State water officials said Wednesday that their plan to aid salmon could involve more than simply boosting river flows at the expense of farmers.
They said streambed improvements and other options could be part of the effort to build back salmon numbers on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.
"We are actively looking at nonflow measures that can be taken," said Dorene D'Adamo of Turlock, who was appointed in March to the State Water Resources Control Board.
About 75 people turned out at the Stanislaus County Agricultural Center to hear about the plan. Of most concern to farmers is a tentative proposal to increase the February-through-June flows on all three rivers to 35 percent of the natural conditions before they were diverted.
Over an average year, this would mean a 15 percent drop in diversions from the Tuolumne, mainly used by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. The figure is 13 percent for the Merced, but only 3 percent for the Stanislaus, which already contributes a greater share to fisheries.
The water is intended to help young salmon get through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and out to the Pacific Ocean, where they live for a few years before returning to spawn in their native rivers.
The meeting was organized by the Middle San Joaquin Watershed Group, created to discuss water issues in the region.
Irrigation districts have argued that salmon are affected by much more than reduced river levels. They urge cleanup of polluted streams, enhancement of spawning gravel and other habitat features, and control of nonnative striped bass, which prey on salmon.
What about 'predation'?
"We believe that predation is a really huge problem," said Allen Short, executive director of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority and former general manager at the MID. "If that can get fixed, it goes a long way to restoring the fishery."
Milton O'Haire, agricultural commissioner for Stanislaus County, said its farms had gross income of about $3.1 billion in 2011, and many people were employed via the ripple effect by processors, suppliers and other businesses.
Supporters of farming said the reduced river diversions could mean more use of overdrafted groundwater basins.
D'Adamo, who has been a staff member for three congressmen in the region, said the board has to weigh the water needs of farmers while also looking out for city residents, industry and the environment.
"I understand the concern about the economic impact for the area," she said.
Les Grober, assistant deputy director for water rights at the board, said it could issue a revised plan in the summer. The board could make a final decision in December.
The salmon industry was invited to send a representative to the meeting but could not do so, organizer Chester Anderson said. The reason: Wednesday was the start of the commercial season off the coast.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.