A new State Water Resources Board proposal could drastically reduce the amount of irrigation water available to Turlock Irrigation District growers, putting hundreds of family farms out of business.
The plan would require TID to send 35 percent of Tuolumne River flows from February 1 through June 30 down the river, losing hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of irrigation water it would have otherwise diverted to its reservoir.
“Jobs will be lost,” said Allen Short, Executive Director of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, who told TID directors about the proposal on Tuesday.
In an average year, the reductions would reduce the water available for irrigation on the Tuolumne River by 172,000 acre-feet. A proportionally similar reduction is proposed for the Merced River.
Combined, the proposal would remove 128,295 acres from agricultural production each and every year, due to a lack of water. In dry years, over 220,000 acres of land in the TID, Modesto Irrigation District, and Merced Irrigation District – out of 319,000 acres serviced – would sit fallow.
The SWRB estimates the shift would cause a $69 million per year economic impact and 456 job losses, both figures the SJTA considers drastically underestimated.
“How can they keep a straight face when they tell you that?” asked TID Director Rob Santos. “It's ludicrous. I'm walking out of the room. It just doesn't make any sense.”
SJTA projections show, using SWRB data, that as many as 800 family farms would be shuttered as a result of the water loss. SJTA also projects a $180 million economic impact in dry years, including the loss of over 1,200 jobs
The SWRB says the impact is “significant and unavoidable.”
Flows needed for fish, SWRB says
The SWRB argues that higher river flows are needed to aid native salmon populations, which now number far below historical averages. If more water flows down the river, the board believes more fish will survive annual spawning runs through the Bay, up the Delta, ending in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus, or Merced Rivers.
But the SWRB's own experts admit they are unsure how much difference the increased flows will make.
“We don't know what kind of natural production we're going to get until we start increasing flows to see what natural production we can achieve,” said Dean Marsten, Fishery Program Manager with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, when testifying before the SWRB on Nov. 13, 2012.
The SJTA argues that the SWRB has no research indicating how the additional water will aid fisheries. And the 35 percent figure seems to be picked from a hat, with no real world justification.
“On a wing and a prayer, they're taking your natural resources, and they're betting on the come line,” said SJTA legal counsel Tim O'Laughlin.
The SJTA's own research indicates another factor causing low fish return rates: predation. Non-native species, predominantly striped bass, are eating the smelt.
A Waterford fish station counted 68,650 salmon in one study. Only 2,969 made it to the San Joaquin river. Most of those were eaten, the SJTA says, with video evidence to prove their argument.
The SJTA argues that past efforts to increase water flows prove it's not about the water. The Stanislaus River had required flows drastically increased, yet the change led to no appreciable increase in salmon counts.
“To me, it's a smoking gun of proof that flows don't connect to the return,” said TID Board Chairman Michael Frantz.
The SWRB has not responded to SJTA requests to implement a predator suppression program.
Numbers grim for farmers
Delving into the numbers, the plan only becomes worse for growers.
In an average year, TID and MID divert about 900,000 acre-feet of water from the Tuolumne River to their co-owned Don Pedro Reservoir. About 831,000 acre-feet of water are used for irrigation.
Under the proposal, only 757,000 acre-feet of water could be diverted to Don Pedro Reservoir. That leaves a 74,000 acre-foot shortfall.
The picture becomes grimmer when looking at historically dry periods. From 1987 to 1992, TID and MID diverted only about 640,000 acre-feet of water. Under the SWRB proposal, the districts would divert only 465,000 acre-feet. That would allow for only 2 acre-feet of irrigation water per acre irrigated by the districts.
Oddly, the proposal would assess how much water must be diverted on Jan. 31, well before a water year is truly decided. If a season starts out dry, with reservoirs dipping below set levels, districts could be forced to divert much more of their water for the remainder of the year – as much as 100 percent.
The early date allows the SWRB to avoid investigating impacts to hydroelectric generation, recreation, and the cold water pool, by encouraging water to remain in storage.
The SJTA estimates the plan would cost districts $4.5 million per year just in hydro generation losses, not counting extra costs from purchasing power during peak summer periods. The plan also doesn't take into account the carbon emissions from power purchases which would likely be less green than hydro.
Still more, the plan also doesn't account for impacts to the City and County of San Francisco, who own the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir just upstream on the Tuolumne River. That's because the SWRB arbitrarily drew the study plan line to exclude CCSF reservoirs from the diversion requirements, even though their reservoir is just miles away from Don Pedro.
And the CCSF's water rights on the Tuolumne are junior to TID's. Junior water rights diverters would be unaffected by the plan, in violation of state law, while senior rights-holders MID, TID, and MeID would carry the entire burden.
“The 35 percent unimpaired just throws the water rights out the door,” O'Laughlin said.
The plan has been in development since 2009. In that time, Short said the SJTA has submitted “hundreds or thousands of pages” of comments on the plan, but the SWRB issued no response.
Districts plan fight
TID and MID plan an “aggressive approach” to the measure. To some extent, the effort relies on meeting with elected officials, regulatory agencies, and average citizens alike, and convincing them to contact legislators in opposition to the measure.
The SWRB will take comments on the plan from March 20 through 22, with a goal of adopting a final plan by the end of 2013.
But ultimately, the matter will likely end up in court.
“The last time we did this we sued them early and often, and that was the only way we got something reasonable out of them,” O'Laughlin said.
A 1995 SWRB effort to increase fish flows led to 87 days of hearings. It took until 2005 to finish the appeal process.
This time, litigation could take 15 years, O'Laughlin said.
“They can have 35 percent of our unimpaired flows,” Santos said. “But they have to pry it from our dead, cold hands.”