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A New Plan to Share Water With California's Salmon

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Releasing a Chinook salmon into Butte Creek | Photo: CDFW/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The state and federal agencies responsible for monitoring the health of California's salmon and steelhead runs have announced a new program to help private water rights holders protect fish from the current unprecedented drought.

Called a "Voluntary Drought Initiative," the program provides a way for water users to work with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries wing (NOAA Fisheries) to leave some water in Northern California streams so that fish have a better chance of weathering the drought. In return, those water users will be granted what the agencies are calling "greater regulatory certainty" in complying with wildlife protection laws, which seems to be agency code for less stringent enforcement of those laws.

"This is one of many measures we're attempting to get us through this extreme drought and keep enough water in the state's rivers and streams to protect our fish resources," said CDFW Director Charlton H. Bonham. "I am thankful that water users and landowners came to our agencies with ideas about working together in Northern California, which allowed us to take this immediate, voluntary action during this important spawning time and improve regulatory certainty for rural communities."

The initiative doesn't apply statewide at the moment: targeted watercourses include the Shasta and Scott rivers, both tributaries of the Klamath, and the Russian River, which flows into the Pacific north of San Francisco. Antelope, Deer, and Mill creeks, which flow out of the Sierra Nevada into the Sacramento River between Red Bluff and Corning, are also included in the initiative.

"This is one of the toughest water years in recent memory for people, cattle and fish," said Initiative participant Archie "Red" Emmerson, owner of the timber firm Sierra Pacific Industries, in a press release. "We have learned a great deal about salmon spawning and rearing on our properties. This year we are volunteering to keep additional cold water in the creek to help salmon. We hope working with the fish agencies will give the salmon a better chance to survive this difficult drought."

Salmon advocates might be excused for raising an eyebrow at the "greater regulatory certainty" being offered water users under the initiative, which could include things like agencies taking a a more lax approach to participants' incidental "take" of protected salmon and steelhead in the course of taking water from the relevant streams. Still, it's hard to think of a better time for leaving water in the rivers. As the weather warms and creeks dry up fry run a greater risk of becoming trapped in shrinking pools, and the tiny hatchlings that stay buried in their gravel nests for several weeks after hatching can die by the thousands if their gravel nests dry up.

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