Update: Bureau of Reclamation Slashes American River Flows at a Critical Time for Salmon

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The American River below Nimbus Fish Hatchery on the opening day of steelhead season, January 1, 2020. Photo by Dan Bacher.   


The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation issued an order on January 10 to reduce water releases on the American River below Nimbus Dam, the crown jewel of the Sacramento Region, from 2,500 cfs to 2,000 pubic feet per second (cfs) on January 15. Yet after issuing that order, the Bureau dropped the flows even lower, down to 1800 cfs, on January 16.

The slashing of flows was made at a time when fall Chinook salmon eggs are incubating in the redds (nests), a critical period in the life cycle of the species.

Over the past 18 years, salmon runs on the American River, the crown jewel of the Sacramento are, have declined dramatically from a record run of over 150,000 fish in 2003 to relatively small numbers in the past few years, as shown in the chart below. In only one year since 2005 – 2013 – did the run exceed 50,000 fish.

Drops in river flows like this often result in the dewatering of salmon redds (nests) and the stranding of salmon fry in pools. The dropping of flows could also impact steelhead that are now spawning in the river, according to salmon advocates.

The Reclamation spokesperson cited “storage conservation” (in Folsom Lake) as the reason for reducing flows in the memo

The January 10 memo from Reclamation states:

“Please make the following release changes to the American River at Nimbus:

Date Time From (cfs) To (cfs)

01/15/20 0100 2,500 2,400
01/15/20 0200 2,400 2,300
01/15/20 0300 2,300 2,200
01/15/20 0400 2,200 2,100
01/15/20 0500 2,100 2,000 

Here is the updated information from CDEC showing the drop on January 16 from 2000 cfs to 1800 cfs.

“Elevation: 132.0′ · AMERICAN R · Operator: US Bureau of Reclamation Query executed Wednesday at 13:24:39

All data back 7 days and forward 7 days from 01/15/2020 12:29.

01/15/2020 01:00 2400 cfs
01/15/2020 02:00 2300 cfs
01/15/2020 03:00 2200 cfs
01/15/2020 04:00 2100 cfs
01/15/2020 05:00 2000 cfs
01/16/2020 19:00 1800 cfs”

Salmon advocates were outraged by the drop in flows.

“The Bureau of Reclamation is killing American River salmon again by drastically reducing water releases from Folsom Dam while salmon eggs are still incubating in shallow river gravels on river’s edge,” said John McManus, President of the Golden State Salmon Association. “The river has been cut by 25 percent in the last two days. This is no way to run a dam on a major salmon river, especially when we clearly understand the impact to dwindling salmon stocks.”

“The BOR is a federal agency working under US Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, himself a former lobbyist for the Westlands Water District in the dry western San Joaquin Valley. Do these people really not give a !@#$ about salmon and fishing families?” he asked.

Felix Smith, Board Member of the Save the American River Association (SARA) and the federal whistleblower biologist who exposed the Kesterson Federal Wildlife Refuge scandal in 1983, asked Reclamation officials when the order to reduce flows was issued, “Who is responsible for monitoring the river to observe what happens? Let it be realized that is 20 percent of the river flows,  2500 cfs down to 2,000 cfs. What is the presence / status of any swim up fry in the river? They most likely hug the shore line and other shallow areas.”

Nobody from Reclamation has yet responded to Smith’s questions.

Bob Sparre, fishing guide and board member of the NorCal Guides & Sportsmen’s Association (NCGASA), commented: “The US Bureau of Reclamation knows they will be dewatering salmon redds. It’s not the first time. They do not care about salmon or steelhead. It is clear that if we did not have hatcheries we would not have any salmon or steelhead left.”

Ironically, the Reclamation memo ordering a reduction in flows was issued the same day an article appeared in the Sacramento Bee about the increase in salmon redds (nests) after a fall habitat restoration project was conducted by federal, state and local agencies: Project to restore American River for native fish leads to surge in salmon nests.

According to the Sacramento Bee, “The American River is seeing an increase in native fish nests following a fall project carried out by federal, state and local agencies to re-establish natural spawning habitats. The American River Fishery Restoration Project stretched through September 2019 and poured 14,000 cubic yards of gravel into the riverbed near Fair Oaks, while creating a side channel to rejuvenate 5.5 acres of spawning and rearing habitat. A November analysis by the Sacramento Water Forum tallied 345 salmon redds in the restored area, compared to zero redds in 2018.”

The slashing of flows on the American, Feather, Sacramento and other Central Valley rivers by the federal and state water agencies when salmon and steelhead are spawning, when eggs are incubating in the nests and when fry are migrating downriver has been a persistent problem for decades.

“if my understanding is correct, the State Water Resources Control Board has the authority to stop the type of wildly fluctuating water releases on the American River that are killing our salmon,” concluded McManus. “Salmon are an incredibly valuable resource to millions of Californians. The federal government should not be allowed to operate Folsom dam like a yo-yo.”