Federal agencies work to create water shortages
Commentary by Dennis Wyatt
3/8/17, Ag Alert, California Farm Bureau Federation
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
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
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
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
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
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the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.
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