Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Thirsty? California lawmakers place needs of 12 fish ahead of people

By Steven Greenhut

 If California flew a state flag that truly represented its popular culture, it’s possible we’d have not the Bear Flag but a guy shrugging his shoulders and the word “Quicquid” – Latin for the state’s unofficial motto, “Whatever.”

California residents have reacted to the state’s increasingly draconian water cutbacks with the well-known “whatever” spirit. They’ve significantly exceeded Gov. Jerry Brown’s water-conservation goals and tolerated rising water prices without taking to the streets in protest.

But the state’s ongoing water wars did, for a short time, lead to some civil disobedience, even though it was barely mentioned in the media. As local TV news stations focused on browning lawns and Brown’s  press conferences – the most famous of them beamed from a spot in the Sierra Nevada mountain range that ought to be covered in snow – a group of feisty rural water officials was resisting state and federal orders to deploy water for fish rather than people. The local officials had angry farm customers at their backs, but  the resistance didn’t seem to get the notice of the governor or last more than a few hours.

In the brief uprising, in April, the Oakdale Irrigation District east of Modesto held its public meeting to discuss government demands to release “pulse flows” from Lake Tulloch – a small, district-controlled reservoir in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Those pulse flows, large water releases, were designed to help about a dozen fish – not 12 species, but 12 individual fish – swim from the lake through the Stanislaus River and out to the Delta and then to the Pacific Ocean.

Biologists at Fishbio, a firm that counts fish in the river on behalf of water agencies, note that these fish are unlikely to get far down the river before more aggressive invasive species eat them. Once in the Pacific, they’re fair game for anybody with fins and a face. It’s hard to overcome the food chain. But that didn’t stop the feds – at the urging of California state officials – from insisting on these pulse flows.

Management of the dams and waterways involves a complex network of local, state and federal agencies. The feds control the large New Melones Reservoir, which feeds Lake Tulloch, which is controlled by the local agriculturally oriented irrigation district. The feds were releasing the water but the locals vowed not to release the water from Lake Tulloch. The agencies had previously inked a deal allowing the locals to keep water levels higher until spring, but “fish concerns,” as the Modesto Bee put it, were forcing earlier flows.

As one board member asked at that meeting, “What if we tell them to go to hell?”

The protest was averted by a last-minute deal, but this was serious stuff. I was at that Oakdale meeting and the farmers and water officials were angry the state and feds were not relenting even in this time of drought. The locals called for flexibility, for different standards during periods of drought. State and federal officials basically say their hands are tied by the federal Endangered Species Act, as if laws cannot be revised to reflect a particularly difficult situation.

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