Officials Will Fill Rivers to Save Wild Ducks and Salmon

Times Staff Writer

Buy water for ducks and fish?

That is what the state Department of Fish and Game and hunter organizations are doing in an unprecedented effort to minimize the destructive effect of the California drought on migrating ducks and spawning salmon.

The additional water will be poured during the next three months into shrunken rivers and thirsty wetlands in the San Joaquin Valley to provide the salmon and waterfowl with the necessary habitat to survive.

Without the project, officials foresaw the biggest fall run of Chinook salmon since the mid-1940s fighting their way upstream to spawn only to find dry gravel beds.


And with an eye toward the annual southern migration of waterfowl along the Pacific Flyway, officials also foresaw the loss of valuable wetlands unless a sprawling 50,000-acre marsh received an urgent infusion of additional water.

Until three years ago, the marsh, known as the Grasslands Water District and accounting for 25% of California’s wetlands, depended heavily on drainage from nearby Kesterson Reservoir in Merced County. But when Kesterson was found to be contaminated with toxic selenium, officials stopped using that water for duck ponds.

Next spring, stored water will be released from both San Luis Reservoir and the duck ponds of the Grasslands District to flush what authorities hope will be a vastly expanded new “class” of juvenile salmon through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out San Francisco Bay to the sea.

The extra water, totaling 45,000 acre-feet, will come from the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River in the Sierra foothills east of Modesto.

“We are just providing a little helping hand to Mother Nature,” Fish and Game Director Peter F. Bontadelli said in an interview, stressing that the extra water for fish and ducks will not shortchange farmers, municipalities or others who contract to buy state and federal water.

“It looks basically as close to a win-win as I think you are going to find,” he said.

Even though the drought has heavily drawn down water in dams, the department and other state and federal agencies found water at New Melones that was unspoken for and made arrangements to purchase it from the federal government at a rate that an irrigation district would pay, Bontadelli said.

“The thing that is unique and significant is, this is the first time that the department has made a conscious decision to buy water over and above what we otherwise would have been entitled to,” Bontadelli said in an interview.


Called a Good Deal

Thomas J. Graff, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the toughest critics of water management in California, said the project “looked like a pretty good deal to us.”

The total cost is estimated at $350,000 and includes transferring and pumping water from one site to another through facilities of both the California Water Project and the federal Central Valleys Project. The Grasslands District and Ducks Unlimited, a hunters’ organization that helps conserve wetlands, each contributed $75,000.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation and the state Department of Water Resources, along with the State Water Contractors Assn., agreed to waive about $800,000 in fees that they normally charge for pumping and moving water.


By timing the release of the additional water during this fall’s migration of spawning salmon, biologists said, they believe that the number of reproducing fish can be tripled in the Stanislaus River over what had been expected in this drought year.

The boost in spring outflow is expected to result in an additional 4 million young salmon reaching the ocean through the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, said Daniel, assistant chief of the department’s environmental services division.

Overall, fish and game biologists predict at least a net gain of 23,450 adult salmon available to the commercial and sport fishery by 1991, when this year’s crop will become catchable.

The first releases of New Melones water began to flow to the Grasslands on Saturday.


Distriction Plan

Essentially, the 45,000 acre-feet of water for fish and waterfowl preservation will be distributed this way:

About 25,000 acre-feet of New Melones water will flow down the Stanislaus to the San Joaquin and into the Delta, where it will be sucked up by pumps and transferred by the California Aqueduct to federal and irrigation district canals downstream to the wetlands.

The remaining 20,000 acre-feet will be siphoned off at the Delta into the aqueduct and pumped into storage at San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos. About April 1, the stored water will be released into a canal and poured into the San Joaquin River at about the same time as water remaining in the Grasslands duck ponds is released into the river.


The springtime surge of extra water is aimed at enhancing the survival rate of baby salmon and will help flush them through the Delta and into the ocean, where they will live for 2 1/2 to 3 years before returning to spawn.

In addition to the state Departments of Fish and Game and Water Resources, other participants in fashioning the project included the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Environmental Defense Fund, Anglers United, Grasslands and representatives of the commercial salmon industry and state water contractors.