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Modesto Bee Editorial: It's just the first battle
Modesto Bee
Districts won first river fight

04/10/2015 11:07 PM

The issue never was just about more water for farmers. It was as much about how much water would be left for salmon when they need it most next fall.

South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts defied the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service on Wednesday by blocking water released from New Melones Reservoir before it could reach the Stanislaus River. In the midst of negotiations over how much of the scant Sierra runoff the districts would get, the NMFS ordered a release to help push juvenile steelhead trout down the river.

But the water had to flow through Tulloch and Goodwin dams, controlled by the districts, first. When the districts closed the release gates, the water never reached the river. That prompted some emergency negotiations.

“We’re not anti-fish,” said SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields, who lives in Ripon. “We spend $1 million a year on biology on that river. The last thing we want to see is a fish harmed.”

The districts thought they had this issue settled two weeks ago by agreeing that they would get 25 percent less water this year, or 450,000 acre-feet. It wasn’t a difficult call, considering how little water is flowing down the Stan. While that’s still a lot of water, it doesn’t seem like much when only 545,000 acre-feet are behind the dam. The details were worked out Thursday, and by Friday the agreement was final.

Shields singled out State Water Resources Control Board’s Tom Howard for doing “a great job. ... His commitment was that they would get the data and analyze it as quickly as possible so that we could approve the deal by 3 o’clock Friday.”

That sounds amicable enough. But as much as we would prefer that this be a single, odd episode, it’s clear it is just the first of many. The state has signaled that virtually all water rights are open for discussion as this drought deepens. And Thursday, Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said the water board is looking first at the rights on the San Joaquin River’s tributaries. Turlock and Modesto are the two oldest irrigation districts in the state. If water rights are to continue to mean anything, they must mean something here.

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