Water fight is one we must win, but it’s not a fight to the death

The Tuolumne River at the Fox Grove fishing access area, near Hughson. Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts would move their water intake facilities to near this location so that more cold water will help salmon survive in the colder, upstream reaches of the river.
The Tuolumne River at the Fox Grove fishing access area, near Hughson. Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts would move their water intake facilities to near this location so that more cold water will help salmon survive in the colder, upstream reaches of the river. The Modesto Bee

Patrick Koepele is a hero. Coming from someone who resolutely disagrees with much of what Koepele is trying to accomplish on the Tuolumne River, that statement might be surprising. But it’s true.

Koepele is executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust, one of the consortium of environmental organizations demanding that flows on the three main tributaries of the San Joaquin River be dramatically increased to benefit salmon. We agree salmon need help, but we vehemently disagree over how it should be done.

Like state regulators who often travel in lockstep with professional environmentalists, Koepele believes almost exclusively in letting more water flow down the rivers to the ocean.

Asked how much water needs to exit the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers, Koepele replied: “50-50 is fair.”

Such flows would be devastating to 1 million Northern San Joaquin Valley residents without guaranteeing a single additional fish.

Why, then, is Koepele a hero? Because he has been a relentless force for removing Dennett Dam – a deadly relic from the 1930s that claimed three lives from 2006 to 2009, two of them children.

The Bee has decried the dam in editorials and columns: “Maybe if the old dam was killing endangered fish, some agency ... would fund its removal,” we wrote in 2007 after a second child died trying to cross it. “Tragically, these were just boys.”

A similar passion drove the Trust.

“It has taken nine years to do something that everybody wants done,” Koepele said. “It’s like any river restoration project, it just takes time.”

Everyone in Modesto should thank Koepele for his diligence. Instead, many Trust staffers feel threatened by people angry over the state’s water grab. “The Bee has contributed to this,” he said.

On Monday, hundreds of people from Modesto, Merced, Turlock, Manteca and across the Northern San Joaquin Valley will rally on the Capitol’s steps at noon. They’ll be joined by farmers from Redding and Tulare, who are worried their water rights will be next. But they won’t be alone. After learning of our rally, a few environmental organizations scheduled a much smaller event on the other side of the Capitol for 11 a.m.

“There’s one distinction between the two activities,” said political consultant Mike Lynch. “Ours is being put on by people who actually live here.”

Regardless, we need to keep emotions in check.

“There’s always a place for civility in a democracy,” said Michael Frantz, a Turlock Irrigation District director and leader in talks to keep our water. “You don’t achieve results on hard matters by pointing out each other’s differences; we need to start with the commonalities.”

As in any debate, we also need to start with the same facts.

Koepele pointed me, and reporters from The Sacramento Bee, to a 2008 study suggesting higher flows on the Tuolumne are necessary to flush out salmon-eating bass, who prefer calmer and warmer pools. Turns out, that study is already outdated.

“When that study was done, there were still some hypotheses that were untested,” said Andrea Fuller, a FishBio biologist who worked on the 2008 study. “There was an idea that if you had higher (water) velocities you could actually segregate the bass from the salmon. We tested that as part of (a follow-up study in 2012). … We put in 3D arrays so we could see precisely where bass and salmon were moving and they moved everywhere, to our surprise.”

The second study concluded the key to protecting salmon was reducing predators.

“The habitats themselves are not the reason the predators are there,” said Fuller. “They’re there because we put them there, and they’ve done very well.”

Fuller said a “suite” of solutions – an approach offered to the state by Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts – will likely yield better results. With timed and “shaped” higher flows, the districts would also install a “segregation weir,” keeping bass out of areas where salmon spawn and grow.

The Stanislaus River has seen spectacular results without increasing flows, a fact the state conveniently ignores. After having only 1,100 spawning salmon two decades ago, significant restoration work in the river helped attract 15,000 salmon this year. The Tuolumne could see similar success with a similar approach.

Instead, the state is preparing to order higher flows based on flawed, biased, outdated and inaccurate information.

“People need to stop talking out of their rear ends and learn something about infrastructure, about conveyance and about how we share water across the entire state,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray, whose district includes the Tuolumne and Merced rivers. “If we didn’t have the state water storage and conveyance systems, the urban communities would be out of water … people don’t understand that.

“Our community is talking about a balanced approach.”

The state’s plan offers no benchmarks, no off-ramps for drought, and no provisions for additional storage if climate change continues to diminish the Sierra snowpack. And once the state takes the water, it will never, ever, ever give it back.

There is hope, and people from here are the reason. The State Water Resources Control Board scheduled its final hearings and a decision for Aug. 21-22. But in the face outrage, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird (who is higher on the state bureaucratic food chain) “requested” the board delay making a decision. That would provide more time for negotiations.

Meanwhile, we need to keep up the pressure. But remember, the people on the other side are not the enemy. They’re just wrong.