Mount Hood 0430

Mount Hood in Oregon. 

It's early May, and already talk of another water year along the West Coast like 2015 or 2001 is in the air.

After two months with little to no precipitation, memories of those drought years loom as water users contemplate the potential for irrigation curtailments, massive fish die-offs and heat waves that cause surges in power use.

In a few pockets of the Northwest—like the Klamath, Willamette, Rogue and parts of the upper Snake river basins—reservoirs are only a fraction of full, and users are preparing for a dry summer with not enough water to meet everyone's needs.

In Northern California, the drought is already evident, and those who rely on the summer water supply are starting to act. For the first time since 2014, after releasing about 10 percent of the fall Chinook smolts from four hatcheries into rivers, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife decided to truck the remaining smolts to the San Francisco and San Pablo bays due to poor river conditions in the Central Valley. The San Francisco PUC has asked irrigators and city departments for voluntary 10 percent reductions in water use. According to the April 29 U.S. Drought Monitor, shallow wells in the San Joaquin Valley are going dry, Tulare County ranchers are selling cattle months early, farmers are forgoing row crops, and the Marin Municipal Water District is talking about building a pipeline to bring in water across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge after approving mandatory restrictions for its 195,000 customers.

All winter and spring, water supply forecasters have pointed to a north-south divide in precipitation and snowpack. The upper Columbia Basin fared well, while lower parts of the basin—especially southern Oregon and central Idaho—did not. In California, the lack of precipitation only added to dry conditions from the past two years which left an already-low water table, partly empty reservoirs and parched soils.

At an April 26 drought webinar hosted by several federal agencies, Ryan Lucas, senior hydrologist for NOAA's Northwest River Forecast Center, noted that the water supply was looking pretty good in the Columbia Basin at the end of February. But after two months with less than half the normal precipitation, most of the basin is now expecting below-normal water supply.

Places that didn't have a good snow year—like central Idaho and southern Oregon—are now well below normal, Lucas said, adding that forecasts now show a few Snake River subbasins, including central Idaho's Big Wood, Little Wood and Big Lost basins, are on track to have their worst April-to-September water supply since 1949.

He said there are several places in western Oregon where the water supply is also forecast to be its worst, or second- or third-worst since 1949, but noted that the majority of the runoff in western Oregon usually occurs before the April-to-September window. He said two dry months had a big impact even in areas that had an excellent snowpack at the end of February.

For example, he said, the snowpack in the Beaver Reservoir in Oregon had 150 percent of its normal snow water equivalent in early April, but that quickly melted and less than a month later the snow water equivalent is just above normal.

Lucas added that there's not much hope on the horizon, as lower-than-normal precipitation was expected for the following 10 days, and long-term forecasts predict warmer and drier weather in May, June and July.

When it comes to power supply from the Columbia's hydroelectric projects, Bonneville Power Administration analyst Tony Norris said in an email to NW Fishletter, it's a "low water year, and from a power standpoint it's not great. When we are deficit, we use the remaining flexibility in the system and the market to meet load as cost effectively as possible."

Fish managers in dry parts of the Columbia Basin are concerned, but not yet alarmed.

Mike Peterson, regional fishery manager for Idaho Fish and Game's Magic Valley Region, said it's a little early in the year to be alarmed about drought in the upper Snake River, although IDFG is preparing.

"Last year wasn't an exceptional snowpack year either, so some of our reservoir systems are not going to fill, or even get to three-quarters full," Peterson said. "This second year is certainly going to put a strain on some of our fisheries."

He said his agency is planning not to stock some of the reservoirs that are low, and put those fish in other lakes instead.

Jonathan Ebel, staff biologist for IDFG, has been sounding the alarm about potentially low Snake River flows for ESA-listed salmon and steelhead at weekly Columbia Basin Technical Management Team meetings.

Water supply forecasts are similar to the Snake River's water supply in 2013, and 2015, he said.

"In those years, we did see temperature-related mortalities," he said. High temperatures in the lower Snake River in June and July would cause major concerns for all of the listed species in the Snake River, both juvenile and adult, he said, adding, "We're watching it very closely."

