By Matt Weiser

As California's drought stretches toward the hot summer months, state and federal officials are planning extraordinary measures to protect drinking water supplies and endangered Sacramento River salmon, according to a plan unveiled Wednesday.

The "Drought Operations Plan" was released by the state Department of Water Resources and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which operate the primary systems of water reservoirs and canals in California.

Among other things, the plan calls for further loosening of water quality rules in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, allowing the agencies to keep river flows low to preserve as much water as possible in upstream reservoirs, especially Shasta Lake. Temporary dams are proposed on three Delta channels to allow the remaining freshwater runoff to more effectively push back saltwater intrusion from San Francisco Bay.

It also calls for additional hatchery breeding of endangered winter-run Chinook salmon. Normally, those young salmon would be released into the Sacramento River. But because the river could become too warm to sustain them, some of the fish may be relocated into cold-water habitats where they have not existed for decades, such as Battle Creek near Red Bluff.

The plan does not increase water delivery allocations previously forecast for agricultural and municipal agencies throughout the state. Many urban agencies served by DWR, for example, are still being told to expect "zero" water deliveries from the State Water Project this summer. That could change, thanks to recent storms, with a new forecast later this month, but officials were careful not to raise hopes. Those agencies are expected to rely on their own water storage or wells.

The allocation forecast does not affect the city of Sacramento, which has its own water rights in the American and Sacramento rivers and does not depend on buying water from anybody else. But some suburban communities in the region are affected.

A key goal of the plan is to ensure reservoirs retain enough water for critical human "health and safety" needs, in case 2015 proves to be another dry year.

"It's pretty clear our dry and warm weather has returned, and I expect the realities of drought will become much more apparent to us all as we move forward," said DWR director Mark Cowin.

"That means we need to continue to use every drop of water wisely, and probably with more consideration than we ever have before."

A number of environmental groups were fast to criticize the plan, warning that further loosening of environmental rules will come at a cost to wildlife. This is especially likely in the Delta, they warned, which is already imperiled after decades of heavy water extraction, pollution and invasion by foreign species.

"It's going to hammer the Delta. It's a disaster," said Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. "The storage they're talking about saving isn't going to be enough to protect the rivers from high temperatures. It is a complete breach of trust, an almost total rejection of laws and regulations."

Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California, said the plan doesn't do enough for waterfowl and other migratory birds that rely on Central Valley wildlife refuge areas. Those refuges are projected to receive about 15 percent to 30 percent of their total water supply needs this year, she said, despite being one of the smallest water users overall on a statewide basis.

"Providing adequate water for the conservation needs of our wildlife refuges is a promise we've made to the Central Valley that we need to keep," McCormack said. "It's vital that we do what we can to keep these habitats stable."

The State Water Resources Control Board, since January, has eased a number of water quality rules so that DWR and Reclamation can hold back more water in their reservoirs, which include Shasta, Oroville and Folsom. According to the plan announced Wednesday, it will be asked to ease those rules further in the months ahead.

The result, among other things, will be saltier water for some Delta farmers who draw water from sloughs and channels in the estuary, and reduced flows in many of those channels and the rivers upstream that feed them. These changes would be more likely to draw certain fish, including the endangered Delta smelt, closer to state and federal water export pumps, where they are likely to be killed.

The plan calls for monitoring of these species under certain conditions so the conditions can be altered if necessary.

Cowin emphasized that all the steps in the plan are based on water supply conditions as they existed on March 1. Since then, the state received a number of major storms. For instance, an index of snowfall in the Northern Sierra, a region crucial to statewide water supplies, ended up at 143 percent of average for the month of March, thanks to those storms. Yet because of a record dry stretch in December and January, the snowpack for the region stands at only 63 percent of average for the winter season.

The plan and water supply forecasts could change once snowpack data from those March storms is analyzed, Cowin said.

David Murillo, Reclamation's regional director, said that even if the delivery forecasts improve, conditions are not likely to improve for everyone. That's because senior water rights holders served by Reclamation have first access to any additional water.

This includes many Sacramento River agricultural contractors, which are being told to expect no more than 40 percent of usual contract amounts. If additional water becomes available, their allocation would be increased to 75 percent before any is offered to water contractors in the San Joaquin Valley, which are being told to expect zero deliveries. That includes the Westlands Water District, which supplies hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

State and federal wildlife agencies worked with DWR and Reclamation on the drought operations plan. They said Wednesday the plan complies with their rules to protect endangered fish.

"Through these conversations that we've had and the ability to look at the (water) projects comprehensively, we've found solutions that we wouldn't otherwise have found," said Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Critics aren't so sure, and say the state should not be so willing to set aside regulations meant to protect wildlife.

"This proposal falls far short of being a balanced plan that will provide reliable water supplies for California families, farms, and wildlife," said Kate Poole, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

(c)2014 The Sacramento Bee