Longfin Smelt – 2020

In a February 2020 post on the status of longfin smelt, I lamented the poor 2019 population index (Figure 1) and thus made a grim prediction for the future of the Bay-Delta sub-population of this state-listed endangered species.  The index in wet year 2019 should have been 10 times higher (one higher in log number).  Preliminary survey results suggest that the 2020 population index for longfin smelt will likely be as poor as those in 2018 and 2019.

In Figure 1 below, the 2020 index will likely show as a red 20 just above the red 14.  Most of the 2020 spawners came from the 2018 spawners (green 18 in Figure 1).  Like the 2018 spawn, the 2020 year class grew up in a drier year, upstream in Suisun Bay and the western Delta (Figure 2), as compared to a more western Bay distribution like wet year 2019 (Figure 3).

I am very concerned what will happen if winter 2021 stays dry and there are thus two dry water years in a row (2020 and 2021).  This would drive the 2021 production index down to 2015-16 levels.  Coupled with the absence of Fall-X2 flows in 2020 and the unusually low 2019 longfin index, a second straight dry year presents a serious threat to the population index in 2021 and future years.

Figure 2. Longfin smelt catch distribution in 2020 Survey 1 of 20-mm Survey. Delta outflow was 8,000-20,000 cfs. Source.

Figure 3. Longfin smelt catch distribution in 2019 Survey 1 of 20-mm Survey. Delta outflow was 160,000-180,000 cfs. Source.


Scott River Chinook Salmon Update

The Scott River Chinook salmon, a key contributor to the overall Klamath River salmon run, are in major trouble.  In a November post, I had a “mixed” prognosis for this year’s fall run.  Well the numbers are now in – a record low, bleak run of 117 spawners observed (Figure 1) at the weir downstream of Fort Jones.

Figure 1. Scott River fall run salmon escapement 1978-2020. Source: CDFW unpublished data.

The poor run can be directly attributed to lack of fall river flow, a fact that I had addressed in a 2017 post.  Salmon simply cannot ascend the lower Scott River into Scott Valley spawning grounds from the Klamath River because of lack of streamflow.  Some may spawn in the steep canyon below the Valley (and counting weir), but poor spawning habitat and low flows in the canyon offer little solace for the salmon.

Poor fall flows (Figure 2) can be directly attributed to fall groundwater extraction and surface water diversions for hay-pasture irrigation.  The State Water Board should stop crop irrigation after October 1.  This irrigation practice has been getting worse over the past several decades, aided by improved well extraction and sprinkler technology and greater demand and higher revenues.  Present water use permits allow irrigation into December, which ranchers have been taking advantage of to get an extra crop of hay (with the help of climate change).

Unlike 2020 (Figure 2), water use in past drought years tapered off earlier and flows increased during October (Figures 3-5).  This allowed fall-run salmon access to the Valley.  In contrast, recent wet and normal years see a combination of precipitation and reduced water use, which enhances fall flows (Figures 6 and 7).

In conclusion, the State Board should limit fall water irrigation in Scott Valley to save the salmon.  The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), passed in September 2014, requires local agencies to develop Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSP) that will assess and project future groundwater conditions, and provide management and monitoring activities.  The Scott River basin is a priority basin.  Siskiyou County is required to develop and submit a GSP for the Scott River basin by January 31, 2022.  A preliminary plan recently developed by the advisory group suggests reducing irrigation acreage (Figure 8) to increase streamflow (Figure 9).  That would help, but what salmon need is a cutoff of irrigation by October 1.  An option for further augmentation is to employ unused groundwater extraction wells in the fall to add water to the river  for short periods.  Stored water in the tailings ponds (red area in Figure 8) could also be gravity-fed or pumped into the river at critical times.

Figure 2. Scott River flow fall 2020. Water year 2000 was a drought year.

Figure 3. Scott River flow fall 2000 and winter-spring 2001. Water year 2001 was a drought year.

Figure 4. Scott River flow fall 2013 and winter-spring 2014. Water year 2014 was a dry year.

Figure 5. Scott River flow fall 2014 and winter-spring 2015. Water year 2015 was a normal year.

Figure 6. Scott River flow fall 2016 and winter-spring 2017. Water year 2017 was a wet year.

Figure 7. Scott River flow fall 2017 and winter-spring 2018. Water year 2018 was a below normal water year.

Figure 8. Baseline (present) and preliminary action alternative for Scott Valley irrigation. Source: preliminary plan.

Figure 9. Analysis of preliminary action alternative. Source: preliminary plan.



May-September Delta Water Temperature Standard Needed

In a 9/22/20 post, I suggested summer Delta outflow standards. In this post I suggest a spring-summer water temperature standard for the Delta as further protection for salmon and smelt. Water temperatures above 23oC (73oF) are harmful to salmon and smelt, which live and migrate through the north and west Delta throughout the summer. Much of the Delta smelt population that remains is located in these regions especially in dry years.1 Spring-run and winter-run salmon migrate upstream through the area in late spring. Fall-run salmon migrate upriver through the summer.

