Ripon walnut farmers say proposed increased water releases will kill off trees and hurt local economy
Don Barton of Barton Ranch near Escalon is not mincing words over a state water board proposal. He says the plan to raise flows in the Stanislaus River is a disaster waiting to happen for farms on the river’s north side from Ripon to Oakdale.
As “unimpaired flows” are released from New Melones Dam located far upstream, more than 300 acres of the family’s walnut trees will be flooded for months during above-average water years and destroyed, he said. With a temporary “pulse flow” this year, pushing water over the bank, walnut trees owned by Barton stood in water 3 feet deep, killing 45 trees.
His brother, Gary, said Friday that vineyards and orchards owned by multiple growers upstream of the Ripon ranch also will sustain flood damage, thanks to the state’s plan to provide higher river flows for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Along with 110 acres of walnuts owned by Barton in the floodplain near Ripon, about 200 acres of mature walnuts will be flooded on Barton Ranch property across the Stanislaus from Riverbank, the brothers said. Two other growers with crops near the Stanislaus said Monday they’re concerned about potential flood damage from the state proposal.
“It is going to have a huge impact on our business,” Don Barton said, noting the family’s walnut growing and processing business has 60 employees year-round.
The Bartons and many other farmers are caught in a battle over the State Water Resources Control Board’s final Bay Delta Plan, released in early July, which proposes that dams release 40 percent of the natural flows in rivers to benefit the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta from February through June. Unlike the Bartons’ situation, water shortages are the primary threat to agriculture in Stanislaus, Merced and southern San Joaquin County.
What follows is important information on questions posed by readers about elements of the water board plan, which could bring profound changes to the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The board could approve the plan following hearings Aug. 21-22 in Sacramento.
1. Why are local leaders upset about the plan?
The proposed releases from Don Pedro, New Melones and New Exchequer (McClure Reservoir) dams will send water running past cities and farms to the Delta and San Francisco Bay, leaving far less storage in reservoirs for agriculture and cities.
To use those time-honored words on the Modesto arch, an old symbol for a city built on dam construction, it’s expected to diminish the region’s “water wealth” or reservoir storage that’s a hedge against frequent droughts in the Central Valley. It could eliminate the “contentment” of reliable paychecks for thousands and pose a threat to “health” in a region that boasts impressive agriculture but also houses more than 1 million people.
“I can’t think of an issue that is more important than this,” County Supervisor Terry Withrow said recently in urging local agencies to go to war over the state plan.
The utilities district serving San Francisco and sister cities in the Bay Area, which receive Tuolumne River water, says the plan will strain its ability to meet the water needs of homes and businesses.
Some have suggested that irrigation districts have exaggerated the impact of 40 percent unimpaired flows in the rivers, with claims of billions of dollars in economic losses and job losses in the thousands. But groups bent on protecting the Delta say 40 percent won’t restore the fish and that’s expected to exert pressure on Modesto, Turlock and other irrigation districts to give up 50 percent or even 60 percent of natural flows from February through June.
“Let’s hope we don’t have to go there because the impacts just get worse,” said Peter Rietkerk, general manager of South San Joaquin Irrigation District.
Stanislaus County officials, who claim the plan is deeply flawed, say state leaders are dangerously applying environmental law to muscle the water from irrigation districts that have historic water rights. Most everyone believes this battle over these rights will be decided in the courts.
Some, including Delta advocates, are suspicious the water is desired to replace Sacramento River water in the estuary after Gov. Jerry Brown’s tunnels are built to send large amounts of water to the southern San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
Water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus says the increased flows in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers are needed to support fish that have been pushed to the brink of extinction. In her opinion, water users can adapt by switching crops, becoming more efficient and storing more water in wet times.
2. How much water will be released from Don Pedro and the two other reservoirs to meet the proposed requirements?
According to the plan, the state wants to use 40 percent of the February-to-June Sierra runoff in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers, which are tributaries of the San Joaquin, to restore fisheries and improve conditions in the Delta. Normally, Don Pedro and New Exchequer dams release varying amounts from 21 percent to 28 percent.
The state has estimated the total releases for salmon will average 300,000 acre feet a year for the three rivers. But irrigation districts say the plan will take a larger amount of water. Last week, the MID said the average releases in the Tuolumne will more than triple from 216,000 to 673,000 acre feet, resulting in the loss of 457,000 acre feet a year that could be used for crop irrigation or drinking water.
To visualize that amount, you can fill Turlock Lake almost 10 times with 457,000 acre feet of water, and it’s enough to provide water for 1.3 million families a year, MID said. The Department of Interior said last week the state plan will reduce storage in New Melones by an estimated 315,000 acre feet a year. Merced Irrigation District expects to see a 200,000-acre-foot drop in water supplies in dry years.
Because of other requirements deeper in the plan, some predict that New Melones will be virtually empty in one out of seven years. Merced Irrigation District has called the Bay Delta Plan a “completely irresponsible water grab” that will make drought conditions more commonplace at Lake McClure, a recreation mecca.
