The Stanislaus River on May 20, 1979 became part of the environmental movement lore.
That’s when river guide Mark Dubois chained himself to boulders in a remote section of the area destined for filling behind the New Melones Reservoir. His goal was to save the Stanislaus River as he knew it.
Authorities searched for him for a full week by helicopter and boat among the thick brush until federal authorities caved in.
He succeeded to a degree — for a while. He was able to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from filling the entire 2.4 million acre foot reservoir and essentially gave the Class III whitewater rapids above Parrot’s Ferry Bridge a reprieve until a severe winter in 1983 filled the reservoir.
It was essentially one of the last major battlegrounds in the country over the building of a dam. It galvanized the environmental movement.
Today, some 41 years after that pivotal week there are a small, but growing number of modern-day “environmentalists” who are rewriting history.
What has prompted them to do so was the Save the Stan campaign the South San Joaquin Irrigation District along with the Oakdale Irrigation District launched in 2011 arguing against federal fisheries decision that would essentially drain the New Melones in some years in order to “save salmon” downstream but at the same time elevate temperatures so high in the water behind the dam that they’d cook all fish on that side of the dam.
The courts — and several federal agencies — have agreed with SSJID and OID that the empty-the-reservoir-to-save-the-fish-scheme is bad science and a bad idea for the fish they want to save.
The revisionists blame the SSJID for building New Melones in 1979 and that they fought the SSJID to save the Stanislaus. Nice try, but it’s all wet.
SSJID along with OID built the original Melones Dam which held a quarter of the water New Melones does today on the same site in 1926. The Bureau of Reclamation built New Melones which, in doing so, reduced the joint water rights of the two agencies from 660,000 acre feet to 600,000 acre feet.
And those Class III whitewater rapids that DuBois fought to save would have only supported his employment as a river guide for a short time frame each spring if it wasn’t for the SSJID and OID. The two agencies built the Tri-Dam Project in the 1950s that stores water upstream. That assured a steady release through the spring and summer after the 1950s so DuBois would have the opportunity to not just fall in love with the river near Parrot’s Ferry Bridge but also be assured enough water flowed so he could make a living.
The district — contrary to the line that has been circulated in the past — does not have rights to the other 1.8 million acre feet. And it does flow water into the Delta from its water rights each year.
Claims the SSJID is a wanton water waster are amazing. They want the district to line all of its canals. More than 70 percent of the main canal is lined with the parts that aren’t flowing through tunnels carved out of rocks. And while the majority of the 350 miles of major distribution lines aren’t lined, there is a reason for that.
The seepage helps restore the underground water tables. It is an extremely important use of “water loss” given the district’s proximity to the Delta. Saltwater intrusion — that can render underground water supplies useless and ultimately can sterilize soil — is a problem in underground aquifers near the Delta. During droughts, salt water has been detected in underground water aquifers to as far to the east of the Delta as Jack Tone Road as occurred in the early 1990s.
But in all honesty that ultimately may not be a concern of the SSJID. The state-of the-art pressurized delivery system now in place south of Manteca and west of Ripon in Division 9 that works effectively at conserving water, increasing yields, and reducing air pollution by eliminating the need for diesel pumps to draw on wells could be a template to convert the entire delivery system. That assumes the state allows the district to sell what water it saves to fund the endeavor instead of declaring it as unneeded by the district and fair game for the state to seize.
The Division 9 area — the lowest and most western in the district — is on top of the Delta and it has a serious salt water problem.
Ironically, the environmentalists in 1979 were fighting to save a Stanislaus River ecological and recreation system created by SSJID and OID. The districts would have been happy to maintain the status quo but Uncle Sam entered the picture.
What passes as a natural state today on most rivers in California is anything but. Man built dams, levees and canals that created today’s ecological systems in concert with Mother Nature that environmentalists fight to preserve.