Day Of Reckoning For Our Rivers

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Clint Reeder of Modesto fishes along the Tuolumne River near Hughson. The Tuolumne is a tributary to the San Joaquin River, and the state of California is expected to demand that 40 percent of it flow to the Delta. Photo by: John Holland

Preparing For A Fight

When even the sanest, calmest, most optimistic people in the room are ready to stop talking and start fighting, it’s serious.

Thursday is the “day of reckoning” on our rivers. The State Water Resources Control Board is set to release a revised document justifying sending twice as much Tuolumne River water down the San Joaquin and into the Delta.

“We know it’s going to be bad,” said Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa. “We’re going to be left with nothing to do but fight.”

“Right now, it’s about fighting for what we believe is ours,” said Stanislaus County Assistant CEO Keith Boggs.

“We’re Custer right now,” said Supervisor Terry Withrow, while vacationing at the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana.

For more than a year, Withrow had been meeting with irrigation district and state officials, water users and environmentalists to work out a reasonable settlement. After reaching what one state official called the most comprehensive and thorough proposal he’d ever seen, the deal went up the official ladder.

What Happened Next? Silence.

“The leaders in our community have attempted to provide them with substantial evidence of how we have historically put the water to beneficial use and the importance of the water to our region – both for farmers and municipal water users in cities,” said Turlock Irrigation District board member Michael Frantz, who attended nearly every meeting. But those efforts have been ignored.

The original Substitute Environmental Draft statement was released in 2012. It demanded 40 percent unimpaired flows. That’s an additional 380,000 acre-feet of water off the Tuolumne, or double what currently flows to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta – the same figure most expect to see Thursday. The state’s report said that would cost our region $40 million, tops.

That dollar figure doesn’t even qualify as laughable.

In 2014, an average acre of irrigated land generated roughly $8,150. Since the Farm Bureau believes such reduced flows would mean 100,000 fallowed acres, losses would start at $815 million. The economic multiplier puts it closer to $1 billion.

Having flunked their math assignment once, you’d think the state would talk to the people who live here this time. County officials, representing 525,000 people? “We haven’t been part of the discussion,” said Chiesa.

Irrigation districts, who have rights to the water? “Not that I’m aware,” said Frantz.

Farm Bureau, representing 1,700 farmers? “Hell no,” said Tom Orvis.

“They don’t reach back,” said Boggs. “There’s no transparency, no dialogue. … They never once reached out or shared anything with us. They haven’t followed up with any of us. We reached out and asked them to do so, and they said they would, but they haven’t.”

We wonder if the state knows what it’s doing. Gov. Jerry Brown works tirelessly against global warming. But his water agency ignores the warming in central Sierra rivers that could make them uninhabitable for salmon. When the state wanted to help steelhead (trout that swim to the ocean then return to spawn in rivers), it arranged for 35,000 acre-feet to flow down the Stanislaus River. Not a single steelhead went. Worse, those releases depleted the cold pool behind New Melones Dam, meaning little is left to help spawning salmon this winter.

The state also is expected to demand a third more of the Stanislaus’ flows and 50 percent more on the Merced.

Meanwhile, if TID had met the state’s flow demands last year, said Chiesa, it couldn’t have delivered any irrigation water. That would have cost the 1.1 million people living here more than mere money; our way of life is at stake. Should we wage a costly and time-consuming court battle? That helps no one, least of all the fish – who truly are in trouble.

We’d Prefer a Settlement, But What Would That Look Like?

First, it would have specific timelines with off ramps for drought. Second, it would define success. Does that mean 1,000 salmon on the Tuolumne (three times last year’s count) or 10,000? Third, quantifiable results. If, after say five years, there are no more salmon, other solutions would be tried – like reducing salmon-eating bass or ending commercial fishing for protected salmon.

Fourth, don’t be stupid. The state insists it needs water in February and June, but fish migrate in April-May and November-December. February, meanwhile, is critical for storing water; releasing it to push out fish that don’t want to go is wasting it. Worse, badly timed flows force young salmon into the mouths of waiting bass.

Fifth, no fallowing. Farmers will have to switch to less water-intensive crops; give them time and help to do it.

Finally, the state can’t act as a front for environmental organizations who actually want to control all the water. At least one group is insisting the state give them control of a cold pool behind Don Pedro Dam. Between increased fish flows and such a cold pool, that would give virtually all of Don Pedro’s water to environmental groups. We should tear it down first.

No one wants to see our rivers turned into drainage ditches; we all want vibrant, fast-flowing rivers filled with fish. To achieve that, we need partners – not adversaries. We’ll see Thursday if the state agrees.


This article was originally written by Mike Dunbar and published on September 10, 2016 at The Modesto Bee.

Click here to view it in its entirety.

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