An epic struggle over rivers is heading toward a showdown Wednesday, and the ultimate decision could affect just about everyone.
So worried are farm interests that they've reserved a bus to haul supporters to hearings in Sacramento, if enough people sign up.
At risk is a third of the irrigation water they rely on, which also supplies Modesto tap water and some electricity. Changing river flows could force higher rates and bump up food prices, say water leaders who have enjoyed a vice grip on river rights for more than a century.
The historical "have nots" in this dialogue are wildlife advocates whose warnings about the collapse of sport and commercial fishing haven't gotten much traction until recently.
They aren't happy about a proposed sea change in flows, either, saying it wouldn't go far enough to return things the way they were before people built dams and reduced the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to relative trickles.
In the middle are California water officials who will have the final say, probably later this year. Their staff set off the current debate by recommending a compromise, angering both sides and leading to hearings scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday before the State Water Resources Control Board.
What flows downstream
At issue is the board's idea for restoring the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and San Francisco Bay, called the Bay-Delta Plan for short. Its relevant catch phrase is "unimpaired flow," reflecting how much water would flow down rivers, through the delta and into the bay if not for dams.
Decimated salmon and migratory trout populations could rebound if springtime flow would return to 60 percent of unimpaired flow, scientists say, and fish advocates like that number better than the current 17 percent to 20 percent.
That would mean lots more water flowing in rivers from February through June, instead of being trapped in dams to quench thirsty crops later in the summer and fall.
The board's 35 percent proposal looks like a compromise.
But that translates to 300,000 acre-feet shared by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, about a third of what they're used to getting. And that prospect makes local water leaders hopping mad.
"That's a lot of extra water going down the river, and we can't use it," said Joe Alamo of the TID board.
"We're not giving up one drop if we can help it," Larry Byrd said at Tuesday's MID meeting.
Fellow board member Paul Warda suggested that supporters "go for the jugular" at upcoming hearings, saying, "If we sit back and wait, (fish interests) are going to run all over us."
The state acknowledges that less irrigation could force farmers to fallow 210,000 acres and lose $187 million in dry years.
The districts, which co-own Don Pedro Reservoir, have a bus standing by if enough people want a ride to the Capitol on Wednesday morning. Call (209) 883-8374 for details.
A 'scary' proposition
"There isn't a farmer out there who wants to take an active role in damaging the environment," said Mike Wade, the California Farm Water Coalition's executive director. "But we're not interested in dumping water into the system without any perceived benefit while harming our ability to produce food and fiber."
Growers can't believe they are being asked such a sacrifice with no specific prediction on how more spring flow might boost fish numbers.
"To just take water and put it down the river is the goofiest thing I ever heard from water resource managers," said Steve Knell, general manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District. "They have no idea it'll work. That's just scary. And they sit there and tell us, 'Trust us.' "
A TID release calls the plan "a low-probability gamble based solely on a whim in a high-stakes game to benefit fisheries."
Others have criticized the timing of the controversial proposal's release New Years Eve. "They kind of slid it out when no one was looking," said Tom Orvis of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau.
"For the board to take this action in a way that lacks transparency, without any scientific evidence, is irresponsible," said Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto.
Fish advocates contend that killing California's salmon runs is unconscionable. Chinook and steelhead are barely hanging on, they note, with dams holding about two-thirds of the water that fish used to thrive on.
Commercial fishermen stretching up the coast into Oregon endured shutdowns of salmon fishing in 2008 and 2009, noted John Rosenfield of the Bay Institute, which asks supporters to sign online petitions.
'We've got to do it right'
Framing the issue as a "people v. fish" debate is simplistic, Rosenfield said. "It's one person's need for water versus another person's desire," he said.
Indicators suggest that a move to help fish is imminent, but it might not be enough, wildlife interests say.
"We're glad they're improving conditions, but we've got to do it right," said Peter Drekmeier, Bay Area program director for the Tuolumne River Trust. "The status quo isn't working for fish, wildlife and recreation."
Larger spring rivers would help juvenile fish move faster toward the ocean, creating more habitat for feeding and cloudier water to escape predators, Drekmeier said.
Farmers could do so much more to improve irrigation efficiency, he said, from better monitoring of mountain snowpack to sprinklers and drip systems to growing higher-value crops that use less water. But they have little incentive to change, he said, because irrigation rates here are relatively cheap.
Irrigation officials contend that all the water in the world might not help young salmon until someone does something about non-native fish gobbling them up. A January study found that 93 percent were devoured by bass in a 25-mile stretch between checkpoints near Waterford and Grayson.
Environmentalists say some movement toward helping fish represents progress, after more than a century of farmers enjoying all power over rivers.
"Everyone wants a clean environment. Everyone wants farm products, too," Rosenfield said. "We're not taking a position of tearing down dams, but we've got to re-establish a balance."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: State Water Resources Control Board hearings
WHEN: Wednesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. Irrigation districts from Stanislaus and Merced counties will make presentations Thursday.
WHERE: Second-floor Coastal Hearing Room of the Cal-EPA Building, 1001 I St., Sacramento
INFO: Written comments about the water board's draft Substitute Environmental Document on potential river flow changes can by submitted by noon, March 29. See http://tinyurl.com/awrxvx3
ON THE NET:
San Joaquin Tributaries Authority: http://calsmartwater.org
Turlock Irrigation District: http://tinyurl.com/9wsucdb
The Bay Institute: http://tinyurl.com/as6twuk