The Northwest River Forecast Center's water supply rankings put the Snake River forecast at Lower Granite Dam this year at 70 percent of normal for April to August, the 13th driest since 1960.

Joel Fenolio, water management operations team supervisor for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's Pacific Northwest Region, said that the Upper Snake Flow Augmentation agreement will provide at least 427 thousand acre-feet, or kaf, of water to help juvenile salmon migration in the Snake and lower Columbia rivers—some from willing sellers and the rest from BuRec powerhead. "Since we've been doing low flow augmentation with the new BiOp in 2008, we've had seven years of 487 kaf, and only three years of 427 kaf," he said.

"There are some safeguards for releasing water out of our powerhead space, to give us assurance we can get to that. A lot of years, it's dependent on how much irrigators can rent to us," Fenolio added.

California, meanwhile, is preparing for the worst. In most of the state, the water supply wasn't looking good at the end of February. So, after two spring months with below-normal precipitation, things went from bad to worse.

Historically low flows in the Sacramento River prompted the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to decide to move more than 16.8 million juvenile salmon by truck from four Central Valley hatcheries to sites in the San Pablo, San Francisco, Half Moon and Monterey bays. The trucking operation will occur over the next six weeks, requiring about 146 truckloads traveling 30,000 miles.

"We know from experience that if we release them there [in the bays], there's a very high success rate, and a very high return rate getting back to their specific hatcheries," Fish and Wildlife spokesman Harry Morse said.

Spring Chinook, which are ESA-listed as threatened, were released with the last good rain, he said. The fall Chinook being trucked to the bays are a species of concern.

Morse said the agency hasn't extensively trucked juvenile salmon from hatcheries since the drought in 2014.

Natural-origin fall Chinook will have to make their way to the ocean in the river, Morse added. "We're always concerned, but there's little or nothing we can do about them," he said.

The California Department of Water Resources says that the first six months of this water year—which started Oct. 1, 2020—rank as the fourth driest on record for statewide precipitation.

In an email to NW Fishletter, DWR spokeswoman Maggie Macias said the forecasted flow on the Sacramento River is expected to be the lowest since the 1976-1977 drought. Many major reservoirs in Northern California have seen minimal runoff because the dry soils are absorbing it, Macias said. That includes the State Water Project's largest, Lake Oroville, which is currently filled to just 53 percent of average.

The California State Water Project, operated through DWR, distributes water to 29 long-term contractors which serve more than 27 million Californians and 750,000 acres of farmland.

That project is delivering 5 percent, or 210,266 acre-feet of water, to those 29 contractors this year, Macias wrote. She said allocations are based on rainfall, snowpack and runoff, along with environmental requirements and reservoir conditions. Because of this year's dry conditions, she wrote, the agency had to reduce the SWP's allocation from 10 percent to 5 percent.

Farther north, in the Klamath Basin, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has also cut water allocations to irrigators due to this year's drought. On April 14, the agency announced a temporary plan to adaptively manage water from Upper Klamath Lake for fish and irrigators under drought conditions anticipated to result in the lowest historical flows on record into the lake.

"This water year is unlike anything the [Klamath] Project has ever seen," Reclamation Deputy Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said in a news release.

In a separate April 14 news release, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown echoed the concerns.

"This year the Klamath Basin faces drought conditions that have not been seen in decades. Much of the American West faces similar, unprecedented drought. Prolonged drought creates hardships that impact people and ecosystems, farms, ranches and communities," she said in the release.

Brown previously signed an emergency drought declaration for Klamath County, and said the state's Water Resources Department is reviewing and approving groundwater permits for emergency irrigation.

The Bureau of Reclamation announced $15 million in immediate aid through the Klamath Project Drought Relief Agency, and another $3 million in technical assistance to tribes to help with ecosystem efforts.

The plan recognizes there are insufficient water supplies to meet competing demands to maintain water in the lake for endangered Lost River sucker and shortnose sucker, and to provide flushing flows for fall Chinook and fall coho, as specified in biological opinions.

