New Melones Reservoir would hold virtually nothing in about one in seven years if the state’s river flow plan goes through, water managers said Friday.
They spoke at a State Water Resources Control Board hearing that also drew support for boosting the lower Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to help fish.
About 250 people turned out at the Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium for the second of five hearing sessions on the contentious idea. Modesto and Merced will get their turns next week.
Two main users of New Melones on the Stanislaus – the Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts – said the proposed reservoir releases would reduce the storage that has helped them through droughts. They project that the next century will bring 13 years dry enough to deplete the supply.
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Droughts “are going to be longer and they are going to be deeper,” OID General Manager Steve Knell told the board.
This will mean fewer people visiting New Melones, said Supervisor Randy Hanvelt of Tuolumne County, where part of the reservoir is located.
“Recreation is a big part of our economy,” he said. “We are the playground of the Central Valley and, I might add, the Bay Area.”
The board will hold a final hearing session Jan. 3 in Sacramento and take written comment until Jan. 17. It could make a final decision in July.
The agency aims to build up salmon and other native fish by increasing flows from February through June each year, when most of the runoff happens. Its staff estimates a 14 percent drop in river supplies in average years and 38 percent in “critically dry” times.
Another speaker from Tuolumne County, where two of the three rivers have their headwaters, supported an even larger boost than the state seeks. John Buckley, executive director of the Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center, said this would provide cool water and other benefits for fish in the lower stretches.
Critics in agriculture say the plan would lead to more pumping of stressed aquifers at a time when the state has mandated sustainable use of this resource. They urge fishery improvements that do not involve flow, such as restoring spawning gravel and controlling predation by non-native bass.
The five-member board includes Turlock-area resident Dorene D’Adamo, who read a prepared statement urging local parties to reach compromises for each river.
“You also know where the predators hang out, where habitat improvements have made a difference or not made a difference,” she said.
James Cox, president of the California Striped Bass Association, challenged the idea that this introduced fish is a key factor in the salmon decline. The former fishing boat guide said higher river flows would help these and other species that swim out to the Pacific Ocean, including steelhead and sturgeon.
The Tuolumne River Trust used its scheduled time Friday to speak about San Francisco’s use of this stream, not the larger diversions by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. Policy Director Peter Drekmeier said city residents have cut their water use by a third in recent years and can do more.
“We were able to achieve great things with no economic impact,” he said.
Higher river volumes also had support from Michael Frost of San Carlos, south of San Francisco, and daughter Penelope, 7.
“Please, please protect the water flowing all the way to the ocean,” she said.
John Holland: 209-578-2385
The State Water Resources Control Board will hold three more hearing sessions on the river flow proposal, all starting at 9 a.m.:
Speakers: Merced Irrigation District, Merced County, San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, Restore Hetch Hetchy
Location: Merced Theatre, 301 W. Main St.
Speakers: City of Modesto; Stanislaus County; Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers Groundwater Basin Association; Turlock Irrigation District; Stanislaus Regional Water Authority jointly with city of Turlock; Stanislaus County Farm Bureau; Yosemite Farm Credit Association; Modesto Irrigation District
Location: Modesto Centre Plaza, 1000 K St.
JAN. 3, SACRAMENTO
Speakers: State and federal fishery agencies and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; California Department of Water Resources; San Francisco and other Bay Area users of Tuolumne River; other speakers from water suppliers and sport fishing
Location: Coastal Hearing Room, California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, 1001 I St.
Each session will start with a presentation by the water board staff. Members of the general public then can speak for up to three minutes each. Scheduled speakers will follow with longer presentations. Written public comment will be received until Jan. 17. More information is at www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights.