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Executive Summary for December 9th

For an overview of the latest news on the California drought, we’ve organized the most recent developments in a curated summary, including the most important stories, analysis and data. Our goal is to keep you informed of the day’s most significant events in the field.

Published on Dec. 9, 2015 Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Trying Again Not to Exterminate Salmon

State officials have ordered more water to be held in storage at Shasta Reservoir next spring in the event this winter proves to be another bust. The goal is to try to protect enough cold-water flow in the Sacramento River for endangered winter-run Chinook salmon.

The State Water Resources Control Board plans to direct the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to retain 1.6 million acre-feet of water in the reservoir next spring. That’s 200,000 acre-feet more than it required last year. The board has this authority over the federal agency because it controls water rights in the state, which Reclamation relies upon to store and deliver water via its reservoir and canal network.

The water board’s draft order is expected to be approved at a meeting on December 15 in Sacramento.

The issue is crucial for winter-run salmon: 2016 could be the year that determines whether the species holds on or goes extinct. That’s because the past two years have seen more than 90 percent of the run snuffed out by river flows that were too warm – a result of the drought and failure to preserve enough cold-water flow.

Because the fish typically return upstream to breed every three years after migrating to the ocean, this year could be the last time a significant breeding population is available to sustain the population. If their offspring don’t survive, it could mean extinction.

Environmental and fishing groups aren’t convinced the additional water will be enough to help.

“This plan is not ambitious relative to what’s tried and failed in the past,” Jon Rosenfield, a conservation biologist at the Bay Institute, told the Sacramento Bee.

In 2014, it was estimated that only 5 percent of the juvenile winter-run Chinook survived warm water in the river. This year, officials said the species fared even worse, despite the additional water retained to help them.

The order means farmers must brace themselves for another tough season in 2016. Shasta Dam primarily provides water for irrigation customers throughout California’s Central Valley. The order for additional storage could result in even less water available for farms than last year.

“There’s this regulatory side that continues to chip away at water supplies that are used to grow food,” said Mike Wade of the California Farm Water Coalition.

FEMA Prepping for El Niño Havoc

The Federal Emergency Management Agency today plans to unveil a plan to help California cope with the unfolding El Niño weather pattern.

The reason is that El Niño has occasionally caused flooding in the state, although this is not a sure thing. Nor is it even certain that El Niño will ease the drought.

Nevertheless, FEMA is taking no chances. Its 56-page plan is intended to provide guidelines to help federal, state and local leaders cope with these and other disasters that could result from the heavy rains that accompany El Niño conditions.

El Niño is a phenomenon linked to above-average water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. It often brings heavy rains to Southern California. This year’s El Niño is particularly strong, and forecasters say that parts of Northern California also stand a good chance of seeing above-average rainfall.

“We want to make sure that we have pre-thought everything through and cut down time to adequately respond to needs,” Bob Fenton, administrator for FEMA Region IX, which includes California, told the Sacramento Bee.

FEMA’s plan calls for a phased approach that begins with monitoring forecasts and transitions to mobilizing federal, state and local officials so they’re ready to evacuate, rescue and shelter people.

The agency is hosting a “table top” disaster exercise in Sacramento today to give the plan a trial run. The event will include more than 50 emergency managers from four states.

It also urges individuals to prepare. California residents can help by formulating an evacuation plan in case of flooding or other disaster at their home or place of work.

“Individuals who are able to take care of themselves allow us to focus on those who need help,” he said.

FEMA’s El Niño website has tips and resources to help people prepare.

Top image: Tiny juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon are shown in a jar at Livingston Stone National Fish Hatchery, located at the base of Shasta Dam, in this file photo from Aug. 4, 2003. State officials plan to order dam operators to retain more cold water next spring to prevent the fish from being exterminated in the Sacramento River for the third straight year. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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