A state panel heard arguments Tuesday for providing more river water for fish – and from Hilmar FFA members who said this would devastate farmers.
The State Water Resources Control Board launched its formal hearing on a proposed doubling of flows on the lower Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers each February through June.
Fishing and environmental groups had most of the scheduled time, and they used it to contend that salmon and other fish have suffered from diversions to farms and cities.
The Hilmar High School students took advantage of the brief slots for the general public to warn of the consequences: Less water for almonds, dairy feed and other crops. More pumping of already-stressed groundwater. Less income for truckers who haul farm products and for one parent who makes his living spreading manure.
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“My family (is) fourth-generation farmers in the Central Valley, and I would like to grow up to be a fifth-generation farmer,” student Ethan Jones told the board. “However, I am worried that it may not be possible.”
Hilmar sent about 25 of the 400 members in its chapter of FFA, originally known as Future Farmers of America.
“Our community revolves around farms and dairies,” member Derek Rios said. “Without them, our community will be nothing.”
The hearing will move to Stockton on Dec. 16, to Merced on Dec. 19 and to Modesto on Dec. 20. The board will hold a final session in Sacramento on Jan. 3 and take written comment until Jan. 17. It could make a final decision in July.
The plan calls for boosting the rivers to 40 percent of the natural flow in pre-dam times. The three rivers combined are at about 20 percent now, but the Stanislaus already is under a somewhat higher standard.
J.D. Richey, a fishing guide in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, supported a large increase in flows.
“My industry is in disrepair right now – total collapse,” he said. “The main reason for that is lack of water.”
Environmental leaders said the low flows lead to high water temperatures and other problems for salmon and steelhead trout, which both travel between the rivers and the Pacific Ocean. Kyle Jones of Sierra Club California urged a 60 percent level.
The proposal also aims to reduce salinity in the Delta, which is tapped as a water supply for much of California.
The water board’s staff projects a 14 percent drop in river supplies in average years, and 38 percent in “critically dry” years. Farmers, city water suppliers and other critics say the state has underestimated the lost income and jobs.
“We’re looking at probably 800 small farms disappearing if this gets implemented, if this doesn’t get changed,” said Gail Delihant, director of California government affairs for Western Growers.
Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation, also blasted the plan. “This proposal is a taking, and it’s taking legal water rights away,” he said.
The upcoming hearings will include scheduled speakers from cities, farm groups and other people in each of the three affected counties.
John Holland: 209-578-2385