After several years of unscheduled water releases from Trinity Lake in the late summer and early fall to protect salmon in the lower Klamath River, the federal Bureau of Reclamation has released a draft long-term plan to address the issue.
Comments on the draft plan can be submitted to Reclamation through Jan. 31, with a final version to be released in the spring.
Events leading up to the draft plan span 12 years, beginning with die-off of at least 34,000 adult salmon returning to the lower Klamath in late September 2002. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report indicated that these fall-run chinook salmon — many bound for the Trinity River that feeds the Klamath — died from severe infections of fish pathogens brought on by high fish densities, low flows and relatively high water temperatures.
In a number of years since then, Reclamation has boosted releases from the Trinity reservoir to the Trinity River and hence the Klamath when there have been concerns of another die-off. The additional water releases were applauded by fisheries advocates but prompted a federal lawsuit from Central Valley Project water contractors and calls from all sides for a long-term solution.
That draft plan is now out, and states that throughout the process of meeting with stakeholders and holding workshops, no viable non-flow alternatives for fish protection have been identified.
Criteria for determining if higher flows are needed were developed in 2012 and include consideration of flow augmentation when the fall chinook run is projected to be 170,000 or greater and the flows in the lower Klamath are forecast to be 2,500 cubic feet per second or lower. Irrespective of these thresholds, Reclamation will continue to monitor conditions in the lower Klamath and work with partners and other experts to determine if degraded river conditions require a response, according to the draft plan.
In 2012 through 2014, augmentation release volumes totaled approximately 39,000 acre-feet, 17,500 acre-feet and 64,000 acre-feet, respectively. The average volume released for augmentation in those years as well as 2003 and 2004 was 38,963 acre-feet, which Reclamation anticipates to be sufficient in most years when augmentation is needed. However, the need could exceed that amount, and a detailed evaluation of foreseeable augmentation needs and impacts will be included in the appropriate National Environmental Policy Act document supporting actions implemented under this plan, Reclamation said.
Potential adverse environmental effects from releasing the additional water include decreases to the Trinity reservoir cold water pool that could compromise later efforts to comply with Trinity River temperature goals for fish. It could affect efforts to achieve temperature objectives on the Sacramento River during the year augmentation flows are provided and potentially succeeding years.
Potential straying of Klamath River origin fish into the Trinity River is also noted.
As to whose allocation the water will come from, the draft plan states Reclamation will coordinate with Humboldt County concerning the release of up to 50,000 acre-feet of water granted to Humboldt and for downstream users under the 1955 Act that authorized construction of the CVP Trinity River Division. Although CVP water and power users, and Reclamation itself, had stated in the past that the 50,000 acre-feet for Humboldt is included within the water released for fisheries, an Interior solicitor’s opinion recently made public states that it is separate.
With no infrastructure as yet to put the water to other uses, “Humboldt County has expressed that during instances when ROD flow releases and other flows in the Trinity and Klamath rivers are insufficient to protect fish, they may request the release of the water provided for them and for downstream users for the protection of fish and wildlife,” according to the draft plan.
Because the water to Humboldt is an obligation under the 1955 act, “no compensation will be owed to other water or power users for releasing a requested volume to Humboldt County,” the draft plan states.
Otherwise, according to the draft plan, the most likely north of Delta sources from which to purchase water in challenging water years are the Sacramento River Settlement Contractors.
In recent years, the cost per acre-foot for comparatively large volumes purchased from the SRSC has been $100 to $200.
The draft plan draws mixed responses.
From the Trinity Public Utilities District which is concerned with losing some of its allocation and paying higher power costs if more water goes down the river and through fewer power plants, General Manager Paul Hauser has complaints.
“The first just glaring omission in the plan is there’s no mention of any study of reduced summer flows to help with this potential fish die-off problem,” he said. “The entire paper speaks of nothing but augmentation options.”
Water and power users have noted that with the reservoirs the summer flows are kept higher than they naturally would be, and have suggested that the flows might be attracting fish in dry years when they normally would remain in the ocean.
“You’re using Trinity Lake water to fix problems on the Klamath,” Hauser added. “Ratepayers of the TPUD are paying for that.”
From the California Water Impact Network, Director Tom Stokely has a more favorable view.
“It’s certainly the Solicitor’s Opinion that accompanies it that is quite favorable to providing augmentation to fish in the fall,” he said, adding that while the opinion does not make it law “it’s very helpful.”
However, the draft plan puts no limits on CVP exports, so “there’s the huge risk of draining Trinity Lake to a dead pool where there’s no cold water for fish and there actually isn’t any water for anybody at that point … There still needs to be enforceable minimum carryover storage in lake to ensure water for fish.”
“It’s like they got half the answer,” he said. “It’s definitely not the end of the story.”