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SACRAMENTO — With California's major reservoirs at woefully low levels, state and federal water agencies on recently made a pitch to keep more water behind their dams this month.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and state Department of Water Resources said they need to store as much water as they can to ensure enough for salmon, cities and farmers later this year.
Keeping that water, though, means the agencies must be granted an emergency petition that allows lowered water-quality standards in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The state is supposed to release water from reservoirs each February to improve delta water quality, although it has fallen short of its mandate so far this month.
"California is in the third straight year of below-average rainfall and snowmelt runoff," Cathy Crothers, DWR's assistant chief counsel testified during an emergency hearing before the State Water Resources Control Board. "Dry conditions and low storage have resulted in significant reductions in water supplies throughout the state."
At issue is the amount state and federal water agencies are legally required to release each February from dams that feed into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The reservoirs are critical to the water supply of two-thirds of the state's residents and millions of acres of farmland.
Their dams also block migrating salmon from colder northern waters. Despite that, they do have one benefit to the salmon — storing the cold water the fish need later in the year when river temperatures rise and threaten to kill them when they spawn.
It's that cool water the agencies are looking to preserve in the reservoirs for later in the year. It wasn't clear when the Water Resources Control Board would issue a decision about the request to hold water back.
Critics of the agencies' plan say water managers are sacrificing delta fish such as the longfin smelt that are dependent on the mid-winter freshwater releases.
"Pitting one species of fish against the other epitomizes the absolute failed water policies of the state," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, a grassroots group based in Stockton.
Delta water users also questioned whether the agencies need relaxed standards to carry them through the rest of the month after storms over the holiday weekend and into this week boosted river flows.
Federal and state wildlife agencies agreed with water managers that storing additional water in California's reservoirs would outweigh the risks to delta fish.
"We feel if we hold some water now, it will help us," said Perry Herrgesell, the Bay Delta Water Policy Coordinator at the state Department of Fish and Game.
California's reservoirs are running low after two dry winters. Lakes Shasta and Oroville are less than half as full as they should be for this time of year, and the snowpack was well below average during the last official measurement.
The state has said it will deliver just 15 percent of its water contracts this year because of the low reservoir levels and court-ordered pumping restrictions, which are designed to protect a threatened fish in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
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