Understanding the 1966 Fourth Agreement and the 1996 Agreement
I understand why farmers and ratepayers in the Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts (TID and MID) are angry.
They know the State Water Board’s proposal (the SED) to require an additional 40-50% of unimpaired water flows down the Tuolumne River is going to decimate our local economy. They know that the water demanded by the State Water Board is critical to the Governor’s plan to build twin tunnels that will suck up to 5 million acre-feet of water from the Sacramento River, bypassing the Delta, and sending it South of the Delta. They know that science shows that these increased flows alone are not going to save the salmon. They know that the State Water Board ignored the Districts’ scientific studies and non-flow measures to increase the number of salmon on the Tuolumne River. They know that the majority of the Water Board members have already made up their minds. And they know that folks who suggest farmers fallow their land during dry seasons or switch their crops are delusional and don’t have a clue about agricultural business practices in Stanislaus County.
But what I don’t understand is why the San Francisco ratepayers, water users, and the powerful politicians who call San Francisco their home aren’t angry. The local city leaders get it. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), the folks who handle San Francisco’s water supply; they get it. They know what the impact will be on San Francisco’s municipal, commercial, and industrial users, and it is dire. Why? A short history of the marriage between San Francisco and the TID/MID water districts will provide some answers.
We must first start with an act of the United States Congress. In 1913 the Raker Act allowed San Francisco to construct Lake Eleanor Dam and O’Shaughnessy Dam on the upper Tuolumne River, creating Lake Eleanor and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir. From just below the dam, Tuolumne River water is pulled into the Hetch Hetchy water system. Through a labyrinth of pipelines, pumping stations, and tunnels about 300,000 acre-feet of Tuolumne River water is delivered to San Francisco each year. The water is so clean the city doesn’t have to filter it for its 2.6 million users. Along the way, power stations generate hydropower. The Hetch Hetchy Reservoir can store 360,000 acre-feet of water, but the combined storage in the Hetch Hetchy System is 650,000 acre-feet. That entire system includes three dams and reservoirs on tributaries that feed into the Tuolumne River – Cherry Lake, Lake Eleanor, and Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Because TID and MID had senior water rights over San Francisco’s junior water rights on the Tuolumne River, the construction of a dam further up the river created great consternation. The Districts fought San Francisco tooth and nail. Concessions in the Raker Act sought to ease those concerns, but details about how to share access to the river needed constant refining. From 1940 to 1949 a series of agreements (named the First, Second, and Third Agreements) worked out details about how TID, MID, and San Francisco would develop and share the Tuolumne River. In particular those agreements approved two major projects designed to provide additional water storage and improve flood control on the Tuolumne River. The first project to be built was Cherry Reservoir (completed in 1956), which was owned by San Francisco, followed by the New Don Pedro Reservoir (completed in 1971), which would be owned by the Districts.
In 1966 the Fourth Agreement spelled out the details of how the New Don Pedro Reservoir, with 2,300,000 acre-feet of water storage, would operate.
* TID and MID received 1,120,000 acre-feet
* San Francisco received 570,000 acre-feet, but would not take that water out of New Don Pedro Reservoir. Instead the City would pull its “share” of Don Pedro water directly from Hetch Hetchy. This process is referred to as a water bank or a virtual dam within New Don Pedro.
* The Districts assumed full responsibility for federal flood protection (340,000 acre-feet). Prior to that Old Don Pedro, Cherry Lake, and Hetch Hetchy provided flood control protection, meaning each had to keep some space in their reservoirs empty so that in the case of a major storm, there was somewhere for the water to go.
* TID and MID, as owners of New Don Pedro, were licensed by the Federal Power Commission (FERC) to operate it. A clause in the Fourth Agreement noted that if FERC asked for additional water releases, San Francisco would have to provide 52% of the flows and the Districts 48%.
And that is exactly what happened in the early 1990s. During the license renewal process, FERC increased the amount of water that had to flow freely from the New Don Pedro Reservoir. Specifically it called for an additional 14% (on average) of full natural water flows that was to be shared between the Districts and San Francisco “as prescribed in the Fourth Agreement.” That meant that just over half of the additional water flows had to come from San Francisco’s share of the water. For three years the parties fought and wrangled. San Francisco said it could not give up that much of its water without significant water supply impacts.
Ultimately the 1996 Agreement was reached in which San Francisco paid TID and MID $3.5 million a year in exchange for the Districts giving up all 14% of the water.
This brings us to today, and the State Water Board requirement that Tuolumne River provide an additional 40% of water flows. San Francisco informed the Water Board that because of the Fourth Agreement they may have to provide 52 % of the unimpaired water flows and paying the Districts to cover their portion is not going to be an option. If San Francisco couldn’t give up a small amount of its water back in 1996, how is it going to give up 20% today? Even with extreme conservation methods, it is not going to be enough.
So where are the voices of protest from their powerful political representatives? Senator Dianne Feinstein? Lt Governor Gavin Newsom? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? You are some of the most powerful politicians in the United States – We need you in this fight. Your San Francisco economy is in great peril.
Your marriage partners, the farmers and ratepayers of Stanislaus County, know water is precious. Our farmers are the most progressive in the agricultural world. They have invested heavily in equipment and processes that allow them to only use enough water on their crops as needed.
Together our Districts and San Francisco have spent millions on salmon restoration projects on the Tuolumne River. If the State Water Board’s demand for 40-50% of unimpaired flows (the SED) is approved as is, I believe our Districts will need to renegotiate the 1996 Agreement allowing San Francisco to pay the Districts $3.5 million a year for their environmental fish flows. We need every drop of water that our senior water rights on the Tuolumne River allow us.
Dr. Rob Santos, DVM is a practicing veterinarian and managing partner at Monte Vista Small Animal Hospital, Community Veterinary Clinic, and Family Pet Mortuary while representing Division 4 as a Board Director of the Turlock Irrigation District since 2007. Dr. Santos is currently the Vice President of the TID Board.