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Job losses, farm cuts and other devastating impacts predicted from state's water plan

The Stanislaus River is pictured Thursday afternoon May 10, 2018 near the McHenry Recreation Area in Escalon, Calif.
The Stanislaus River is pictured Thursday afternoon May 10, 2018 near the McHenry Recreation Area in Escalon, Calif. jlee@modbee.com

A final state water board plan released Friday came as no surprise to local irrigation districts and county and city officials battling what they call a state water grab.

The State Water Resources Control Board wants dams such as Don Pedro to release 40 percent of natural river flows to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to address what the state calls an "ecological crisis."

Farmers in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, along with Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, business leaders and elected officials expect devastating impacts to the agriculture industry, the economy, groundwater and the quality of life.

The state's Bay-Delta plan could take as much as 50 percent of February-to-June river flows in some years and 30 percent in others, depending on whether there are agreements with local water users for improving conditions for fisheries. A major goal in the plan — which appears headed for a battle in the courts — is restoring severely depleted salmon migrations in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

(The Bee's Mike Dunbar blasts the decision)

"The San Francisco Bay-Delta is an ecosystem in crisis," State Water Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in releasing the proposal for balancing interests in the delta. It will replace a 20-year-old guide that the state says is woefully outdated..

Officials in Stanislaus County warned the loss of water rights will result in thousands of acres of fallowed farmland, overdrafted groundwater and spikes in unemployment for a region with an historic reliance on water stored in Sierra reservoirs.

Local agencies organized in the "Worth Your Fight" campaign, launched to resist the water grab, point to expert opinion that larger flows won't have much affect on the severely impaired Delta ecosystem.

In a joint statement Friday, the MID and TID charged that the state board disregarded almost 6,600 comments from the campaign, as well as technical analysis that challenged the credibility of a 2016 update of the Delta plan.

"The state water board thinks this plan will have limited harmful effects," the districts said. "But we know this water grab will have devastating impacts to our region. ... We are disappointed, but unfortunately not surprised, that state water board staff decided to ignore these site-specific, peer reviewed studies."

The two irrigation districts, which are co-owners of Don Pedro dam, are joining forces with other water agencies to ask for more time for comment on the final proposal. The state on Friday said it would allow 21 days for comments.

The California Farm Water Coalition and Merced Irrigation District also voiced opposition to the state's proposal, which has slowly taken shape over nine years.

The CFWC warned the state action would leave thousands of acres of farmland with zero surface water in certain years, stripping the region of 6,500 jobs and $1.6 billion in economic output. The state's updated environmental document released Friday recognized those kind of impacts, but there were no changes to lessen the damage to local communities, the coalition said.

Terry Withrow, a supervisor for Stanislaus County and its 555,000 residents, said everyone from farmers to business owners to homeowners and disadvantaged residents would share in the pain of losing the water.

“The whole thing is very disheartening,” county Supervisor Terry Withrow said. “It is almost as if they are tone deaf. They didn’t listen to any of our concerns from this county and it would be devastating for this community.”

The supervisor described a domino effect of stingier water deliveries for farmers, loss of production and a collapse in farmland values, leading to less tax revenue for the county to pay for basic public services. "We are not going to stand by and let this happen,” said Withrow, who suggested the stage is being set for litigation.

The Merced Irrigation District echoed statements that it's an irresponsible water grab and will devastate one of the most disadvantaged regions in the state, while not benefiting salmon or wildlife.

"The district has maintained for years that simply diverting senior water rights away from our community for the benefit of others solves nothing," the Merced district said.

The "Save the Stan" campaign, composed of Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, projected an economic gut punch causing as much as $12.9 billion in annual losses to agribusiness, food processing and related industries. The two districts using Stanislaus River water to serve a combined 110,000 acres and 5,000 farmers, joined others in charging the state had ignored the economic concerns, their knowledge of the delta and ideas for water resource management.

State officials and local districts seem to agree that about 20 percent of naturally flowing water in the Tuolumne runs downstream from Don Pedro, though state water officials prefer to say upward of 80 percent is diverted for farmers and city customers or stored behind the dam.

The state plan is premised on a theory that more springtime water in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers would mimic the natural conditions that supported the evolution of salmon and other species.

Experts including Delta Watermaster Michael George and Jay Lund, professor of watershed sciences at UC Davis, have been skeptical that increased flows will have the desired effect, because the Delta environment is too severely impaired. The Delta, with its twisting channels, creates a feeding zone for nonnative bass to erase young salmon that are trying reach the San Francisco Bay and ocean, according to critics of the state plan.

Local irrigation districts argue the state water board ignored economic studies and testimony on an increase in “unimpaired flow" that were delivered at a December 2016 hearing.

Marcus, the state water board chairwoman, said she agrees that a combination of "flow and nonflow" solutions are needed to improve the devastated fisheries linked to the delta.

Several times during a conference call Friday, water board officials indicated they want agreements with water users and other delta stakeholders that would restore habitat or reduce pollution.

Marcus suggested that agreements with water users in Stanislaus and nearby counties could reduce the amount sacrificed to unimpaired flow requirements. Flows at 50 percent are based on an assumption of no agreements, but “settlements are going to get you to 40 percent or below,” Marcus said.

“We know the fish would be much healthier if they had 60 percent in the San Joaquin River,” Marcus added. “Trust me, you will hear from people who think the flow should be much higher.”

The state board plans to accept comments on the plan until noon July 27. The proposal could be adopted following a hearing later in the year.

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