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Health of Modesto area rivers popular subject

Modesto Bee - December 8, 2012

Many of us have done our civic duty amid these autumn storms. We raked leaves from the gutters on our streets, helping the runoff seep underground or flow toward the sea.

Some people are doing even more when it comes to caring for the streams that run out of the San Joaquin Valley.

Just last week in Modesto, a farmer coalition talked of its efforts to reduce pesticides and other pollutants that can run off farmland.

Two days later, people gathered to discuss a proposed doubling of the San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge, about nine miles west of Modesto.

Last month, another meeting dealt with the relicensing of Don Pedro Reservoir, which will affect flows downstream on the Tuolumne River.

It's not news that people are talking about how to manage water. I'm guessing that Moses had to go through at least one permit hearing before parting the Red Sea. The battles over the Tuolumne date to the late 19th century, when John Muir got wind of a plan to dam it inside Yosemite National Park.

What's interesting these days is that much of the talk is about how to manage the rivers at their lower extremes. This is where the streams — what's left of them after being dammed for irrigation, domestic water and hydropower — push on toward the delta as best they can.

Environmental groups insist that these stretches need higher flows. They see water that is too warm and polluted for salmon to rebound to their long-gone abundance.

Water suppliers say the rivers can be made healthy for fish via measures that do not involve water volume. On the Stanislaus River, for example, gravel spawning beds for salmon were rebuilt this year by the Oakdale Irrigation District and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The project took place at the exquisitely named Honolulu Bar.

Sometimes, the two sides come together, as in the purchase this year of Dos Rios Ranch for restoration of riverside habitat where the Tuolumne and San Joaquin join.

The land was bought from the Lyons family, already known for its waterfowl-friendly farming practices on neighboring Mapes Ranch. A group called River Partners will plant cottonwoods, willows and other native trees. They will be soaked from time to time as this land comes to resemble natural flood plain.

Dos Rios is next to the wildlife refuge that might expand. The plan is to buy riverside land from willing sellers so it can expand north to the Mossdale area, near Lathrop, and south to the far larger San Luis National Wildlife Refuge.

That's about 25 miles as the crow flies, or 43 miles if the crow is paddling a canoe on the meandering river.

The planners say most of the expansion would be on farmland and would reduce the agricultural income in the Northern San Joaquin Valley by an estimated 0.8 percent.

Backers say it's worth it because the expansion would boost recreation and handle some of the floodwater that threatens farms and homes.

More on all this later. There are leaves outside that need raking.