Our View: Irrigation districts were forced to defy feds

It was an extreme action, but officials of Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts were left with no other choice.

At 1 a.m. Wednesday, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation began releasing thousands of gallons of water from New Melones Dam in a pulse flow designed to help steelhead trout migrate down the Stanislaus River, through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and to the Pacific Ocean. With them would go all that water.

The general managers of the irrigation districts feared it was the same water that farmers in Manteca, Ripon, Escalon and Oakdale are counting on to grow their crops. They worried the releases – which came on top of a three-day surge in late March to aid young salmon – would not leave enough water in New Melones for pulse flows later this year to help adult salmon return to the river to spawn. If that was the case, then the water being held for farmers could be commandeered to save the fall run.

To reach the Stanislaus River, though, any releases from New Melones must pass through Tulloch and Goodwin dams. The irrigation districts control those dams and decided to close the release gates. That halted the flows and soon the bureau stopped the releases.

Defying the federal government is a serious matter – an act of “civil disobedience,” in the words of SSJID general manager Jeff Shields.

But it is also a serious matter for the federal government to use water being stored for farmers for other purposes – such as helping a very small number of steelhead trout reach the ocean.

We believe this entire episode was unnecessary.

Early last week, the districts worked out a deal with the Bureau of Reclamation and the National Marine Fisheries Service to provide an additional 150,000 acre-feet of water for environmental purposes. That would have reduced what was available to farmers, but guaranteed enough for this growing season and fall pulse flows to help returning salmon.

The agreement then went to the State Water Resources Control Board, where it apparently hit a snag. The districts didn’t discuss it publicly, but were expecting to resume negotiations on fish flows. Instead, the Bureau of Reclamation – at the request of the National Marine Fisheries Service – abruptly decided to release the water for new pulse flows.

While the needs of the environment are extremely important, so are the needs of people.

There is no argument that by harnessing the Stanislaus River decades ago, the river was damaged. But that damage has been recognized and a great deal of work has gone into restoring the river – much of it paid for by OID and SSJID. The fact that the river has recovered is proof of its resiliency.

Whether or not the districts have the right to divert that water needs to be negotiated or adjudicated.

Defying the federal government is usually not a smart move. But in this case, once the water is gone it can never be retrieved.