Water Rights Fight as Groups Try to Save Salmon, Farms and Drinking Water

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COPPEROPOLIS-

Fish versus farmers. That's how some people are framing the debate over water rights. But residents around Tulloch Reservoir just west of Sonora say they are being left out of the equation.

There, a community is fighting a federal rule calling for more water releases, even during a drought. They say that would devastate their area, because they rely on the lake for its water supply and economy.

Tulloch Reservoir is only 1/20th the size of Folsom Lake, but it's big enough to spawn a vacation and retirement community on its shores in Calaveras County.

But Federal water managers want to release more water down the Stanislaus River to protect salmon. That means 75% of the water in Lake Tulloch could be drained by the end of the summer. Not only would the tourist season be affected, but residents say wildlife around the lake would suffer.

“I don’t care about fish, I care about us human beings," Eddy Pendergrass, a Lake Tulloch resident, said.

Most residents here are up in arms over what they consider the raiding of their water. It goes beyond the tourist economy and the real estate business that is centered around the lake. This is the main water supply for the Copperopolis area, including a state prison.

“The drinking water for our prison and the community, probably about 10,000 people, is in question here," Greg Mayer, a resident since 1985 who is also a realtor, said.

Mayer says the water needs of salmon is still a matter of scientific uncertainty and debate. After all, he says, they survive natural droughts with reduced water flows. Activists trying to slow down releases say the proposed actions have wide ranging implications for other reservoirs.

“In the middle of a drought, we might call this an emergency situation and postpone those releases before there is no water left in our reservoirs," said Mayer.

Eddy Pendergrass in one of 1,000 employees who work at the Sierra Conservation Camp. He fears what will happen if the water level goes below the prison’s water intake pipes.

“They’d have to close the prison…we’d all be out of our jobs," an animated and angry Pendergrass told FOX40.

Some residents also feel farmers are taking more than their share, adding to the threat of the loss of their lake. Their basic take, humans before fish or crops, at least temporarily.

“There are a lot things that are impacted from this and it seems that those human impacts aren’t being considered," Mayer said.

The water agencies that draw water from the lake agree, they’ve gone to court to halt or delay extra water releases from the Lake, but have so far been unsuccessful.

Members of the Tulloch Lake Alliance say they hope to convince Governor Brown to step in and issue a temporary reduction in the releases.