It’s not exactly “Jaws” but the predators that lurk in the Stanislaus River unmercifully attack the young.
And how federal authorities might respond to come to the aid of the young may lay waste to the Stanislaus River from New Melones Dam to the San Joaquin River by figuratively scalding fish to death while at the same time threatening to decimate large swaths of agriculture and choke the economic development of cities like Stockton.
The predators are the wildly popular striped bass that lure professional sportsmen to this neck of the woods in chase of $100,000 purses. The young are native salmon and steelhead struggling to survive.
And the solution is substantially increasing the flow of the Stanislaus River by drawing down water levels in New Melones Reservoir. Independent experts argue that is the wrong answer based on the wrong conclusion, which is low water flows are responsible for declining steelhead and salmon numbers on the Stanislaus River and in the Delta.
That solution is a so-called “biological opinion.” It would require draining much of the New Melones in the summer when water is needed the most for agriculture and urban uses. The idea is to bring the cooling water down to flood the lower Stanislaus. But there are two problems with the solution. No one bothered to consult with South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District that have the right to 600,000 acre feet that is key to the federal plan plus the original Melones Dam.
The original reservoir built in 1925 was left in place when the two irrigation district agreed to allow the Bureau of Reclamation to build the much larger 2.1 million acre-foot New Melones Reservoir a relatively short distance downstream. At some point in releases, water levels will be low enough to reach the top of the original Melones Dam that holds back 600,000 acre feet. When that happens, water will flow over the top as there is no way to release it at the base. As a result, water closer to the surface that is considerably warmer than water released from the bottom of a reservoir will flow downstream and start raising the temperature of the water.
And while OID and SSJID have made headway in working with federal agencies to get them to reconsider their biological opinion that ignored the non-native striped bass are the main cause of declining steelhead and salmon numbers, state agencies that regulate fish have refused to consider the possibility they are making a big mistake.
What changed some minds at the federal government level were years of scientific data gleaned by the two districts as part of an ongoing stewardship of the Stanislaus River that includes spending upwards of $1 million annually on studies and ecological improvements.
It also helped that two water agencies have plenty of video that shows bass feeding frenzies preying on young steelhead and salmon.
The clever bass wait patiently behind pumps for the young salmon and steelhead to reach them. Then, once they do, the bass strike in a display of intense gluttony that can completely annihilate entire schools of fish.
Although the California Wildlife and Fish Commission is turning a deaf ear to the case being made by SSJID and OID, the agency has altered its releasing of young salmon and steelhead into the rivers after discovering bass have learned to wait patiently at the repeat locations where the native fish are dumped into the river.
“They’re smart fish,” SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said of the bass.
The two agencies have launched a campaign dubbed “Save the Stan” in a bid to educate and alert not only farmers they serve with water but also water recreational enthusiasts and those who like to fish.
“The SSJID and Oakdale (Irrigation District) are literally in a fight for our lives,” noted Shields.
That fight centers around the biological opinion that is a federal mandate issued by the national Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to protect salmon and steelhead. The opinion affects operation of the river and reservoirs, calls for more water down the Stanislaus and operates on the theory more water equates to more fish.
Shields contends the opinion is based on inadequate study and faulty science and did not use river temperature modeling. Nor did it have consideration for “human” or economic impacts and no one consulted the districts.
“They just assumed that because it (New Melones) is a federal dam that there were no local water rights involved,” noted OID General Manager Steve Knell.
The two agencies have trekked to the appropriate agencies in Washington, D.C., including the Bureau of Reclamation and NMFS to provide data they have been collecting at the cost of $1 million a year as part of their constant stewardship of the Stanislaus River. The districts contend predation is the real problem, with 95 percent of the biomass in the river being non-native. Some estimates put the loss to predators between 30 to 50 percent of the total loss of native fish species.
The Stanislaus River currently stands as one of the best cold water trout and steelhead rivers in the state.