Competing interests on the Tuolumne River came into view Wednesday at a cordial early-stage hearing featuring familiar opponents.
Environmentalists and agribusiness have been squaring off for years, with the former hoping to loosen the latter’s century-plus-long claim to a significant portion of river water. That dynamic played out again Wednesday at the start of a licensing process for a power plant at La Grange Dam, owned by the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts.
“Real smart people in the 1880s allowed us to turn a desert into something different,” said Vito Chiesa, a farmer and Stanislaus County supervisor, crediting irrigation for the dramatic landscape change. Everyone benefits, he said, adding that farms and related interests bring $10 billion each year to the local economy in his county alone.
Leonard Van Elderen, president of Yosemite Farm Credit, said his bank has loaned $1.5 billion to agribusinesses in Stanislaus and Merced counties, most secured by farmland with its value linked to reliable irrigation.
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On the other side are people disappointed that the change in historical river flow has decimated the salmon population and affected other wildlife. Brad Barker of the local Sierra Club chapter said only 3 percent to 4 percent of natural habitat remains from what people enjoyed during the Gold Rush era.
Emilio Martinez, a Modesto resident and volunteer with the Tuolumne River Trust, said he’s seen a decline in fish in the 45 years he’s lived near the river. He and Steve Edmondson of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service asked for studies on fish passage, or the idea of trucking salmon around La Grange Dam and its much larger neighbor, Don Pedro Dam, which block migration and hurt spawning.
Both dams belong to the sister irrigation districts, which hope that their appeal in federal court in Washington, D.C., will release them from needing a license for the La Grange plant, saving perhaps $14 million and two years of effort.
Not willing to wait for a ruling, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission held the hearing, plus another in Modesto Wednesday night, to gather public input on how involved La Grange studies should be. The agency will accept additional comments through July 22 at www.ferc.gov/docs-filing/efiling.asp. All will be “taken into serious consideration,” FERC fisheries biologist Jim Hastreiter said.
The irrigation districts are spending roughly $50 million studying Don Pedro for a separate powerhouse license that could be ruled on in a couple of years.
Both licenses are unrelated to another ongoing effort by state water officials to boost fish habitat. They intend to order the districts to release more water from dams to help fish migrate in the spring, reducing the volume needed to water thirsty crops in the summer.
In addition to helping farms, the irrigation districts rely on hydropower for some of their electricity output, MID provides half of Modesto’s water supply, and the river and its lakes provide much recreation.