NMFS Gives Stockton East and Irrigators All the Water in the Calaveras River

On September 14, 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and Stockton East Water District (Stockton East) issued a Final Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP) for the Calaveras River.  The HCP will require a minimum flow of 20 cfs upstream of Stockton East’s major water supply diversion at Bellota Weir (River Mile 24).  It will also require fish ladders and screens at several major diversions.  However, the Plan allocates zero water to fish in the lower 24 river miles of the river.  At Bellota Weir, Stockton East will recapture all of the required flow release from New Hogan Dam (River Mile 42).

Water supply operation currently blocks salmon and steelhead migration into the Calaveras River from its confluence with the San Joaquin River in Stockton to Bellota Weir.  Migration opportunities in the 24 miles between those two points are currently limited to periods of flood control releases from New Hogan Dam during the non-irrigation season.  Dozens of flashboard irrigation dams downstream of Bellota Weir block fish migration from March or April through October 15 every year.

CSPA was to our knowledge the only fishing or conservation organization that commented on the draft HCP and the accompanying draft Environmental Assessment.  (See Calaveras River Plan Takes 14 Years to Keep All the Water, November 2019).  CSPA’s top line comment stated:

It is not reasonable to devote zero stored water to a fisheries HCP, particularly in a watershed where storage is about double average annual runoff, and where additional future diversions for groundwater recharge are explicitly planned. …The arguments in the HCP against the pejoratively labelled “artificial” migration flows are unpersuasive, particularly because the analysis that purports to support these arguments limits evaluation to limited arbitrarily selected flow volumes.

In response, NMFS and Stockton East’s Final Environmental Assessment said they were right the first time: “SEWD analyzed the impacts to water storage in New Hogan from implementation of additional migration flows in Mormon Slough, a flood conveyance channel. This analysis indicated negative consequences to water storage, which wouldn’t support salmonid habitat conditions in the Calaveras River long-term.”

CSPA doesn’t think so.  “Negative consequences to water storage” are a price of doing business, all the more when the storage dam captures all the water in three years out of four.  The fish screens and fish ladders called for in the HCP won’t protect fish that never reach the 18 flowing miles of the Calaveras River upstream of Bellota Weir.  One cannot rely on a few very wet water years to get fish into and out of a salmon and steelhead fishery.

In 2006, the State Water Resources Control Board put in abeyance CSPA’s public trust complaint regarding the operation of the Calaveras River, pending the outcome of the HCP.  Since NMFS couldn’t find the courage to require any flow at all to get fish into and out of the Calaveras watershed, it may be time to ask the State Water Board to reopen CSPA’s complaint.

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