San Joaquin River DOTMDL -- Technical Working Group

Calaveras River made critical steelhead habitat

Stockton Record - August 13, 2005
By Dana Nichols

Calaveras River made critical steelhead habitat
Stockton Record 8/13/05
By Dana Nichols, staff writer

Federal wildlife officials on Friday designated the Calaveras River as critical habitat for steelhead.

The move tightens protection for the sea-going, migratory fish and will impose stronger rules on the Stockton East Water District, which operates New Hogan Dam on the Calaveras and supplies water to Stockton and area farms.

The Calaveras was part of more than 8,000 miles of waterways in California, Oregon, and Washington to be designated as habitat crucial to the survival of salmon or steelhead.

Friday's final decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service capped a five-year back-and-forth legal battle over the fish. The fight over fish on the Calaveras goes back even further.

A decade ago, Stockton East officials routinely denied that steelhead existed on the river, even as anglers were catching the fish.

Water officials feared that once it was widely known that the federally-protected fish was on the river, they would be forced to release water into the lower river during the winter and spring migration season.

The Fisheries Service made its first attempt to protect the Calaveras and a number of other rivers in 2000. But a lawsuit by the National Association of Homebuilders accused the agency of failing to account for the economic impact of protecting rivers for fish.

The Fisheries Service withdrew its designations for the Calaveras and the other rivers in 2002. That, in turn, prompted a lawsuit by the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman's Associations, which wanted the Fisheries Service to comply with Endangered Species Act rules requiring that the Service promptly protect habitat for endangered or threatened species.

Fisheries Service maps published Friday reflect both lawsuits. Many rivers are protected, but some, including a portion of the lower Mokelumne River and the shipping channel leading to Sacramento, were excluded because of the economic cost.

Other area waterways excluded from protection were Bear Creek in north Stockton, the North Fork Cosumnes River and, in the case of spring-run Chinook salmon, all of the San Joaquin River Delta.

Bill Jennings of the Stockton-based environmental watchdog group DeltaKeeper hailed the decision to protect the Calaveras for steelhead.

"It certainly is a huge step in the eventual restoration of the Calaveras River," he said.

But Kevin Kauffman, general manager of the Stockton East Water District, said the habitat designation would have little effect on Stockton East because the district already is negotiating a habitat conservation plan agreement with the Fisheries Service.

Under that plan, Stockton East will agree to do what is needed to protect steelhead on the river, although Kauffman said he believes his agency can do that without releasing extra water to aid the fish migration.

Thus, Kauffman expects that taking care of the fish probably won't reduce the water supply for farms or Stockton.

"No, it shouldn't. But I am going to have to make no guarantees until I study the document and have our legal counsel look at it," he said.

Jennings, however, said his group likely would contest any habitat plan on the Calaveras that doesn't release water to help the fish migrate upstream.

Kauffman expressed frustration over the steep cost of protecting the fish. He estimated that installing fish screens to protect them from pumps, removing migration barriers in the channel, making other changes and operating the fish-protection systems will cost about $2 million a year in the coming decades, or about 14 percent of Stockton East's annual budget of $14 million.

"I would find it hard to believe that we are going to produce enough fish out of the Calaveras River system to justify that expense," he said. #

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