A 300-yard stretch of the Tuolumne River near Hughson shows one of the many impacts of the ongoing drought.
The river is thick with water hyacinth, a plant that chokes the flow to the point where it looks like you could walk across it. The growth is so dense that it affects fish habitat and can alter the direction of slower-moving currents. It also traps garbage and holds it in place. Other sections of the Tuolumne are equally clogged.
What the river needs, Mike and Susie Keckler will tell you, is a big infusion of water to flush it away and help restore the river’s health. In strong rainfall years, higher flows take care of the problem earlier in the year. The north side of the Kecklers’ property borders the river and floods whenever the stream flow reaches about 1,000 cubic feet per second, enough to eradicate the hyacinth for the time being. They’re more than willing to see some of their land submerged, under the circumstances.
Turlock Irrigation District spokeswoman Michelle Reimers said that won’t happen in April, when the district is obligated to release annual pulse flows as mandated by Don Pedro Dam’s license. The river could jump to roughly 1,700 cfs for a period of time. “Pulse flow,” by the way, is a fancy term for releasing more water to help the fish populations.
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As of Friday, only 180 cfs flowed out of La Grange Dam. Hence, the hyacinths are expanding upstream at a time when they should be gone for the year.
“We’ve always had a little hyacinth,” Mike Keckler said. “But this is by far the worst we’ve ever seen it.”
The hyacinth is just one among many problems on a river of needs. In fact, the greatest need here and everywhere else in California is for more water in the rivers, reservoirs and aquifers as the drought drags on into its fourth year and the Sierra snowpack again will disappoint.
As it worsens, so does the demand for water. The fight for every last drop of it is getting uglier by the day and could just be beginning.
Farmers contend the water is theirs, regardless of whether it is stored behind dams under “senior” pre-1914 water rights or pumped from the ground. Meanwhile, they continue to plant thousands upon thousands of new almond orchard acres and sink new wells to water their trees. Those wells, some homeowners claim, drained their existing wells and forced them to drill new ones at their own expense.
Homeowners at Lake Tulloch on the Stanislaus River rely on water from the reservoir for domestic use. But the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts issued a warning that they will be literally draining the lake built for irrigation, and to a level below the residents’ intake pipe. And they all want to blame fish and wildlife officials who commandeer the water for what has been to this point a futile attempt to restore the salmon populations in the rivers.
Those pesky hyacinths contribute to the problem by providing habitat for the bass, which nosh on young salmon. Politicians, meanwhile, try to placate constituents by chest-thumping that fish flows will be ignored until the drought ends, knowing full well the government isn’t going to do that.
Other folks want the higher flows for recreation, including rafting and other outdoor activities.
Los Angeles, along with Southern San Joaquin Valley farmers, wants big straws to siphon water south and is willing to pay $700 per acre-foot for the lifeblood.
The state, meanwhile, says it is in control and looms poised to impose its will beyond anything we’ve ever experienced in terms of water distribution.
The winter of 2014-15, scheduled to end in five days with no further contributions in the forecast, did little to ease the strain. We needed a hefty Sierra snowpack. We got another wimpy snow cone instead.
All that stated, hyacinths blocking parts of the Tuolumne River indeed might seem benign compared with the hardships of the farms and people. But the intrusive vegetation reflects the declining state of the waterway and the state itself after three-plus years of drought.
When there’s plenty of water to go around, the plants wash away. When there isn’t, they’re in the way.
So many needs, so many weeds, too little water.