MODESTO — A state push to help Tuolumne River fish means bad news for farmers and Modesto water customers, irrigation leaders heard in a somber update Tuesday.
Water and power rates eventually would rise for customers of the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts because the agencies would get less water, an attorney told the MID board. The proposal also would affect a water treatment plant supplying tap water to Modesto and some nearby communities, although wells also contribute to the city's water network.
"This is another example of where the city and farmers should be aligned rather than allowing (the state) to divide and conquer us," MID board Chairman Nick Blom said.
The city will monitor the threat, said Rich Ulm, Modesto's director of utilities planning, after the meeting.
The state's Dec. 31 proposal could require that the MID and the TID sacrifice an average of 15 percent of water relied on by their 8,000 farmers. Cuts could be far more in dry years, when farmers might get half what they're used to.
There is "no doubt" that the State Water Resources Control Board will change the districts' allotment to favor fish sometime this year, attorney Tim O'Laughlin told the MID board. He expects a lengthy lawsuit to follow.
Fish advocates have said the proposal doesn't go far enough to help wildlife. That view wasn't represented at Tuesday's MID meeting.
"It seems this process is deliberately intended to destroy production agriculture," said Reed Smith, a walnut grower east of Modesto.
The presentation touched off a minidebate over whether the district truly has excess water that could be marketed. An idea to sell some to San Francisco was hotly contested before the MID board dropped it in September.
Proponents had said canal improvements funded by the sale would conserve more than the amount promised to San Francisco. Also, O'Laughlin on Tuesday said selling water for municipal use actually would strengthen the district's legal claim to a larger amount.
The state water board proposal is one of two current but separate threats to allotments of both districts. They also are in the middle of a multiyear application for a new 50-year federal license of Don Pedro Reservoir and its turbines, which could end with federal officials ordering irrigation reductions to help fish.
"Here's the lie," O'Laughlin said, accusing the state of using "a patently false operating assumption" and failing to analyze the cost to utilities if more water is forced into the river from February through June. That's when young salmon are heading out to the Pacific Ocean, but it's also when the districts store water for the summer.
The MID, the TID and others operating New Melones and Exchequer dams could collectively lose $4.5 million, he said. That's because demand for power and demand for irrigation coincide under historic practices but would be thrust out of alignment under the state's fish proposal.
The MID's projected loss of hydropower at Don Pedro would be about $1 million per year, according to spokeswoman Melissa Williams.
Also, with less irrigation water, farmers would be forced to pump groundwater requiring more energy at the very time that the districts are generating less, O'Laughlin said.
The problems could force rate hikes for the districts' 211,000 electricity customers, he said.
Additionally, fish and wildlife experts don't really know how much more water is needed to restore fisheries, O'Laughlin said. "In other words," he said, "it's on a wing and a prayer."
The districts have said fish could benefit from restoring streambeds, reducing predation on young salmon and changing ocean fishing rules, rather than picking on farmers.
O'Laughlin noted a recent federal study concluding that 95 percent of young salmon were gobbled by nonnative bass in the 25-mile stretch from Waterford to Grayson.
The districts normally divert 885,000 acre-feet of water each year for irrigation and the water treatment plant. That would drop to an average of 753,000 acre-feet under the state's proposal, O'Laughlin said, but could plummet even more according to a dry-year formula.
For example, during a drought from 1987 to 1992, the districts would have received 465,000 acre-feet under the formula.
Ulm acknowledged that the city's water network gets less from the treatment plant when farmers get less. "We all suffer equally, the idea is," he said.
The city averages about 30 million gallons per day of tap water from the treatment plant and had planned to get twice that when expansion finishes in 2015.
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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2390.
PUBLIC MEETING PUT OFF
A public discussion on cheap irrigation subsidized by electricity customers won't be staged this month as promised last year by Modesto Irrigation District leaders. They said Tuesday that the subsidy could be affected by the recommendations of an advisory committee charged with suggesting canal improvements and how to pay for them. "We'd like to hold off rather than put the cart before the horse," said board Chairman Nick Blom. The MID's 113,000 power customers are paying an average of $95 extra this year; an attorney privately told the board that subsidy increases could violate state law. The advisory committee, initially asked to present ideas by March 31, will be asked for a progress report, Blom said.