Modesto councilman rallying support to contribute in effort to fight state water plan

The Stanislaus River is pictured Wednesday afternoon July 11, 2018 at Caswell Memorial State Park in Ripon, Calif.
The Stanislaus River is pictured Wednesday afternoon July 11, 2018 at Caswell Memorial State Park in Ripon, Calif.

A Modesto councilman called on the city to contribute toward efforts to resist a state water grab that's become an emotionally charged issue in the region.

Councilman Mani Grewal said at Tuesday's council meeting the state plan to take large amounts of Tuolumne River water to rejuvenate the Sacramento-San Joaquin River delta would create a "regulatory drought" in Stanislaus County.

City leaders didn't say how much could be spent opposing the state proposal. The matter will be brought back for discussion.

"We cannot afford this plan," Grewal said. "We cannot afford it for our region and we cannot afford it for our citizens."

Grewal mentioned potential litigation as one way of fighting the state water grab. The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, which are co-owners of Don Pedro Dam, and other water districts would most likely take the lead in an anticipated lawsuit to challenge the proposal.

The State Water Resources Control Board proposal released Friday would set an unimpeded flow of 40 percent from February to June on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers, which are tributaries of the San Joaquin River course that feeds the south delta. In other words, Don Pedro and other Sierra dams would not retain 40 percent of the rivers' natural flow but would let it run to the delta.

That would leave far less water for irrigated farmland and other users in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. A state staff report said the proposal would take an average of 288,000 acre feet of water a year for environmental purposes, including attempts to restore salmon in the rivers.

The proposed shift in water allocations also coincides with the Delta tunnels project and plans for sending more water to Southern California, further stirring emotions.

Local irrigation districts, cities and the county predict severe impacts in terms of agricultural losses, stepped up groundwater pumping, depressed land values and economic losses. One estimate has put potential job losses at 6,500.

In an agreement with MID, Modesto since the 1990s has supplied treated Tuolumne River water to homes and businesses, serving to stabilize the groundwater underneath the city of 215,000, Grewal said.

The councilman said the city should help with fighting the water grab regardless of whether it affects the city's surface water agreement with MID. He cited estimates of billions of dollars in economic losses from the proposal.

City Attorney Adam Lindgren said he's had detailed conversations with MID's legal staff about responding to the state plan. The MID has joined with Turlock Irrigation District in the Worth Your Fight campaign opposing the Bay Delta plan..

County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said he favors a broader information campaign to educate state lawmakers and the public on the ramifications of the state proposal. He talked with the city councils of Turlock and Hughson, which could possibly support the cause along with other cities.

The county Board of Supervisors is expected to see a request Tuesday for $50,000 that could be spent on public education and additional costs of fighting the water grab. The county would be more of a cheerleader, rather than a plaintiff, in a lawsuit against the state.

“We need to broaden our audience,” Chiesa said.

Local entities have until July 27 to submit comments on the final proposal, though elected officials have said more than 6,500 comments on a 2016 Bay Delta update were virtually ignored by the state water board.

The state board could vote in August to approve the sweeping decision on water allocations, which also affects the Sacramento River.