River flow debate has turned on how best to help fish

Helping salmon on Merced River

Salmon experts talked about how a hatchery and floodplain restoration have helped the fish on the Merced River near Snelling, California, on Friday, March 3, 2017. (John Holland/
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Salmon experts talked about how a hatchery and floodplain restoration have helped the fish on the Merced River near Snelling, California, on Friday, March 3, 2017. (John Holland/

Thousands of salmon have begun their lives not in sparkling mountain streams but in plastic trays stacked 16 high in a building.

The Merced River Hatchery, near Snelling, has assisted Mother Nature since 1970. It removes eggs from adults that have returned after a few years in the Pacific Ocean, then rears the young until they are ready for their own journey to the sea.

Upgrading the hatchery is part of a plan the Merced Irrigation District devised in response to a state proposal to sharply increase releases from Lake McClure. The district also offers to restore natural spawning beds and floodplain, and to control introduced bass that prey on the native Chinook salmon.

The state proposal also involves the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. Neither has a salmon hatchery, but the irrigation districts that tap these sources have similar ideas about predators and habitat improvements in lieu of losing some of their water.

The State Water Resources Control Board released its plan in September and held five days of often contentious hearings between Sacramento and Merced. It will take written comments until Friday and could make a final decision later this year.

The state agency projects a 14 percent reduction in farm and city water supplies in average years and 38 percent in those termed “critically dry.” The releases would happen from February through June each year, roughly doubling the total flow. Environmental and fishing groups urge even higher releases to repair fisheries that have suffered for more than a century.

Hundreds of critics told the board of the lost jobs and farm income if its proposal is approved. They warned that it would mean more pumping of stressed groundwater. And they said this would not need to happen if the nonflow measures were tried instead.

“Suffice it to say that we have a better idea for Merced River salmon,” said John Sweigard, general manager of the Merced district, at the Dec. 19 hearing session.

Last week, he took The Modesto Bee on a tour of the hatchery and nearby restored floodplain. The hatchery, a partnership with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, could get greater capacity and cleaner water under the district plan.

Some of the floodplain work already has been done on riverbanks torn up long ago by miners. This winter’s heavy runoff has inundated this zone, stimulating grasses and algae and other parts of the food chain for the baby fish.

“This is a great example of seasonally functioning rearing habitat for young Chinook salmon,” said Joe Merz, vice president at Cramer Fish Sciences. The consulting firm is helping with the habitat improvements.

Along the Tuolumne, the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts have done habitat projects and will do even more after their new federal license for Don Pedro Reservoir is issued, TID spokesman Calvin Curtin said.

The Stanislaus River already has somewhat increased flows to meet federal fish requirements. The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts have pushed for more nonflow projects, such as the gravel and floodplain work OID helped fund at Honolulu Bar, east of Oakdale.

Environmental leaders support such projects in themselves, but not as a way to get around the mandate to run more water down the rivers.

“While nonflow measures, especially floodplain restoration, should be part of any solution, nonflow measures alone will not improve the full health of the Tuolumne,” Patrick Koepele, executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust, said in an email. “Flow measures and nonflow measures will affect each other and must be integrated.”

Koepele also urged more farm water conservation “to ensure not only the health of the river but also the health of the agricultural economy.”

The Golden Gate Salmon Association is among the groups urging flows even higher than the state proposed. It says this would help restore an ocean fishing industry capable of employing many people on boats, processing plants and restaurants.

The association also supports nonflow measures, such as trucking hatchery salmon past the huge pumps that send water south from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“Humans have modified the river systems in California quite a bit,” Executive Director John McManus said, “and a lot of the rivers have changed in ways that harm the native wildlife that has evolved in them.”

John Holland: 209-578-2385

Comment deadline

The state will take written comments until noon Friday on the proposed flow increases for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. It can be done in three ways:

  • By email to
  • By fax to 916-341-5620
  • By mail to Jeanine Townsend, Clerk to the Board, State Water Resources Control Board, 1001 I St., 24th Floor, Sacramento, CA 95814-0100

More information is at