Harm occurs as stress, higher predation, avoidance reactions, poor growth, and reduced long-term survival and reproduction. At higher temperatures (>23oC) migration blockage and mortality occurs. Such temperatures are commonly reached or exceeded in the north Delta even in wetter, water-abundant years.

High water temperatures occur in the Delta when there are high air temperatures and/or low freshwater inflow and outflow. Such conditions are becoming more frequent with climate change. A good example occurred in water year 2020, which featured low precipitation, low snowpack, and high air temperatures.2 Because water managers cannot control air temperatures or watershed precipitation, they must manage Delta inflows from reservoir releases and outflows through the Delta to improve water temperature control in May-September, especially in drier years.

To protect smelt and salmon, there need to be reasonable water temperature standards in the Delta. The existing water temperature standard in the lower Sacramento River above the Delta is 68oF, but managers of the state and federal water projects pay it almost no heed. There is no existing standard for the Delta. The north Delta water quality standard for the Sacramento channel in wet years should be 70oF (21oC) at Freeport and at Rio Vista. In normal and dry water years, the standard should be 72oF (22oC) at Freeport and at Rio Vista. In critical drought years, the State Water Board needs to require additional Delta inflow and curtail exports as needed to respond to extreme events (e.g., water temperatures greater than 75oF during heat waves). At critical times, a change of only a degree or two will help limit fish stress and mortality.

Higher Delta outflow and lower exports are appropriate prescriptions for maintaining reasonable water temperatures in the Delta (see Figures 1-3 and caption notes). For example, in July and August 2020 (Figures 1-3), increased inflow into the 14,000-16,000 cfs range from 12,000 cfs at Freeport could have held water temperature below 22oC. Note in Figure 3 that increased inflow can be captured by south Delta exports (Figure 3). However, during heat waves under extreme drought conditions, the State Board should also limit exports to retain outflows from the Delta to keep the low salinity zone out of the warmer Delta. Otherwise, exports will reduce the portion of Delta inflows (Freeport flows) that reach Rio Vista.

Such standards are achievable, albeit at significant water supply cost. They are worth the effort. High summer water temperatures, such as those that occurred in wet year 2019 and dry year 2020, must be mitigated. The 23-25oC conditions in summer 2020 (portrayed in Figures 1-3) should not occur, and would not under the suggested Delta water temperature standard. For wet years such as 2019 (Figure 4) and 2017 (Figure 5), water temperatures should be kept at or below 70oF (21oC) by maintaining Freeport near 20,000 cfs as needed.

In summary, Delta water quality standards should be adopted for inflow, outflow, and water temperature to protect salmon and smelt in the warmer months of the year, May-September. Such standards are needed because of recent changes in water project operations and the effects of climate change.

Figure 1. Water temperature and salinity in the west Delta near Rio Vista in spring-summer 2020. Note Delta draining in neap-tide periods generally brings warmer water downstream into the west Delta, except in mid-August event when a heat wave drove water temperatures up into 23-25oC range. This event was accentuated by higher exports and associated high Delta inflows.3

Figure 2. Water temperature and net river flow (tidally filtered) in the lower Sacramento River at Freeport in the north Delta in spring-summer of dry year 2020. Note that it took flows at or greater than 16,000 cfs to keep temperatures near 70oF (21oC).

Figure 3. Sacramento River flow at Freeport (FPT), water temperature at Rio Vista (RVB), and south Delta exports at Tracy (TRP) and Banks (HRO) pumping plants in south Delta from May-Oct 2020.

Figure 4. Water temperature and net river flow (tidally filtered) in the lower Sacramento River at Freeport in the north Delta in spring-summer of wet year 2019. Note that it took flows at or greater than 16,000 cfs to keep temperatures near 70oF (21oC).

Figure 5. Sacramento River flow at Freeport (FPT-Y1) and water temperature at Freeport (FPT-Y2) and Rio Vista (RVB-Y2) from May-Oct 2017.

Klamath’s Shasta and Scott Rivers – Update Fall 2020

In a November 2019 post, I gave updates through 2018 on the status of fall-run salmon in the Scott and Shasta rivers, major tributaries of the Klamath. I described how continuing improvements in river management paid off for the Shasta River’s fall Chinook run. I also described how lack of protections in water management left the Scott run in poor condition.

In this post, I update fall-run Chinook spawning escapement through 2019, with some insight into the 2020 runs. I also provide data on the runs in the Salmon River, the Scott and Shasta’s sister Klamath tributary. The 2019 salmon runs should have benefitted from water-abundant 2017, but may have been handicapped by poor numbers of returning spawners in 2016.

