Speakers say river-flow plan should be revised

By Christine Souza, AgAlert.com

Central to the ongoing tug of war about how best to balance California water uses is a plan by the State Water Resources Control Board to leave more water in the main tributaries of the San Joaquin River during periods it considers key for at-risk native species. Opponents of the plan—those in agriculture who say it goes too far, and environmental and fisheries groups that say it doesn't go far enough—appeared before the board in Sacramento, at the first of five public hearings.

Water board chair Felicia Marcus said in addition to updating flow requirements for the San Joaquin River and its tributaries—the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers—the board's plan calls for updating salinity requirements for the southern delta.

"The state water board must adopt objectives that reasonably protect beneficial uses and consider and balance all beneficial uses of water, and not pick one and discard the others," Marcus said. She described river flow as a key factor in survival of fish including salmon, but noted "there are other important factors affecting the fishery, such as degraded habitat, high water temperatures and depredation."

Les Grober, a water board deputy director, said the proposal recommends between 30 percent and 50 percent of the rivers' unimpaired flow be dedicated to fish; the board says flow averages 20 percent under current conditions. The starting point suggested by staff is 40 percent.

"No one will be happy with the number. It will be too little for some and too much for others, but it's what we've got to do," Grober said.

The board released the proposal, known as the revised Substitute Environmental Document, in September. If adopted and implemented as proposed, local irrigation districts estimate up to 240,000 acres of farmland would be dried up in order to redirect water to fishery uses.

During the hearing last week, California Farm Bureau Federation Director of Water Resources Danny Merkley told the board he is not convinced the science used by staff is sufficient to prove that releasing such a significant amount of uninterrupted flow in the rivers would actually benefit fish.

"I'd like to see where the past has shown that throwing more water at the fish in these years has made improvements," Merkley said, urging the board to coordinate more fully with other agencies that are addressing fishery issues, and to examine all of the other stresses on fish.

Kyle Jones of Sierra Club California testified that the environmental organization approves of the direction of the board plan, "but we're concerned that if we set the lower standard, we're going to go through all of this process and exercise only to see that it might not work," because not enough water has been dedicated to fish.

William Morris, a farmer in the Turlock Irrigation District, told the board he is concerned about impacts to agriculture and the local economy.

"When we grow crops, we need a specific quantity of water. We're having to make do with less, which means we have to fallow fields," Morris said. "I'm already scrambling around trying to figure out how to grow crops on my farm. If you are going to take more water and flush it down the stream, that is going to affect me. And those people who rely on you, they will go out of business."

Merced County Supervisor Diedre Kelsey said the economic impacts of the plan have not been adequately addressed.

"While the SED economic analysis shows an economic impact of 433 job losses and a $64 million impact to the regional economy over three counties, two other independent economic analyses tell a different story," Kelsey said. "Approximately 900 jobs will be lost in Merced County alone, and economic impacts of closer to $231 million."

The Modesto, Merced and Turlock irrigation districts estimate the board proposal would result in a combined $1.8 billion in economic output loss; $167 million in farm-gate revenue loss; $330 million in labor income loss and 7,567 jobs lost.

Students from Hilmar High School testified before the board that the proposal would hurt their families and small farming community.

Hilmar High School FFA member Ethan Jones said his family represents the fourth generation in farming in the Central Valley and he would like to be the fifth generation, adding, "Water is not just a resource, it is our livelihood."

Hilmar High School agriculture teacher Monique Reid said she is concerned about the loss of food production that would result from the board's proposed plan.

"I have a lot to lose and my students have a lot to lose if this plan goes through as written," she said.

Anja Raudabaugh, CEO of Western United Dairymen, said her members are "very alarmed" by the board proposal and recognize that water reductions linked to the plan represent "a very real threat" to dairy farms.

Gail Delihant, director of California government affairs for Western Growers, pointed out that although the plan focuses on large, uninterrupted flows, "We don't have any more storage to manage it. It's not going to be a huge snowpack in the coming years. What are we going to do then?"

Jake Wenger, a Modesto-area farmer and Modesto Irrigation District board member, said after the meeting the state water board plan ultimately represents the state taking away water rights from farmers.

"This is absolutely a taking by the state to go to senior water right holders who own their own reservoir and say, 'You don't own it anymore; we're claiming a third of your available storage in your reservoir and we're telling you exactly how much water to send down,'" Wenger said. "If they can go to the oldest water right holders in the state of California and essentially take their water away, then everybody's water is in jeopardy in agriculture."

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.