The worth of water

California's drought has reduced fishing opportunities in some streams, but obviously not in others. A fine 'bow caught recently in a Gold Country stream.

By Sam Davidson

When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”  -- Benjamin Franklin

California is in the midst of a stubborn drought – three years now, and counting. 2013 was the second driest year on record, and as of April 1, 2014, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, the state’s primary “water bank,” is 32% of normal for the date.

Salmon, steelhead and trout have been hit hard by the skeletal streamflows, elevated water temperatures, and reduced habitat they have experienced in virtually all parts of California’s watersheds over the past three years (really, over the past decade). Thanks to quick action from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, which in January imposed emergency restrictions on angling in many rivers and streams, and to years of conservation work by Trout Unlimited, other angler-based organizations, and some water purveyors and districts, we may have prevented a real cold water fisheries catastrophe.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, losing precious days of angling opportunity on some of California’s best steelhead rivers. But historically bad environmental conditions call for extraordinary fisheries management measures, and we may have saved multiple year-classes of salmon and steelhead.

California’s water regulators and lawmakers have also stepped up to help mitigate the effects of the drought on residents and businesses. As might be expected, they have proposed some actions that help salmon and trout, and some that wouldn’t.

One of the most fish-friendly and concrete actions launched in the wake of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr.’s Declaration of Drought Emergency in January comes courtesy of some strong collaboration between the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board. The agencies revised the procedural requirements for people applying for “Small Domestic Use Registration” (SDU), essentially a water right for diverting water from streams and storing it for more than 30 days in small tanks.

(Here is TU's response to the SDU action: )

The intent of SDU is to help landowners who rely on surface diversions for their household needs to take water from streams at times when flows are robust and store it for use later, during the dry seasons of summer and fall, when taking water from creeks is far more harmful for fish already under stress from reduced flows and higher temperatures. Ironically, many of these landowners reside along California’s North Coast, a Mecca for steelhead anglers which in “normal” years is the wettest part of the state.

TU’s years of work with landowners and agricultural interests in Wine Country and the North Coast on innovative water supply solutions that reduce impacts on salmon and steelhead helped inform the agencies as they worked out the details of the SDU procedural streamlining.

Here are other actions we can take that will deliver real drought relief relatively quickly to California people and cold water fish:

  • Pass legislation authorizing the Klamath River Basin agreements. The three formal agreements now in place for the Klamath – the fourth most productive salmon watershed on the West Coast – will restore more than 350 miles of anadromous fish habitat and provide significantly greater water reliability for upstream irrigators and wildlife refuges.
  • Reform rules and guidelines for groundwater extraction. California remains one of the few states to have no regulation of groundwater use.

We know from tree-ring data that drought – sometimes multi-decadal “megadroughts” – are an integral part of California’s natural heritage and ecology, and that the last 150 years have been the wettest in the previous three millennia. California’s native trout and salmon are uniquely adapted to this ecology, and can persist if, in our responses to the challenge of drought, we give them half a chance.

California needs to use the current drought as impetus to make significant adjustments in our water use and management, to ensure that people have enough water for their personal and professional needs, and so that current and future generations of anglers will have plenty of salmon, steelhead, and wild and native trout to fish for. TU is working hard here to develop and implement such adjustments.


Sam Davidson is TU's Communications Director for CA/NV.




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