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Massive fish rescue plays out on Feather River after state closes damaged Oroville Dam spillway
When California state biologists crested a sandbar along the Feather River on Tuesday morning, they expected to find at least some of the water that just a day before had raged through the channel, too deep to stand in – and plenty of fish needing to be rescued.
Instead, to their chagrin, the flows powering down Oroville Dam’s badly damaged main spillway into the Feather River had been throttled back so quickly Monday that the whole sandbar was now dry.
“Oh, no,” said biologist Alana Imrie.
In one low spot, the sand-specked carcass of a suffocated 14-inch steelhead lay in the sun beside several smaller but equally dead baby fish. Some were Chinook salmon, a species central to California’s $1.4 billion commercial and recreational fishing industries.
Imrie and her colleagues trotted over to look for survivors. They found a handful, including a palm-sized wriggling lamprey. These were placed into a bucket filled with water. The fish later would be measured and released into the river.
Rescue efforts such as these will take place over the next several days along the Feather River below Oroville Dam’s broken spillway. Through at least Saturday, teams of state biologists in 10 boats will patrol the river from just below the dam nearly to its confluence with the Sacramento River at Verona, north of Sacramento. The crews will use photos shot from helicopters to focus in on low spots in the floodplain adjacent to the river, where thousands of fish may be stranded in small ponds. Just a couple of days earlier, the swollen Feather had thundered through its channels, inundating low-lying areas along its route.
In a matter of hours Monday, engineers at the troubled dam ramped back outflows on the main spillway from 50,000 cubic feet per second to nothing. The Feather River below the dam is still flowing, though at levels closer to what’s typical in summer, thanks to water releases from a series of small reservoirs below the dam.
Federal fisheries regulators had urged the state Department of Water Resources, which operates the dam, to taper the spillway releases more gradually to prevent as many fish from getting stranded. DWR officials said they complied with those suggestions as best they could, but haste still had to be a priority.
The break in the wet weather this week gives engineers a critical window to assess damage to the 3,000-foot concrete spillway that fractured Feb. 7, and now sports a massive cavern in its midsection. Heavy equipment operators also are working to clear out a massive mound of concrete, earth and debris that formed in the channel below the spillway as it eroded. The mound was so extensive it had raised channel levels to the point that the dam’s hydroelectric plant can’t function. While the spillway serves as a critical flood-control valve during California’s rainy season, the plant is the dam’s primary outlet the rest of the year.
Efforts to clear the channel below the dam are already paying off, said Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for the California Natural Resources Agency.
The water in the channel dropped 23 feet in less than a day, which should be enough to get at least one of the turbines up and running, perhaps as early as Thursday. Electrical crews are working to get transmission lines from the power plant reattached to the power grid, Vogel said.
The plant, when fully operational, can release about 14,000 cubic feet per second. While just a fraction of what the main spillway can release, outflows from the plant would be enough to handle about half of the inflow expected as the abundant Sierra snowpack begins melting into the reservoir in coming weeks.
With the spillway closed Monday, the Feather River below the dam receded much faster than a river typically would after a flood, biologists said. There wasn’t time for many of the fish in flooded areas to reach the safety of the main channel.
“They’ve endured floods before the dam was built, but this was such a sudden decline,” said Clint Garman, an environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the agency coordinating the rescue.
Any little pond along the river channel – even deep ruts carved by tires in dirt roads along the river – might contain a few dozen fish. In just one pond that formed in 3 inches of water in the ruts on one such road, biologists rescued 23 baby Chinook salmon.
Across the river, at the sandbar where Imrie’s team found the steelhead on the rapidly drying riverbank, biologists quickly found two knee-deep ponds nestled in hollows.
Ringed with blackberry thorns and slippery rocks, the ponds were writhing with dozens of fish – many of them fall- and spring-run Chinook salmon just an inch or two long. The ponds also held a handful of bronze Sacramento suckers nearly 2 feet long and a couple of ocean-bound steelhead longer than a foot.
One of the biologists, Marc Beccio, wore a backpack attached to a hand-held rod that allowed him to stun the fish with electricity. The other biologists would swoop in with nets and scoop up the fish that floated to the surface.
“We got here just in time,” Beccio said. “But barely.”
California water bills are starting to trickle out on Capitol Hill
The lead author in the House of Representatives of a big and controversial California water bill that passed last year is back for more.
With a Republican in the White House and the GOP controlling Congress, Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said Tuesday that he was hoping to build on last year’s legislation that was loved by farmers and loathed by environmentalists.
The bill scales back an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, speeds completion of California dam feasibility studies and locks in certain water deliveries to Sacramento Valley irrigation districts, among other things. Parts of the bill would not have been accepted by the Obama administration, but the Trump team is different.
“When we would negotiate in the past, it was always, ‘Well, the president will never sign this,’ ” Valadao said in an interview. “And now, it will be the reverse. The president will sign this, or will want to sign something stronger.”
The Trump administration’s key water-related offices, though, remain vacant, while the president’s nominee to head the Interior Department, Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., awaits Senate confirmation. A vote on Zinke is expected this week, after which crucial positions – including his deputy and the commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation – must be filled.
Most speculation about the important deputy slot revolves around David Bernhardt, a lawyer and former lobbyist for Westlands Water District.
This year’s efforts, moreover, also come amid changed climatic circumstances, which can, in turn, alter the political climate. Instead of the drought images that helped drive lawmakers in recent years, the current popular impressions of California water consist of San Jose flooding and gushers from Oroville Dam.
“We’re wet,” Valadao acknowledged.
Valadao put the ball back in play on the first day of the new Congress, the start of his third term representing a district that spans Kings County and portions of Fresno, Kern and Tulare counties. Thirteen House co-sponsors joined him on a 125-page bill dubbed the Gaining Responsibility on Water Act.
“We’re looking to move it along as soon as possible,” Valadao said, adding that the timing “will be up to leadership.”
With that leadership including House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, relatively expeditious House action could happen even in the face of resistance from Northern California lawmakers. The Senate, as always, will be much trickier, with California’s freshman Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris still building her staff and formulating the role she wants to play.
Opponents fear that the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem would be harmed if more water is pumped south to irrigate farms in the San Joaquin Valley.
“I suspect they’ll try more of the same, more false choices, pitting fish against farms,” Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, said in an interview Tuesday. “There will be the usual attempts to use whatever conditions are present as a pretext for jamming their agenda. It’s been drought the last five years, and now it’s going to be flood.”
Western flood control will, in fact, come into the spotlight during a Wednesday morning hearing of the House Water, Power and Oceans Subcommittee, with scheduled witnesses including Andy Fecko, director of resource development for California’s Placer County Water Agency.
Valadao’s new bill, meanwhile attempts to revive, in part, provisions that were introduced but ultimately dropped from the last big California water bill. The previous legislation cleared Congress last December, after years of struggle and over the fervent opposition of then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
Valadao became the lead author of the prior bill, following earlier versions introduced by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Tulare. In its final form, it included $558 million for assorted projects.
Some impact from last year’s bill, Valadao added, may be noticed when the federal Bureau of Reclamation announces water allocations for Central Valley Project customers.
“I’ve got communities all along the east side of the Valley that are struggling,” Valadao said.
Don't miss the Donald's idiotic rap on Valley water during a campaign stop in Fresno in May, 2016.
Donald Trump in Fresno on water, farms and fish
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump covered a wide range of topics at a rally in downtown Fresno's Selland Arena on Friday, May 27, 2016.
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