Feather River fish rescue Public Domain
Biologists from Fish and Wildlife and the California Department of Water Resources work to rescue fish stranded by the receding waters of the Feather River.

Federal agencies seek repair delays at Oroville Dam

Federal agencies seem more concerned over fish mortality than human health and safety concerns resulting from Oroville Dam repairs.

The two issues I will bring up below may have nothing to do with each other except that they illustrate a grand irony related to protecting fish in California waterways.

While the City of Modesto flushes partially-treated effluent into the San Joaquin River, regulators are asking that repairs at Oroville Dam in northern California be delayed over concerns about fish health in the Feather River. In short, it’s okay for a large city to release toxins into a major river – that apparently won’t affect the fish – but repairing the catastrophic damage caused by the failure of the spillway at Oroville Dam is apparently too much for the fish in the Feather River to bear.

The reason for the releases by the City of Modesto, according to the Modesto Bee, is to prevent the levee on a treatment water pond from failing.

You just can’t make this up!

Modesto has a long history of trying to find places to flush materials from the waste treatment plant. In the late 1990s, the city teamed up with large cities in Southern California and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to pour treated sewage sludge onto farmland in the San Joaquin Valley. At the time, the local Farm Bureau in Stanislaus County – where Modesto is located – won a county ordinance banning the land application of sludge out of fear it could be toxic to crops and could cause marketing repercussions with consumers.

Meanwhile, federal concerns over repairs at Lake Oroville were revealed recently when the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) sent letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) – those are the folks who license dams and powerhouses – out of concern that repairs to the spillway and river channel at Lake Oroville could harm fish in the river.

NOAA and NMFS are also worried that fish could become trapped in land-locked pools as the Feather River recedes leaving them to die.

As a result, FERC is being asked to perform a series of mitigation measures that would slow repair operations by forcing work to take place at night.

The nighttime requirements are interesting because state regulators now require farming and other operations that take place at night to have minimum levels of light, measurable at specific distances from the source.

A letter from 21 different water associations and farming organizations was sent to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, asking that regulatory rules be relaxed to allow repairs to take place in a timely manner at Oroville. One of the regulatory requirements NOAA and NMFS asked for includes a long series of consultations under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) – a move that could very well shut down all repair operations for an undetermined amount of time while regulators debate around conference room tables and trade e-mails and phone calls.

The water users’ request also asks the federal government to suspend California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements and those related to the ESA and National Environmental Policy Act to ensure the timely repair of facilities at Oroville Dam. If CEQA requirements can be suspended to build sporting arenas in California, which are merely a luxury, certainly these environmental rules can be set aside for necessary repairs to our water infrastructure.

Oroville Dam deserves immediate attention and significant repairs that should not be handcuffed by environmental regulations. Aside from the very real public health and safety risk inherent with these delays, California needs consistent and timely access to the water stored behind the dam.

To hold up repairs because a few fish may get trapped in pools of water as the river recedes and returns to its natural channel is a ridiculous and irresponsible request that could unnecessarily raise repair costs and put the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living and working downstream at an unnecessary risk.

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