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Bureau releasing 23,000 acre feet of water for fall fish pulse flows
The volume of water flowing past Ripon in the Stanislaus River will go up a factor of six times next month despite the drought. - photo by HIME ROMERO

The federal government — in a move questioned by some biologists as to its effectiveness — is going to release 23,000 acre feet of water in October from New Melones during the fall run of Chinook salmon in the Stanislaus River.

That’s 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,

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

That’s why South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields and other area water managers believe the pending releases from New Melones are simply a way to get more water to be exported south.

That’s because once the water flows out of the Stanislaus and into the San Joaquin River south of Manteca the state considers it abandoned and up for grabs.

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

That means without New Melones and other reservoirs on the Stanislaus River the flow for October fish runs if left up to nature would only reach 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 told Manteca Rotarians during their noon meeting Thursday at the Rendezvous Room.

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

The flow requirement stems 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 their edict despite numerous requests to do so.

 SSJID in partnership with Oakdale Irrigation District has spent more than $1 million over the past years studying fish on the Stanislaus River.

Shield said he’s confident that the Stanislaus River “is the most studied river” in the state when it comes to fish.

Fuller said there is a concern that the federal strategy will be counterproductive. If higher flows entice more fish than the Stanislaus ecological system can handle, it will lead to fish die off. She noted the habitats on the Merced and Tuolumne rivers are better suited for larger fish numbers.

A large pulse flow in October could set up an ecological disaster next year.

New Melones currently is at 22 percent of capacity with 525,000 acre feet of water as of Wednesday in a 2.4 million acre foot reservoir.

If a fourth year of drought takes place in 2015 with similar rain and snow fall, water district managers expect New Melones to be down to 70,000 acre feet.

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.

Fuller’s 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.

The SSJID draws water from New Melones Reservoir to supply the cities of Manteca, Tracy, and Lathrop as well as to provide irrigation water to 72,000 acres in the South County.

The SSJID and other water districts have been unsuccessful in getting federal agencies to reconsider larger pulse flows next month.