Merced crowd decries river flow plan

Cannella questions river flow plan

State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, speaks about a state plan to boost river flows on Monday, December 19, 2016, in Merced, California. (John Holland/
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State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, speaks about a state plan to boost river flows on Monday, December 19, 2016, in Merced, California. (John Holland/

The largest crowd yet blasted the state plan to boost river flows Monday, warning that it would devastate the region’s economy while doing little for fish.

More than 600 people gathered at the Merced Theatre for the third of five hearing sessions on the proposed reservoir releases along the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.

“Could you please tell the audience what law gives you the authority to double – or more – the amount of water you can take from the irrigation districts?” almond grower Gary Tessier asked the State Water Resources Control Board.

Atwater Mayor Jim Price was even more blunt: “Are you people nuts?”

The hearing, which resumes Tuesday morning in Modesto, deals with a state effort to protect salmon and other native fish in the rivers and reduce salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Proponents say diversions to farms and cities have left only about 20 percent of natural flows overall, and they sometimes drop to less than 10 percent.

The agency proposes to increase the volume to 40 percent of pre-dam levels from February through June of each year, when water suppliers capture most of their runoff.

The hearing started Nov. 29 in Sacramento and continued Friday in Stockton. The board will hold another session in the capital Jan. 3 and take written comment until Jan. 17. It could make a final decision in July.

Merced farmers showed up in downtown Merced on tractors Monday morning to take a stand against the State Water Resources Control Board's Bay-Delta Plan.

About two dozen tractors sat parked on Merced’s Main Street, bearing signs that read “farmers fed up,” as the hearing participants arrived on a chilly Monday morning.

The Merced Irrigation District offered its own plan for salmon recovery – restoration of spawning gravel and other habitat, control of predation by non-native bass, and flow increases that are well-timed.

“We’re not saying that we don’t have to do something for fish,” General Manager John Sweigard said, “but I think we have a fundamental disagreement about how to go about that.”

The state plan amounts to “takings” of property without compensation, said Bill Lyons Jr., who raises cattle and crops southwest of Modesto and served as secretary of food and agriculture for Gov. Gray Davis.

“The board and the staff have lost the trust of an entire region in the state of California,” he said.

The agency estimates a 14 percent reduction in river supplies in average years and 38 percent in “critically dry” years. Opponents said this would force farms and cities to increase well pumping, despite a separate state mandate for sustainable groundwater.

Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said the plan would add to losses from the drought of recent years, which at times left many farmers with zero river water.

“Folks are mad as hell, and they don’t want to take it anymore,” he said.

Fishing and environmental groups spoke at the earlier hearing sessions, as did state and federal fishery experts. Some of them urged at least 50 percent of pre-dam flows to best help salmon and other fish.

John Holland: 209-578-2385

Up next: Modesto

  • What: Public hearing on proposed flow increases for Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers
  • When: 9 a.m. Tuesday
  • Where: Modesto Centre Plaza, 1000 K St.

Final session: Sacramento

  • When: 9 a.m. Jan. 3
  • Where: Coastal Hearing Room, California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, 1001 I St.

Each session will start with a presentation by the staff of the State Water Resources Control Board. 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

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