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District refuses to release more water for fish

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South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields, right, discusses the Division 9 pressurization project with Engineering Department Manager Sam Bologna.

HIME ROMERO/Bulletin file photo

POSTED April 7, 2015 1:16 a.m.

The Bureau of Reclamation expects an increase in the amount of water flowing down the Stanislaus River starting today. 

But they are in for a rude awakening. 

The South San Joaquin Irrigation District, upon receipt of a federal order to change the release schedule from Goodwin Dam, has taken the extraordinary step of defying the notice after conferring with legal counsel – instead sending a letter outlining the district’s position in summary with a single question.

“Whose water will be released down the Stanislaus River to satisfy the second pulse flow?”

For the second time in the last three weeks, a federal order to release a surge of water down the river has been issued. The first, which Shields said defied logic and far exceeded the biological necessities of the ecological system – the district also pays upwards of $1 million annually for biologists to study fish flows and patterns – was a 15,000 acre-foot burst intended to propel freshly hatched salmon fry out into the San Joaquin River Delta. 

So when word came that history would be repeated, Shields and the district retained the services of Northern California water resource attorneys O’Laughlin & Paris LLP and immediately drafted a letter that they submitted on Monday at 4:30 p.m. The federal order called for the water to be released at 1 a.m. today. 

“We tried to work with the Bureau for the last several years. We’ve sent dozens of letters and ideas about how to manage the river more prudently and other issues that we felt needed to be addressed because they were affecting our water,” Shields said. “I understand that they’re busy and they have a river that they have to manage and water that they have to take care of but we’re busy as well – we have water that we have to manage and people that we have to look out for as well. 

“So you ask the question, ‘Is this the last stand?’’ There’s always a litigant strategy when you can’t find a way, but we’ve worked with them in the past and we’ve negotiated with them on a deal that was submitted and ready to be approved before it was taken off the table at the last minute so I don’t know what other options there are.”

In the letter written to Bureau of Reclamation Regional Director David Murillo, lawyer Tim O’Laughlin noted that a federal judge sided with the irrigation district just four years ago when they sued over a similar situation in which the court found that the burden of pulse water releases or other practices cannot be placed on water rights holders. 

Shields said that he didn’t know what the response of the Bureau would be, but he expected to hear something back by the time the SSJID board meets today at 9 a.m. 

He fiercely defended his feelings towards the district and his often fiery stance towards those who challenge it when addressing the Lathrop City Council on Tuesday. 

“A big part of the reason that I get so fired up when I talk about it is because the federal government and the state government have absolutely no stake in SSJID or those reservoirs or that water,” Shields said. “Those dams were build with $1.9 million in bonds that were secured by farmers in Manteca and Escalon and Ripon. They did it on their own, and they didn’t ask for anybody’s help while doing it, so to have them come back and say this now – yeah, I get a little bit fired up about that.”

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