State and federal agencies want fish ladder restored on Merced River

February 1, 2023
by Lois Henry
The fish ladder on the Crocker-Huffman Dam on the Merced River taken from a canoe in 2011. Courtesy of Paul Martzen
Lois Henry

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Two powerful state and federal agencies have stuck their toes, so to speak, into an ongoing lawsuit against Merced Irrigation District demanding the district reopen a long defunct fish ladder.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Service both sent letters to Merced Irrigation District after Water Audit California sued the district over the fish ladder on the Crocker-Huffman Dam, about 30 miles northeast of the City of Merced.

It wasn’t the first time the agencies had sought to have Merced Irrigation District get the fish ladder running again. They had both sent letters in 2009 and 2010, directing the district to reopen the fish ladder, which had been closed since the 1970s to see if a “spawning channel” next to the dam would work better for the salmon, steelhead and other fish.  

The spawning channel didn’t work so Fish and Wildlife asked in 2009 that the fish ladder be reopened. The National Marine Fisheries Service directed Merced Irrigation District to reopen the ladder in 2010.

It never happened.

After Water Audit filed its lawsuit last September, both agencies again sent letters to Merced Irrigation District reiterating their desire to see the fish ladder reopened and offered to meet with the district and provide technical assistance to help get it going again. 

The irrigation district responded to the state Fish and Wildlife department that it had met with staff in 2011 and was left with the impression that staffers would get back to the district at some point in the future.

The district also notes that it is in ongoing discussions about fish passage as part of relicensing proceedings with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Those proceedings don’t include the Crocker-Huffman Dam, according to the Water Audit lawsuit.

The district’s response prompted another letter from Fish and Wildlife on Jan. 27 that states: “If MID does not agree to meet, CDFW will conclude the MID is unwilling to take any steps to restore or otherwise provide fish passage at Crocker-Huffman Dam voluntarily.”

The department’s language could be significant.

In a recently filed amended complaint, Water Audit names both the Department of Fish and Wildlife and National Marine Fisheries Service as “parties of interest” to the lawsuit. That would allow the agencies to intervene as plaintiffs or write their own “amicus,” or “friend of the court” briefs, which could add greater heft to Water Audit’s suit.

Though the most recent Fish and Wildlife letter doesn’t mention Fish and Game Code 5937, its 2009 letter does. That code requires “The owner of any dam shall allow sufficient water at all times to pass through a fish way…to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam” and was a central part of the historic 1988 lawsuit that helped restore the San Joaquin River.

For its part, the Merced Irrigation District “absolutely disputes the factual and legal allegations being made,” in the Water Audit lawsuit, according to an email from a district spokesman. He noted the district has participated longstanding efforts to restore salmon habitat on the Merced River after damage from state-sanctioned dredge mining.

The district’s website details how the district restored a half-mile long section of the Merced River. That restoration project is just downstream from the Crocker-Huffman dam and a state Fish and Wildlife hatchery, which is on land owned by the district.

This lawsuit joins a long history of fights over fish obstructions on the Merced River going back more than a century.

A concrete fish ladder can be seen at the far end of the Crocker-Huffman Dam. Courtesy Paul Martzen

According to a collection of articles from the “Mariposa Gazette” compiled by historian Tom Bopp, concerns about dams blocking fish began as far back as 1857.

“The Indians upon the South Fork, and upper parts of the main Merced river, are much dissatisfied at the failure of their Salmon fishing, which is caused by one or two dams upon the lower part of the river,” an article from Nov. 11, 1857 states.

Later, the Gazette covered a grand jury report decrying the lack of fish ladders at two dams, possibly near where the Crocker-Huffman and Merced Falls dams are now located, and states “The law requires that ladders shall be built, in order that the salmon may pass up the river, as at certain seasons of the year it is their inclination to do,” according to the November 24, 1877 article.

In 1879, the paper wrote that the District Attorney forced dam owners to build fish ladders and by the next year, salmon were clearly using them to swim upstream.

An August 8, 1880 article boasted the headline “Lookout for Salmon!!!” 

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.


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