In 2016, Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner Milton O’Haire estimated $5.6 billion in annual economic losses as 210,000 acres of farmland are fallowed due to water shortage, reducing harvests by 22 percent. On top of the $1.6 billion in reduced farm income, other factors including job losses and reduce spending would account for $3.5 billion in losses.
In a region dominated by agriculture and food and beverage processors, one estimate puts job losses at 6,500.
3. Would Modesto residents have less water for drinking, taking showers and watering lawns?
Modesto is supplied with treated Tuolumne River water for homes and businesses through an agreement with Modesto Irrigation District. That water runs through pipes from a Modesto Reservoir treatment plant to city customers.
In a drought, the city takes the same cuts as farmers who may receive shorter water allocations from the irrigation district, said Modesto Utilities Director William Wong.
If farmers are cut by 50 percent, the MID will reduce the water delivered to Modesto by the same rate, Wong said. If farmers are given no water, the city won’t see a drop.
With less water at Don Pedro Reservoir, “we will see drought conditions more often where we reduce the watering schedule for residents and have more enforcement so people are not watering on the wrong days,” Wong said.
When conservation measures are in place, residential customers use less water and the city takes in less revenue, Wong said.
Modesto’s use of surface water since the 1990s has served to stabilize the groundwater under the city. But more pumping will be necessary if cuts to surface water allocations are frequent, and that could draw down the aquifer and lead to ground subsidence.
“The way the trends look over the last few years, we will have more and more dry years,” Wong said. “With proper water management, Modesto can weather a dry period fairly well. When they take away our surface water resources, it creates an imbalance.”
Cities like Manteca in south San Joaquin County get about half their water from the SSJID treatment plant at Woodward Reservoir. Dry conditions forced SSJID to reduce allocations for agricultural customers and the cities by 25 percent in 2015.
Those customers could face dry-year reductions closer to 65 percent with full implementation of the state water plan, forcing the cities to pump more groundwater and face the costs of tougher drinking water standards, Rietkerk said.
4. Why are some predicting serious groundwater impacts that will threaten public health?
Local experts say the Modesto and Turlock area has avoided severe depletion of groundwater aquifers because of irrigation with surface water on 200,000 acres of farmland and Modesto’s use of treated water.
By leaving less water in reservoirs, the state plan could result in cuts to surface water irrigation and water allocations for the cities, triggering more groundwater pumping on a regular basis.
Of the 1.25 million people living in the broader region, no less than 130,000 rely on private wells for drinking water, according to the 2010 census.
If the state forces farms and cities to use less surface water and pump more from the ground, Stanislaus County fears widespread well failures, which will hit hard on seniors and disadvantaged residents who can’t afford to dig deeper wells.
County officials point to the well failures during the 2012-2015 drought that occurred under the current system of water allocations.
Walter Ward, county water resources manager, said there were hundreds of dry wells across Stanislaus County and many more in the region. County leaders heard continual reports of people living in homes for weeks or months without water for drinking, taking showers and flushing toilets.
After living in unsanitary conditions, 80 households were able to get temporary assistance from a county program that provided hookups to a portable tank plus water deliveries to refill the tank. Others waited for more than a year to have new wells sunk. Residents with dry wells in San Joaquin County called county offices only to find temporary assistance wasn’t available.
Officials predict a far more severe problem with dry residential wells if the state takes large amounts of water from the irrigation districts.
An environmental review on the water board plan recognized impacts to residential wells, which often draw from shallow aquifers and are subject to “degraded water quality, including the migration of contaminant plumes that impair water supplies.”
In comments on the environmental document, the MID said the water shortages will create a public health crisis by contaminating domestic wells in an area that is 75 percent comprised of disadvantaged communities.
5. How will farmers respond when water districts cut back on deliveries for irrigating 435,000 acres of farmland in the three counties?
Stan Chance, whose family grows almonds in Denair, said with the state plan, Turlock Irrigation District will cut irrigation deliveries for growers in dry years and farmers will pump groundwater to keep their trees alive. Almonds require 36 to 42 inches of water each year.
If the TID regularly cuts allocations from 48 inches to 18 inches in dry years, as was done in 2015, farmers will make hard decisions about fallowing ground or switching to crops that require less water, Chance said.
Conversion to lower-value crops causes property values to sink, reducing tax revenue that pays for law enforcement and other public services.
Darrell Cordova of Denair said there are strong incentives for growers to stick with almonds, even though groundwater pumping makes the electrical meter spin. He said strong almond prices were the only way to continue a farm his wife inherited and trying to switch to field crops may not be a good alternative.
“We used to grow grain and beans, and there was a lot of labor and the market wasn’t good,” Cordova said. “You need to have crops that keep you going.”
Cordova, who’s president of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, predicted water shortages under the state plan will force people out of business. He sees the water grab as a threat to a near century-old way of life created by construction of the original Don Pedro Dam in 1923 and the New Don Pedro Project completed in 1971.
