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Northern California Reservoirs Run Very Low While Southern Reservoirs Are Near Capacity

Critics say the crisis could have been avoided, and is result of mismanagement of the state’s water supply system.
 
 
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The lake is its lowest level ever, 17 percent of capacity and 32 percent of average, since the Bureau of Reclamation filled the reservoir with the clear waters of the North, Middle and South Forks of the American River that drain the Sierra Nevada Range. Because of the record low level of the lake, the cities of Sacramento, Folsom and other communities face dramatic water shortages this year.

The impact on the American River and its unique urban steelhead and salmon fisheries is just as alarming. The Bureau in early January dropped flows to only 500 cubic feet per second (cfs), compared to winter flows ranging from 2000 to 5,000 cfs that anglers are used to fishing in– and much higher flows during wet years.

Because of the threat to steelhead and Chinook salmon posed by the low water conditions, the Department of Fish and Wildlife voted for an emergency fishing closure on the upper section of the lower American on Wednesday, February 5, along with closures on the Russian River and coastal streams threatened by drought.

Stafford Lehr, CDFW Fisheries Branch Chief of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, explained to the Commission the dire situation that steelhead, salmon and other fish face in the low flows.

“The snowpack in the American River watershed is only 12 percent of normal and Folsom Lake is only 17 percent of capacity,” said Lehr. “We are trying to maximize the protection of as many wild salmon and steelhead in the American and other rivers as possible. We are implementing the emergency closures on some waters to reduce mortality caused by angling.”

Lerh stated, “We are fully aware of the impacts these closures will have on anglers and related businesses. However, anglers have overwhelmingly supported the decision to close fisheries because they are the original conservationists. They understand the severity of this drought.”

Southern California reservoirs are 96 and 86 percent of capacity

While the drought has received major national and regional mainstream and alternative media attention, most media outlets have failed to explain how the Bureau of Reclamation and Department of Water Resources systematically drained northern California reservoirs last summer, resulting in low flows and endangering salmon and steelhead in the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers while filling Southern California water banks and reservoirs.

Last summer, high water releases down the Sacramento, Feather and American rivers left Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs at dangerously low levels. Shasta is at 36 percent of capacity and 53 percent of average; Oroville, 36 percent of capacity and 54 percent of average; and Folsom, 17 percent of capacity and 32 percent of average.

Yet Pyramid Lake in Southern California is at 96 percent of capacity and 101 percent of average, while Castaic Reservoir is 86 percent of capacity and 102 percent of average.

The state and federal water agencies exported massive quantities of water to agribusiness interests and Southern California water agencies, endangering local water supplies and fish populations as the ecosystem continues to collapse.

Bill Jennings, Executive Director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, explained how the water was mismanaged.

“We entered 2013 with Shasta, Oroville and Folsom reservoirs at 115 percent, 113 percent, and 121 percent of historical average storage. In April, they were still at 101 percent, 108 percent and 96 percent of average,” said Jennings.

“With no rainfall and little snowpack, the Department of Water Resources and the Bureau (of Reclamation) notified their contractors that water deliveries would be reduced. But they didn’t reduce deliveries. Instead, they actually exported 835,000 acre-feet more water than they said they would be able to deliver,”  said Jennings.

 
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