NWNL Spotlight

Folsom Lake Impacts from California’s Drought
November 17, 2014

Greg Morris: Photographer

Alison Jones: NWNL Director and Lead Photographer
Annette Alexander: NWNL Photographer


Greg Morris

American River Watershed – Larger view

Introductory Note

The California Water Systems are incredibly complex. Within the state there is much controversy over rights of fish, farmers, northern and southern communities. What happens in one part of California affects other parts of the state – often far away. But it also affects salmon in the Pacific Ocean from Russia to Alaska, Canada, the Pacific Northwest and California down to Fresno. As well, it affects consumers across the U.S. depending on fresh vegetables, fruits and nuts from California. Greg Morris, a resident in the American River Basin, helped NWNL focus on these issues as being critical for the common good of all.

All images © Alison M. Jones.
All rights reserved.

Folsom – A Dam Gone Down

NWNL: Hello, Greg. As a local resident and a photographer-witness, you have concerns about the current ongoing California drought. Where does that concern come from, and why have you brought us to this Folsom Dam site here in the Central Valley?

GREG MORRIS: I live in the Sacramento area in the town of Citrus Heights, which is affected by the water drought. Right now we’re at Brown’s Ravine at Folsom Lake, or as the locals call it these days, “Folsom Pond.” This is a dam that was built [in 1955] for flood control in the Sacramento area. I believe it’s a 200-year flood-plain dam. The dam wall has just recently been increased in size and in height. They put new doors in there and everything. So, we’re ready for the rains, but we haven’t had them. We’re in a ten-year drought.

There are certain areas in this lake that have been underwater for years that are currently resurfacing again. This started happening last year. Since we had a minimal amount of rain so far this year, several towns that were under that lake have reappeared. And the Salmon Creek Bridge has reappeared.

This reduction of water in Folsom Lake affects all the water of California. This water runs down to Lake Natoma, the next lake down which feeds the American River. That is where the salmon come up the river. They spawn at the Natoma fish hatchery where they are harvested. But let’s get set aside the salmon story for a moment. There are no salmon in this lake right here.

This lake has trout and bass primarily in it. There are a few fishermen out here. It must be pretty easy fishing right now, with not too much water in there. The water here is dangerously low, and we don’t have any snowpack right now. So we can only hope for the best.

California: A State Connected by Water

NWNL: What are other impacts due to the drought in this region?

GREG MORRIS: Sacramento doesn’t use that much water, all in all. But the water from here goes down the Sacramento River into the [San Joaquin-Sacramento Rivers] Delta, which feeds the San Francisco Bay. If you don’t have enough moving water keeping the salt water in the San Francisco Bay, that salt water will come up through the delta/estuary and up the Sacramento River. You don’t really want that. You want this to stay a freshwater river, because it harbors the freshwater fish. As well, a lot of this water goes to the California Aqueduct down to the Central Valley and takes care of the agriculture down there.

When the water’s low like it is right here on the Folsom Lake [before going into] the American River, it impacts the whole Central Valley, because that’s the water that feeds all of the farms. It also goes all the way down to Los Angeles. We’re not putting very much water into the American River, just enough to keep the trout population going. The other river, the Sacramento River, is running at low levels also. It’s fed basically by Mount Shasta. So this is just one in a chain. This water [in Folsom Reservoir] comes down from the mountains above and the Sierras, via the north, middle, and south forks of the American River. As you can see right now it’s pretty low.

Climate Change Impacts in California

NWNL: Do you think these low water levels are going to become a chronic situation here? If so, do you relate that to climate change and/or global warming?

GREG MORRIS: For 15 years I lived in Nevada City, California [60 miles northeast of Sacramento], up closer to the snowline. As the years have worn on, the snowline keeps moving up further and further and further. So we’re not getting as much snow at the lower elevations as we used to. There are basically no snows out in the Sierra right now. Without the snows, we won’t get the water runoff that’s required to fill up Folsom Reservoir.

I don’t know if any precipitation is going to happen. I hope that we’re going to have a nice, great winter that’s going to really snow everything up, and fill all our lakes and rivers back up again.

For years and years Sacramento didn’t have any concern about water whatsoever. Because there was no need to have any concern. We had the two rivers running through here.

They recently installed meters. We aren’t allowed to water our lawns currently, just minimal to keep them going. It’ll impact all of California, because this is water that does go down the California Aqueduct. So it impacts everybody. If we don’t get any rain or snow to any great degree this winter, it’s going to have an impact on all of California, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed. We’ve already had an inch-and-a-half – woo-hoo! – but we need a lot more than that. Generally, I believe the rainfall average around here is about 17 inches over the season, being as I have a weather station above my house that I like to look at.

NWNL: What do you think the average rainfall has been in the last three years?

GREG MORRIS: Well, last year …, I’m not sure what we ended up with in the last year. I think it was about ten inches, somewhere around there. I’m just guessing, but it’s been lower than usual, and so as more water gets consumed and less water gets replenished, it puts us into a bad spot.

