March 18, 2014

Our View: Valley clings to hint of good news on water

When it comes to water, we’re so desperate for good news that even not-so-bad news sounds good.

When it comes to water, we’re so desperate for good news that even not-so-bad news sounds good.

That’s how we characterize Tuesday’s announcement by three key water officials that they would modify the state’s emergency drought order to allow them more flexibility in delivering what little water we have to those who need it most.

They didn’t promise more water. They didn’t say that our wanderings through the desert of drought have ended. All they said was that February’s slightly above-average rainfall in the Sacramento watershed means there might be enough to share at least a little with deserving farmers.

That brought cautious cheers from state politicians – including Assembly members Kristin Olsen, Anthony Cannella and Adam Gray from around here.

This is good news, but we must remain mindful of the warning sounded by Tom Howard, executive officer of the State Water Control Resources Board: “This drought is still incredibly critical,” he said.

His wasn’t the only voice of caution.

“I want to be careful not to raise expectations that we have an abundant amount of water to deliver,” said Mark Cowin, director of the Department of Water Resources. But those farmers who are “first in line” for federal water allocations can expect at least something. That could have an impact on the west side of Stanislaus County, where the Exchange Contractors are hoping for at least 40 percent of their normal deliveries.

Salt incursion will be key to any decision. Growers near Ripon and Manteca already find salt water when they drill. If not enough water flows down the San Joaquin River and into the Delta, salt water can force its way up the Delta. Salt kills plants and freshwater fish.

“We are growing ever more confident we will maintain salinity control,” said Cowin, though emergency barriers might have to be installed in the Delta.

New Melones is the only area reservoir affected, with an impact on Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts.

Jeff Shields, SSJID’s general manager, greeted the news with at least a little relief but also a dose of realism, noting that Jeff Denham and other Republican U.S. representatives are conducting a “field hearing” in Fresno today and this action might “temper” the mood.

Shields wants the state to follow the rules established over the past century.

“We have water rights protocols in place specifically to create order in times like this,” he said. “Does that always mean it will be fair? I would argue that yes, it does.” He noted the “hundreds of millions of dollars” invested by area districts in dams and storage. Changing rules about who should get that water during scarcity is “exactly the wrong thing to do.”

In this case, the process was changed to make it more normal. That’s worth cheering, but we’ll save the high-fives for when we get serious about creating more water storage.

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