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California’s Dammed Fish

A few weeks ago, I assessed the possibility of a massive 2015 fish kill in the Trinity and Klamath Rivers (“Impending Fish Catastrophe On the Klamath-Trinity”) owing to drought-induced lack of cold water storage in the Trinity River's enormous Trinity Lake reservoir. The indigenous people of the Klamath River basin, anglers, environmentalists, and the Klamath River itself (not necessarily in that exact order) are already greatly traumatized by the chinook salmon die-off of 2002: the largest such die-off in the history of the western US.

The possibility of repeating this grisly scenario has loomed ever since. It's an especially high-profile story for people from outside the region since the Klamath-Trinity is the largest discrete habitat area for wild salmon left in California (the Smith River, which is the only large river in California that has not been dammed, is also home to great and storied salmon runs, but it's a far smaller river).

The central premise of that prior article was this: As reservoir levels continue to decline due to the Bureau of Reclamation's pumping of prodigious quantities of water “over the hill” to the Central Valley, the temperature of the remaining water soars. Klamath salmon require water temperatures of less than 60 degrees to survive and spawn. If no cold water is left in storage, the federal government will no longer be able to stave off fish kills by allowing reservoir water to flow down into the Klamath from its largest tributary, the Trinity.

The recent “pineapple express” storm — warm temperatures, lots of rain — has made a dent in Trinity Reservoir's shortfall. Consider, though, that on Dec. 15, 2013, Trinity Reservoir's storage level was 20% greater than it is on Dec. 15, 2014 — the week this issue of the AVA goes to press. It would take at least two more big storms like the latest one to even begin bringing the fish out of the danger zone.

Recent rains have increased the reservoir's level from 23% to 29% of capacity, according to California Department of Water Resources figures. So, it's back up to where it was in late-August, when signs of a salmon die-off in the Lower Klamath were starting to appear and the Bureau responded to pressure from the Yurok, Hoopa Valley, and Karuk tribes by releasing water downriver, into the Lower Klamath, and thence the Pacific Ocean, as though it actually belongs there.

How many people remember that the Russian River weathered its own, far lesser-known — and uniquely understudied — fish die-off in 2008? The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that 25,000 steelhead died directly as a consequence of frost protection pumping in the Russian River basin in 2008 near Hopland alone. The wine industry has relentlessly attacked the validity of this figure since then, arguing that the study extrapolated from only a few dozen observed fish carcasses to reach the figure in question.

As an illustration of how this enormous and virtually instantaneous demand on the river basin translates on the ground, consider the consequences in the spring of 2008. Water pumping by vineyards created a one-third reduction of water flow in the 10-mile segment of the Russian River from Ukiah to Hopland alone. All told, vineyards in the frost-prone areas of the basin sucked out a majority of the water flow in the section of the river that flows through that particular stretch of southern Mendocino and northern Sonoma counties (the upper Russian).

Of course, unlike the Trinity, the Russian usually runs dry in the summertime. Diversion of Eel River water is all that keeps the Russian flowing year-round.

A common notion accompanying news of reservoir releases that aim to bolster fish habitat goes something like this: Since the release of reservoir water (or, as the case may be, release of Eel River water into the Russian) saved fish, that must mean the reservoirs are beneficial to the fish. This false corollary often sneaks into the debate when a government agency or monopolistic, hyper-influential corporate dam owner such as PG&E dashes out a press release and the local paper of record reprints it practically verbatim.

(A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 86% of all news stories printed or aired by Baltimore media in 2008 originated from public relations firms and government/corporate press releases, and the nationwide figure probably is not much different).

Of course, if you follow this line of thinking to its logical end-point, you'd believe that a mere handful of hapless fish were splashing around in US waterways until the feds, farmers, and utilities got together and constipated just about every river in the country, to the tune of 8,100 dams taller than 50 feet.

But dams harm fisheries in a number of ways. The most obvious is that they block migrating fish from reaching crucial spawning grounds. The Eel River and Trinity River dams are a case in point. Scott Dam and the Trinity Dam block the best and coldest spawning pools in each river, which would otherwise provide a refugia for salmonids when temperatures are high and water levels are low, as has been the case the past several years.

Moreover, rivers transport silt which serves as nutrient for downstream fish and also fertilizes agricultural land, which is flooded during high water levels in the spring. When a dam is built, silt is trapped behind the dam and downstream fish and soils suffer accordingly.

Let's be as local and specific as possible. What is the impact of the dam that forms Lake Mendocino — small in comparison to Trinity Reservoir —on the upper Russian River watershed?

