Water District Says There Aren’t Any Steelhead in Calaveras River, But Anglers Beg To Differ

The Record – Sunday Edition
By Jim Nickles

March 5, 2000

Steelhead don’t exist in the Calaveras River – never have, never will. That’s Stockton East Water District’s story, and officials are sticking with it. “There is no evidence to suggest that steelhead have ever occupied the Calaveras River,” a Stockton East attorney declared last week. Then what, Galt resident Ron Noack asks, was the 31-inch-long, steely-sided, troutlike fish he caught in the Calaveras River in early February? A carp? “It is more than likely a wild, native steelhead of that (river) system,” he said. New federal rules to protect the oceangoing trout, scheduled to go into effect in June, could have dramatic impact on Stockton East Water District’s management of the Calaveras River – and the water supplies of Stockton residents and area farmers. The Calaveras is San Joaquin County’s primary source of surface water.

Stockton East officials say the rules shouldn’t apply to the Calaveras because the river doesn’t have regular runs of steelhead or salmon. “It’s not habitat. It never has been. It never will be,” said Kevin Kauffman, Stockton East’s general manager. In an effort to ease demand on the region’s overtaxed groundwater supplies, Stockton East wholesales water form the Calaveras River to Stockton and to farmers in eastern San Joaquin County. But Stockton-area anglers say the Calaveras had healthy runs of both salmon and steelhead this fall and winter, as it has in past years.

Steelhead, one of the world’s most sought-after gamefish, once thrived in Central Valley rivers. But habitat destruction, pollution and other problems have cut their numbers by more than 90 percent, and Central Valley steelhead were listed as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1998. Like the Valley’s troubled salmon, steelhead are spawned in rivers but spend much of their lives in the ocean. But unlike salmon, steelhead can stay in their native rivers for several years, so they require adequate flows of cold, clear water year-round.

Critical Habitat

The National Marine Fisheries Service recently designated the Calaveras and numerous other Central Valley rivers as “critical habitat” for steelhead. The agency has proposed rules that would prohibit anyone from killing, or “taking,” steelhead or adversely modifying their habitat by dams, water diversions, pollution or streambed alterations.

Stockton East has no protective fish-screen on its pipeline at Bellota which sends water to an East Main Street treatment plant that serves the city. And during the spring-to-fall irrigation seasons, it puts in more than a dozen temporary diversion dams – impossible for fish to negotiate – on the lower river to help farmers pump water. Moreover, the district is not required to maintain minimum fishery flows in the Calaveras below New Hogan Reservoir.

Documenting Catches

Anglers and fisheries biologists say it may be time to change the way the district manages the river. In recent weeks, they’ve caught (and released) some gigantic steelhead spawning in the Calaveras, and they’ve taken lots of pictures to document their fish stories. The photos are being forwarded to state and federal fisheries agencies. “we got tired of people saying they’re (steelhead) not there,” said George Cecchetti, owner of the Reel Fly Shop in Lodi, where area fly-casters have sent numerous photos of their catches. “Bull! We’ve been fishing this for too long.”

Noack said the 10-pound-plus fish he caught just below New Hogan Dam on Feb. 11 was not unique. “There were many other fish, some of them bigger than that, that were spotted up there,” he said. Most fishing in the river ended Feb. 15, when New Hogan Dam began making flood-control releases. The fish the anglers caught were almost certainly steelhead, though it’s impossible to know for sure without sophisticated testing of their scales or other tissue, said Dennis McEwan, a fisheries biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

Genetically, steelhead are identical to rainbow trout. They’re just bigger, stronger and feistier because of their time in the ocean. “The highly technical explanation is, if it walks like a duck and talk like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” he said. “Generally, fish that size coming into rivers in the Central Valley are from the ocean.” But Stockton East officials worry that accommodating steelhead could put a major crimp in their water operations.

In a letter last week to the fisheries service’s regional office in Portland, Oregon, Stockton East attorney Karna Harrigfeld said the rules will “undoubtedly have a devastating economic impact on (Stockton East’s) agricultural and municipal water users.” If the diversion dam kill steelhead, the district or its farmers could be subject to criminal or civil penalties under the Endangered Species Act, she said. “The threat that use of a surface water pump from the Calaveras River or Mormon Slough could constitute a take under the ESA would be enough to drive many farmers away from surface water and back to groundwater,” she wrote. “The ramifications of that change are tremendous – saltwater intrusion (from overpumping) and permanent destruction of the basin, threatening the billion-dollar San Joaquin County agricultural industry.”

Mormon Slough carries most of the Calaveras’ flow below Bellota. Dennis Smith, a fisheries biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the new federal rules are not intended to be punitive but rather to encourage water users to manage rivers in a more fish-friendly way. For instance, he said, Stockton East might have to install a fish screen on its main water diversion, something water districts throughout the Valley are doing. Admittedly, modern fish screens can cost millions of dollars, Smith said.

He said the district also may have to consult with biologists before installing the seasonal diversion dams, to make sure they don’t interfere with migrating steelhead. And it might have to change its operation of New Hogan Reservoir to provide minimum fishery flows. “They essentially take all the flow in Calaveras,” Smith said. One angler said he understands both sides of the issue. Retired electrical contractor Glen Bockmon is an avid fisherman, but he also owns a cherry orchard along Mormon Slough. Over the years, he said, he’s enjoyed catching steelhead and watching salmon spawn in the river. But he’d hate to see San Joaquin County farmers lose any water. “It would be nice to have a healthy salmon run,” he said. “On the other hand, my neighbors need water to.”