Over the past 150 years, the Stanislaus River has endured more makeovers than Joan Rivers.
It's been mined, dredged and quarried. It's been forded, ferried and bridged. Its south and main forks have been dammed a combined nine times in eight places, including Melones twice.
Whenever people improve it one way, they create problems in another. The river is proof that for every action, there is a consequence that requires more actions and, thus, more consequences.
The big winners in this imposition by civilization? Gold miners, farmers and homeowners. The big losers? Fish -- salmon and steelhead in particular.
They're in the fix-it mode again out in Knights Ferry. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation contracted with the state Department of Fish and Game to dump 20,000 tons of gravel into the river to improve the spawning grounds this summer. In the process, they leaked hydraulic fluid onto the riverbank. It was a biodegradable, food-grade substance, an official said.
Now, the Bureau of Reclamation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service want to rechannel a segment of the river to create a seasonal playground for the young fish hatched in that part of the river. To do so, they'll need the blessing of the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls 59 miles of the river east from the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers near Vernalis.
Getting the blessing of Knights Ferry residents could be more difficult. They claim that the government agencies and private contractor Cramer Fish Sciences have done a poor job of making the public aware of their plans, inadequately publicizing meetings.
Tonight's gathering at 7 p.m. at the Knights Ferry Community Center comes a bit too late to gain the locals' trust, according to Sally Goehring, a Knights Ferry resident whose family has been there since 1946. She is the field representative for Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini. She believes the decisions already have been made.
"If they were really interested in what the people of Knights Ferry want, they wouldn't have had their 24-page document written (by Cramer Fish Sciences) in 2006," Goehring said.
Likewise, resident Eric Ulrich voiced skepticism.
"I want to hear what they have to say," Ulrich said. "But their reasons for what they are going to do are suspicious. The problem with the salmon doesn't start here. It starts out in the ocean."
The agencies involved agree. Warmer water in the Pacific Ocean affects the breeding habits of the cold-water-loving salmon, wildlife biologists say.
In better water years, salmon from the Pacific will make their way through San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. They'll head up the Stanislaus -- as many as 13,000 of them -- to spawn in the Knights Ferry area, said Jason Faridi, senior ranger for the Army Corps of Engineers.
But in lesser rainfall years, the numbers dwindle dramatically. The most recent count produced 350 fish, he said.
"In the drought years (late 1980s-early 1990s), we counted fewer than 100," he said.
Dams on the Stanislaus -- particularly New Melones -- contribute to the problems with the salmon population in one respect, and help them in another.
Neither old Melones Dam, built in 1926, nor New Melones, completed in 1973, was equipped with fish ladders to allow spawning beyond these barriers, Faridi said.
"They (planners) didn't feel it was necessary," he said. "And on top of that, they would have had to prove (the need) to the public. There were so many fish in the river."
The tradeoff was that the sequence of dams provided flood protection and irrigation for the valley and created a more consistent year-round flow for the river.
"Historically, in dry years (before the dams were built), there wouldn't be very much water coming down the river," he said. "(Fish have) figured out they don't need to come up every year to procreate. They know inherently in a year like this not to come up."
Believing that the spawning issue is cyclical -- there are few salmon coming up from any of the fisheries on the Pacific Coast -- the agencies want to prepare for when the fish return.
Cramer Fish Sciences is proposing to restore an old channel on the southern bank of the river, said Cramer's Jesse Anderson. When the water flow in the main river rises to 350 cubic feet per second, the water would spill into the old channel.
"That would give the juvenile salmon and steelhead a place to hide from predators," Anderson said.
The plan would include moving logs and rocks into the old channel to enhance the habitat. When the river's flow nears 1,000 cubic feet per second, it would reach the normal flood plain.
Some Knights Ferry residents are worried that the restoration could affect the Russian Rapids -- a riffle in the river that provides rafters with the closest thing they'll get to an adrenaline rush during otherwise slow-moving float trips.
Faridi said the Corps of Engineers won't sign off on anything that affects the rapids.
"Cramer Fish Sciences said it will not affect the Russian Rapids," he said. "If they cannot prove that, the project will not go forward."
Tonight, they'll look to develop a bit of trust with some skeptical Knights Ferry residents, who might have more faith in Michael Jackson's plastic surgeons than they do in the river's reshapers.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.