Now above this lake right here, is the site where they were going to put the Auburn Dam. It was not allowed to go in due to the vote of the people and the fact there’s a major earthquake fault up there. That [additional dam] would have impacted the water solution around here, but what are people going to do with more water? Are they going to build more houses? Are they going to bring more people in? Are they going to conserve water? I think the people of Sacramento have been doing a pretty good job on conserving the water. I read that water usage has gone down by about one-third for the Sacramento area.

The thing that frustrates me is why isn’t L.A. conserving water? L.A.’s got the real problem. L.A. gets water from this area through the California Viaduct. They really need to cut back on their water down there. Everybody needs to cut back on the water.

150813_CA_4392150813_CA_4410Los Angeles aqueducts and canals are empty.
Mojave River, Northeast Hesperia (left) and Victorville.

We’ll see what the climate does this year, and if we get snowpack, because we’re hurting out here this year. The Folsom Reservoir has more water than the last time I was out here, but it’s probably about 50 feet low. At this time of year I’m guessing that it should be around 20 feet from the top, but it’s not there yet. I’m hoping. We’ll see what happens.

Urban Development Demands Greater Conservation

NWNL: Could you discuss the high growth rate of the city of Folsom today, and what will happen with more people, but the same amount of water – or less?

GREG MORRIS: Folsom is growing in leaps and bounds. [It is a booming city with an Intel satellite campus, Hewlett Packard nearby in Rosewell, semiconductor companies and financial companies.] The city has just annexed a whole bunch of property that’s on its south side. This housing development is going to mean the use of more water. Also Sacramento, as the economy turns around, is starting to go into “build mode” again. They’re building like crazy around here. It will require more water to keep those houses going, to keep the landscapes going, to flush toilets, to wash dishes, to do this, that, and everything else.

The only saving thing that I see is everybody is going to water conservation with their appliances and their plumbing. These new houses are going to have to figure out how to use gray water, how to make that water go further, how to recycle the water that comes out of the wastewater treatment plants, and put that water back to use.

The days of just letting water go back down the river are long gone. We’ve got to learn to conserve, and we’ve got to learn to make this water go further, because there’s less water, more people.

NWNL: Is recreation on Lake Folsom impacted by the low-water levels?

GREG MORRIS: Well, because there’s not enough water in here, they didn’t have the power boat races this year. Also, here where they store all the boats, they brought in a whole bunch of access piers a couple of years ago. The whole impact around here has been pretty crazy. There are boats everywhere that are sitting in the dry dock just waiting for some more water.

Salmon Migrations are Floundering

NWNL: Let’s get back to the annual salmon migration, you briefly mentioned earlier. It seems there’s no fish passage on this dam, so I assume they don’t come up from the Pacific any further than this concrete dam, and thus no longer spawn in the Sierras.

GREG MORRIS: Lake Natoma is below here, down by the Nimbus Dam. It’s the last stop for the salmon that are coming up from the ocean. They have a fish hatchery there where they bring salmon up the ladders, harvest the salmon to produce the new roe, and release them so they can go back down to the ocean at the end of the year. It’s one of the major fisheries in California and one of the major places where the salmon are released.

Right now the salmon are all coming up the river. But this year the river water is so low and the temperature so high, they had to take the salmon roe and the small salmon down by truck down to Rio Vista. They dumped them in the river down there, because they just weren’t going to survive going down the river.

The drought has a big impact on the whole salmon fishery. And that also will impact all of California, because these are the salmon that return to the ocean where commercial salmon fishermen catch them.

In this area there are a lot of streams feeding off areas other than the American River. Ecologists have been trying to restore the creeks and small rivers that are supplementing the fish. They’re trying to clean the trash out, get rid of the overhangs, and get gravel in there so fish will have a place to spawn. This year it’s looking like it’s a pretty low count of fish coming up. They’re working on trying to make conditions better to get the fish up here, but we’re still going to have to have the water for them. Around here Dry Creek feeds a lot of creeks. It brings actually 20- 22-inch salmon up here to spawn.

NWNL: Is there any talk about fish passage being added to this dam once we get through a drought or something?

GREG MORRIS: No. This is the end of the line for the fish here for the American River. Fish not going any further than this unless they put in fish ladders; and we don’t have enough water coming down through here to make that a worthwhile. That’s why the Nimbus Hatchery is here to support the fish, still bring them in and still keep the industry alive. Any further efforts just wouldn’t work at this point with our current low-water levels. Now they do have fish that come up off the American River. I know. I used to live near the Yuba River that has salmon that come up there. Their stopping point is Englebright Reservoir. People are talking about decommissioning Englebright, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir.

If they decommission that dam, thus releasing water up the Yuba River’s north fork, middle fork, and south fork, that would be great for the fish. But what would it do for the people downstream and the agriculture that feeds off the Yuba River? It would not be good for the almond ranchers up there. There are peach ranches. So [such a decommissioning] would have a major impact on everything. I don’t see how they could do that.

