Fishing for balance

Folsom Dam project will give salmon the cold water they need and will improve power generation in the process

Salmon spawn in the American River.

Salmon spawn in the American River.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Todd Thai of Sacramento has fished in the American River for salmon at Sailor Bar for the last 10 years. During that time, he has developed a bond with the storied fish.

“You really become one with the river,” he said. “It sounds corny, but that’s really the way it is. … This is a yearly ritual for both us and the fish. We respect that the salmon have to travel so far to get home and end their journey.”

Every fall, chinook salmon return from the San Francisco Bay. They swim 100 miles upstream, morph from saltwater to freshwater fish and navigate past predators and through polluted waters by scent. But that is only half the battle.

Once they return to the Lower American River, the cold-water fish must battle to claim reserves of cold water held on the other side of Folsom Dam; Folsom Lake is a multipurpose reservoir that serves many needs and users.

Though the chinook is not officially an endangered species, its numbers are dangerously low, and its continued presence on the American depends on how Folsom Lake is managed.

The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency responsible for managing our nation’s dams, has to balance humans’ water needs with those of downstream fish populations, such as the chinook salmon. This is no easy task, and managers are often faced with a no-win situation.

Thai said he understands the delicate balance between the needs of fish and humans. “It’s the evolution of our society, this clash of interests,” he said with an air of calm resignation. “We have good years on the river and bad years.”

The likelihood of creating more good years than bad soon will increase because of an addition at Folsom Dam that is likely to increase the salmon count and even boost Sacramento’s energy supply in the process.

The addition is a temperature-control device for the municipal and industrial water intake. Essentially, the device is a long, rectangular box that will affix to the face of the dam over the water-intake openings.

The device allows specific water temperatures to be drawn from various elevations. Dam water will flow through the device for water-quality and temperature monitoring before being used for drinking water and other urban purposes.

The system will operate more quickly and efficiently than the current system of shutter openings. On the surface, it seems the main benefit will be to humans’ urban water supply, but the device will boost both the salmon population and power operations.

Because annual urban water intake at Folsom Lake is currently 50,000 to 70,000 acre-feet of cold water, there isn’t always enough left over for salmon. The new device would allow water to be drawn from higher elevations of the reservoir, where water is warmer. That would conserve vital cold water in the reservoir.

Urban water needs do not require a cold-water supply, but salmon eggs die in water temperatures in excess of 56 degrees.

Cold water also benefits hydropower generation because colder water is denser and therefore more efficient at turning turbines. But releasing cold-water supplies at peak power times leaves less cold water later in the year, when spawning salmon need it most.

Additionally, chinook share the cold-water supply with steelhead, a fish listed on the Endangered Species Act. Steelhead, whose needs are an environmentally important priority, arrive at the Lower American River before the chinook.

Traditionally, the needs of the salmon have come behind those of the human. But now, dam operators are figuring out how to have it both ways.

The Water Forum is an organization of stakeholders who promote environmentally sound water-management practices in the Sacramento area. More than three years ago, members of the forum advocated constructing the device at Folsom Dam in order to help the chinook salmon and balance its needs with those of humans.

The project was approved, and Congress allocated $1.2 million for the Bureau of Reclamation to carry it out. A contract between the bureau and a construction company was approved, but, shortly thereafter, it was terminated. The project has been on hold ever since, until now.

After three long years, a new contract has been awarded to C&W Diving Services. The company is expected to finish the construction of the device as well as its underwater installation by next spring.

The first contract was terminated, according to the bureau’s Central California environmental specialist, Rod Hall, because the bureau just wasn’t getting the progress it wanted.

Ironically, by dropping the first contract in favor of an unknown second, progress was delayed further.

Felix Smith, a member of the Save the American River Association and of the Water Forum, said the bureau failed “to aggressively pursue construction of the temperature-control device.”

Despite the hefty price tag and the bureaucratic turmoil it took to get the project under way, there are high hopes that it will be worth the effort. In the best of circumstances, cold water is released downstream for the dual use of spawning salmon and power generation.

The coldest water in the bottom of the reservoir can’t be accessed that way. In a year like this one, when the accessible cold-water supply is used up by the end of October, the bureau’s only option is to release cold water for the salmon from the deepest reserves and to bypass the generators. This diversion of between 100,000 and 200,000 acre-feet of cold water is an expensive energy loss.

At Shasta Dam, for example, before the installation of a temperature-control device in 1996, the energy the dam couldn’t produce was produced by other power sources at a cost of $63 million, according to one of the bureau’s research hydraulic engineers, Tracy Vermeyer.

Since the construction of the device, operators have been able to meet both power needs and downstream temperature requirements for the endangered fish population. By next year, American River salmon will enjoy that same much-needed benefit.

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, of an estimated 168,000 fall-run chinook salmon in the American River in 2001, only 20 percent spawned. Clearly, even though they are not listed on the Endangered Species Act, the chinook salmon of the American River are in peril.

Meanwhile, on the Sacramento River, thanks to the temperature device at Shasta Dam, fish biologists such as Jim DeStaso are pleased to see salmon numbers on the rise. In 1994, the fall-run population was only 137. By 1998, after the installation of the device, the population had increased to 9,717 according to California Department of Fish and Game records.

DeStaso said the device "primarily helps the spring and winter more than the fall-run chinook," but it also manages the water more efficiently year-round. And that’s good news for the salmon and for fishermen like Thai.