Jeff Jardine: Something fishy about high level of Stanislaus River

05/07/2014 7:51 PM

05/07/2014 10:05 PM

We are in a drought, and a bad one at that. Three years and counting.

Some area groundwater wells have gone dry and others might still. New orchards require pumping more water from the aquifer. The major reservoirs in the foothills won’t be able to meet farming needs up and down the Valley, and lake levels could drop to the point at which more pieces of history will come back into plain view for the first time in decades.

So some callers, emailers and readers want to know why the Stanislaus River is booming bank to bank west of Goodwin Dam, which is east of Knights Ferry. According to the federal Bureau of Reclamation, Goodwin – via Tulloch and New Melones reservoirs – is releasing 2,050 cubic feet of water per second. The minimum flow is 200 cfs.

Why now, at a time when the reservoirs upstream need to capture the minimal runoff from another well-below-average snowpack?

Writes one reader: “The (Stanislaus) river for the past month or so has been flowing at near flood stage levels, this during the most catastrophic drought any of us has seen in our lifetime.”

The short answer – and many folks will not like it – is fish, and particularly steelhead trout supposedly headed downstream.

Fish flows were mandated by the Endangered Species Act of 1973, signed by President Richard Nixon. The flows are co-managed by a number of acronym-happy agencies and involve a number of rivers, including the Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin. This year’s flow levels were determined during a meeting in early April. The steelhead is on the threatened species list.

“A Draft Central Valley Recovery Plan covering winter-run and spring-run Chinook and steelhead dates back to 2009,” according to FishBio, a fisheries research company with an office in Oakdale. “Central Valley steelhead are believed to have occurred historically from the McCloud River and other northern Sacramento River tributaries down to the Kings River in the Southern San Joaquin Valley, but 95 percent of historical spawning habitat is now inaccessible due to dams.”

Hence the controlled flows, which on the Stanislaus will remain steady for another week before dropping to 600 cfs. They will ramp up again to 1,200 cfs for the fall Chinook salmon run. That is good for tourism in Knights Ferry and its Salmon Festival, but bad for farmers and irrigation districts because the water has to be kept available for the salmon. It also affects recreation. Sunshine River Rafting in Knights Ferry saw its season delayed by two weeks, until May 17. The high flow makes the river difficult to navigate because the current can carry rafters into the trees and bushes along the banks.

“Drought, believe me, is at the top of the list,” said Janet Sierzputowski of the Bureau of Reclamation in Sacramento. “But there are other laws and rules and regs we must abide by, and this is one of them.”

If not for flexibility in the rules and regulations that guide the numerous federal and state water and wildlife agencies, the level would be at roughly 2,800 cfs, according to Garwin Yip, who is branch chief for the National Marine Fisheries, a division of the federal Department of Commerce.

“It’s been relaxed by 25 percent,” Yip said. “There would have been more water coming down the Stanislaus.”

Do the fish really need so much water to sweep them downstream? Couldn’t they thrive or survive on half that amount?

The Bureau of Reclamation began increasing its releases April 14, raising the flow from 600 to 2,522 cfs within a 12-hour period, peaking at 2,900 on April 29. The flow is holding at 2,050 cfs until returning to 600 on May 15.

“Our biological opinion requires 42,000 acre-feet (over the 31 days of higher releases),” Yip said.

Except that by the time the level drops a week from today, more than 135,000 acre-feet will have exited New Melones and passed through the Tulloch and Goodwin dams, assuming the formula I found online to convert 1 cfs into an acre-foot is accurate (if not, blame the folks at Oklahoma State University for posting it).

The water agencies say 150,000 acre-feet need to pass through the San Joaquin River gauge at Vernalis on the Valley’s West Side not only for the fish but also to prevent saltwater from creeping into the Delta from San Francisco Bay. Some of the flow will end up in the pumping plants feeding the West Side canals, meaning the diminutive Delta smelt will be sacrificed for sport species and to send Delta water flowing south.

Such increased fish flows go virtually unnoticed during normal rainfall years and even during the first couple of years of this particular drought. But now, with the increased demand for water by agriculture and southern water interests, it’s an issue.

You could even say it’s hit the high-water mark.

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