In Tuolumne County, farm, fish, raft and drought battles heating up

03/02/2014 5:43 PM

03/02/2014 10:27 PM

Tuolumne County, which is home to 10 dams and two rivers but has no rights to the water in them, wants a share of Don Pedro Reservoir’s wealth.

The county’s demand for fair play surfaced in a recent flurry of comments submitted by agencies on several levels, and environmentalists and whitewater rafting outfits, all with high-stakes interests in a new federal license for the large foothills lake relied on by millions for drinking and irrigation water, agribusiness, recreation and electricity.

Also, drought and related groundwater concerns have entered the debate over who should get how much water from its source, the Tuolumne River.

Experts have said Don Pedro accounts for $27 billion each year in jobs, products and other benefits. Tuolumne County gets about $25 million of that, or less than one in every thousand dollars.

“These benefits are miniscule” compared with downstream users such as Stanislaus County, said Evan Royce, chairman of the Tuolumne Board of Supervisors, in a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That agency eventually will weigh whether to renew a hydropower permit for the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which own the reservoir along with San Francisco.

“As the protector of the watershed that feeds Lake Don Pedro, Tuolumne County’s responsibility outweighs its benefits and should be compensated accordingly,” Royce continued. The county “worked tirelessly” during last year’s catastrophic Rim fire “to protect the watershed without any direct water supply benefit,” he said.

The multiyear relicensing effort, which is costing MID and TID at least $50 million and won’t conclude for two more years, has focused largely on the needs of salmon. Environmental advocates say the districts should release far more of the reservoir’s water into the river to boost fish spawning and habitat, but that could significantly harm farmers and related businesses requiring a steady summer water source.

Rising chorus

The districts in 2011 began a process to renew their permit, which expires in 2016, and filed a draft application in November. A deadline for comments on that document came Friday, with Tuolumne leaders, environmentalists and rafters submitting the most strident arguments.

For example, the group Restore Hetch Hetchy blasted the water districts and San Francisco, which have dominated the river’s use for more than a century, for failing to consider alternatives to the status quo. “It defies logic to say the current configuration of the system is the only way” of doing things, the group contended.

A large consortium of other environmental and commercial fishing interests, calling themselves conservation groups, said the draft document lacks important information needed for so important a decision as how much water should flow in the Tuolumne.

For example, it’s possible that more water coming down the river could replenish aquifers imperiled by a recent surge in well pumping, the conservation groups said. Such underground sources may be strained by a rush to drill huge industrial wells to keep alive millions of almond trees replacing grazing land on the Valley’s east side, and by other farmers expecting to get only half the amount of surface water to which they’re accustomed because of the drought.

“More information is needed to understand (the river’s) effect on groundwater hydrology,” the conservation groups said, noting that the irrigation districts’ document does not include groundwater data later than 2008 and suggesting that a reservoir license might contemplate “reduction of groundwater pumping within the districts.”

Conservation groups also criticized the districts for insisting that salmon are not flourishing because many of their young fall prey to nonnative predators such as bass, while ignoring the concept of boosting salmon numbers with more river water. “It is impossible to evaluate the effectiveness and compare costs and benefits of alternatives that are not on the table,” the groups said.

What of river benefits?

Also, MID and TID went to lengths to describe socio-economic benefits – mainly jobs and recreation – of the lake and river, but paid little attention to boosts in fishing, rafting and tourism that would accompany a healthier river, the groups said.

The districts are likely to attack the groups’ suggestion that Valley homes and businesses should cut back on watering landscapes, and that farmers should switch from low-value crops to those that fetch higher prices while requiring less water.

Also, the conservation groups object to MID and TID valuing their water at upward of $700 per acre-foot, or the price that San Francisco was willing to pay the MID before the idea was dropped under heated protest in 2012. Because San Francisco now is exploring paying another utility $275 per acre-foot, that amount should be used as “the upper limit” in the Don Pedro application, the conservation groups said.

The contention ignores the MID board’s decision Tuesday allowing farmers to sell each other water at any price, with values expected to be at least $400 per acre-foot; some leaders expect water to go for much more, and a Fresno-area auction recently fetched bids of more than $1,000 per acre-foot.

The districts sponsored 38 studies, about half dedicated to fish, but many are incomplete, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said. That agency wants more information on red-legged frogs, tiger salamanders, bald eagles and predation of young salmon.

The districts object to a FERC order that they engage in a similar licensing application for the smaller La Grange Dam, and have appealed to a higher court in Washington, D.C.

On Wednesday, FERC denied more time for the irrigation districts to pull together part of that application, rejecting their plea that the drought “will seriously stretch the resources of the districts and their ratepayers in an area of the state already hard-hit by the continuing economic downturn.” However, FERC gave the districts more time to complete studies on how they would respond to disasters that might cause the dam to fail.

Improvements sought

Four commercial rafting companies, the Stanislaus National Forest and the Tuolumne County Water Agency all criticized a lack of facilities at Wards Ferry Bridge, where people end whitewater trips and pull out their rafts. Suggestions for adding a 10-foot-wide ramp were universally condemned as inadequate, with some outfitters advocating a ramp 60 feet wide.

“A single vehicle access would result in angry, frustrating conflicts,” said Marty McDonnell, president of Groveland-based Sierra Mac River Trips.

Rafting advocates urge many more improvements, including paved paths on both sides of the river, more parking, restrooms with showers, clean drinking water, cellphone service and patrolling to combat vandalism to cars.

The districts expect to submit a final application April 30 and FERC in 2016 could issue a license with new conditions on fish and other concerns. The process is not related to another effort by state water officials to force the districts to improve fish survival rates by releasing more water.

As for water rights, Modesto Bee columnist Jeff Jardine explained that Tuolumne County has none because the downstream districts and others snatched them up in the 1800s.

The districts formed in 1887 and began damming the river in 1893, with improvements leading to New Don Pedro Dam in 1971. The reservoir is California’s sixth-largest and holds about 2 million acre-feet, although the current level is far lower because of the drought.

The dam these days provides a small portion of the districts’ hydropower and stores water for a combined 207,000 acres farmed in the two districts.

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