A panel of lawmakers, water managers and biologists at a public forum Saturday in Copperopolis took aim at environmental policies that require dam operators to release billions of gallons of water annually from Sierra Nevada reservoirs to protect endangered fish.

More than 200 people gathered Saturday morning inside the Black Creek Center for the "Lake Tulloch Water Crisis Forum" organized by the Lake Tulloch Alliance, an advocacy group for homeowners around Tulloch Reservoir.

"This isn't just our battle," said Alliance President Jack Cox, who moderated the forum. "It's a battle for all of California, particularly the San Joaquin Valley and the hills."

The forum's panel featured Congressman Tom McClintock, R-Roseville, Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O'Neals, Tuolumne County District 5 Supervisor Karl Rodefer, South San Joaquin Irrigation District General Manager Jeff Shields, and fish biologist Doug Demko, who all spoke in favor of reducing water releases from reservoirs during times of drought.

Last week, McClintock introduced legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would give state and federal dam operators the authority to temporarily halt all water releases mandated by the Endangered Species Act, such as increased flows to adjust river temperatures, in any drought-stricken areas.

McClintock and Congressman Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, were also credited last week for pushing federal regulators to reach a tentative agreement with Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts that would relax ESA-mandated releases in April and May from New Melones Reservoir.

However, the agreement between the districts and federal agencies still must be approved by the State Water Resources Control Board before it can be fully implemented. A decision is expected sometime in early April.

"If those people say you have to dump the water down the river, then it's going to happen," said Frank Clark, an OID board member who attended Saturday's forum. "Collectively, we have got to convince the State Water (Resources) Control Board to put an abatement on those issues for this year. If we don't do that, all this effort is lost."

The proposed agreement would hold 115,000 acre-feet behind New Melones through Sept. 30. Doing so would prevent OID and SSJID from draining Tulloch Reservoir, downstream from New Melones, to meet the irrigation needs of valley farmers this summer.

Tulloch-area homeowners were riled by an earlier proposal to essentially drain the popular tourist attraction by July or August, driving well over 300 people to attend a March 7 community meeting at the Black Creek Center.

"This is a short-term deal … and it's not a done deal," Shields told the audience Saturday. "We're just getting through our irrigation season and your recreation season. After that, we'll have to look at all this again."

The deal would provide SSJID and OID with 450,000 acre-feet for irrigation this summer, about 150,000 acre-feet less than normal. Shields said farmers will receive less water as a result, which will likely lead to crop losses and more groundwater pumping.

Calaveras County Water District spokesman Joel Metzger also spoke at the forum about the deal's importance to about 2,500 CCWD customers in Copperopolis who receive water stored in Tulloch Reservoir.

Metzger said CCWD could use the additional time to get together money and supplies for extending the district's intake pumps deeper in the reservoir.

Saturday's forum began about 10 a.m. with a presentation by panelist Demko, founder of the Oakdale-based Fishbio, an organization that has studied steelhead and Chinook salmon runs in the Stanislaus River for OID and SSJID over the past 20-plus years.

The current schedule for water releases from dams that are part of the Central Valley Project, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, is dictated by a 2009 biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The releases are intended to help restore steelhead and fall-run Chinook salmon populations in the tributaries that feed the San Joaquin River basin, where numbers have declined dramatically over the past century.

The California Fish and Wildlife Department has blamed the decline on a variety of factors, including pollution in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, overfishing in the ocean, dams along the state's rivers and reduced river flows.

Demko said his organization has found "no evidence" that increasing flows in the river during dry years has resulted in more fish.

"More money has been spent trying to prove that single issue in the Central Valley in the last 20 years than any other," he said. "If pulse flows in those dry years really worked to increase survival, wouldn't I be able to see it in the data? I can't."

One theory why more steelhead are not returning to the Stanislaus River, according to Demko, is because conditions below the dams have simply become too good thanks to releases from uphill reservoirs keeping water temperatures cooler throughout the year.

Before dams obstructed the passageway, Demko said steelhead would migrate to upper watersheds as water temperatures became too warm at lower elevations.

"Typically, if animals don't have to go anywhere, they won't," he said.

Meanwhile, Demko has counted between 5,000 and 6,000 adult Chinook salmon returning to spawn in the river during the fall in "good years," and only about 200 in "bad years."

The biological opinion's goal is to restore the run to about 11,000 fish, but the Stanislaus River now only has enough habitat to sustain a population of about 5,000, according to Demko.

Another factor Demko believes is influencing the lack of adult fish returning to the Stanislaus for spawning is high mortality rates among juveniles in the Delta, due to an abundance of non-native predatory species that were introduced by earlier fish-planting practices.

After Demko's presentation, Bigelow said the government should stop prioritizing fish over humans during dry years when water supplies are scarce.

McClintock described the environmental policies dictating water management as "radical" and "retrograde," and suggested the only way to address future water shortages in California is to build more dams.

"There is this almost religious ideology that we need to return the landscape to its pristine, prehistoric condition," he said. "Unfortunately, that means returning humans to prehistoric conditions as well."

McClintock mentioned pulse flows that started last Wednesday out of New Melones that by April 2 will total 15,000 acre-feet of water.

McClintock's bill, HR 1668, or the Save Our Water Act, would prevent such releases in future dry years, though it will likely take months before Congress votes on it.

Although Saturday's discussion mainly focused on environmental policies and the proposed deal that would prevent the draining of Tulloch this summer, Rodefer used the opportunity to talk about preparing for the future.

Tuolumne County is facing an unprecedented situation with Pinecrest Reservoir, which holds most of TUD's annual water supply. Pinecrest isn't expected to completely fill from snowmelt this spring for the first time in recorded history.

Rodefer urged the public to start thinking about "rearchitecting the entire water system," because the current one wasn't designed to withstand prolonged droughts.

"We've got to stop figuring out how to get to Jan. 1, 2016, and start figuring out how to get to 2017 and 2018," he said. "This could be the new way of life around here."

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