocated at least five times more water rights than nature can deliver in an average water. In a drought year, that disparity becomes much greater, leaving even less water for fish.

Because salmon have a three-year spawning cycle, environmentalists and others fear the salmon could be on the brink of extinction as a species in the wild. The winter-run Chinook have been listed as endangered since 1994 by the federal government.

Officials estimate that last year, only 5 percent of winter-run salmon survived long enough to migrate out to sea.

Preliminary counts indicate this year’s situation is worse: Fish traps that biologists use to count young Chinook near Red Bluff saw a nearly 22 percent drop from the same time last year.

“We try to be hopeful, but this is not good news,” said Maria Rea, assistant regional manager at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

This year, state wildlife managers — as a precaution — banned all fishing in a crucial winter-run spawning area on the Sacramento River in case anglers might accidentally catch one of the imperiled salmon or harm their gravel spawning beds. It was called “highly unusual” for such a state action that exceeds federal protections.

Because the fish have a three-year spawning cycle, environmentalists and others fear the salmon could be on the brink of extinction as a species in the wild. The winter-run Chinook have been listed as endangered since 1994 by the federal government.

Officials hinted the development could mean even tighter restrictions on Sacramento River water releases next year. And they aren’t hopeful that a wet El Niño winter will resolve things enough to ease the pain.

Elsewhere, salmon on the coastal Eel River are also suffering due to low flows and warm water. A different run of Chinook salmon there is showing evidence of infections and even blindness— effects often caused by poor water flow crowding and lack of oxygen.

As many as 25 percent recently examined by Eric Stockwell, Eel River Recovery Project coordinator, had clouded eyes and were exhibiting the odd behavior of not swimming away as he moved closer to them in the river.

“Several fish were blind,” he told the Eureka Times-Standard newspaper.

The exact cause of this blindness is unknown.

Federal Judge: Water Well Owners Must Be Named

In a court ruling that could influence state policy, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that the names of water well owners cannot be kept secret under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

The case was brought by AquAlliance, a Northern California group that sought to force the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to turn over names of well owners and data about their wells, including well construction details and water depth. Its aim is to track water transfers.

U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson rejected an argument by Reclamation that FOIA disclosure regulations apply only to oil and gas wells. The judge held that water is also a precious and limited resource and should not be exempt from disclosure.

Therefore, Jackson concluded that Reclamation must turn over the names and addresses of the well owners and water transfer participants. Disclosing names and addresses isn’t “stigmatizing, embarrassing or dangerous” for well owners and people who participate in water transfers, the judge ruled.

However, federal authorities will not have to disclose the location, construction or depth of California water wells, because this information can be proprietary.

The ruling may have bearing on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, the law passed last year that is California’s first attempt to regulate groundwater extraction. It includes controversial language that allows state officials to keep the names of well owners secret. It now seems that provision may be in conflict with federal law.

Kings County Extends Water Assistance to Renters

Mirroring recent actions by Tulare County, Kings County has now approved a program that offers assistance to tenants who have suffered water shortages.

Until earlier this month, financial assistance had, ironically, been offered only to people who own their own homes. Now Tulare and Kings counties — arguably two of the counties hit hardest by drought in California — have programs that extend this relief to renters.

In Tulare County, the program helps tenants find a new rental home if their prior residence was rendered unlivable by water shortage. If the new rental is more expensive, the program will help make up the difference in rent payments.

Kings County still doesn’t have a program to help homeowners who have run out of water. But it plans to get to work on that one next, which will likely provide them with temporary water tanks that will be refilled by regular delivery trucks, similar to the program in Tulare County.

Top image: An endangered Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon. The species has suffered another huge blow to its population for the second year in a row, largely triggered by drought.

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