Pulsed flow

For people who indulge in outdoor adventure-ish sports, it’s not that unusual to have to wait for the right conditions: snow or ice for winter sports, swell for surfing, dry weather for climbing, and you would think rain or runoff for kayaking. But that’s not all you have to wait for to kayak. Even if California weren’t in a drought year with record breaking high temperatures throughout the State, in many cases we would still have to wait for someone to turn on the tap.

With all but one California river (the Smith) dammed up at some point in its journey from headwaters to sea we have the most complicated and engineered water system in the country, maybe the world. Kayakers not only kowtow to nature’s patterns, they also turn to biologists, engineers, hydrologists and ultimately, politicians to beg for their drop in the bucket.

About 85% of the fresh water used in California goes to agriculture, which is big bucks, feeds people and carries a disproportionate sway at the stakeholder table. Nearly 400 hydro-electric plants in California have the capacity to create 14,000 megawatts of electricity. According to the California Energy Commission, these plants supplied about 14.5% of California’s power in 2007. Not surprisingly, power companies also hold their own at the table when it comes to how much and when water gets released from behind their dams.

And let’s not forget, there are water users even more important than agriculture, power generation or kayaking. There are, after all, fish, frogs and dragonflies that depend on a particular flows of water to survive and carry out their life history. Oh, and probably a bunch of plants too. But they can’t speak for themselves so we give them an IV drip when there seems to be surplus and take it away just when they need it most. (Read more about what Gov Brown’s recent drought declaration means to wildlife here.)

Clearly, a dirt-bag band of boaters is not a priority for decision makers when it comes to planning out a schedule of water releases. So how is it we ever get the right amount of water at the right time (aside from waiting for Mother Nature to fill those precious few free flowing reaches)?

Boaters have a small, yet determined voice, and with the work of individuals and organizations like American Whitewater, our desires are being recognized and, occasionally they’re even met. The South Fork of the American River is the perfect example of a river with a negotiated reliable release schedule and bona fide economy based on recreational river use industries like rafting and kayaking. It’s a drop in the bucket next to Central Valley ag, but people fought hard for recreational releases and the river sees thousands of people enjoying it each summer. Hmm… summer. That’s another interesting aspect of this water-fight.

Most river flows in California are characterized by three distinct components; dry season baseflows, wet season storm pulses, and springtime snowmelt. Did you catch that first one? Yup, you heard it, dry season baseflows. That’s summer. When is the best weather to boat? Yup, summer.

Riverine systems not only evolved with low flow in the summer, they also habituated to a slow recession period when snow melt is gradually running off and reducing the volume of water. This is great for animals that need lower slower flows of water to reproduce and develop, like frogs. They lay their eggs in early summer and develop into tadpoles while there are still small calm pools, then finally sprout their legs in time to avoid getting caught high and dry as water levels drops. Up until fairly recently though, dam operations did not take this essential recession into account. Sure, they took volume of water into account, and maybe even estimated time of year needs for wildlife, but after the mimic of a scouring spring flow was met, dam operators simply plugged the tub and left the downstream end to dry up all at once.

During the Cresta Dam relicensing process, boaters negotiated pulse releases once a month starting in summer 2002 for recreational boating below Cresta Dam on the North Fork of the Feather River. This was great for summer boating, but was thought to be the demise of the federally listed species of special concern, the foothill yellow legged frog, in that reach of river. High flows during a time when frog eggs are delicately placed can wash them away.

Turning the water on and off is certainly its own kind of water torture on riparian inhabitants. Eliminating the summer pulse flows below Cresta and allowing a less predictable flow regime in the spring was the next alternative, but it appeared to be too late for the frog in that section of river. For the past couple of years there hasn’t been much at all in the way of release announcements for the Cresta dam.

Recent studies have been conducted connecting the volume, timing and pace of natural flows and how wildlife depends on that system. As more California dams face relicensing under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, recreational, wildlife, agricultural and other stakeholders will all voice their needs and hopefully a more adaptive management can be implemented in dam operations.

It’s a complicated process – managing a river with multiple dams, some only a few miles apart, and with isolated suites of species locked behind each one. It’s something we boaters can’t afford to take for granted. If a river is running atypically high in the summer to support our recreation, something else is probably suffering for it.

Even with a planned schedule that accounts for wildlife and recreational users, there is still the issue of communication. (Imagine that, we’re in 2014 with more technology than ever to communicate and we’re still struggling!) Last week, just three days before it happened, word came from PG&E and was then distributed through the boating community that both Cresta and Rock Creek dams would release water for one day, (thankfully during daylight hours) and it would be enough to boat.

Boaters scrambled to connect, share rides and cancel other weekend plans. I had the opportunity to reconnect with friends from as far away as Oregon, meet new people, and kayak more challenging whitewater than good ol’ Chili Bar. Hopefully, being that it is winter, more plants were dormant and animals were left unharmed as the dams spilled their contents and gave me my first clean run of Lobin and my first new run of 2014: Cresta.

Thank you to all the folks who rallied to the Feather, my paddling buddies who patiently waited and set safety while I insisted on scouting Cow Catcher and Deep Throat death trap, and to PG&E for releasing enough water to boat during daylight hours for whatever reason, on a sunny winter day.

Days five and six of 100 days of paddling.

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