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Irrigation Districts Challenge State
Feds, water districts spar over fish flows
By Alex MacLean, The Union DemocratApril 08, 2015 01:00 am

Local elected leaders are backing two Central Valley irrigation districts that have defied a federal order to release more water this month from New Melones Reservoir for endangered fish in the Stanislaus River.

Oakdale Irrigation and South San Joaquin Irrigation districts received a notice from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation calling for the release of 16,000 acre-feet of water starting at 1 a.m. Tuesday, which federal regulators say is needed to adjust river temperatures downstream for protected fish.
“These pulse flows are required pursuant to implementation of the Federal Endangered Species Act. It is reclamation’s responsibility to follow the law,” said bureau spokeswoman Erin Curtis in a written statement Tuesday. “We understand that the Oakdale and South San Joaquin Irrigation Districts disagree with the proposed pulse flows and we are working with them to try to come to an agreement regarding how to meet these requirements.”

However, the Tri-Dam Project — a partnership of OID and SSJID that operates Beardsley, Donnells and Tulloch reservoirs — are defying the federal government’s authority and refusing to increase the releases from the uphill reservoirs.
Late last month, the bureau conducted a 15,000 acre-foot “pulse flow” on the Stanislaus River to push salmon smolts out to the San Joaquin Delta. That previous surge was part of an agreement between the districts and federal regulators to ensure at least 115,000 acre-feet remained behind New Melones by Sept. 30.

The deal also saw SSJID and OID agree to an allocation of 450,000 acre-feet out of the 600,000 acre-feet the districts are entitled to receive each year as senior water rights holders, and it would prevent the districts from draining Tulloch Reservoir during the height of summer recreation season to meet the irrigation needs of valley farmers.

According to Tri-Dam spokeswoman Susan Larson, who addressed the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting, the National Marine Fisheries Service has since “changed their minds” and now wants 225,000 acre-feet of water to remain in New Melones through September for fish flows later in the year.

“Quite frankly, that’s an untenable position to the districts because that is not the bureau’s water,” Larson said. “That is the district’s water at this point.”

In a letter submitted Monday to Reclamation Mid-Pacific Regional Director David Murillo, water attorneys for OID and SSJID wrote that the districts won’t increase releases until the bureau answers the question: “Whose water will be released down the Stanislaus River to satisfy the second pulse flow?”

According to a joint press release Tuesday from both OID and SSJID, a 2011 decision by Federal District Court Judge Oliver Wanger recognized the districts’ legal rights to water in New Melones.

“Our rights are senior to the federal government’s and we will not let them take that water,” SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said in an interview Tuesday.

New Melones, which holds up to about 2.4 million acre-feet of water, was down to about 543,000 acre-feet, just about 22 percent of capacity.
The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved sending a letter to the bureau and the State Water Resources Control Board in support of OID and SSJID.

At a break in Tuesday’s meeting, District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, who chairs the county’s Water Policy Advisory Committee, called the move to deny the federal government’s orders as “the first shot across the bow” in a greater battle over water rights in the state, which he believes is likely to intensify over the next year if the drought continues and supplies become scarcer.

“Can the feds and state pre-empt water rights?” he asked before adding, “I think it will ultimately be decided in the courts. This is a complicated issue, and it’s good someone’s going down that path now.”

Jack Cox, president of the Lake Tulloch Alliance, an advocacy group for homeowners around Tulloch Reservoir, said Copperopolis homeowners who would be impacted by changes to the water levels at Tulloch Reservoir — which were supposed to remain steady through Sept. 30 under the tentative agreement — are supportive of the districts as well.

Cox said about 80 emails written by Copperopolis homeowners were forwarded to State Water Resources Control Board Executive Director Thomas Howard last Thursday.

According to Cox’s estimates, the 16,000 acre-feet of water that will be released could fetch up to $12 million on the free market, based upon the current going rate of about $750 per acre-foot.

Therefore, Cox concluded the amount of water being released for the handful of steelhead that are said to return to the river each year could amount to more than $1 million per fish. “It’s basically environmentalists that have taken over the government of California to pursue their crazy idealistic dreams that are totally not rooted in reality,” he said.

Calaveras County Water District is concerned about any potential changes to the operations plan at New Melones and how it would affect the lake levels at Tulloch Reservoir.

The district serves about 2,500 customers in Copperopolis with water it draws out of Tulloch. District spokesman Joel Metzger said any water level below 475 feet in elevation would be concerning to CCWD because that’s the point when the district’s intake pumps become inoperable and would need to be extended.

“If Tulloch is going to have to be drawn down we need as much time as possible,” he said. “We would need to work with Tri-Dam, OID, SSJID, the State Water Board and maybe even get federal assistance to extend those intakes deeper into the reservoir. That’s a significant project that takes a long time to complete.”

The irrigation districts also have another ally in Congressman Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, who penned a letter last month with Congressman Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, that was credited with encouraging federal regulators to hammer out the tentative agreement with OID and SSJID.
McClintock on Tuesday called the federal agencies’ decision to call for releasing more water “mind bogglingly stupid.” He said that he and Denham will likely pen another letter of support in the coming days for OID’s and SSJID’s decision to hold back the releases.

In the meantime, he’s pressing ahead with legislation to curb such releases in any areas with declared droughts, but that won’t pass in time to stop the releases this summer. He said any immediate changes will have to come from a higher level.

“Ultimately, there’s not much we can do as individual congressmen,” he said. “That authority lies with the administration.”
Meanwhile, Howard said the tentative agreement he approved Monday night allowed for reduced releases as an exchange for doing the pulse flows through the rest of the year, including those currently being denied by OID and SSJID.

The pulse flows from April to September are estimated to use about 73,000 acre-feet of water, but that would be roughly 100,000 acre-feet less than the previous release schedule, according to Howard.

Howard said he also asked for the bureau to provide an updated operations plan by April 15 to account for all the water that would be in New Melones by Sept. 30. He thinks that might be the point of concern for OID and SSJID, but he’s hoping to work things out with the districts.
“(The districts) feel they have a contract that gives them a certain amount of water and they are concerned there might be decisions made that would give them less water,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what the bureau is proposing to do.”

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