Knights Ferry not keen on salmon plan

KNIGHTS FERRY -- A project to help salmon on the Stanislaus River is fighting a strong current of opposition from residents here.

The project would create a side channel and restore the flood plain along the south bank of the river opposite the town. It is proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on about 20 acres owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The side channel would in theory provide a place for young chinook salmon and steelhead trout to thrive and grow before making the trip to the ocean and increase the numbers of salmon returning a few years later to spawn.

Central Valley salmon runs have declined 88 percent in the last five years, and biologists are seeking an explanation, looking at everything from global warming to water pumping in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Finding a way to help more young salmon survive the trip to the ocean is one method of boosting the numbers.

But many residents of Knights Ferry, population 98, think the project should go somewhere else on the river.

"Nobody up here is too keen on it," said Eric Feichter, president of the Knights Ferry Municipal Advisory Council. The council wrote a letter to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors last week, asking supervisors to oppose the project. The board voted Tuesday to support the council's position.

Project disruptive, some say

Feichter said the project would be disruptive to the town, which is zoned as a historical district.

The project would include heavy equipment to dredge and grade the land, and gravel processing equipment to sort and clean the gravel to restore the riverbed.

Sally Goehring, another member of the Knights Ferry advisory council, lives along the river opposite the proposed project. She said she is concerned about the effect the project will have on other wildlife, including trout, muskrats and deer.

"What do you destroy while you are trying to restore salmon?" she asked. Knights Ferry is inundated with rafters and park visitors, Goehring said. The salmon project would be one more disruption. "We just think it's a pretty nice place. We'd like to see it left alone," she said.

J.D. Wikert, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the project will improve the habitat for all those species.

"Fish and Wildlife is not in the business of making habitat worse for wildlife," he said. "If you like trees, wildlife and critters, this is going to make the habitat better."

The Fish and Wildlife Service is funding the project, at an estimated cost of $750,000.

"We are not going to ram anything down anyone's throat on this," Wikert said. If the local opposition remains strong, the project will be moved downriver, Wikert said, where it would serve as a demonstration project to show Knights Ferry the benefits. The project would return to Knights Ferry at a later date, once residents were convinced it was a good thing, Wikert said.

The Army Corps of Engineers also will have to approve the project, said Jason Faridi, senior park ranger at Knights Ferry for the corps.

Many concerns voiced

The corps is responsible for managing the lower Stanislaus River, and one of the objectives of that management is to improve fisheries, Faridi said. The corps will support any project that doesn't damage the environment, recreation or the scenic quality of the river and the area surrounding it, and addresses all public concerns, Faridi said.

There are many concerns, according to the municipal advisory council. Residents weren't adequately notified of the project, Goehring said.

Answers to questions at a public meeting two months ago were vague and full of "double talk," Feichter said.

That might be because the project is in its early stages, Faridi said. Cramer Fish Sciences won the bid to come up with a proposal for the project and that process still is under way.

More public meetings and community outreach will be conducted before a final decision is made on the project, Faridi said.

The project schedule outlined by Cramer Fish Sciences would start construction of the side channel in 2009 and complete work by December 2010.

"Before we do anything, we will get community buy-in," Wikert said.

Bee staff writer Tim Moran can be reached at tmoran@modbee.com or 578-2349.