By cutting off sediment movement into the river, Coyote Dam has been the main reason the Russian River channel has dropped — “incise” or “entrench” are the terms biologists usually use — nearly 20 feet into its floodplain in many areas of the upper river basin. The other major contributing factor has been instream gravel mining for road construction. Pick a spot along the upper Russian and you are likely to detect an area where the bank has slid into the river. One that's noticeable throughout most of northern Ukiah by way of a big brown blotch on the eastern bank of the river is next to the Perkins St. bridge.

This river “entrenchment” causes spawning pools to fill in en masse, preventing salmonids from laying their eggs in the river substrate. That impact is fairly well known and obvious. But the river channel's downward slide also affects groundwater levels and therefore the timing and magnitude of stream flow. Ironically, the California Land Stewardship Institute — a think tank with close ties to the wine industry — released an informative study in 2001 regarding the dam's impact on groundwater recharge.

”Drop in ground water levels coincides with the drop in flow levels in the main river channel and is the greatest in the well located closest to the Russian River indicating that the river’s water surface elevation is controlling the dewatering of the tributaries,” the study noted. “Flow in both Morrison and Parsons Creeks went subterranean as the water level in the river dropped. No juvenile steelhead could have migrated out of these creeks which have year round flow in their canyons.”

It continued, “Alterations to the Russian River by Coyote Dam include entrenchment of 20 feet in the main river channel and alteration of stream flow by reservoir releases for water supply. These changes have altered groundwater levels in the tributary streams. This experiment demonstrated that the shallow groundwater begins to recede from the river confluence upstream and undergoes a steep decline as the river water levels drop and releases are reduced.”

In other words, water in river tributaries percolates into the ground more quickly as it reaches the river's mainstem because the drop in river level has caused the slope of the ground water basin to become far steeper. As a result, the tributaries (which were the refugia of migrating fish back when the river ran dry, before the Eel River diversion) dry up and the fish can't swim upstream.

Meanwhile, for the first time in more than three decades, California is politically tilting in the direction of huge new dams. For example, Proposition 1 passed by an overwhelming margin in the November election. It earmarks about one-third of its funding ($2.7 billion out of $7.5 billion) for new “water storage” projects. Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown regards authorization of two enormous peripheral canals around the San Francisco Bay Delta as a tippy-top priority of his final four years in office.

In the California water infrastructure version of Field of Dreams now playing out (“If you build it, the water will have to come — from somewhere”), increased pumping from the Trinity River basin is one of the few remaining options at state and federal agencies' disposal for sending water to, or through, these huge new installations.

Part of Prop.1's “water storage” funding will help build Sites Reservoir in Colusa County — at least, it will if powerful Central Valley agricultural interests have their way, as appears likely. This extremely large new reservoir — the seventh largest in the state, and the first truly big California reservoir to be constructed since 1982 — would flood the Antelope Valley near Maxwell with diverted Sacramento River water. Critics fear it will create a powerful incentive to pump even more Trinity water “over the hill” to Sacramento to fill the reservoir.

In the case of the Delta Drains, as some have labeled the peripheral canals, the project's Environmental Impact Report notes in clear terms that “increased system demands by water rights holders” are likely to lead to greater exports of water out of the Trinity River basin into the Sacramento River. These additions to California's gargantuan existing water storage and export infrastructure would likely deal a major blow to the Klamath-Trinity salmon runs.

* * *

I mentioned the extent of Trinity Reservoir's recovery due to recent rainstorms. How about other major California reservoirs? The state's biggest, Shasta Reservoir, increased to its September level (30% full); Oroville Reservoir, to its late-August level (37%); and Folsom Reservoir, the same. On the local front, things look far more promising. Lake Pillsbury already has nearly doubled its water content to roughly 70%. Lake Mendocino has risen to 38.6% of total flood control capacity, an improvement over the 24.6% level it registered on Dec. 15, 2013.

Besides the fact that it swelled rivers and recharged aquifers, probably the best news attributable to the storm is that it briefly scuttled the scheduled launch of an Atlas V rocket carrying classified cargo from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Santa Barbara County. The cost of this launch and its associated project, being that it comes out of the Pentagon's “black ops” budget, is unknowable, but it surely totaled upwards of a billion. A two-stage, liquid-propelled Atlas V rocket costs as much as $200 million for the rocket alone.

In other words, the US national security state has no trouble finding nine figures to drop on a dangerous and destabilizing moves on the political checkerboard of global empire. It would take an estimated $10 million to give Sacramento River salmon a route around Shasta Dam and far less than that to install a fish ladder on Lake Pillsbury, which would return access to the aforementioned prime spawning grounds. It would take an estimated $3.9 billion to construct the Sites Reservoir and associated dams, sold partly based on the argument that dams help fish. But the well-being of the fish is actually beside the point for these huge projects.

(Contact Will Parrish at

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