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Commentary: Federal agencies work to create water shortages

Issue Date: March 8, 2017
By Dennis Wyatt
Dennis Wyatt
Maintaining a higher pool of cool water behind Shasta Dam—as federal fishery agencies prefer—would reduce the amount of water stored behind the dam for eventual farm and urban use, and even for use by wildlife refuges downstream.
Photo/U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

Many reservoirs are filled to the brim. Levees are straining to stay intact as high volumes of water flow between them. The Sierra is wearing a heavy and massive snowpack.

There's no way on earth California will have a water shortage this summer, right?

Give the federal bureaucracy more credit than that.

As the Army Corps of Engineers was busy trying to juggle releases from Don Pedro not to have a repeat of the 1997 flooding south of Manteca, and 200,000 people were fleeing for their lives when it looked like Oroville Dam might be overwhelmed, the fine bureaucrats at the National Marine Fisheries Service were busy working on the next water shortage.

This time, they have the mother of all dams in their sights: Shasta Dam, which backs up California's largest reservoir with a capacity of 4.5 million acre-feet of water.

Their plan is going to sound eerily familiar. The NMFS—worried about how the endangered chinook salmon have fared during the past four years of drought—is taking its predictable myopic approach. This time, it is focusing on maintaining a larger cool water pool behind Shasta Dam.

This would cut significantly into available stored water behind Shasta Dam for farm use, urban uses (especially the Los Angeles Basin) and even wildlife refuges downstream.

The plan is prompted by the chinook salmon breeding in 2014 and 2015 being severely stressed during the drought because the Bureau of Reclamation was unable to sufficiently cool water in the Sacramento River because—surprise, surprise—the drought cut into water supplies. Forget the fact everyone else was stressed by the drought as well, including other wildlife, urban users and farmers.

Before anyone starts saying the NMFS cares about endangered species and is just doing their job, where were they a few years back, when the South San Joaquin Irrigation District was going toe-to-toe with the Bureau of Reclamation and state water operators over a plan they were pursuing to increase water releases for the spring for fish flows from New Melones Reservoir? Such releases essentially produced a fish fry on the Stanislaus River impacting chinook salmon, because the water level would be so low behind the dam in August that water temperatures would kill fish. The NMFS had no problem with it.

State water agencies last year started pursuing a plan to commandeer 350,000 acre-feet of water from Don Pedro and New Melones reservoirs for increased water flows for fish and to maintain a minimum "cool water" pool at both reservoirs. In a drought year like 2016, that would translate into upwards of 6,200 acres of farmland around Manteca, Ripon and Escalon being fallowed while 194,000 residents in Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy would see a 64 percent cutback in surface water deliveries.

The federal government's myopic outlook regarding what ails chinook salmon, coupled with its nasty tendency to not base biological opinions on scientific research as a federal judge pointed out not once but twice in siding with SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District in court cases, is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that works in concert with NMFS that is effectively blocking a $1.1 billion Bureau of Reclamation plan to raise the 521-foot Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet to store 14 percent more water. The money for it would come from a $2.7 billion bond measure California voters approved by a 2-1 margin in 2016 to increase water storage.

Forget the fact raising the dam—as the bureau pointed out—would raise the cold water storage pool at Shasta Lake to do exactly what the NMFS wants. The bureau noted such a move would help increase chinook salmon in drought years in the Sacramento River.

The federal Fish and Game folks believe raising the dam would flood the habitat of several other rare species and could degrade downstream salmon habitat because too much water could flow at the wrong time. (As if Mother Nature gets it right 100 percent of the time, as the five-year drought proves.) Besides, the federal fish biologists insist, 90 percent of the time the additional stored water wouldn't make a difference. One has to wonder how the chinook salmon would have fared the past three years if there were no dams in California.

Confused? Wait until you read the NMFS biological opinion that gives short shrift to scientific research.

There is hope—at least for the Stanislaus River—thanks to Congressman Jeff Denham working with the SSJID and OID to get language in a federal water bill that was signed into law by President Obama. It requires the NMFS to work with the two water agencies to examine other ways to help salmon besides arbitrarily throwing more water at the problem.

OID and SSJID have paid for independent studies that show predators—non-native bass—are a big threat to chinook salmon. Making matters worse, the bass fare better in high water flows, to the detriment of the chinook salmon. The NMFS must now seriously look at predator control as a way to help protect the salmon, instead of just increasing water flows.

There is also nagging data that massive pulse flows have little or no impact on fish numbers, but it's a great way to dump water.

Mother Nature appears to be trying to take California out of a sustained drought. Rest assured, that won't happen if the federal government can help it.

(Dennis Wyatt is executive editor of the Manteca Bulletin, in which this commentary originally appeared. Reprinted with permission.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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