SACRAMENTO — Champions of competing fish and farming interests gave state water leaders plenty to think about Wednesday in a long and colorful hearing attended by hundreds of worried people from Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties.
Most attendees from the region argued stridently against the concept of restoring fish runs at the expense of agriculture, the valley's strongest economic engine. Modesto and Turlock irrigation customers could lose a third of their water in dry years under a proposal to be voted on later this year.
"I would see this as cataclysmic," said Vito Chiesa, a farmer and chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors, which on Tuesday formally opposed the proposal. It tries to balance wildly different needs, leaving people on various sides upset.
Those speaking for fish and wildlife said the State Water Resources Control Board's controversial proposal would not go far enough to restore salmon, which were plentiful before people began damming rivers more than a century ago.
The proposal could double flows in the Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers in the spring to help young salmon heading toward the ocean, instead of keeping snowmelt in dams for thirsty summer crops.
"If you want to avoid decline of the species, just avoiding jeopardy (with minimal increase) is not going to get you there," said Rhonda Reed of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Nick Blom, Modesto Irrigation District board chairman, noted that in addition to helping growers, the district supplies up to 40 million gallons daily to Modesto water customers, and that a water treatment plant expansion will double that amount. Water and electricity bills "both would have to rise" if fish advocates get their way, "further straining households and businesses," Blom said.
Michael Frantz, Turlock Irrigation District board chairman, said no other entity has studied and monitored the Tuolumne River more than the TID, yet state water staff apparently ignored the district's 160 pages of input when devising the proposal.
The two districts, which are partners on the Tuolumne, will have another say at this morning's continued hearing in a formal presentation by the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, which includes four other water agencies. Eighteen people arrived Wednesday on a bus chartered by the districts, and the Merced Irrigation District sent more on another bus.
Ashley Bandoni of Merced County called bus riders "the true environmentalists in this room. I challenge you to find a better steward of the land than a farmer."
The state water board is expected to rule later this year.
Jake Wenger of Modesto said he takes exception to testimony suggesting that water could be freed up if growers were to become more efficient. He monitors moisture levels in leaves to know exactly when and how much to water walnut and almond trees, he said, and too much can introduce disease.
State representatives said the valley has too much poverty and can't withstand more unemployment if hundreds of jobs are lost when unwatered fields are fallowed. Pointing to families out of work, Sen. Tom Berryhill said, "We're going to hose those folks, the way (the proposal) reads right now."
Forcing a poor region to sacrifice more "is like asking somebody on unemployment for a loan," Assemblyman Adam Gray said. "I'm here to appeal to your sense of decency and humanity."
Several speakers from Modesto to Merced invited state leaders to tour the Northern San Joaquin Valley for a first-hand look at who and what their decision will affect.
Fish and wildlife advocates were every bit as strident that rivers need much more than the state proposes for native fish to fully rebound.
"They're so good to eat. There's nothing better than a wild salmon," said Jacqueline Douglas, a commercial fishing skipper. "God bless the salmon."
Some recognized the impossibility of satisfying both sides.
"There's not enough water and too many users. How do you manage that?" John Sikora of Trout Unlimited told the water board. "It's an incredible burden you guys have."
Some speakers had no financial interest in either side, but were intrigued by an issue with seemingly no middle ground. They included Oakdale businessman Jeff Goschen, who said, "I'm that average guy and I represent millions who use our natural resources. I really care about this stuff. What happens when (altered) flows devastate our area?"
The hearing continues at 9 a.m. today on the second floor of the Cal-EPA Building, 1001 I St., Sacramento. No chartered buses are planned today. Written comments can be submitted by noon on March 29; the draft document is at http://tinyurl.com/awrxvx3.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2390.