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174,301 people or 6 fish

SSJID battles bureaucrats over water releases for just 6 fish

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174,301 people or 6 fish

A steelhead trout.

Photo contributed/


POSTED April 9, 2015 1:51 a.m.

Correspondence between the National Marine Fisheries Service and Congressman Jeff Denham’s office shows the Bureau of Reclamation wants to flush as much as 15,000 acre feet of water down the Stanislaus River in order to “save” six fish.

In an email Sunny Snider of the federal fish protection agency sent to Denham Chief of Staff Jason Larrabee, it indicated a previous pulse flow in March that significantly raised water levels on the Stanislaus River through Ripon despite being in the middle of a severe drought had moved out 76 percent of  the out-migrating steelhead by March 30.

The email stated that National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) only expects 29 out-migrating steelhead a year and that their plan was to release 30,000 acre feet by the end of April to help them reach the Delta.

That means there are six steelhead left that the Bureau ordered South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District to release water this week to help on their journey. The 15,000 acre feet of water based on a statewide per capita use average could supply 174,301 Californians with water for a year to the combined populations of Tracy and Santa Barbara. Combined with last month’s pulse flow release, the 30,000 acre feet of water is the equivalent of the combined annual water needs of the cities of Stockton, Lathrop, Ripon, and Escalon.

And even if the six steelhead do make it to the Delta there is no guarantee they will survive to make it to the San Francisco Bay and then the Pacific Ocean. 

The SSJID and OID on Tuesday refused a Bureau order to start releasing more water until it was clarified whose water was being released — that belonging to the Bureau or the two water districts. Modeling shows New Melones running out of water in late August or early September meaning the likelihood that future releases to keep the river flowing will be commandeered from the two irrigation districts.

The dollar value of the 15,000 acre feet based on today’s market rate of $400 an acre foot means the water — if it is indeed will  be taken from SJID and OID — has a value of $600,000.

• • •

Meeting on ordered release taking place today in Sacramento

SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields indicated a meeting is taking place this morning in Sacramento between the Department of Water Resource, the Bureau, the NMFS, OID and SSJID to address the matter.

“As of now I can tell you there is no additional water being released for fish flows,” Shields said.

Other than to say the SSJID and OID had a “big investment” of $1 million annually to protect fish in the Stanislaus River, Shields declined comment when asked about specifics of the NMFS study that shows they only excepted 29 out-migrating steelhead a year from the Stanislaus River.

Steelhead fish are listed among threatened and endangered species in California.

The releases — 15,000 acre feet last month and the 15,000 acre feet currently that is a bone of contention between local agencies and the federal and state governments — far exceeds the recommended  flow of 200 cubic feet per second established by the biological opinion of the NMFS charged with protecting the fish.

Earlier pulse flows this year from New Melones Reservoir were designed to address salinity issues for fish on the San Joaquin River at Vernalis south of Manteca since inadequate water is making downstream from other tributaries to that river.

The federal government — in a move questioned by some biologists as to its effectiveness — released 25,000 acre feet of water in October from New Melones during the fall run of Chinook salmon in the Stanislaus River.

That was enough water to supply the domestic needs of the cities of Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon for more than three years or 331,000 Californians for a year,

• • •

Bureau created unnatural flows in October to lure fish into Stanislaus River

And while it was done in the name of helping the fish, biologist Andrea Fuller with Fishbio at the time noted more than 10 years of intense studies show it will have a negligible impact if even  that. And ultimately it could hurt fish.

“The planned higher flow only happens 1 percent of the time (naturally),” Fuller noted in September.

That means without New Melones and other reservoirs on the Stanislaus River the flow for October fish runs if left up to nature would have only reached the level of 1,200 cubic feet per second only once every 100 years.

“They (the federal government) are making a release equivalent to the wettest year possible in a year of severe drought,” Fuller said six months ago.

That is on top of the regular 200 cubic feet per second that flows down the Stanislaus in October.

The flow requirement stemmed from federal edicts aimed at protecting the Chinook salmon.

Fuller who has spent 20 years studying the Stanislaus River noted the federal government hasn’t provided any scientific data to back up the edict despite numerous requests to do so.

SSJID in partnership with OID has spent more than $1 million annually over the past 10 years studying and protecting fish on the Stanislaus River.

Fuller predicted the large pulse flow in October could set up an ecological disaster this summer.

Since the higher flows enticed more fish than the Stanislaus ecological system can handle under drought conditions, it will lead to fish die off. Also rising water temperatures that happen as New Melones drops can prove deadly to the fish.

New Melones had 542,119 acre feet of water as of Tuesday in a 2.4 million acre foot reservoir.

Once the reservoir drops below 500,000 acre feet, the water being stored starts climbing in temperature. That means New Melones next summer could be sending water down the Stanislaus that is too warm for fish to thrive and survive.

Fishbio observations are based on hard data collected from along the Stanislaus. Included is a weir the two districts paid to have installed across the Stanislaus at Riverbank that uses infrared technology to count fish and note what time they pass through and how it relates to water flow and temperatures.

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