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Court sides with SSJID on fish
Judge calls federal plan arbitrary, capricious, & unlawful
The Stanislaus River is shown Tuesday with high water flow at the Highway 99 bridge in Ripon due to releases from New Melones Reservoir to create flood storage by Nov. 1. - photo by GLENN KAHL

A federal plan to essentially drain New Melones when needed to protect salmon in the Delta has been tossed by U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wagner.

The decision Tuesday validates points that the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and the Oakdale irrigation District made that “bad science” was behind a biological opinion issued by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries that water flow was the main culprit behind lower levels of salmon and steelhead.

The ruling indicated “it is undisputed that OID and SSJID hold perfected water rights to the Stanislaus River water that are senior to (the Bureau of) Reclamation’s rights to divert from the Stanislaus.” At the same time if it ultimately is found additional water is needed in some measure for fish that the Bureau should “use its own water resources for particular purposes.”

Each water district has 300,000 acre feet of water rights on the Stanislaus River. SSJID uses its water to provide irrigation water for farms within its 72,000-acre district as well as supply domestic water to Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy and eventually Escalon and Ripon as well.

“Essentially the judge said the (federal) government didn’t do the science necessary to protect the salmon,” noted SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields.

Shields added the SSJID - along with the OID - want to protect the salmon population and will continue to do so. The two districts are investing right around $1 million a year in fish-related projects and monitoring efforts along the Stanislaus River.

The judge’s 297-page  ruling was on a suit filed by California water agencies that included SSJID and OID against a federal water management plan designed to protect endangered salmon, steelhead, and other species from large water pumps in the Delta. Those pumps move water to the South San Joaquin Valley farms and cities in Southern California and the Bay Area.

Wagner invalidated parts of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service’s so-called biological opinion, calling the plan “arbitrary, capricious, and unlawful.” The judge still held that pumping operations negatively impact the fish and adversely modify their critical habitat, but his decision means the agency will rewrite its plan again.

The federal government had hoped to use the New Melones water to essentially help raise water levels in the Delta to protect fish.

Federal agencies simply offered a model not based on historical data involving various rivers including the Stanislaus.

The SSJID and OID had the data. They also spent millions on exhaustive studies and fish monitoring to prove that non-native predators such as bass are a major reason why steelhead and salmon numbers have dropped.

Shields blasted what he said was the “California Department of Fish & Game’s desire to promote bass fishing” at the expense of native species.

The biological opinion issued in 2009 by the National Marine Fisheries Service contends it is inadequate releases from New Melones Reservoir that are imperiling steelhead and salmon.

Based on hydrology data collected over the past 80 years, if that opinion had been used to implement river flows on the Stanislaus River assuming New Melones Reservoir had been built in 1931 it would have been emptied 13 times. Using current flow patterns the reservoir would have gone empty just once in the past 80 years.

Lowering New Melones Reservoir below 500,000 acre feet would effectively eliminate “cold storage” where fish thrive based on SSJID and OID studies. The large releases would reduce water levels enough that the average temperature of the storage at New Melones would rise 10 degrees. It essentially would “cook” the fish to death.