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California | Central Valley | Environment & Forest Defense | Government & Elections

Fishermen, Enviros Challenge Agribusiness Claims about ‘Draining’ of New Melones
by Dan Bacher
Thursday Jan 6th, 2011 9:42 AM
“The horror story that the biological opinion is turning the lake into a mud puddle – and will wipe out the lake’s trout fishery - is simply not true,” said Jerry Cadagan, environmental lawyer and longtime advocate for the Stanislaus River. He emphasized there are five purposes of New Melones - power generation, flood control, fisheries enhancement, water quality and recreation.

Fishermen, Environmentalists Challenge Agribusiness Claims about the ‘Draining’ of New Melones

by Dan Bacher

The Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District, in an apparent attempt to pit river salmon enthusiasts against reservoir kokanee and trout anglers, went to a Tuolumne Board of Supervisors meeting in December claiming that a biological opinion protecting Central Valley salmon would result in the “draining” of New Melones Reservoir.

County Supervisor Dick Pland warned the Board that the biological opinion would result in New Melones being “drained” below 500,000 acre feet of water, imperiling the lake’s popular salmon and trout fisheries.

"They're (NOAA and NMFS) doing this because under their biological opinion, they need all that water to help with the Delta issues," stated Pland, as quoted by B.L. Hansen in http://www.mymotherlode.com/news/loc...Reservoir.html. "This is a huge issue that I think not many people really know about. This is draconian.”

During that week, Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) General Manager Steve Knell made a number of speaking engagements before Tuolumne County political leaders claiming that New Melones would go dry 13 times during an 80-year period, based on an OID analysis of the federal biological opinion.

Knell also said the OID study shows New Melones would drop below 500,000 acre-feet 22 times and downstream irrigation districts could lose 300,000 acre-feet or more of water per year.

“The lake is being drained because of the biological opinion protecting Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River chinook salmon, green sturgeon and killer whales,” said Knell. “This will be devastating to our natural resources. The biological opinion is based on false science - the belief that more water translates into more fish. However, fish populations are not solely on water, but on other factor including predation.”

In a similar vein, the Lake Tulloch Alliance (wwwl.laketulloch.org), castigated what they called “an attempt by environmentalists to force the United States government to begin draining as much a one million acre feet of water from New Melones and perhaps other lakes three times a year.”

The alliance used the rhetoric spun by agribusiness Astroturf groups such as the Latino Water Coalition that last year claimed that “radical environmentalists” were making the San Joaquin Valley into a “dust bowl” by favoring “fish over people.”

“The environmentalists contend basically fish are more important than people! This action would destroy tourism and real estate values devastating an already struggling economy,” the group claimed.

However, fish advocates and the federal government officials said claims of New Melones or Tulloch lakes being “drained” to provide water for salmon and steelhead have no basis in fact.

“New Melones is not going to be drained,” emphasized Pete Lucero, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation. “There are demands on that reservoir and the watershed hasn’t lived up to expectation. It’s a 2.42 million acre feet reservoir – and the current storage is 1.4 million-acre feet of water, 88 percent of the 15-year average. It was 1.15 million acre feet this time last year, so we actually have more water at this time than we did than last year.”

“New Melones has a lot of competing needs and we try to balance the use of the water with competing users,” he added.

Melanie Lewis, the owner of Glory Hole Sports in Angels Camp, agreed, and noted that the water districts are falsely using claims about the imminent “draining” of New Melones as an excuse to “move more water.”

“The claims that New Melones will go down to 500,000 acre feet is a worst case scenario of this year’s preliminary water outlook by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,” said Lewis. “Each month the projection of the amount of available water supply changes – and radically changes by February.”

New Melones Lake is full at 1,085 feet above sea level – and the lake has only been full once, in 1998, according to Lewis. The lowest level was in 1992 when the lake was 728 feet.

“The horror story that the biological opinion is turning the lake into a mud puddle – and will wipe out the lake’s trout fishery - is simply not true,” said Jerry Cadagan, environmental lawyer and longtime advocate for the Stanislaus River. He emphasized there are five purposes of New Melones - power generation, flood control, fisheries enhancement, water quality and recreation.

“The 844 page biological opinion in question is neither ‘draconian’ nor something that no one ‘really knows about, as asserted by Supervisor Pland,” said Cadagan.

Cadagan noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service, pursuant to the provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act, publicly issued the opinion on June 4, 2009.

The opinion, initiated under the Bush administration and finished under the Obama administration, was a court-ordered rewrite of the previous document. The previous plan, under political manipulation by Bush administration officials, claimed that Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River winter run and spring run chinook salmon, green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales weren’t in immediate jeopardy under by the operation of the state and federal water projects.

