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Stanislaus River needs balanced management

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POSTED June 23, 2010 3:35 a.m.
California water politics are about as easy to navigate as swimming through shark infested waters with 100 pounds of red meat strapped to your back.

The chances of any solution succeeding are close to nil.

The Save the Stan effort undertaken by South San Joaquin Irrigation District and the Oakdale Irrigation District ultimately will probably go down as a footnote, if that, in the epic water wars that date back to the Gold Rush. The two districts contend they are fighting for the very existence of farming and urban users that they serve given a biological opinion issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service that simply releasing more water will solve much of the ills facing the declining population of salmon and steelhead.

The plan, if implemented, would in almost every year drain the New Melones Reservoir for all practical purposes. The district has years of biological data on its side relating to water temperatures and predatory patterns. Whether that is strong enough to completely trump the biological opinion is yet to be seen.

The Bureau of Reclamation - caught in a bizarre Catch 22 of having to meet mandates to manage New Melones and other parts of the Central Valley Project to be sensitive to both flood and drought conditions that are conflicting goals in periods of transition - has given mixed signals to the two districts whether it will proceed under the biological opinion.

 Not wanting to leave anything to chance plus the fact they have superior water rights to 600,000 acre feet on the Stanislaus River, the two districts launched the Save the Stan effort.

Whether the campaign is a bit overdrawn is open to debate but one thing is for sure - no one in Washington, D.C., bothered to consult with either district assuming that all water behind a federal dam is under federal control.

That simply is not the case with the New Melones. The two water districts in 1926 built the original Melones Dam to manage 600,000 acre feet of water rights without a penny in either state or federal money. New Melones would not have been possible in 1979 if the two districts hadn’t agreed to a federal government request to inundate the Melones Dam to create 2.4 million acre feet storage on the Stanislaus watershed for use elsewhere in California.

It is important to remember that virtually everything we enjoy today in California is the result of man shifting great amounts of water from areas of the state where it is plentiful to areas where it isn’t.

The levees built after the Gold Rush ended the cycle of drought conditions in the summer and fall and then flooding in the winter and spring in the Delta and much of the Central Valley. Massive reservoirs and canals allowed Los Angeles to grow in an arid basin, gave San Francisco the water to grow beyond limitations imposed by local water sources, and converted large swaths of California into the world’s most productive farmland.

Those same systems - as cursed as they might be by environmentalists - have allowed fish to survive in much greater numbers than they would have without water management.

Had the levees and water systems not been put in place as man continued to develop and grow near sources of water in California, the odds are they would have wiped out fish populations a long time ago. California is not like the Midwest, South, Northeast, or Pacific Northwest. We have a Mediterranean-style climate that rarely brings summer rain.

We are at the point now where more than 70 percent of the state’s fresh water supplies for urban and farming uses pass through the Delta. The Delta is also a key ecological system for both the Pacific Flyway and the San Francisco Bay as well as Pacific Ocean fisheries.

It is also a rich area for both farming and recreation.

Toss in issues such as point-of-origin water rights, superior water rights, and riparian water rights and you have all the elements needed for a never ending war.

It is understandable when one solution that favors 100 percent of one of the key elements whether it is fish, water quality, urban users, farming, flood control, or even recreation it is going to create a loud reaction from other players. Once a precedent is set it is hard for it go back.

In the case of the Save the Stan, there appears to be a lot of valid concerns. But more important for those who depend on the Stanislaus River watershed - South County farmers, Oakdale farmers, South County cities as well as Stockton - is to make sure they aren’t a pawn in the complicated chess game often led by the kings and queens of the water wars in the form of urban users such as Los Angeles, large corporate farming concerns, or specific interest environmental groups.

The future of not just fish and New Melones recreation but South County farming and urban centers depends on a balanced approach to managing the Stanislaus River.

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