Jeff Jardine

Be weir-y: Valley, ag getting Water Board-ed by fish flow plans

On the Stanislaus River west of Riverbank, a strange-looking contraption spans from bank to bank. A series of metal and plastic pipes, it is a weir that guides salmon and other fish through a boxlike piece where they can be counted via infrared and video technology.

Similar weirs exist elsewhere on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers, meaning the folks at Oakdale’s FishBio can count the exact number of fish that head upstream to spawn in the fall as well as the number that depart in the spring.

That, you would presume, would be vital information in determining how much water should go downstream to help restore fish numbers, or whether the returns will be worth it.

You’d think the environmental groups, the salmon fishing lobby and particularly the state water board that will ultimately make the call on water flows would really, really be watching those numbers. And they would be particularly interested this year as the fight for cold, clear water is coming to, well, a boil.

But in politics – and nothing in California is more political than water – accurate information can be a problem to those it won’t benefit. The state Water Resources Control Board in mid-September unveiled a draft plan to send 40 percent to 50 percent of the unimpaired flows down the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to the San Joaquin. This comes under the guise of restoring the numbers of Chinook salmon that return to the sea. That might be one thing if they actually were coming from the sea on the front end. I’ll get to that momentarily.

Most folks in the Valley see the increased flows as nothing more than a water grab to make up for the Sacramento River water that would get sucked into Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnels and sent to southern farming and Los Angeles municipal interests. You might even say we’re being Water Boarded.

So while they claim the fish are the prime factor, the actual numbers can be, uh, inconvenient. So, some folks try to neutralize those who compile the information – meaning the scientists at FishBio.

“We’ve been called ‘biostitutes’ because we work with the irrigation districts,” said Andrea Fuller, co-owner of FishBio along with Doug Demko. “A lot of the folks making regulations have never seen the river. It’s not science that’s driving policy.”

The local irrigation districts that want to protect the water farmers need for crops are enemies of some downstream and down-the-state interests. They don’t want to surrender their water for what they consider a faux fish folly at the expense of the county’s $3.88 billion agriculture economy – a number that doesn’t include food processing, farm equipment sales and related industries. They peg the damage to the ag industry at $1.6 billion in the Modesto and Turlock areas alone. The state, meanwhile, says it will be $260 million. Big gap there.

“The bottom line is economy of the salmon industry vs. the lost ag income,” said Peter Rietkerk, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which, along with Oakdale Irrigation District, gets its water from the Stanislaus River.

Save the Stan (which also has a Facebook page), points out that flow increases are intended to produce from 1,100 to 4,000 more salmon heading to the sea than in previous years. By the state’s own calculations, the cost of each fish ranges from $108,000 to $394,000. Another accounting method calculates somewhere between $37,000 and $136,000 per fish, about 40 percent of which will be caught by commercial fishermen. None of that accounts for the number of juvenile fish gobbled up by predators including striped and large-mouth bass before they work their way through the Delta, FishBio’s Fuller said.

The other misdirection, which I alluded to several paragraphs back, is the idea that these salmon are returning to the rivers of their birth. All actually were born in hatcheries elsewhere, getting a Dial-A-Ride to the ocean. They aren’t dumped into the rivers locally so they can head seaward, mainly because far too many would be eaten – mainly by striped bass.

The planters that do come upriver to spawn arrive in disproportionate numbers on the Stanislaus compared to the Tuolume and Merced rivers. (FishBio does not have a weir on the Merced.) The San Joaquin and Tuolumne have been clogged with water hyacinths the past few years, which discourage fish from entering those rivers, Fuller said, though it isn’t as bad for this year’s fall spawn.

Since 2009, the Stanislaus has averaged 4,904 salmon per season and the Tuolumne 1,593. Through Friday, 477 salmon had come through the weir on the Stanislaus and 48 up the Tuolumne.

Last year, the first counts produced 88 on the Stanislaus and 12,703 overall, while the Tuolumne count began at 2 and ended up with 438. The Stanislaus 2015 total came with a caveat: Yes, thousands of fish came upstream, but the river has only enough spawning beds for fewer than half of them.

“They were building nests on top of each other,” Fuller said, saying eggs were destroyed when the next fish came to the same place. That, in turn, meant the survival rate in the spring was significantly less than what the number of spawning salmon should have produced.

Just as similar cold-water releases haven’t helped trout and steelhead populations, there is no guarantee they are the ticket to restoring the Chinook salmon fishery, either – and for a fish that is illegal to catch in our own rivers.

But the state wants to confiscate more water for downriver interests, and isn’t that really what this flushing sound is all about?