Under the plan, the Bureau of Reclamation will adaptively manage the lake to preserve water to maintain specific river flows for salmon through September, the news release says. The plan also allows for limited irrigation no earlier than May 15, with remaining deliveries to begin no earlier than June 1.

Scott White, manager of the Klamath Drainage District, told NW Fishletter that the 33 kaf of water for farmers this year is the lowest allotment in history. Usually, the upper Klamath would use about 400 kaf.

That's not because of any new requirements for fish or the environment, or other uses, he said. "The requirements haven't changed. What did change is, we had a horrible, horrible year. We're coming off of a drought from last year, and then we got very little precipitation this winter. So we're starting in a major deficit right now—our groundwater, our recharge precipitation in the mountains, our soil moisture—we're just running behind. And then we don't have the precipitation in the forecast to save us."

White said despite the Bureau of Reclamation’s directive not to irrigate earlier than May 15, his district is diverting water now under its water right, just as it has in previous drought years.

"There are some saying it is illegal," he said. But White sees it as a contract dispute that hasn't yet been resolved. BuRec has agreed in past drought years that the district has the water right, he said. This year, there's a new administration, and different BuRec employees. "I think this is just an extremely difficult year for managing water," White added.

White said the allocations are complex, and based on a 2013 adjudication of the watershed. He said he'd like to see cooperative agreements so that water users help each other in years of drought—similar to the Yakima Basin Integrated Plan.

He said the vast majority of farmers in the Klamath Basin want a balanced solution that includes providing water for fish. The idea that farmers and fish are on opposing sides is inaccurate, at least in the upper Klamath, he said.

But the way things are going, he said, "We're going to kill an economy here for the sake of fish, when this economy might not be the cause or the solution to the issue." White said recovering fish will be more complicated than providing them with more water, and taking it from farmers. "I think you have to look at the entire ecosystem as a whole."

The national drought monitor, produced by NOAA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, shows conditions deteriorating in Oregon, with expansions in extreme and exceptional drought.

"The warm, dry winter added to deficits that had been in place for more than a year, leaving soils extremely dry and limiting runoff," the drought summary states.

The summary says some counties in southern Oregon are "heading into their worst water year ever for irrigators," and singled out the Upper Klamath Lake, where little irrigation water is expected.

The summary says some counties in southern Oregon are "heading into their worst water year ever for irrigators," and singled out the Upper Klamath Lake, where little irrigation water is expected.

Drought also expanded in southern Idaho due to a lack of precipitation for almost two months, it says.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says a dry spring season will likely prevent sufficient refill at most reservoirs in the Willamette Valley and Rogue River Basin projects.

In an April 20 news release, the Corps said the Willamette Valley Project's 13 reservoirs combined are 58 percent full, with year-to-date precipitation at 80 percent of normal and snowpack at 109 percent of median. The Rogue River Basin's two reservoirs are 70 percent full after receiving 64 percent of its normal precipitation and 70 percent of its median snowpack.

"The Corps manages reservoir inflows based on a 'rule curve,' or the authorized maximum elevation on a given day to balance flood risk and storage for authorized purposes. Both systems are kept lower in the winter to reduce downstream flooding and refilled in the spring to prepare for recreation and adequate flows for fish," the release states.

According to NOAA's Northwest River Forecast Center, the Willamette River basin above Portland has received 44 inches of precipitation this water year, which began Oct. 1. That's 76 percent of normal and 13.6 inches below the 30-year average. Other parts of the Willamette Basin were between 68 and 80 percent of normal.

The Rogue-Illinois river basins received 26.9 inches of precipitation, which is 63 percent of normal, or 15.9 inches below the 30-year average, according to the forecast center. Most of the region, including the Columbia Basin and western Washington and Oregon, has received below 50 percent of normal precipitation so far this April.

The Corps encourages those planning to recreate at any of the reservoirs to view diagrams showing percentages at each project in the Willamette or Rogue before heading out.

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K.C. Mehaffey covers fish issues for Clearing Up, and is editor of the NW Fishletter. She joined the NewsData writing team in February 2018. From lawsuits to scientific studies, she is enjoying the deep dive into the Columbia Basin's many fish topics.