Agencies Planning a Disaster for CA Salmon if 2022 Is Dry

If next year is dry in California, modeling from the Bureau of Reclamation shows that Shasta Reservoir would store nearly 750,000 acre feet less water in April 2022 than it did in April 2014—a year that was an unmitigated disaster for fish and wildlife.

If next year is dry in California, modeling from the Bureau of Reclamation (linked here, dated July 6, 2021) shows that Shasta Reservoir would store nearly 750,000 acre feet less water in April 2022 than it did in April 2014—a year that was an unmitigated disaster for fish and wildlife. The operations presented in Reclamation’s modeling could lead to extinction for winter-run Chinook salmon and other threatened and endangered fish populations if next year is dry. But that outcome is not inevitable, as the modeled results are the combination of dry hydrology with unsustainable water allocations by the CVP and SWP, particularly water allocations for the projects’ settlement and exchange contractors.

Now is the time for the State Water Board to take action to ensure that if 2022 is dry, we do not repeat the disaster for fish and wildlife that was 2014 (or the disaster that is 2021). The State Water Board should require Reclamation and DWR to prepare a drought contingency plan that curtails water deliveries to their contractors, including settlement and exchange contractors, sufficient to maintain water temperatures for salmon below Shasta Dam and to meet water quality standards in the Delta if next year is dry.

2014 was a disaster for fish and wildlife, particularly for native salmon runs, as the state waived water quality standards in the Delta and as lethal water temperatures below Shasta Dam wiped out salmon, in order for the CVP and SWP to allocate millions of acre feet of water to their contractors. Salmon survival below Shasta depends largely on the amount of cold water stored behind the dam, that can be released to keep river temperatures cool during the sensitive egg incubation and rearing stage. Yet Reclamation’s modeling shows that water storage behind Shasta Dam would be far worse in 2022 than in 2014 if next year is dry:

  April 30, 2014 April 30, 2022 (Forecast)
Storage in Shasta (acre feet) 2,408,810 1,666,000
Estimated Temperature Dependent Mortality of Winter-Run Chinook Salmon 77% ?
Egg to fry survival of winter-run Chinook salmon (measured at Red Bluff Diversion Dam) 5.9% ?
Egg to fry survival of fall-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River (measured at Red Bluff Diversion Dam) 2.3% ?

Sadly, this year California has repeated many of the mistakes of the last drought, with devastating impacts to our native fish and wildlife. Most notably, as of late August the National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that approximately 80% of the endangered winter-run Chinook salmon eggs will be killed by lethal water temperatures. These baby salmon face additional mortality (both natural and manmade) after they leave their redds and migrate down the Sacramento River and through the Delta, leading scientists with both NMFS and the California Department of fish and Wildlife to warn that nearly all these endangered salmon are likely to be killed this year. After very low survival of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon in 2020 and 2021, this magnificent species cannot take a third consecutive year of massive mortality in 2022 (even the Trump Administration’s 2019 biological opinion would be violated if egg to fry survival of winter-run Chinook salmon is less than 21 percent in 2022).

The massive mortality of salmon this year is not simply a result of dry hydrology, as the LA Times editorial board explained this summer, but is the result of federal agencies continuing to implement the Trump Administration’s biological opinions (and State agencies refusing to stop them):

It’s important to know that the salmon are facing extinction not just because of warm weather or climate change, but because of Trump-era policies that continue to be carried out by President Biden’s and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administrations, despite those Democrats’ professed rejection of Donald Trump’s destructive approach to California’s water.

Indeed, the state and federal water projects are allocating more than 4 million acre feet of water this year, primarily to their settlement and exchange contractors, while violating water temperature and water quality standards that are supposed to protect salmon and other native fish and wildlife.

And it’s not only the endangered salmon that state and federal agencies are sacrificing this year. Lethal water temperatures are likely to slaughter fall run Chinook salmon that spawn in the Sacramento River this year, harming the salmon fishery and the thousands of fishing jobs it sustains. Water temperatures on the American River are harming steelhead and fall-run Chinook salmon this year; Reclamation is violating the Trump Administration’s temperature standards meant to protect steelhead on the American River. And reduced Delta outflows (which violate water quality standards) are contributing to outbreaks of harmful algal blooms that threaten human health and safety, and are harming Longfin Smelt, Delta Smelt and other native fish in the Delta (a single Delta Smelt was caught in surveys the week of August 16, which is the only Delta Smelt that has been caught in monitoring surveys since the week of May 3, 2021). 

And while this year is a disaster for fish and wildlife, Reclamation’s modeling shows that next year could be far worse. The modeling shows that, if next year is dry, Reclamation estimates that the CVP and SWP will enter next summer with 1.2 million acre-feet less water stored in these reservoirs than in 2021:

Reservoir Storage (in acre feet)

End of May 2022 (USBR Modeling)

End of May 2021 (Actual)


Trinity 692,000 1,259,784 -567,784
Shasta 1,589,000 1,976,296 -387,296
Oroville 1,392,000 1,341,550 50,450
Folsom 670,000 361,043 308,957
New Melones 741,000 1,362,370 -621,370

DWR and Reclamation are supposed to present information to the State Water Board on Tuesday about their plans if the drought continues in 2022. In addition to this modeling from the Bureau of Reclamation, the California Department of Water Resources has also modeled water supply and reservoir operations if next year is dry, presenting this information to State Water Contractors on July 9, 2021. We’ve heard that DWR’s modeling apparently showed that it is very likely that DWR and Reclamation will again seek Temporary Urgency Change Petitions (TUCPs) so that they can violate state water quality standards in the Delta, that they manage upstream reservoirs to levels that will again wipe out salmon, and that they could lose salinity control in the Delta next year. Yet the State has not shared this information with the public, Legislators, or other stakeholders, and while NRDC filed a Public Records Act request for this information in July, DWR does not plan to disclose any public records in response to our request until October. The public has a right to know this information and understand the consequences of how the State’s choices will impact its obligations to protect salmon and the environment, as well as safe drinking water. Will they present this modeling to the State Water Board on Tuesday?

During the last drought, the State Water Board recognized that the waiver of Delta water quality standards through TUCPs and the failure to maintain temperature control below Shasta Dam as required by Water Rights Order 90-5 are “not sustainable for fish and wildlife and that changes to the drought planning and response process are needed to ensure that fish and wildlife are not unreasonably impacted in the future and to ensure that various species do not go extinct. Accordingly, as discussed above, this Order requires a DCP that includes a margin of safety for fish and wildlife…” (Water Rights Order 2015-0043, dated January 19, 2016) The same is true today.

It's clear that DWR and Reclamation do not have a plan for drought, except to pray for rain and seek permission to violate minimum protections for the environment. The State Water Board needs to take action now to ensure that if 2022 is dry, the CVP and SWP are required to curtail water deliveries to their contractors—including Settlement and Exchange Contractors—sufficient to maintain water temperatures below Shasta Dam that protect salmon and sufficient to meet water quality standards in the Delta.

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