Agribusiness Trying to Pit Fishermen Against Each Other

  • Published on January 24th, 2011

new melones reservoirFor years, agribusiness in California has tried to paint any conservation efforts as “fish vs people”. Now, they’re trying to pit different groups of fishermen against each other to further fragment opposition to unrestricted water use for big farms.

In an apparent attempt to pit river salmon enthusiasts against reservoir kokanee and trout anglers, California’s Oakdale Irrigation District and South San Joaquin Irrigation District went to a Tuolumne Board of Supervisors meeting in December claiming that a biological opinion protecting Central Valley salmon would result in the draining of New Melones Reservoir.

However, fish advocates and the federal government officials said claims of New Melones or Tulloch lakes being drained to provide water for salmon and steelhead have no basis in fact.

“New Melones is not going to be drained,” emphasized Pete Lucero, spokesman for the Bureau of Reclamation. “There are demands on that reservoir and the watershed hasn’t lived up to expectation. It’s a 2.42 million acre feet reservoir – and the current storage is 1.4 million-acre feet of water, 88 percent of the 15-year average. It was 1.15 million acre feet this time last year, so we actually have more water at this time than we did than last year.”

Drumming up fear

That reality didn’t stop County Supervisor Dick Pland from warning the board that the biological opinion would result in New Melones being “drained” below 500,000 acre feet of water, imperiling the lake’s popular salmon and trout fisheries.

“They’re (NOAA and NMFS) doing this because under their biological opinion, they need all that water to help with the Delta issues,” stated Pland, as quoted by B.L. Hansen at MyMotherlode. “This is a huge issue that I think not many people really know about. This is draconian.”

During that week, Oakdale Irrigation District (OID) General Manager Steve Knell made a number of speaking engagements before Tuolumne County political leaders claiming that New Melones would go dry 13 times during an 80-year period, based on an OID analysis of the federal biological opinion.

Knell also said the OID study shows New Melones would drop below 500,000 acre-feet 22 times and downstream irrigation districts could lose 300,000 acre-feet or more of water per year.

“The lake is being drained because of the biological opinion protecting Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River chinook salmon, green sturgeon and killer whales,” said Knell. “This will be devastating to our natural resources. The biological opinion is based on false science – the belief that more water translates into more fish. However, fish populations are not solely on water, but on other factor including predation.”

Astroturf vs reality

In a similar vein, the Lake Tulloch Alliance (, castigated what they called “an attempt by environmentalists to force the United States government to begin draining as much a one million acre feet of water from New Melones and perhaps other lakes three times a year.”

The alliance used the rhetoric spun by agribusiness Astroturf groups such as the Latino Water Coalition that last year claimed that “radical environmentalists” were making the San Joaquin Valley into a “dust bowl” by favoring “fish over people.”

“The environmentalists contend basically fish are more important than people! This action would destroy tourism and real estate values devastating an already struggling economy,” the group claimed.

But that is simply not true. The only people talking about draining the reservoir are agribusiness and their allies.

New Melones Lake is full at 1,085 feet above sea level – and the lake has only been full once, in 1998. The lowest level was in 1992 when the lake was 728 feet.

“The horror story that the biological opinion is turning the lake into a mud puddle – and will wipe out the lake’s trout fishery – is simply not true,” said Jerry Cadagan, environmental lawyer and longtime advocate for the Stanislaus River. He emphasized there are five purposes of New Melones – power generation, flood control, fisheries enhancement, water quality and recreation.

“The 844 page biological opinion in question is neither ‘draconian’ nor something that no one ‘really knows about, as asserted by Supervisor Pland,” said Cadagan.

Cadagan noted that the National Marine Fisheries Service, pursuant to the provisions of the federal Endangered Species Act, publicly issued the opinion on June 4, 2009.

The opinion, initiated under the Bush administration and finished under the Obama administration, was a court-ordered rewrite of the previous document. The previous plan, under political manipulation by Bush administration officials, claimed that Central Valley steelhead, Sacramento River winter run and spring run chinook salmon, green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales weren’t in immediate jeopardy under by the operation of the state and federal water projects.

The rewritten document, contested by the irrigation districts, Westlands Water District and other wealthy water contractors, said the survival of the five species was in imminent jeopardy unless changes in project operations, including reducing Delta water exports, providing fish passage over dams and providing releases down rivers at times needed for fish migration, were initiated.

Cadagan characterized the attempt by agribusiness to spread a “doom and gloom” scenario about Tulloch and New Melones being drained as a “publicity stunt.”

“The belated, inaccurate and misguided cries in Tuolumne County (instigated by Oakdale Irrigation District” that the ‘sky is falling” happened to come just a week before yet another hearing in the Fresno courtroom of Federal Judge Oliver Wanger, who is hearing all the complex litigation involving the biological opinions and related endangered species and Bay-Delta matters,” he stated. “The OID is party to that litigation.”

“New Melones has a lot of competing needs and we try to balance the use of the water with competing users,” added the Bureau of Reclamation’s Lucero.

Melanie Lewis, the owner of Glory Hole Sports in Angels Camp, noted that the water districts are falsely using claims about the imminent “draining” of New Melones as an excuse to “move more water.”

“The claims that New Melones will go down to 500,000 acre feet is a worst case scenario of this year’s preliminary water outlook by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation,” said Lewis. “Each month the projection of the amount of available water supply changes – and radically changes by February.”

-> Next Page: We stole that water fair and square

About the Author

Dan Bacher is an environmental journalist in Sacramento who focuses on California's water issues, a healthy environment for the salmon fishery of the Northwest, and the attempts by big agriculture and big oil to hog all the water.


  • On the topic of New Melones; despite assurances by the USBR representatives that the USBR will not permit New Melones to be drained, they have yet to issue a plan of operations by which it will prevent this from happening. Without an operations plan identifying which water will be used to keep New Melones operational, none of the interested parties have provided any reassurances that the potential impacts the Districts are calling attention to will not in fact happen. As opposed to conducting studies based on assumptions that may or may not happen, the Districts have simply conducted studies and developed performance models for New Melones in response to the concrete requirements the USBR has agreed to implement. The Districts are not “creating hysteria” as some have inferred. They are simply providing facts and knowledge of a technical nature that seems to be missing from a lot of these discussions.

    As it relates to fishing; rather than saying the results of these studies are merely a way the Districts can “pit different groups of fisherman against each other to further fragment opposition to unrestricted water use for big farms,” why not instead do a bit of your own research and get the facts straight. We suggest you begin by reading the May 13, 2010 letter from Maria Rea of NMFS to Jim Kellogg of the California Fish and Game Commission (you can see this letter at in which Ms. Rea “encourages the Commission to immediately review and amend striped bass sport fishing regulations in an attempt to reduce their predatory impact and thereby increase survival of native fish.” To blame the Districts for instigating warfare among the fishermen when predation by non-native species such as striped bass has been acknowledged as a major factor warranting action is illogical.

    Steve Knell, Oakdale Irrigation District
    Jeff Shields, South San Joaquin Irrigation District

  • The OID study applied the biological opinions governing water demands in the Delta to the historical operations of New Melones. The study included models using statistical information from Reclamation to determine what the effects would have been had the biological opinions been in place. The FACTS resulted in the low water levels indicated in the study. It’s easy to say that New Melones will never reach these low levels and everyone is hopeful that will be true. But the threat posed by the biological opinions demonstrates the need to revise these errant guidelines.

    Mike Wade
    California Farm Water Coalition

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