A $50 million plan to relicense the Turlock Irrigation District’s Don Pedro Reservoir has, after great time and expense, been completed. Kind of, at least.
"It’s the end of the beginning of the process now,” explained Steve Boyd, TID Assistant General Manager, Consumer Services. “We're entering a different phase.”
Both the TID and Modesto Irrigation District Boards of Directors, which jointly run Don Pedro Reservoir, voted unanimously Tuesday to submit their final relicensing application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
The plan to operate New Don Pedro Dam, Don Pedro Lake, and the surrounding lands would stand at least four feet high, if printed on paper. The document, three years in development, will take two days of round-the-clock internet usage to submit electronically.
FERC regulates the operation of all dams; the districts operate Don Pedro Reservoir only with FERC’s permission to do so. The district’s current FERC license, issued in 1966, expires in 2016.
But this final application for relicensing isn’t quite final. FERC has mandated that more studies be completed before a license will be issued.
A whopping 33 studies have already been finalized, discussing a wide range of topics from historical landmarks to recreation, aquatic species that call the lake home, and water quality.
One key study focused on the socioeconomic impacts of Don Pedro Reservoir on the valley farming economy. That study is something unique, as many FERC-licensed projects exist predominantly for power generation.
“Don Pedro is primarily a water storage facility that happens to generate electricity,” Boyd said.
Based on the results of those completed studies, the districts will face four new management plans. They will spend more than $7 million per year to nurture bald eagle populations, protect historic properties, ensure invasive species like bermuda grass do not harm native plants like elderberry bushes, and maintain recreational activities.
Five more studies remain, chief among them a study on predation of native salmon by invasive species of fish. That study could be crucial to ensuring the districts retain their current water rights; environmental groups have been lobbying for the districts to release more water down the Tuolumne River to benefit fish populations.
An initial study by the districts found that water – or lack thereof – had little effect on the native salmon. A “significant” percentage of the salmon population was eaten by non-native fish species, predominantly bass, making more water relatively useless in helping the endangered smelt.
That groundbreaking study necessitated further review, FERC said, charging the districts to complete a second, more in-depth study on fish predation. However, due to the drought, the State of California refused to grant the districts permission to perform the study this year.
“Because that information is so important to the record, our (final application) will be, for the lack of a better word, incomplete,” Boyd said.
The districts now estimate that the final studies will be completed in March 2016. An amended final application will be filed in November 2016, with a new license expected to be issued in 2019.
At that time, the district could face new rules for managing the river downstream. That could involve a reduction of water to growers, or perhaps costly programs to cut down on the number of invasive fish.
But after spending tens of millions already, a few more dollars may be preferable to losing water down the river.
“The amount of money is just mind-boggling,” said Ron Macedo, TID Board of Directors President.