By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
2 lawsuits take aim at state’s plan to flush 300,000 acre feet of water in bid to add just 1,103 more fish

It is blue, red or purple on the top of the head.

Its tail has black spots as does the upper part of its body.

At maturity it averages 37 pounds and ranges in size from 24 to 36 inches.

Most people living in the Northern San Joaquin Valley have probably never seen one but it is playing a pivotal role in a legal battle unfolding in the courts that will determine the vitality of the region’s cities, the productiveness of its farms, and the health of its rivers for decades if not centuries to come.

“It” is the threatened Chinook salmon — the king of Pacific salmon that can reach upwards of 130 pounds on the Kenai River in Alaska.

You may not care much about the Chinook salmon but they may change your well-being significantly. Steps being taken by the state that Sacramento concedes may only increase its numbers in the Stanislaus, Merced, and Tuolumne rivers by 1,103 while at the same time delivering devastating blows to the economies of San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties. The state’s own data says the tradeoff for 1,103 more fish could take 132,000 acres out of farm production, cause a $12.9 billion annual reoccurring loss to the three-county region, eliminate 4,000 jobs, and further imperil the groundwater by forcing cities and farms to pump 1.57 million acre feet — the equivalent of just over three-fifths of New Melones Reservoir when it is filled to the brim.

South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District would lose a minimum of 120,000 acre feet a year forcing water delivery cutbacks to farms and the cities of Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy. In below normal rainfall years and especially in droughts, farms and the three cities would face serious water rationing. Based on hydrology and the state’s plan to increase unimpaired spring water flows in the Stanislaus to 40 percent the 2.4 million acre foot New Melones Reservoir will go completely dry 12 times every 95 years.

Altogether farms and cities depending upon the three rivers would lose 300,000 acre feet of water.

It is why SSJID and OID filed suit against the state plans in January in Tuolumne County Superior Court. And the lack of a thorough environment impact assessment that includes looking at other alternates as required under California law is why the United States is suing California over the edict for increased unimpaired water flows.

The federal government also asserts the state decision was arbitrary, did not rely on vetted research, and simply dismissed as “unavoidable” the impact of diverting water stored behind New Melones for farms, cities, businesses, and hydroelectric production

While supporters of the Department of Water Resources plan have tried to marginalize the federal government’s concerns and have even mocked it contending it is an outgrowth of the ongoing legal tussle between California and the Trump administration, the federal Bureau of Reclamation is a major player in California water including the unimpaired flow plan. The Bureau built and controls the New Melones Reservoir that serves as the linchpin on Stanislaus River flows.

And the alternative the state elected not to consider is backed with considerably more scientific research and data for the conclusions it has reached that water temperature and the timing of flows and not the volume of flows are more effective ways of managing the Chinook salmon population to help it survive and thrive.

State agencies have also hamstrung efforts by the SSJID and OID to collect empirical data to study the impacts of non-native predators of the salmon population in the Stanislaus River by dragging out and delaying the permitting process required for such work. Research suggests non-native predators — primarily bass — eat upwards of 95 percent of the salmon population before they reach the Delta.  That research reflects similar outcomes for salmon when non-native predators are addressed on the Columbia River in Washington.

More than a decade of research from Fishbio — a fisheries and environmental consulting firm — tracking salmon and steelhead on the Stanislaus River points to data that shows the timing of pulse flows and not the volume is more critical. There is no peer-reviewed scientific journal or research to support the state’s contention that more water equals more fish.

Data also notes lower reservoir levels means warmer water would be left for summer and fall flows — when water is squandered in larger spring flows — to literally “cook” threatened fish to death as lower river flows in the summer and fall means the water runs warmer.


To contact Dennis Wyatt, email