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TID voices concerns over Don Pedro fish passage

Facilities that would smooth the voyage of Tuolumne River fish around the Don Pedro Reservoir are simultaneously serving as a source of turbulence for Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District who are in the midst of relicensing the reservoir, as well as licensing the La Grange Dam two miles downstream.

TID Board of Directors and the public gathered on Tuesday for a workshop to receive an update on the Don Pedro relicensing process, which also gave them the opportunity to raise questions they held regarding the costly fish passage proposal that could potentially be included as a requirement for the new federal licenses. 

To fund these fish passage facilities, which could cost anywhere between $60 million to $150 million just in initial capital costs, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would hold the Districts responsible, meaning that customers would have to pay their share in building, operating and funding the project.

“If we’re going to spend $100,000 per fish, that’s just ridiculous,” said Director Rob Santos. “It’s asinine.”

“And that’s the best case scenario,” added Board President Ron Macedo.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has indicated since the beginning of the Don Pedro Reservoir relicensing process in 2011 that it may require these fish passage facilities at Don Pedro Reservoir and La Grange Dam on the Tuolumne River.

Under Section 18 of the Federal Power Act, the Department of Commerce, which includes NMFS, is authorized to unilaterally impose or prescribe such fishways as deemed necessary at licensed hydroelectric projects under FERC, an ability that is defined as mandatory conditioning authority.

“FERC can certainly offer its opinion in any federal documents or in its written order, but NMFS can still impose fish passage,” said consultant John Devine “whether FERC agrees with it or not.”

In response, TID and MID have funded a two-year study on the feasibility of fish passage facilities at La Grange Dam and Don Pedro Reservoir, and although the study is not slated for completion until 2017, Devine said that he will not need to wait for results to tell that these facilities will be expensive.

“The combined elevation difference between the top end of Don Pedro Reservoir and the base of La Grange Dam is over 500 feet, that’s quite an elevation difference,” said Devine. “I can tell you with quite a bit of confidence that it is going to be expensive to do that.”

“There are a number of considerations that would make it costly, not just construction. These are complex facilities,” continued Devine.

The fish passage study will encompass both upstream fish passage facilities, which assist anadromous fish who spend their adult life in the ocean in their reintroduction to the area above the Don Pedro Reservoir where they spawn, as well as downstream fish passage facilities, which will ease the movement of young anadromous fish to the ocean where they will spend their adult life.

“This study will show how impractical it will be to move fish around Don Pedro,” said Director Michael Frantz at a community meeting regarding water on Wednesday in Denair. “We are doing this because we want to be able to take to the regulators a science-based case that explains why we don’t support spending a lot of money for something that scientists and hydrologists—not me—will conclude definitively isn’t going to be a practical solution for this region.”

There are many challenges and uncertainties with upstream fish passage facilities, or reintroduction, and downstream fish passage facilities according to Devine.

These include warmer temperatures, reservoir predator fish, recreation impacts, and the possibility that the upstream habitat has changed and developed since these anadromous fish have last been exposed to the area over a century ago among others.

“All of these things need to be answered,” said Devine. 

Devine said that preliminary and final prescriptions by NMFS are expected to be filed relatively soon after the Districts submit their license application, which could be around early 2018 or sooner. 

Tuesday’s update is the first of several District workshops regarding the Don Pedro relicensing process. The next workshop is scheduled for Sept. 17 at MID, 1231 11th Street in Modesto.