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Going native: Fishy reasoning behind the state’s Stanislaus River water grab
Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt

Farmers, by trade, are experts in sustainability and by extension common sense.

Growers along with 1.5 million Northern San Joaquin Valley residents could end up on the receiving end of an economic Armageddon perpetuated by the state Department of Water Resources on behalf of the threatened Chinook salmon.

Over the course of the past decade as the state sharpened its claws to tear into the historic and legal superior water rights held by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District based on laws the state itself crafted and implemented, some of those growers have been asking why the state has not considered establishing a Stanislaus River fish hatchery for the purpose of producing more Chinook salmon.

It’s a good question no one can seem to answer.

But if you apply the common sense and stewardship of the environment that has allowed countless farming families to keep generating greater crop yields off the same parcels of land for close to a century, you may start to realize the issue here is sham politics.

Start with the seemingly inane squandering of 300,000 acre feet of water for additional spring flows on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers — enough water loss to fallow 132,000 acres of farmland, cost the loss of 4,000 jobs, and devastate the regional to the tune of $12.9 billion annually in economic losses — with the projected objective of yielding only 1,103 more salmon in any given year.

The projections of economic losses and gain in fish numbers were all generated by the state to support their intended seizure of water from the agencies formed to serve 1.5 million people in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and not by opponents hell-bent on whipping up hysteria to thwart the state water grab.

The tradeoff for 1,103 more fish a year is insane. But what if the release of 300,000 acre feet of additional water that research shows isn’t all that effective at raising salmon population actually produces more than 1,103 additional fish a year?

That sounds like a crazy premise given if the water releases could produce a model that shows 110,030 more salmon a year could be generated it would make a somewhat more palatable justification for essentially lying ruin to an entire region.

It becomes less crazy when you realize the state distinguishes between “native” salmon and those that are either pure hatchery salmon or a combination thereof. A number of salmon have their fins clipped to allow researchers to determine their origin and monitor their movements. When they check the salmon by sampling either from catch and release processes or using high-tech in-river devices that track salmon as they move past a certain point, they use the research gathered to extrapolate overall numbers. It is a reasonable way to count fish populations given it is completely unrealistic to assume you will ever be able to physically count every salmon individually in the river.

“Native” are the chinook salmon the state appears to be looking to expand and not hybrid or hatchery salmon.

This would mean the state’s grand scheme to turn the economy of the entire 209 region upside down while seriously altering water flows that are available for recreation, hydroelectric production, and even other parts of nature including other fish, vegetation, and creatures that rely not just on the river ecology but the surface water that man’s redistributes is based on protecting a “pure race” of Chinook salmon. By pure, the means those that are 100 percent wild and never have mated at any point with a hatchery produce fish either in their current generation or 30 generations ago.

Looked at from the narrow perspective of 100 percent native salmon the projected fish yield doesn’t seem so insanely small but it would beg the question who determined that the criteria of the salmon needs to be so narrowly defined when the genetics are essentially the same. It’s not like you are crossing over fish breeds with salmon.

And if you are really worried about natives first, then why not pay more attention to the research that shows 95 percent of the salmon that are spawned on the Stanislaus River are eaten by predators of which the overwhelming majority is non-native fish in the form of bass? Given what the state wants to do with water flows on the Stanislaus River is predicated on how many salmon actually reach the San Joaquin River, anyone without a political agenda and a lick of common sense would say going after non-native predators would be the best strategy to boost salmon population in times of plentiful water as well as in drought. And since bass perform better in times of low water as it makes their food — salmon — easier to catch, it would seem efforts should be concentrated on reducing non-native predators.

If non-native people that aren’t American Indians indigenous to this region of California have to take a hit to help boost salmon population then non-native fish should pay an equal price as well.

This, of course, would not sit well with the well-positioned bass fish industry lobby and their tournament circuit that offers tens of millions of dollars in prize money each year. 

Bounty programs for non-native fish with more generous catch limits or none at all have been proven an effective way to help native fish populations bounce back in the Pacific Northwest.

Then there is arguably the biggest sham of all.

The mantra in Sacramento these days is climate change is to blame for everything and that already some losses will be permanent no matter what we do. This is not arguing whether climate change exists but whether Sacramento can get its stories straight.

Taking Sacramento experts across the spectrum at their word, it is extremely debatable whether Chinook salmon are sustainable in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, or Merced rivers under any condition.

The three rivers represent the southernmost run of Chinook salmon. Warmer water is deadly to the salmon as the drought has proven.

In the face of climate change, why would you want to set up water management in such a way that by the time late summer and fall rolls around the Stanislaus River becomes completely inhospitable to salmon?

The water grab as outlined by the state fails to take into account the No. 1 priority these days in Sacramento which is fighting the impacts of climate change.

Climate change wasn’t the mantra over a decade ago when the state started hatching its current water plan for salmon on the three rivers.

There is also the question of using “native” as a standard for fish when the Stanislaus River watershed is anything but “native”. That’s because New Melones Reservoir along with three dams operated by the SSJID-OID partnership known as the Tri-Dam Project can store more than 2.5 million acre feet of water on the Stanislaus River watershed.

That allows controlled flows during times when hotter air temperature can make the river intolerable for fish by warming the water due to lower water levels. 

In a “native” situation the drought would have devastated salmon on the Stanislaus River with their comeback being driven on the back of exceptionally wet years.

The state is playing a deadly game based on myopic assertions.

It would seem that the water plan the state adopted and SSJID and OID along with the federal government are now suing California over had a predetermined solution in place from the get go regarding water flows that the state never intended to modify them regardless of scientific research to the contrary such as Fishbio has been doing for more than a decade on the Stanislaus River.

This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.