A public records act request by the Irrigator revealed several critics of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s expansion plans, including Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, a few West Side irrigation district operators and the former director of the Turlock Mosquito Abatement District.
San Joaquin County and the San Joaquin County Farm Bureau also have opposed expanding the refuge into the Lathrop area to the north because of concerns to the impact on agriculture.
Mark Pelz, chief of refuge conservation planning for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Southwest Region, said there may be further environmental review following those comments, but that no decisions had been made as of this week. Fish and Wildlife officials likely will determine next steps in the environmental process toward the end of this month, he said.
“One of the reasons we have a public comment period is it gives the public a chance to see what we missed,” Pelz said.
A draft environmental assessment of the project in November indicated the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plans to increase the size of the 12,887-acre refuge over several decades by restoring 22,156 acres of land to the north and south.
Plans include planting native vegetation, among other restoration work, in a 15-mile area stretching toward Manteca and Lathrop in San Joaquin County and in a 26-mile swath of riparian areas in the West Side of Stanislaus and Merced counties.
The refuge now stretches from Vernalis to the west Modesto area with hiking trails and a kiosk located about 12 miles northwest of Patterson.
Water districts worried
Critics of the environmental plan include managers at Patterson Irrigation District and the Westley-based West Stanislaus Irrigation District, who wrote a letter jointly with the Tracy-based Banta-Carbona Irrigation District that laid out several concerns. The three districts all get some of their water supply from the San Joaquin River.
Their Jan. 28 letter stated that the increased refuge area would create a “federal barrier,” dividing several Central Valley counties east and west of the San Joaquin River along a 40-mile stretch.
It also expressed concern about the loss of prime agricultural land, the potential loss of access to irrigation water and potential flooding issues, advocating further environmental analysis with an environmental impact statement.
Dan Nelson, executive director of the San Luis and Delta-Mendota Water Authority, expressed similar concerns in a Feb. 1 letter, along with worries about the impact on water quality due to the release of salts and sediments from habitat land. Nelson also questioned the economic impacts from the loss of farmland.
The water authority oversees delivery of federal Central Valley Project water to contractors in the Bay Area and northern San Joaquin Valley, including most irrigation districts on the West Side.
Meanwhile, Bill Harrison, general manager of the Patterson-based Del Puerto Water District, sought to ensure that the refuge expansion did not interfere with his irrigation district’s plans to use recycled water from the cities of Turlock, Ceres and Modesto.
Jerry Davis, former manager of the Turlock Mosquito Abatement District, expressed concern about what impact the refuge expansion would have on the region’s mosquito population and on the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses.
“Over the years, I have noticed that the USFWS does a good job of purchasing land but does a poor job at providing adequate funding to provide for maintenance to lands purchased,” Davis wrote in a Dec. 18 letter. “It makes it hard for (mosquito abatement) staff to do their job without adequate funding.”
All the local concerns prompted Denham to write a letter Jan. 30 on behalf of his constituents, stating, “the proposed expansion does not have strong community support, and in fact is opposed by key community stakeholders.”
He recommended that the Fish and Wildlife Service work with farmers, landowners, and the county and other interested parties on developing a consensus.
Environmental groups support refuge growth
Despite criticism from farm water groups, the project has garnered lots of praise from local environmentalists and nature lovers.
Salvatore Salerno, president of the Stanislaus Audobon Society, said the expansion would provide enhanced recreational opportunities and natural flood control and help preserve native plant and animal life.
The Sierra Club’s Yokuts Group, which has more than 800 members in Stanislaus County, also advocated for expansion of the refuge, with members saying the tourist dollars that would come into the area would far outweigh the loss of farmland.
“The proposal is just what our region needs to restore a fraction of the lost natural habitat of the San Joaquin Valley, and to establish a wildlife refuge of genuine consequence,” wrote Brad Barker, conservation chair of the Yokuts Group.
The San Joaquin River Partnership, a coalition of several conservation groups that aims to restore the San Joaquin River, advocated that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service expand the refuge with “the largest footprint possible” in a letter written by partnership coordinator Dave Koehler.
Koehler noted in his Jan. 17 letter that the wildlife refuge has been instrumental in aiding the restoration of the Aleutian cackling goose, which was removed from the federal endangered species list in 2001.
Tough choices ahead
The regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pacific Southwest Region will ultimately decide which of three options is best: restoring land both north and south of the refuge, southward restoration only, or no change.
While it’s still unclear whether further environmental studies would be needed, Kim Forrest, manager of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the wildlife refuge, stressed that expansion would not occur overnight. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials indicated in the environmental assessment it would take at least 45 years to acquire half the expansion area.
“I would expect this to take decades,” Forrest said. “I would see this as a broken chain of riparian patches along the river ultimately.”
As for fears among irrigation districts about losing water rights, she said the Fish and Wildlife Service will only use water sources on any given parcel for about three years until riparian vegetation is established and then cease using that water.
“Ultimately, that leaves quite a bit of water in the river(s) for in-stream flow or downstream users,” she wrote in an email.
Irrigation districts, however, remain concerned.
Peter Rietkerk, general manager of the Patterson Irrigation District, said by phone last month that the district wanted to work with refuge managers, but felt there were major issues that needed to be addressed.
“We just felt there wasn’t enough of a description to give us a level of confidence that there wouldn’t be any impact by the refuge expanding into the region,” Rietkerk said.
As Fish and Wildlife officials deliberate about whether further environmental review is needed, they are busy drafting responses to comments about the November environmental assessment and editing the document based on those responses, Pelz said.
“We are working through the process,” Pelz stated via email.