OID, SSJID defy federal fish flows

It’s not known how many fish are in the Stanislaus River that the pulse flows are designed to flush oceanward.
It’s not known how many fish are in the Stanislaus River that the pulse flows are designed to flush oceanward. aalfaro@modbee.com

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts defied the federal government Wednesday by diverting some Stanislaus River water to a local reservoir, where it might help thirsty crops, rather than releasing it down the river to benefit fish.

The move follows an announcement Tuesday that the irrigation districts are willing to go to extraordinary lengths, including a court battle, to protect water they believe belongs to farmers.

A planned 10-day surge in the river level to help fish, called a pulse flow, began at 1 a.m. Wednesday with an increase of water released from New Melones Dam near Jamestown. Rather than letting it flow downstream through Tulloch and Goodwin dams, which are controlled by the districts, carrying young fish on down the river toward the Delta and ocean, the districts sent the extra water to their Woodward Reservoir north of Oakdale.

“We don’t know whose water that is,” OID General Manager Steve Knell said. “We want to make sure it’s not farming water, so we decided to divert it.”

Federal officials blinked first in the short standoff, reducing New Melones releases to normal by 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, followed by a conference call involving the districts and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Both will meet Thursday with leaders of the State Water Resources Control Board and National Marine Fisheries Service “in hopes of resolving this complicated and challenging issue,” Knell said.

The confrontation might have been avoided, the districts say, with a compromise agreement for managing the Stanislaus that was hammered out between the districts and federal agencies two weeks ago. While all waited for the State Water Board to approve the deal, the fisheries service – constantly monitoring river conditions – directed the bureau to release more New Melones water in a pulse flow the districts had not anticipated, Knell said.

The districts fired off a “wait just a minute” letter to the bureau Monday, citing a federal judge’s 2011 ruling regarding agricultural water rights to the Stanislaus.

“When we got no response and had spent an hour in the dark, we found a flashlight,” Knell said, referring to the districts’ defiance. “That flashlight brought focus to getting this problem resolved sooner, hopefully.”

SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields called the move an act of civil disobedience. Without pressing pause, so to speak, the federal agencies were in danger of “crashing the reservoir,” he said, or not having enough left to meet higher flow requirements for attracting mature salmon up the river to spawn in the fall.

“We have two choices: sue the federal government to prevent this release or refuse to let the water go” down the river, “causing them to come to the table,” Shields said.

On Wednesday, Reps. Jeff Denham and Tom McClintock sent a terse letter to the bureau questioning whether federal officials had negotiated with the districts in good faith or were “simply paying lip service to basic standards of good government while pursuing a grossly negligent policy.” The congressmen said Estevan Lopez, the bureau’s commissioner, cited specific water amounts agreed upon in the tentative deal when he testified before a committee March 24.

Spokesmen with state and federal agencies said they’re trying to do hard jobs in a difficult drought year.

“I am disappointed by the irrigation districts’ actions,” said Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Board. In the face of prolonged drought, he already had ordered the river to carry less than demanded by normal environmental regulations from February through June, conserving at least 100,000 acre-feet of water, he said.

Maria Rea, assistant regional administrator for the fisheries service, said the surge should not have come as a surprise, and said her agency had “designed a very small pulse” out of sensitivity to drought.

“There is some sense that this is a new ask, but there is nothing new,” Rea said. “To this point, the districts have been supportive of releasing that pulse.”

Rea said “there is urgency” to resuming the surge, timed to give young fish a fighting chance of making it to sea. “We’ve got threatened and endangered fish dependent on that water going through,” she said.

It’s not known how many fish are in the river to be flushed oceanward, she said.

Pulse flows are mandated by the federal Endangered Species Act, said Erin Curtis, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “We understand that the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts disagree with the proposed pulse flows, and we are working with them to try to come to an agreement,” she said.

Meanwhile, another bureau official on Wednesday sent a letter to the districts, asking them “to work with your landowners to take extraordinary conservation measures this irrigation season so more water can be left in storage at New Melones into the fall.” The bureau doesn’t have the money to buy any water saved, but hopes to next year – or the districts could store the extra in New Melones to use next year, the letter says.

OID’s irrigation season began three weeks ago, but its customers won’t learn how much they’ll get this year until April 21. It’s the first time in the district’s 105-year history that allotments will be capped.

Knell said the districts probably diverted to Woodward less than 200 acre-feet of water Wednesday. Federal agencies in late March released 15,000 acre-feet in an initial pulse flow and had planned to send 15,000 to 30,000 acre-feet down the Stanislaus in the aborted surge, Shields said.

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or (209) 578-2390.