June 29, 2016 3:51 PM
Decision a victory for Central Valley growers
Federal fisheries officials reverse their stance
Compromise still expected to save Chinook salmon
After weeks of uncertainty and pressure from members of Congress, federal officials on Wednesday announced a plan for managing water releases from California’s largest reservoir this summer in a manner that will not involve cutbacks in farm water deliveries – at least if all goes as hoped.
For more than a month, federal agencies have battled behind the scenes over how to balance the needs of California farms and two endangered fish species whose populations have been decimated by years of drought and environmental decline.
Federal fisheries officials – who hold considerable sway over how the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation operates Shasta Dam and other federal reservoirs – had been weighing whether to hold back substantial volumes of water at Shasta Lake into the summer to protect juvenile winter-run Chinook salmon. A companion proposal called for letting more water flow to the Pacific Ocean through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta during summer, in hopes of bolstering survival rates for another species teetering on the brink of extinction, the Delta smelt.
Both plans met with forceful opposition from Central Valley farmers, who rely heavily on Shasta water deliveries for irrigation. The proposals would have meant another year of curtailed deliveries during key portions of the growing season.
Instead, the Shasta plan released Wednesday marked a victory for farm interests and a significant about-face for fisheries officials. Rather than the more drastic proposal under discussion, the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reverted to a model for operating Shasta Dam that stays the course for giving farmers more water deliveries than in recent years.
Agency officials said their compromise plan should still result in ample cool water to keep endangered winter-run Chinook from dying in the Sacramento River. The bureau will be required to closely monitor temperatures in Shasta Lake to ensure that cold-water releases are possible through summer and fall. If they determine that Shasta is too warm, they will cut back releases to ensure there is enough cool water for later in the year.
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