Yet when doing hydraulic mining up there, they washed all the soap down. Then levees, now feeding that area, were built on top of the silt. It’s kind of like the levees are built on jelly, which isn’t good. So there has been much worry about [possible] failure of the levees. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen – but they’re not built on solid ground.

The whole water situation up there is absolutely crazy. They used to be able to bring riverboats through Marysville and on up the Sacramento River. Now the end of the line basically is Sacramento. The area around Marysville used to be a lot of rolling hills, but now it’s all flat due to the fact that they leveled everything out for agriculture. So the whole area has changed.

Farm Water Needs v. Fish Water Needs

NWNL: It’s interesting that the Corps is talking about taking down, decommissioning Englebright. They must be getting a lot of feedback from the farmers saying, “You can’t do this to us.” What is the Corps’ response to those farmers?

GREG MORRIS: It’s kind of like The Farmers vs. The Sierra Club.

The Yuba River’s Englebright Dam [built 1941] is the end of the river and end of the line for the salmon coming up the Yuba River, which feeds into the American River. As mentioned, there are groups that trying to get Englebright Dam decommissioned to allow the salmon to go back up the river even further up to the next dam up there, the New Bullards Bar. That would be really neat, but we need that water for the farming communities that are down in the Central Valley, down behind Marysville, Live Oak, and other areas downstream. It’s all farming, a lot of almond farming, a lot of peach farming. Without the water, those guys are going to go under, and I’d really hate to see that happen. So I don’t know what the solution is, but I don’t think decommissioning Englebright would really be a good idea.

A lot of the problems is the environmentalists vs. the farmers. You can’t have both. There are a lot of environmental concerns about the fish that are in the delta here, and now they’re talking about putting a pipeline in to take more water down to Southern California. We’re having trouble with water up here. I don’t understand why they want to ship more water out to feed Southern California.

I think what they should be teaching Southern California better methods of conserving water down there – more desalinization plants. We need to be our own state up here. So, Southern California, if you want the water, it’s going to cost you. We need to make it more worthwhile for Southern California to find other resources for their water, or they’re going to have to slow down on their growth.

Northern California v. Southern California

NWNL: Are you asking municipal Southern California to reduce consumption and set up desalinization? Then what about the farmers in Southern California who supply the country with so many various crops?

GREG MORRIS: The San Joaquin Valley gets its water not only from the Sacramento River but also the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers. There’s a lot of different rivers that feed in. I think they all wind up in the Stockton area down in the Delta, but a lot of people want to build more dams up in there.

I was at Don Pedro Dam Reservoir [built across the Tuolumne in 1971] a couple of weeks ago, and it was looking pretty low. There’s also the Comanche Reservoir up there [built in 1963 on the Mokelumne River].

The reservoirs up there are hurting just as bad as ours are here. You have good years and you have bad years. When you’re having bad years, you still have to have enough water. It’s like having money in the bank, and if you don’t have your money in the bank up here, then when the lean years hit, you’re not covered. It’s finding that happy point to where you can keep the state going.

NWNL: You’ve been talking about two Californias. Are there two Californias? Do you think there should be two Californias? Either way, how best can California develop upstream-downstream coordination during these droughts?

GREG MORRIS: That I really can’t say.

NWNL: You don’t have an opinion?

GREG MORRIS: I like Northern California. I spent years and years and years in Southern California and the Central Coast. That was really nice. I lived in Santa Barbara where water was always an issue until I moved out. All of a sudden, I go back, and the town has increased by another one-third. So they found that water from somewhere.

I don’t think separating Southern from Northern California will make any difference, because Southern California still needs water. Northern California supplies a lot of that water, but we have to be able to support ourselves up here too. There has to be enough water to continue on here. But it’s a conservation thing all the way down the line.

There’s not going to be any more water. It doesn’t happen that way, so as you build and you need more water, you have to find a source for that water. Or you have to stop building. Or you have to conserve. You have to do something. But they’re not doing enough of it right now, whoever they are.

141119_CA_7507An abandoned farmhouse faucet

The state needs to get together and get through this whole thing. We need to have enough water to take care of ourselves. We must not drain all the groundwater. We must not rely so much on the snow pack, and things like that. There needs to be more recycling of water. They have the technology now where you can take a waste plant, and make its water potable. You can drink that water, so we need to be recycling that water and putting it back into the system.

NWNL: NWNL is very appreciative that Greg gave his time to help NWNL grasp the impacts of this drought and show us the best viewpoints from which to photograph Folsom Lake. Annette was the recipient of great photo tips he shared with her. Sadly, Greg died in 2015. We will always respect his wisdom, photographic vision and humor.

[Transcription edited for clarity by Alison M. Jones, NWNL Director. Our Interview Guidelines describe the NWNL protocol for editing raw transcripts.]

[Posted by NWNL on September 24, 2016]