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Fed's strategy: Destroy river, some fish to save other fish
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In 127 days the unthinkable could happen.
The Stanislaus River at Caswell State Park south of Manteca and west of Ripon may essentially run dry. At the very least the odds are you will be able to wade across it with ease with water just above the ankles in most spots.
Currently, 450 cubic feet of water is flowing on the Stanislaus River at the Orange Blossom bridge east of Oakdale and west of Knights Ferry. Come Sept. 30 some models are projecting flows of 150 cubic feet out of Goodwin Dam on the Stanislaus above Knights Ferry.
Such a low flow means by the time the water reaches Caswell the river wouldn’t even be a stream.
Further south on the Merced River flows are expected to dip to 5 cubic feet per second. The Tuolumne River isn’t much better. Releases out of Don Pedro are expected to go as low as 50 cubic feet per second.
That means the San Joaquin River at Vernalis near the confluence of the Stanislaus River will for all practical purposes be dry by Sept. 30.
This, of course, is the way Mother Nature intended it in most normal years of precipitation. It wasn’t until the advent of man-built reservoirs that many rivers had significant year round flows.
The coming Stanislaus River mudflats didn’t have to happen.
The Bureau of Reclamation in April ramped up releases from Goodwin Dam from 600 cubic feet per second to 2,500 cubic feet per second for a 15-day period. It was designed to help flush out young steelhead into the Delta and into San Francisco Bay. The higher flows were also aimed at moving young Chinook Salmon out of the San Joaquin River.
The Bureau during those 15 days sent 63,000 additional acre feet of water down the Stanislaus, into the Delta and into the Pacific Ocean. That was enough water for the typical needs of 126,000 households of four in California or 604,999 people. It would have irrigated 12,000 acres of farmland producing edible food for a year.
There was another solution that has been used on other rivers that the federal government could have used that would have had even better outcome for the fish since “flushing” with high water volumes only moves a low percentage of fish into the Delta and onto the Pacific Ocean. At the same time precious water would have been saved.
On the San Joaquin River, salmon fingerlings were raised at a Feather River hatchery and placed in pens at Friant Dam. The pens were then transported down to the confluence with the Merced River to get acclimated to water temperatures. Then the pens of young salmon were taken to the Bay Area for further acclimation before being released. A similar strategy was instituted this year on the Sacramento River system as well. The survival rate of salmon improved significantly.
The American River releases from Folsom Lake were also cranked up resulting in the loss of 7,000 acre feet of water during the 15-day stretch in April.
So why isn’t there a strategy on the Stanislaus River to save fish and preserve water like there is on other rivers?
Credit it to the inflexible federal bureaucrats emboldened by zealot defenders of the Endangered Species Act as it is written and terms of the actual law and implementation.
The loss of 70,000 acre feet of water in the third year of what is turning out to be the most devastating California drought in decades is both a tremendous waste and a tragedy.
The rest of California has been asked to reduce water consumption by 20 percent. Many farmers have been told they will receive no water and are leaving field fallow. Yet no proportional sacrifice is being made for fish. Worse yet, if federal bureaucrats had been looking ahead and kept closer tabs on the water crisis, they could have implemented strategies that would have improved the fish survival rate and not required sending 70,000 acre feet of water into the ocean that could have helped California limp through what promises to be a long, dry summer and fall.
Instead they revealed their bottom-line strategy which has always been to put fish ahead of everything else as the primary benefactor of water.
No one in their right mind believes fish and river ecological systems should be left high and dry.
But that could very well happen this year thanks to the myopic approach taken by the Bureau of Reclamation and the overzealous keepers of the Endangered Species Act.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.