Drowning or dying of thirst
A word from CalTrout’s ED, Curtis Knight
California’s weather has always been variable. We often hear—is this going to be a normal water year? In reality there is no ‘normal’ year for California water. Our Mediterranean climate is defined by seasonal variability—wet winter, dry summers. But we also see this pattern from year-to-year and climate change predictions are for this trend to increase. Indeed, we are seeing this first-hand as we are in the midst of one of the wettest years on record after struggling through four years of severe drought.
So all this water is good, right? For fish, it’s an obvious yes. Fish need water. As harsh as some of these flows may seem, they are necessary for maintaining river health. Large flows scour deep pools, cleanse and distribute spawning gravel, and increase habitat complexity.
For our state’s water supply too, these winter storms have been beneficial. Reservoirs are brimming for the first time in years. In fact, today the Bureau of Reclamation announced it would fulfill all Central Valley Project water allocations. And groundwater basins are being replenished—though it will take many years to recover groundwater aquifers from the unregulated pumping that occurred during the last four years of drought.
However, all this water has been a severe test for California’s aging water infrastructure. Oroville Dam and the compromised spillway underscore the need for investment in water infrastructure. Indeed, on February 24th, Governor Brown requested $387 million from Proposition 1 spending to pay for high-priority flood prevention projects through June 2018. These projects include reducing urban flood risks, particularly in the Sacramento and Stockton regions, maintaining levees, and building levee setbacks.
In contrast, the Yolo Bypass, the state’s largest flood relief valve, has worked remarkably well transporting hundreds of thousands cubic feet per second of water and protecting the greater Sacramento area. Not coincidentally, the Yolo Bypass is the location of our Nigiri project on Knaggs Ranch where we are showing the benefits from allowing juvenile salmon access to rice fields, mimicking lost floodplain rearing habitat. Not only is the Yolo Bypass good for public safety, it’s also good for fish, waterfowl, and wildlife.
Water experts widely agree that projects like the Yolo Bypass and underground storage should be replicated at every opportunity.
“It’s really extraordinary what the Yolo Bypass accomplishes,” said Jeffery Mount, a watershed scientist at the California Public Policy Institute in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. Yolo Bypass handles water volumes exceeding those of the Mississippi River and “keeps Sacramento from being wiped off the map,” he states. “These are terrific as flood management structures, and they also provide exceptional environmental benefits.”
CalTrout agrees that investment in the state’s water infrastructure is needed. But we advocate for water infrastructure that balances the needs of wild fish and people. We need to re-think the way we have stored and moved water to better benefit public safety and the environment. As CalTrout senior scientist Jacob Katz observed, “What the crisis at Oroville Dam really makes clear is that a system made out of concrete, to rigidly confine and constrain nature, is always going to be brittle. People have been so focused on concrete that it’s taken a long time to realize that working with nature rather than against it is much safer and much more profitable.”