Conway Ranch hatchery forced by drought to let all fish go

As the third, extremely dry year drags on, the toll is beginning to be evident in the Eastern Sierra—most recently at the sprawling, lush Conway Ranch area, nestled at the southern base of Conway Summit and above Mono Lake.

The beautiful, old-time sheep ranch was deemed so critical to the county’s definition of itself as “wild by nature” that years ago, the county bought the ranch to save the 1,000-acre plus ranch from development—at considerable cost.

Today, with the county’s enthusiastic support, the ranch holds a private trout-rearing fish hatchery, one that county officials and politicians have repeatedly said is destined to be one of the country’s premier hatcheries, capable of supplying the state, other states, and private businesses when they need trout.

Or at least it did.

“Last October, we were saddened to learn that there would not be enough water to support the hatchery through winter,” said Raven Angeles, the business manager for the Inland Aquaculture Group, which has been tasked with making Conway Ranch the home of this hatchery.

“Thankfully, we had time to relocate most of the trout. This month brought more bad news. We had high hopes for a miracle March, (but) words cannot express how we felt when we learned the snow pack above Lundy Canyon, our water source, is at less than 24 percent of normal and that there will not be enough water to support hatchery operations through this season. When we talked to SCE (Southern California Edison runs a power plant up Lundy Canyon), they said when they measured the snow depth it was at three inches, and Lundy Reservoir is about 30-35 feet below the dams spillway.”

The problem is the ranch’s water supply comes from a single, small stream out of Lundy Canyon, which in normal years is sufficient to supply the hatchery’s needs. But with three dry years in a row, the limits of nature’s ability to meet the politicians and IAG’s demands are clear.

Angeles said the one bright spot in the situation is that all the fish that were once on the ranch were moved to June Lake.

“June Lake is going to have one hell of a fishing opening,” she said. “John Frederickson (owner of the June Lake Marina and Crowley Lake Fish Camp), bless his heart, bought them all and dumped them in the June Lake Marina. And there were some big fish in there.”

What’s left out at the ranch is one pond filled with some big fish (see box for your chance to catch some of those lunkers) and a small bunch of wily fish in a little runway fed by a trickle of water, fish that IAG simply couldn’t catch and remove.

“They were some smart fish,” she said. “They outwitted us.

“Our hope for this year is twofold; Mother Nature will cooperate in the coming winter, and that someday soon we receive county approval for the long awaited ‘agriculture well’ to avert situations like this in years to come.”

That well, however, is at the heart of another issue. Like so many water-related issues in the Eastern Sierra, tugging on one string reveals a few more strings—in this case, worries by Mono Basin residents that drilling wells into the aquifer that supplies their drinking water could negatively impact them.

Mono County’s best-known hatchery expert, Tim Alpers of the Alpers trout brand, started IAG in 2002 with a group of partners, including John Frederickson. However, he has since divested himself of all financial connections to IAG and has consistently recused himself from every decision regarding IAG since he ran and was elected county supervisor.

The District 3 supervisor did, however, weigh in on the long-term need for some kind of ground-water well supplement for the ranch recently, saying he had just come from a meeting with some of those residents.
“The hatchery was always envisioned as a surface water hatchery with well water supplementation,” he said. “I am confident we can find a way to have the well support we need without impacting the Mono Basin’s drinking water.”

In the meantime, the tussle and tension between water users might be something the Eastern Sierra has to get used to.

Or, maybe, for at least the near future, those hard choices might be once again averted.

In the last few weeks, the weather forecast for the coming year—perhaps beginning as early as late this spring—has begun to change.

Talk of an “El Nino”—a pattern of warming ocean currents that often foretell a wet pattern for California—is beginning to pepper the language of forecasters.

Some are even calling for a “Super El Nino,” saying the patterns now developing are similar to those of the 1997-1998 years, where a wet spring gave way to a wet fall and winter.

It may not be idle talk. For the first time in years, the National Weather Service is issuing a prediction for a wetter than normal late summer and fall.


Want to catch the big one at the Conway Ranch Pre-season Trophy Trout Derby?
This is your chance to take home a few Trophy Alpers Trout and win up to $3,000
When: Saturday, April 19, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Where: Conway Ranch Hatchery Trophy Pond @ 100 Conway Ranch Road, Lee Vining
Blind Bogey: Prior to the derby a secret fisherman will catch the Blind Bogey fish and record the weight. During the event each registered participant may catch five fish per registration fee. Those that match the Blind Bogey weight are entered into a raffle to win $1,500.
Biggest Fish: Win $500 for the biggest fish (in pounds).
Highest Total Weight: Win $500 for the highest total pounds.
Grand Slam: Win $500 for catching all three species; Rainbow, Brown and Cutthroat.
More ways to win: Prizes may be awarded for additional categories; 1st to register, Skunked and Booby.
Registration: Adult $100, children up to 16 years, $50. All participants must pre-register by April 11 to be eligible. Event is open to the first 200 participants so register early.
First 50 participants to arrive will receive an embroidered ball cap.
Event Sponsors: The Conway Ranch Foundation, Inland Aquaculture Group, June Lake Marina and Crowley Lake Fish Camp
Call 760-709-6446 for more information.