Ryan Zinke, the Trump administration’s secretary for the federal Department of Interior, flanked by two Republican congressmen representing Central Sierra and Central Valley residents, sat facing news reporters, photographers and videographers in direct sunlight Friday as air temperatures approached 95 degrees and hotter with the Don Pedro Reservoir spillway in the background.

Staff for the Interior secretary said Zinke, Rep. Tom McClintock, of Elk Grove, and Rep. Jeff Denham, of Turlock, were there “to see these critical Central Valley water storage projects in person and discuss the administration’s potential role in improving water infrastructure and protecting valley water rights.”

Smoke, haze and particulate pollution from the still out-of-control Ferguson Fire, burning in a watershed above another major reservoir to the south hung in the air (see related story, this page). The first question Zinke faced at Don Pedro was if he could explain what the Trump administration is doing to invest further in the health of mountain watersheds in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties that feed the giant reservoirs.

“I’m an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt,” Zinke said. “I’m in favor of best practices for managing our resources. We do want to do more to remove dead and dying timber. The Trump administration budget includes more funding for managing public lands.”

Later in the day, a press officer for Zinke pointed out that Zinke took a strong stance on wildfire prevention in September 2017, in the midst of one of the deadliest, most destructive fire seasons in Golden State history.

Ten months ago, Zinke directed all Interior bureaus, superintendents and land managers to adopt more aggressive practices to prevent and combat catastrophic wildfires “through robust fuels reduction and pre-suppression techniques,” Interior Department press staff said.

The Interior Department oversees agencies including the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Reclamation, which has built more than 600 dams and reservoirs and bills itself as the largest wholesaler of water in the country.

“The challenges we face today are fire and water,” McClintock said. He talked about how Central Sierra forests are overloaded with fuel the same as somebody who subscribes to five newspapers a day and only throws away one of them.

Asked what the federal government is going to do about the overgrown, unhealthy watersheds that feed the reservoirs that hold back water for agriculture and other interests, McClintock talked about the Water Infrastructure for Improvements to the Nation Act.

“The WIIN Act provides 10,000-acre categorical exclusions for forest-thinning projects,” McClintock said. Asked for clarity later Friday, McClintock said, “Unfortunately right now it only applies to the Tahoe Basin, which is carrying about four times the fuel load than the land can support.”

Specifics to expedite more robust fuel reductions in the Mokelumne, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced watersheds that drain the Central Sierra were not mentioned or explained.

But the focus of Zinke’s visit was improving water storage and protecting Central Valley water rights.

Denham made it clear he is opposed to the State Water Resources Control Board’s final draft Bay-Delta Plan Update for the Lower San Joaquin River and Southern Delta, which is intended to prevent an ecological crisis, including the total collapse of fisheries, by increasing releases and flows from dams on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

“Taking 40 percent of our water and dumping it in the ocean will not save fish,” Denham said. “It will dry up agriculture and dry up our communities.”

Jami and Todd Sill, of La Grange, who raise cattle and almonds in the Tuolumne River watershed below Don Pedro Dam and Don Pedro Reservoir, were at Don Pedro with a sign imploring Zinke to save the Central Valley.

Todd Sill said they believe a state water board plan to increase dam releases and flows from Mother Lode reservoirs will devastate agriculture and the entire Central Valley economy.

Zinke told reporters he spoke to the Sills. He said they were a great couple, and they’re passionate, and he supports them in exercising their rights to free speech. He stopped short of endorsing their views 100 percent because he did not speak at length with them.

Later Friday at New Melones Reservoir, Zinke spent time talking with Darrin Mills, owner of the New Melones Lake Marina that floats on the surface of the manmade lake. Mills owns the buildings, docks, fuel storage, pumps and the store and leases space on the reservoir from the Bureau of Reclamation.

Zinke listened to Mills explain that adequate, predictable water levels are crucial to his survival as a business owner. He can't’ make money when the reservoir’s levels dip to historic lows as they did in recent, multiple, consecutive years of drought.

Zinke, Denham and McClintock said they want to help people who oppose the state’s plan to increase releases and flows from Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced river dams.

Asked what federal agencies and Congress can do to influence a state authority like the State Water Resources Control Board, Zinke said New Melones is a federal asset, built and owned by the Bureau of Reclamation. Asked how federal influence could rate any clout at Don Pedro, which is owned and operated by Modesto Irrigation District and Turlock Irrigation District, Zinke said, “The land under the water in the reservoir belongs to the Bureau of Land Management.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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