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SavetheStan: A Life Or Death Fight
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Both the South San Joaquin and the Oakdale Irrigation Districts are in a fight for their lives against the federal government’s misguided attempts at helping salmon and steelhead in the South Delta. Our two agencies have filed suit to stop the same government decision that shut the pumps down on the westside of the Central Valley and destroyed much of its agriculture and economy last year. That same decision (known as the Biological Opinion), if not changed, will do the same here on the Stanislaus River; significantly impacting our local communities.

The feds and their state counterparts are focused on “more water equals more fish.” According to them, if you want more fish you simply dump more water down the river. It’s theory and not true. The trouble is the only federal dam from which to dump water into the South Delta and test that “theory” is New Melones. By the end of September, New Melones will be at 25-35 percent of its 2.5 million acre foot capacity. Not enough to launch boats, not enough to recreate but surely low enough to curtail lake tourism in our communities.

OID and SSJID spend thousands of dollars annually for fish biologists, surveys, habitat enhancement and development of recognized and accepted models to predict and improve the habitat on the river for salmon and steelhead. We have been given that responsibility for the use of the river’s water resources. We take our work seriously, and we are very good at it. It’s not by mistake the Stanislaus is one of the best cold water trout and steelhead rivers in the state. So when the feds decided to change the operating conditions of New Melones to provide “fish friendly” flows, one would think we’d get a call. We didn’t. They changed the criteria in Washington without consultation and those changes have a good chance of destroying all that we’ve worked for on the river.

The new operations plan for New Melones is so aggressive that with an average winter next year and no change in river operations, New Melones will be empty. Yes, empty! Not only that; all rainbow trout and steelhead in the river will be lost due to the loss of Melones’ cold water pool. But it doesn’t end there. After the feds have used up all their water, their plan as outlined in the support documents to the Biological Opinion, is to take OID’s and SSJID’s water. Unfortunately no one in Washington thought to ask if OID and SSJID water was under federal control; it’s not. No one thought to ask who built those canals and irrigation systems: the feds or some hearty farmers; it’s the latter. So without considering all the human impacts they again implemented a misguided decision.

Years ago OID and SSJID noticed a growing problem to salmon from striped bass and other predatory fish. These fish-eating fish became more prevalent in our river during salmon migration and recent gut samples showed them eating our young salmon and fry. Going back into the state’s own records they too recognized predation being a problem to salmon back in the ‘60s. Unfortunately they did nothing.

There are one million adult stripers in the delta and five million juvenile stripers. They are credited with the consumption of 30-50 percent of the juvenile salmon population during migration; commercial ocean harvesting of salmon removes on average 25 percent of adult salmon; under the Endangered Species Act operators of the delta pumps have a “federal permit” to “take” two percent of the migrating salmon. So when salmon populations tank in the delta, what is it the feds succeed in doing? They succeed in shutting down the pumps to two-thirds of the state’s economic engine; to shut down a viable commercial fishing industry; to drain New Melones Reservoir; to eliminate all trout and steelhead on our Stanislaus; to eliminate tourism in our foothill communities; but don’t address the predation issue.

The districts have launched a SaveTheStan education effort to fight back. We need you to write, call, and voice your opinion on this misguided path of “more water means more fish.” We need you to voice your opinion on predation. Go to and read more. Our goal is to educate and protect that which is dear to all of us. Now is not the time to wait for someone else to step up, we need your voices and letters to change minds.


Jeff Shields is General Manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District.

Steve Knell is General Manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District.