We want to see a better plan from California’s water board

BY THE FRESNO BEE EDITORIAL BOARD

We hope the state water board left Modesto having heard one message: It won’t be easy taking the water the San Joaquin Valley depends on.

Similar messages had already been delivered in hearings in Stockton and Merced. Tuesday, more than 1,000 people were in Modesto’s Centre Plaza just five days before Christmas to either convince the State Water Resources Control Board of its folly or confront it with defiance.

Several speakers pointed out that our region has more poverty, worse health, lower educational attainment, more unemployment and lower wages than virtually any other California region. We have been called the Appalachia of the West. All insisted the state’s plan – detailed in its Substitute Environmental Document – calling for fallowing tens of thousands of acres will make each of those conditions worse. Much worse.

“The one plus we have,” said incoming Stanislaus County Supervisor and former Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, “is water. And you cannot take that away from us.”

“To create a permanent regulatory drought is absolutely unacceptable to us,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray, who represents all of Merced and part of Stanislaus counties.

The state’s latest document calls for doubling the amount of water flowing unimpaired down the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The state would also control much more “cold pool” water stored behind dams to increase flows when fish are migrating. Many scientists believe greater flows are essential for creating a viable native salmon population. It also would help Delta farmers by pushing back saltwater intrusion.

But scientists who are actually working on the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers haven’t been able to find any “native” salmon for years. All of the thousands of salmon now swimming up the rivers to spawn came from hatcheries – not the gravel beds irrigation districts have spent millions creating.

The state admits its plan will lead to far greater groundwater pumping as farmers try to replace lost river water – at least until the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act kicks in. Then that land will go fallow, costing farmers hundreds of millions and workers thousands of jobs.

“If this had already been adopted, (Turlock Irrigation District) would have provided zero water to all their farmers over the last two years,” said Sen. Anthony Cannella, who represents all of Merced and parts of Stanislaus, Madera and Fresno counties.

Of the 1,000 at the meeting – many spilling into an overflow room – roughly 35 came to demand the state dedicate more water to fish flows. Some insisted farmers could simply be more efficient. But others pointed out the conservation efforts and innovative wastewater reuse programs already pioneered. Modesto, Ceres and Turlock are shipping 35,000 to 40,000 acre-feet of treated wastewater to Del Puerto Water District to water crops. Several noted that many Valley cities exceeded their drought conservation goals.

Restoring native species is a noble and worthwhile goal. But thus far, state and federal regulators have placed nearly all the responsibility for realizing that goal on the backs of farmers and have basically utilized one tool – cutting irrigation deliveries.

It’s past time for the water regulators to come up with better plans that utilize many more tools.