The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Cover Story -

Pa­trick Koe­pele isn’t sure the state’s plan goes far enough to save na­tive fish in the Tuolumne and the other San Joaquin River trib­u­taries. But he said it’s al­most cer­tainly bet­ter than the con­di­tions that ex­ist now, which have pushed na­tive fish pop­u­la­tions to the brink of col­lapse.

A Michi­gan na­tive, he be­came a white­wa­ter raft­ing guide on the Tuolumne while at­tend­ing UC Davis and be­came en­tranced with the river. Now 47, he lives a few miles north of the river in Sonora and serves as ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Tuolumne River Trust, an en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Part of the at­trac­tion, for Koe­pele, is the Tuolumne is at the epi­cen­ter of the clash over how to share the state’s rivers, and al­ways has been. One of the Sierra Club’s ear­li­est cru­sades was its un­suc­cess­ful fight against the damming of the Tuolumne at Hetch Hetchy in Yosemite. Congress ap­proved the project in 1913, a year be­fore Sierra Club founder John Muir died.

“It’s re­ally a world-class river in all re­spects,” Koe­pele said. “It starts in Yosemite .... It goes through the most pro­duc­tive agri­cul­tural val­ley in the world and it ends in this in­cred­i­ble cos­mopoli­tan city, San Fran­cisco. It ties it all to­gether.”

The Tuolumne is one of the most over­worked rivers in Cal­i­for­nia. In most years, a mere 21 per­cent of its wa­ter makes its way to the ocean. In dry years, that can dip as low as 11 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to state wa­ter board data.

Decades ago, be­fore the dams were built, the Tuolumne teemed with 100,000 sal­mon swim­ming up­stream and its wide flood plains provided rich habi­tat for tule elk, pronghorn an­te­lope and other species. To­day the fish num­ber in the hun­dreds, and the elk and an­te­lope have long since van­ished.

“We’re try­ing to bring back a river cor­ri­dor that could sus­tain some sem­blance of that,” Koe­pele said. “Ob­vi­ously we’re not go­ing to bring it all the way back.”

Op­po­nents of the state’s plan say there’s a bet­ter way to re­vive na­tive fish pop­u­la­tions with­out shirk­ing on wa­ter for hu­man needs – namely, through habi­tat restora­tion. The Modesto and Tur­lock ir­ri­ga­tion dis­tricts, in con­cert with the city of San Fran­cisco, are push­ing a plan to re­shape por­tions of the river to make them more con­ducive to sal­mon spawn­ing and less at­trac­tive to their main preda­tors, the non­na­tive bass that thrive in warm, slow mov­ing wa­ter. These habi­tat im­prove­ments could be aug­mented with pe­ri­odic, well-timed “pulse flows” that would tem­po­rar­ily in­crease the vol­ume of wa­ter cours­ing through the rivers.

But Koe­pele and other crit­ics of the habi­tat-only ap­proach say it won’t work by it­self.

On a re­cent week­day, he met with two re­porters at a spot out­side Hugh­son, east of Modesto, and pointed to a sec­tion of the Tuolumne where sim­i­lar restora­tion work was per­formed sev­eral years ago. The project cre­ated a small rif­fle where a deep warm pond once formed in a wide spot in the river chan­nel.

Koe­pele said years later the project failed to do what it was sup­posed to: flush out the bass or im­prove sal­mon runs. The rea­son?

“It’s too warm, it’s too slow,” he said. “It’s go­ing to need flow.”

He said he’s par­tic­u­larly dis­ap­pointed that San Fran­cisco, the bas­tion of lib­er­al­ism and the eco­move­ment, has joined with the farm-ir­ri­ga­tion dis­tricts in op­pos­ing the state’s plan to in­crease river flows.

“San Fran­cisco re­ally has an op­por­tu­nity,” he said, “to step up and show a way to lead.”

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