Water’s New Partner

During the 1976-77 drought, California water managers devised ingenious methods of transferring precious supplies from areas of relative plenty to those of scarcity to assist city people and farmers. In the drought this year, their ingenuity is being extended to ducks and fish. As a result, the environment rightly is taking its place at the table of California water management as a cash-paying customer.

The state Fish and Game Department and hunter groups have arranged to buy 45,000 acre-feet of water from the federal government out of the New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River in the Sierra foothills east of Modesto. About 25,000 acre-feet will be shipped down the Stanislaus to the San Joaquin River and into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for transfer to the Grasslands Water District on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. There, it will help maintain a 50,000-acre marsh that is vital to waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway.

As the water flows down the Stanislaus River, it also will facilitate the migration of an expected bumper crop of Chinook salmon up the river to spawn. The other 20,000 acre-feet of water will be stored through the winter and spilled into the San Joaquin River to coincide with the downstream migration of baby salmon to the ocean. Also, any leftover water in the Grass-lands area will be released into the San Joaquin River.

The $350,000 cost will be shared by Fish and Game, the Grasslands District and Ducks Unlimited. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state of California also are working together to send more water to the Kern National Wildlife Refuge. Both the state Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project are assisting in the transfer of the water and waiving the considerable pumping costs.


The Grasslands was particularly short of water because it no longer receives drainage from nearby Kesterson Reservoir, which was closed because of selenium contamination. The drought has devastated waterfowl nesting areas in Canada. About 60% of the Pacific Flyway population winters in California.

Crisis management does not necessarily lead to good long-term policy. In this case, however, the purchase of water during a period of short supply for environmental use should be considered an important precedent.