Farmers say a State Water Resources Control Board proposal to send vast quantities of water down local rivers, reducing available irrigation water, will destroy the Central Valley's economy.
But the needs of farmers must be balanced against those of fishermen and the environment, Water Board officials told a large crowd at a Middle San Joaquin Watershed Stakeholder meeting Wednesday.
More than 70 people attended the meeting, held at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center. Many were farmers, who spoke of the potential impacts to their livelihood should proposed changes proceed.
“There are real and personal consequences to real people with this issue,” said Chester Anderson, coordinator of the East Stanislaus Resource Conservation District, which organized the meeting. “That's why it is a divisive issue, as well as an emotionally charged issue.”
No matter the outcome, one side will be unhappy. Farmers will see crops wither away, or fishermen will see their nets come back empty.
And in addition to those two, major warring factions, myriad others rely on river flows. Recreational users boat and raft, industries use water in manufacturing, and communities rely on river water for drinking.
“It's a balancing act,” said Doreen “DeeDee” D'Adamo, a Turlocker who was appointed to the State Water Resources Board in March. “… It's not anything we take lightly.”
Proposal Long In Planning
That balancing act has been going on for several years, said Les Grober. assistant deputy director of the hearings and special programs branch of the State Water Resources Control Board Water Rights Division.
The behind-the-scenes work culminated in a Water Board proposal, issued last December, to alter flow objectives on the Central Valley's salmon-bearing rivers. The proposal is the first part of a comprehensive, state-mandated delta conservation plan update.
The current Water Board proposal would require irrigation districts on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers, to send 35 percent of unimpaired flows from February 1 through June 30 down the river, losing hundreds of thousands of acre-feet of irrigation water they would have otherwise diverted to reservoirs.
Already, more than 4,000 comments have been received on the proposal, with about as many different viewpoints.
“The issue here is, ultimately, water is a precious substance. It has many great uses. The central question here is: … how do you make informed decisions to help you decide how to reconcile those competing uses of water,” Grober said.
“Doubling” Fish Population Could Cost 2,100 Local Jobs
The Water Board set a goal of “doubling” the natural production of salmon in three salmon-bearing Central Valley streams as its objective. Under the plan, the Stanislaus River would bear 22,000 fish, the Tuolumne River 38,000, and the Merced River 18,000.
Those figures, totaling 78,000 fish from the three rivers, are well more than double current levels, which are in the low thousands. The three rivers combined to average 22,700 fish from 1992 to 2007, and 38,000 fish from 1967 to 1991.
The best way to improve fish populations is to put more water down the river, with flows that mimic the natural conditions to which fish species are adapted, Grober said. Actually, to hit the Water Board's target, as much as 60 percent of unimpaired flows could be needed, Grober said.
“The science actually supports, under the current conditions we have, that it's actually flows on the higher end that would support the fishery,” Grober said.
But flows won't be the only answer, Grober said. The state water board is also looking at other factors – habitat destruction, the amount of salmon fishermen catch, and predation by non-native species – at the same time it considers flows.
“We've heard very clearly there's other measures the state water board can take,” Grober said. “… We're not just trying to identify a problem and throw water at it,”
But the Water Board's answer will likely involve some loss of water for local irrigation districts.
The water loss could be devastating to the region, according to Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner Milton O'Haire. Based on O'Haire's calculations, as many as 210,000 acres could be fallowed, directly costing the region 2,100 jobs.
“It's a huge number,” O'Haire said.
The 210,000 acre estimate isn't a real-world scenario, Grober said, but a worst-case scenario. The Water Board is currently preparing “most-likely scenario” estimates to better judge the proposal's impacts.
“That's not reality,” Grober said. “There would be a shift to groundwater, and there would also be conservation.”
Local farmers disagree, saying they already conserve water and the region's groundwater basin is already overtaxed. Should farmers try to pump more, the basin could dry up. That would prove dire for Turlock, which relies entirely on groundwater for the city's drinking water.
Need For More Water Questioned
The San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, a coalition of water agencies including the Turlock Irrigation District, “couldn't disagree more” with the Water Board's proposal, according to SJTA executive director Allen Short.
While the Water Board has acknowledged non-flow measures are needed, the SJTA questions whether more flows are needed at all.
“From a scientific perspective, I've got to tell you that the SJTA does not support the 35% unimpaired flow,” Short said. “We're focused on non-flow measures at this point.”
According to SJTA research, predation by non-native species is the largest contributing factor to declining salmon populations. As much as 97 percent of smolts are eaten by striped bass, per the SJTA.
Until this predation is addressed, any additional water would be sent down the river, the SJTA says. But the Water Board says it has no jurisdiction over predation, which lies in the jurisdiction of the California Fish and Wildlife Department.
The SJTA hopes to develop a compromise agreement in partnership with conservation groups, to submit to the Water Board in lieu of the current proposal. A term sheet with principles of a deal is expected by December.
That's roughly the same time that the Water Board expects to adopt a final, revised flow proposal. But a final decision could be delayed, should a December deadline not be feasible.
“We've got to get it right,” D'Adamo said. “If it takes more time, then so be it.”