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Watershed Management’s Role in Avoiding Deadpool

Before diving into the watershed management world, the word deadpool brought images of Ryan Reynolds and a goofy Marvel superhero to mind. Now, when I hear the word I picture drying lakes and decreased stream flows. With the start of a third consecutive, critically-dry year, many water managers, scientists, and politicians have rising concerns about the occurrence of deadpool in dams across the west. Deadpool, defined as the point at which a dam no longer has enough water to generate hydroelectricity, has not occurred since the development of the Central Valley Project in 1938. The Central Valley Project (CVP) began with the construction of reservoirs, dams, canals, and hydroelectric powerplants. The goal of the project includes supplying water to urban areas in Sacramento and San Francisco and other valley domestic and industrial water users (Bureau of Reclamation, 2021). Dams installed for the project create electricity for many communities including Trinity County where I have been placed as a GrizzlyCorps Fellow this year.

Due to overallocation of water, some water managers believe Trinity and Shasta lakes may reach deadpool this year. The increasingly dry conditions cause snowmelt and rain to soak into the ground and evaporate instead of running off into the reservoir and tributaries. The amount of snowpack currently measured in areas of the Trinity Alps is lower than the amount recorded at this time last year (Reed, 2022).

(Left: Drought at Trinity Lake, Photo credits: USGS ) The impacts of deadpool, and decreased water flows in general, pose serious impacts. People who use the water for drinking and irrigation of property and farmlands across the state may experience water usage restrictions. Managers express concern with not only the effects of water shortage on humans, but also the effects on fisheries relying on cool flows. For example, endangered winter-run chinook salmon use the water downstream of the Shasta dam in the Sacramento River to spawn, and salmon eggs require cold water which is regulated by the dam to increase survivability (Arthur, 2021).

Concerns have arisen with the current process of water allocation. The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences released a study indicating that the allocation of water exceeds the mean water supplies by about 5 times (Reed, 2022). The fish populations also receive allocations through water releases from the dams. When water is under-allocated for temperature control, the lake water released by the dam will be too warm for the survival of fish (Reed, 2022). The allocations to the fish have a hard time competing with currently-established water rights contracts.

Other western states stricken by the drought have begun to develop basin-wide water management plans in the attempt to avoid reaching deadpool levels. By providing water conservation incentives for communities and farmers, reservoirs will have more time to obtain water (Runyon, 2018). In making water management decisions and planning for projects, receiving feedback and collaborating with stakeholders proves to be essential. For example, farmers will experience economic hardship if they reduce a portion of their average water usage; they deserve the opportunity to provide input in water reduction decisions and receive payment for forgoing water deliveries (Runyon, 2018).

(Above: A day in the field overlooking Stuart Fork, a tributary of the Trinity River)

During my fellowship I have been tasked with developing a watershed assessment and restoration plan for the Upper Trinity River watershed. Located in Northern California in Trinity County, this watershed functions as the headwaters to the Trinity Alps Wilderness Area. The region faces a unique set of natural resource concerns such as elevated risk to high-severity wildfire, drought, sedimentation in streams, and legacy mining impacts. The main goals of the Upper Trinity Watershed Assessment and Restoration Plan include accelerating watershed and climate resilience efforts, supporting forest health while accelerating wildfire protection efforts, improving water quality in the tributaries, and enhancing habitat conditions.

Additionally, the plan aims to increase water flow to the CVP by improving water storage in Trinity Lake. With the growing concern for deadpool, the development of plans similar to the Upper Trinity River Assessment are essential to communities and agriculture throughout the state. Utilizing previously published analyses completed in the Upper Trinity River watershed by the US Forest Service and other organizations, I have compiled recommendations from the reports and identified key objectives for our assessment plan. In addition to the literature review, I have begun conducting in-stream field assessments in order to evaluate the current conditions of streams within the watershed. Specific parameters we assess in the field include water flow and temperature, macroinvertebrate sampling, stream bank stability, riparian vegetation diversity, and channel shape.

(Right: Maple the field dog evaluating the condition of a stream)

With the information acquired from the literature review and field assessments, we will develop a list of restoration actions we recommend for future implementation in the watershed. As mentioned before, the community’s input is essential in the development of an effective and collaborative watershed management plan. During the creation of this assessment we will hold community meetings in order to identify and incorporate stakeholders’ natural resource concerns and priorities into the plan. As a GrizzlyCorps fellow this year, I am eager to assist in improving watershed resilience while supporting a collaborative environment for making positive change.

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