The runs of fall-run Chinook in all three of these major Klamath River tributaries improved in 2019 compared to the runs in 2016 that were severely affected by drought and fire.1 However, runs in all three rivers in 2019 fell short of the 2017 and 2018 runs (Figure 1). Good water conditions in all three rivers in 2017 (Figure 2)2 should have led to improvements in runs over 2017, which were a product of 2014-2015 drought and 2014 fires. They also should have been better than the runs in 2018, whose runs were spawned in drought year 2015 and reared in dry year 2016.

The fact that there was not greater improvement in the 2019 runs is likely the consequence of low numbers of spawners in the fall of 2016. The low number of spawners in 2016 resulted from the continuing effect of the devastating 2014 fires on the watersheds (especially the Salmon River), ongoing poor water management (especially in Scott and Shasta rivers), and poor water conditions in the dry falls of 2017 and 2018 (limiting 2019 the returns of 2-year-old “jacks and jills”).

The prognosis for 2020 is mixed. This results on the upside from improved numbers of spawners in 2017 and a wet water year in 2019. On the downside, the relatively poor water conditions in fall 2017 and the dry conditions in 2018 and 2020 are likely to depress the numbers of adults that return in 2020. Initial counts from Shasta and Scott rivers3 however indicate poor runs not unlike 2004 or 2016. Overall, the decline in spawners produced from strong runs (2014 and 2017) in the Klamath’s main wild salmon tributaries, as well as drought, fire, and continuing poor water management, do not bode well for the future of Klamath salmon.

Figure 1. Shasta, Scott, and Salmon River escapement of fall-run Chinook salmon 1978-2019. Source; CDFW data.

Figure 2. Salmon River streamflow 2013-2020 with long-term average.


July-Aug 2020 Delta Outflow – New State Standard Needed

The State’s Delta outflow standard for July and August varies from 3000 to 8000 cfs on a 14-day average. The standard in in the drier years is 3000 cfs. The standard in wetter years is 8000 cfs in July and 4000 cfs in August.

These standards have been met for the most part over the past five years (Figure 1). Outflow was greater in 2017 and 2019 than these numeric outflow standards since the State also had to meet the Delta salinity standard that in wet years extends into August. The outflow standard in August 2015 (3000 cfs) was not met under a State Board emergency order in the third year of drought.

The July and August Delta outflow standard should be a 10,000 cfs minimum daily average tidal flow at Rio Vista in the Sacramento River (Figure 2) and 2000 cfs minimum daily average tidal flow at Jersey Point in the San Joaquin River (Figure 3). In addition, a standard of -2000 cfs in False River (Figure 4) is needed to protect endangered smelt and salmon, as well as to protect water quality in the central Delta.1

Standards should also be set to protect against extreme events and circumstances. An example is salt intrusion and high water temperatures in the Delta, such as occurred in a heat wave in mid-August 2020 (Figure 5 and 6). Water temperatures of 23-25oC in the low salinity zone (500-6000 micro-mhos conductivity) are rare and highly detrimental if not lethal to smelt and salmon. Delta exports were raised from 6,000 cfs to 10,000 cfs from 8/10 to 8/22. Delta inflows were raised 4000 cfs during the period to accommodate increased exports (Figure 7). The increasing inflows helped bring warm water from the interior Central Valley into the Delta (Figure 8).

Such conditions should be avoided at all costs. This can be achieved by limiting exports, reservoir releases, or both. August is a peak month of the fall-run salmon migration into the Sacramento Valley. Such high water temperatures would be lethal or avoided with the run being delayed and salmon holding in the Bay. The Delta smelt population concentrates primarily in the low salinity zone, and water temperatures higher than 25oC are lethal to Delta smelt.

I acknowledge the difficulty in meeting these proposed standards, especially in drier years, but they must be adopted to protect the salmon and smelt. New standards are essential for the Delta’s recovery.

Figure 1. Delta outflow in summer of years 2015-2020. Note difference in August between wet (2017, 2019) and drier (2015, 2016, 2018, 2020) years.

Figure 2. Daily average (tidally filtered) flow in the Sacramento River channel at Rio Vista in the north Delta in summer 2020 and average of last 22 years.

Figure 3. Daily average (tidally filtered) flow in the San Joaquin River channel at Jersey Point in the west Delta in summer 2020 and average of last 22 years.

Figure 4. Daily average (tidally filtered) flow in the False River channel in the west Delta in summer 2020 and average of last 22 years.

Figure 5. Water temperature and salinity (specific conductance) at Jersey Pt in the San Joaquin channel of the west Delta in summer 2020.

Figure 6. Water temperature and salinity (specific conductance) at Decker Is in the Sacramento River channel of the west Delta in summer 2020.

Figure 7. Daily average flow in the Sacramento Rivers channel in the north Delta near Freeport in July-August 2020. Note the flow pulse in late August from reservoir releases to meet Delta export increase.

Figure 8. Hourly water temperature of the Sacramento River at Rio Vista in July-August 2020.

  1. A tide gate on False River would help accomplish this objective.