Steelhead conservation plan on Calaveras River draws concern from fisheries advocates

Article from Calaveras Enterprise.

By Davis Harper
Sep 18, 2020

A long-awaited habitat conservation plan for threatened Central Valley steelhead on the Calaveras River was approved by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) Monday. Conservation groups say the plan was pushed through with minimal restrictions on Stockton East Water District (Stockton East), whose operations on the river have impacted fish populations for decades.

The plan, required in the district’s application for an Incidental Take Permit, addresses the anticipated “take” – killing, injuring and capturing, among other actions – of any endangered or threatened species as a result of activities or development. It also lays out solutions for how to minimize or mitigate those impacts.

NOAA Fisheries has authorized a 50-year Incidental Take Permit to allow Stockton East to operate and maintain its facilities on the river in compliance with the Endangered Species Act (ESA). That includes the impoundment and non-flood control operations of water from New Hogan Reservoir, along with operation of the Old Calaveras River Headworks facility, Bellota Diversion facility and instream flashboard dams. Also protected from allegations of ESA violations under the permit are operations and improvements of privately owned diversion facilities, channel maintenance on instream structures and the district’s fisheries monitoring program.

The first to be completed by NOAA Fisheries in the Central Valley, the plan has taken 13 years to come to fruition following negotiations among competing water interests.

Stockton East says the plan will protect threatened steelhead in the Calaveras River while meeting the needs of agricultural and municipal water users through 2070.

With a service area spanning approximately 143,000 acres between the counties of San Joaquin and Calaveras, Stockton East serves 358,000 water users in the greater Stockton urban area and about 6,373 agricultural parcels.
Steelhead conservation plan on Calaveras River draws concern from fisheries advocates

Stockton East requested a “small amount of annual take” of federally listed fish that may incidentally be harmed by its operations on the lower Calaveras River from New Hogan Reservoir to its confluence with the San Joaquin River.

In return, the district has committed to various conservation activities to benefit fish populations over that period, with semi-annual, annual, five-year, 10-year and 15-year benchmarks to meet.

Stockton East, since 2001, has voluntarily implemented various fish passage improvements, some of which include fish ladders, temporary fish screens and barriers to prevent juvenile entrainment (where fish end up outside their normal habitat, such as an irrigation canal).

Per the plan, the Calaveras River can support a “viable” steelhead population in optimal spawning habitat between New Hogan Dam and the Bellota Weir, a flashboard dam that pools water to be diverted for irrigation. Taken down annually for seasonal fish migration, the weir has historically been a large obstacle for fish to navigate on their journey upstream – when there is a stream. River diversions for competing consumptive uses during drought years inhibit anadromous fall run salmon and steelhead that migrate between the ocean and freshwater habitat for spawning.

Although the plan is primarily focused on conserving steelhead populations, opportunistic Chinook salmon may also benefit from various improvements.

Still, the Calaveras River’s “utility as a salmon-supporting stream is highly limited” due to the district’s operations in the Mormon Slough flood control channel, Old Calaveras River channel, and its facilities, all of which make providing “year-round” flows downstream of Bellota to support salmon “impossible.”

Per the plan, the district is bound to a minimum instream flow requirement of 20 cubic feet per second (CFS) or greater year-round in “key fish habitat” – between Bellota and New Hogan. The district gets a pass with minimums lowering to 10 CFS during “critical water storage periods” – when conservation storage has fallen below 84,100 acre-feet.

Other conservation measures include screening water diversions, improving fish passage over structures, implementing water conservation measures and continually researching and monitoring Calaveras River fisheries to inform management strategies.

Stockton East has invested $5 million into the plan with a mix of ratepayer revenues and state grants.

Under the plan, the district will commit about $200,000 to $400,000 annually to implement the conservation strategies, including fish screens and other improvements, the costs of which will be borne by municipal and agricultural ratepayers.

Although the conservation plan has been long-awaited, not all stakeholders are happy to see it rubber stamped.

“It is very difficult to negotiate such a complex agreement that all interested parties can live with,” General Manager Scot A. Moody told the Enterprise in an email Tuesday. “There is give and take from all parties.”

One conservation group said the plan doesn’t do enough to help fish pass through stretches of the river below Bellota, an often-dry streambed offering minimal quality habitat, depending on the water year.
Steelhead conservation plan on Calaveras River draws concern from fisheries advocates

Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance (CSPA) called the plan a “capitulation” by NOAA Fisheries that protects the resident rainbow trout between Hogan and Bellota, but ignores the anadromous fall run salmon and steelhead migrating from the confluence of the Calaveras and San Joaquin rivers.

“It basically memorializes a dewatering of the river 24 miles from Bellota to the confluence of the San Joaquin,” Jennings said in a phone interview Monday, adding that that stretch of the river is only fed by dam overflows in wet years.

Jennings also took issue with Stockton East being the fisheries manager of the Calaveras River, likening it to “putting an embezzler in charge of the bank account.”

The latest approval from NOAA Fisheries was another instance of the agency’s “vast weakening of fisheries protection under the Trump administration,” Jennings said.

Litigation may be on the table for the CSPA, who has in the past alleged that Stockton East has violated numerous state and federal laws.

“We fought on the Mokelumne for decades to finally get a stream flow regime that enabled fisheries to be restored there,” Jennings said. “Kudos to East Bay MUD, but we’re not going to give up on the Calaveras.”

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