Forty Years Too Late

Most won’t remember the huge legal battle that preceded the building of the New Melones Dam where rafters, Sierra Club and other groups fought to save miles of riparian waterline along the Stanislaus River. Now, 40 years after New Melones Dam was built and miles of river and riparian habitat were destroyed, one little fish is doing what environmental and local citizens couldn’t and the dam may just get tore down in the process.A National Marine Fisheries Service Biological Opinion is calling for significant water draw downs from New Melones Reservoir throughout the year, which could have an effect on power generation and recreation use of the lake.

The plan calls for New Melones Reservoir to be drained down below 500k AF (acre feet) throughout the year so that cold water will fill the Lower Stanislaus River home to the a resurgent steelhead population.

The plan is part of a recent move by the federal government to help restore natural run fisheries along the Pacific Coast. Dam’s along inland rivers store water in the summer months with only minimal releases for recreation and power generation. This storing of water causes the river below the dam to grow warmer, too warm for native fish populations. Over the last few years researchers have realized warming waters have caused a steep decline in salmon and steelhead populations.

Dam owners and regulators had been operating mandatory releases of cold water during the fall when steelhead and salmon return from the ocean but cut off the flows in the early summer when salmon and steelhead fry (babies) return to the ocean trapping them in steadily warming water and causing fish kill or the destruction of viable eggs that hadn’t yet hatched.

The Oakdale Irrigation District, owner of New Melones Reservoir, is leading a legal battle to stall the action. A federal judge is expected to rule on the lawsuit in March.

Greg Johnson and Chris Peterson catch a small mouth bass in the warmer water of New Melones Reservoir. Warm water in the reservoir has allowed new populations of game fish like large and small mouth bass to thrive in habitat that was once home to native trout, salmon and steelhead.

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