June 17, 2014

Meetings to focus on farms v. fish struggle

The latest farms v. fish struggle over Tuolumne River water is expected at meetings Wednesday, which will focus on La Grange Dam. The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts say studies aren’t needed because they’ve produced exhaustive reports to relicense their hydropower dam at nearby Don Pedro Reservoir.

People with interests in the Tuolumne River’s future are expected to stake their claims again Wednesday at morning and evening meetings in Turlock and Modesto, respectively.

At issue is whether flows should be altered to favor fish, perhaps at the expense of farms.

The meetings will center on the La Grange Dam, which the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts have owned since 1883, and its relatively small, 4.9-megawatt hydropower plant, which TID built in 1924. A few decades later, the government began requiring that utilities obtain federal approval for such plants, but looked the other way until recently.

When the districts began a multiyear, $50 million process to seek a new license for their much larger Don Pedro power plant a couple of miles upstream, the government decided it was time that La Grange get formal approval, too. Wednesday’s scoping meetings will be hosted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, while the districts hope to convince a federal judge that they don’t need a La Grange permit.

The Don Pedro process is moving along, with the districts recently completing most of 38 required studies, submitting a lengthy application in April and expecting an answer in a couple of years. The La Grange effort, meanwhile, is in the early stages, and Wednesday’s meetings will provide an opportunity for people to say how involved its studies should be.

Environmentalists and commercial fishing see this as an opening for more studies to help salmon, whose numbers have shrunk about 99 percent since people started damming the Tuolumne, they say, and diverting water for irrigation.

While half of the Don Pedro studies address fish, none looked at whether salmon might thrive again upstream of Don Pedro. Its 580-foot-tall dam blocks fish migration, but removing California’s sixth-largest dam isn’t realistic because that would mean sacrificing a good portion of the Valley’s economy, including agriculture and lake and river recreation, not to mention electricity production and half of Modesto’s water supply. Experts have said Don Pedro accounts for $27 billion each year in jobs, products and other benefits.

What if people capture salmon heading upstream before they reach La Grange, take the fish out and carefully transport them to a safe spot above the dams? A consortium of environmental and fishing interests calling themselves conservation groups wants to explore that option.

Young salmon heading the other way also could be ferried around the dams, and perhaps all the way to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the ocean. Technically, the conservation groups will ask for “fish passage” and “habitat suitability” studies in river stretches above Don Pedro, which weren’t required in the Don Pedro work.

“We hope to get to a place where we have a healthy agricultural economy and also healthy rivers,” said Peter Drekmeier, program director for the Tuolumne River Trust. “A lot of farmers grew up fishing in the Tuolumne and don’t have a problem with fish, but farming is their livelihood. We think there is enough water in the river; we just have to use it efficiently.”

The irrigation districts contend that they need not get a license for La Grange from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which said otherwise. The licensing process is going forward while both sides await an answer from an appeals court.

It’s silly to expect two licenses, the districts say, when the dams are so close and La Grange merely acts as a diversion dam, sending water one way to MID and another to TID. Handling both in the Don Pedro application could save up to $14 million in fees and studies, the districts said in previous documents.

“We disagree with FERC’s decision that La Grange is a separate project,” said MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams.

The commission’s “Scoping Document 1” says staff will “focus our analysis on the environmental effects … and not the legal and other considerations.”

TID won’t be forced to shut the La Grange plant, the document suggests.

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