Paddlers to the Sea scrape bottom in Tuolumne River
Source: Modesto Bee Date: Friday, June 15, 2012 Journalist: John Holland
Participants in Paddle to the Sea, a monthlong event that celebrates the Tuolumne River, have gotten stuck in the muck at times.
They say the low flows on the river this year have hampered the fourth annual event and, more importantly, put the river's fish at risk.
They would like to see increased releases from Don Pedro Reservoir by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which are operating within the rules for managing the river.
"When the water is this low, it heats up really quickly in the sun," said Patrick Koepele, deputy executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust. "When it heats up this much, it's just like the fish are getting cooked in hot stew. It's also hard to paddle."
He spoke Friday as about 30 people prepared to launch their canoes and other craft from Riverdale Park, just west ofModesto. It is one of the many stops for Paddle to the Sea, which started May 31 on Sierra Nevada whitewater and will end June 30 in San Francisco Bay.
The river flowed at about 95 cubic feet per second Friday near La Grange, just downstream of Don Pedro. It is running low and slow because of the dry winter and the need for the MID and TID to store water for farms and Modesto-area domestic users.
Exactly a year earlier, the Tuolumne plunged past La Grange at 6,005 cubic feet per second, carrying runoff from storms that kept coming and coming through winter and spring.
The water was nearly 12 feet deep last June. Friday, it was 3.5 feet.
Weak flows meet requirement This year's low flows, expected to continue through September, are allowed under the hydropower license granted to the districts by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"The FERC requirement for flows is 50 cfs for this type and time of year, and flows have been about twice that since June 1," TID spokesman Herb Smart said. "The goal is to average 100 cfs from June through September."
Walt Ward, the MID's assistant general manager for water operations, said the flows are designed to mimic natural conditions. For millennia before the river was dammed, it could slow to a trickle during the summers of dry years.
This year's summer flows will not harm salmon, Ward said, because they migrate out to sea in spring and do not return until midfall.
Steelhead trout are a threatened species that can live in rivers in summer, but Ward said the Tuolumne does not appear to have them.
Tim Heyne, a senior scientist for the California Department of Fish and Game in La Grange, said the Tuolumne appears to have some steelhead and he is concerned about reports that a few of them have died in the low, warm water.
He added that conditions are better than in the past. The minimum flow was a mere 3 cubic feet per second in dry years before the MID and TID amended their federal license in the mid-1990s, he said.
Fisheries face many threats Officials at the districts have said factors other than flow affect the health of fisheries. They point to predation by non-native striped bass, pollution from waste-water treatment plants and inclement ocean conditions for species that migrate.
Water agencies have helped restore fish habitat, with projects such as gravel beds for salmon eggs. San Francisco, which also diverts the Tuolumne, contributed to the recent acquisition of Dos Rios Ranch, about 10 miles west of Modesto, for floodplain habitat.
The flows and related issues will be hashed out in the next few years, as the MID and TID seek a new license for Don Pedro.
For now, the paddlers plod on, carrying their boats on the banks at especially sluggish stretches. Event director Jessie Raeder told of a guide who drove past farms where the flood irrigation was deeper than the river.
"He was joking that he could get out and paddle in these fields," she said by e-mail. "It would be easier than on the Tuolumne!"