The rewritten document, contested by the irrigation districts, Westlands Water District and other wealthy water contractors, said the survival of the five species was in imminent jeopardy unless changes in project operations, including reducing Delta water exports, providing fish passage over dams and providing releases down rivers at times needed for fish migration, were initiated.

Cadagan characterized the attempt by agribusiness to spread a “doom and gloom” scenario about Tulloch and New Melones being drained as a “publicity stunt.”

“The belated, inaccurate and misguided cries in Tuolumne County (instigated by Oakdale Irrigation District” that the ‘sky is falling” happened to come just a week before yet another hearing in the Fresno courtroom of Federal Judge Oliver Wanger, who is hearing all the complex litigation involving the biological opinions and related endangered species and Bay-Delta matters,” he stated. “The OID is party to that litigation.”

Ron Stork, senior policy advocate at Friends of the River, said much of the pressure for increased water deliveries was actually the result of a court ruling a decade ago in favor of the Stockton East Irrigation District. The judge ruled that the Bureau had to provide Central Valley project water to the district even in periods of drought.

“This is a case of the water users trying to get out of the consequences of delivering more water to their fields – and blaming it on a biological opinion protecting fish,” Stork quipped. “The water diverters, who stole the water ‘fair and square,’ are upset that the small amount of water given to fish downriver competes with the watering of their fields.”

The Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District have also filed a lawsuit in opposition to the biological opinion and have set up a website, “Save the Stan,” to attack it. The districts are blaming the striped bass for the decline of steelhead and salmon on the Stanislaus even though the two species have coexisted for over 120 years.

“The real problem is predation, not water flow,” claimed Jeff Shields, General Manager of South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

However, fish advocates emphasize that stripers, rather than being a "cause" of the Delta smelt and salmon population declines, are victims of the same massive water exports and water pollution that have resulted in the Central Valley salmon and Delta pelagic fish collapse.

The Department of Fish and Game has documented record low population levels of Delta smelt, longfin smelt, young striped bass, Sacramento splittail and threadfin shad in its trawl surveys on the Delta in recent years. In fact, the DFG fall midwater trawl survey results released at the end of December document the lowest ever numbers of young striped bass and Sacramento splittail ever recorded.

The federal-state Pelagic Organism Decline (POD) team has pinpointed water exports, toxic chemicals, invasive species and more recently, ammonia pollution as the key factors behind the crash.

Meanwhile, corporate agribusiness, southern California water agencies and corporate environmental NGOs led by the Nature Conservancy are pushing for the construction of a peripheral canal/tunnel to facilitate the export of more water from the imperiled Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to west side San Joaquin Valley agribusiness and southern California. Fishing groups, California Indian Tribes, conservationists, family farmers and Delta residents contend that the peripheral canal/tunnel will lead to the extinction of Central Valley salmon and Delta fish species.

“The peripheral canal is a big, stupid idea that doesn’t make any sense from a tribal environmental perspective,” said Mark Franco, headman of the Winnemem Wintu (McCloud River) Tribe at a rally at the State Capitol in Sacramento in July 2009. “Building a canal to save the Delta is like a doctor inserting an arterial bypass from your shoulder to your hand – it will cause your elbow to die just like taking water out of the Delta through a peripheral canal will cause the Delta to die.”

For more information about the battle to restore the Delta, go to: http://www.restorethedelta.org.

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by C-gull
Thursday Jan 6th, 2011 9:59 PM
Some groups of humans like to blame animals for the problems created by humans. That kind of behavior is pretty lame. If the needs of the salmon had been respected instead of ignored more water might be available. Salmon is the water cycle and the water cycle is salmon. Trying to seperate them is to kill both. The dominant society is good at killing and not so good at saving and renewing. It seems to have no sense of cycles and sharing life with other creatures. About 98% of the historical salmon population in the central valley system are gone and yet there is no compassion for their passing.
The biological opinions that mandate the flow of water through the Delta have found to be lacking in sound science by a federal judge who ordered parts to be rewritten. It is these same biological opinions that threaten the water level of New Melones Reservoir, as pointed out by the Oakdale and South San Joaquin water districts. An extensive study has concluded that strict adherence to these federal guidelines will result in dangerously low levels in the reservoir, which proves the judge was correct in his ruling. Instead of using emotional rhetoric to argue against the study's conclusions, critics like this author need to bring sound science to the discussion to back up their claims.

Mike Wade
California Farm Water Coalition