Cordova said one of their two grown sons, who attended local schools, has returned to the 700-acre farm to learn the ropes and his wife, Norma, served on the Denair school board.
The Cordovas conserve water with micro-sprinklers in orchards and special planting techniques for corn silage.
Valley farmers like Chance and Cordova fear a regulatory vice grip, in which the state takes more surface water for the Delta and then restricts use of groundwater under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014.
Increased pumping by farmers and cities will make the groundwater unsustainable, and “then you are out of compliance with the state groundwater law,” Cordova noted.
To prepare for the March-to-October irrigation season, water stored in Don Pedro is sent to La Grange Dam and then funneled into Modesto and Turlock reservoirs. From there, it’s distributed through canals to agricultural customers; gates are opened to deliver the canal water to individual properties.
With the Bay Delta Plan, Justin Gioletti is afraid TID would provide less water for his dairy west of Turlock in a multiyear drought. Shorter allocations during the last four-year drought prompted the dairy to fallow almost 100 acres and move the irrigation water from that piece of ground to another and supplement with pump water.
If no TID water is available for agriculture in drought years, it could stunt local production of corn silage feed that requires 30-plus inches of irrigation water, Gioletti said. He might stop renting land and incur the extra costs of making a 50-mile trip to purchase feed from growers in the Delta.
“The dairy business is tough in California,” Gioletti said. “If you add water restrictions, it makes it that much harder. It has the potential to put us out of business.”
6. Why do groups trying to protect the Delta support the increase in river flows?
Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, director of Restore the Delta in Stockton, said inflows of freshwater are necessary for an estuary that suffers from a collapsing food web and devastated fisheries. During the last drought, toxic algal blooms spread in the warm waters and created pollutants near Stockton that were a danger to children, she said.
Restore the Delta was grateful the final water board proposal released in July assures that additional flows in the lower San Joaquin are not soon exported to entities south of the Delta, but will increase the outflow to San Francisco Bay. The group, however, wants to see stronger language on the subject.
Barrigan-Parrilla said there’s a scientific basis for 50- to 60-percent flows from the lower San Joaquin tributaries “if we have any hope of species recovery.”
She is sympathetic to the Stanislaus-area water districts in one regard. It isn’t fair the total burden of Delta restoration has fallen on those water districts, she stressed.
Friant Dam water users near Fresno and other districts with political clout in the upper San Joaquin should be required to contribute to a solution, she said. “If we take a step back and look at the whole picture, the process started in 2009 was based on a bad assumption that has required all the sacrifice to fall on those (eastern tributary) districts,” she said.
State water board staff said the upper San Joaquin districts are not participating because that arm of the river is not a salmon-bearing stream. Water from the upper San Joaquin is heavily allocated and efforts are under way to “rewater” virtually dry sections.
Peter Drekmeier, policy director for Tuolumne River Trust, said more water in the Tuolumne will boost salmon and steelhead trout.
By impounding runoff from the Sierra Nevada and releasing small amounts, construction of dams like Don Pedro turned cold, fast-moving streams in the Delta into warm, slow-moving channels that don’t support salmon, he said.
Stronger flows in spring would help young salmon hatching in the rivers to migrate to the ocean and restore the population to benefit the fishing industry and recreational angling, supporters of the plan say.
In advocating for higher flows, Drekmeier said the historic wet year of 1983 produced the return of 40,000 spawning salmon in the Tuolumne some 2 ½ years later, and the winter floods of 1997-98 set the stage for 18,000 returning adults.
“The big question is how much flow is necessary,” Drekmeier said. “Even with 40 percent, you could see improvement and it really matters how it is managed. You need Tuolumne pulse flows to get young fish to the ocean and fall attraction flows to cue adult salmon to come back to spawn.”
Drekmeier said one proposal from an irrigation district called for small changes in river flow combined with habitat restoration, but “it is virtually the status quo.”
TID maintains that more than 90 percent of juvenile salmon on the 52-mile stretch of the Tuolumne, between La Grange and Grayson, are eaten by nonnative bass before reaching the San Joaquin River.
That’s primarily based on a 2012 predation study by Fishbio consultants. An abundance of largemouth and striped bass fed on an estimated 62,000 juvenile salmon and about 2,300 made it to the San Joaquin, according to the study.
From there, less than 5 percent of the survivors would make it through the bass-infested Delta channels to the Bay, Fishbio Vice President Andrea Fuller said. The biologist said the effects of higher flows in 2006 and 2011 on the salmon population were not that impressive.
Drekmeier acknowledged predation is a factor, but nonnative bass in the Delta are a symptom of an altered ecosystem tied to the dams. Delta groups hope the wet conditions in 2017 produce a strong return of adult salmon in fall 2019.
Fuller said any attempts to help young salmon navigate the tributaries should include reducing the bass population. A bounty was offered for catching predatory fish from the salmon-depleted Columbia River in the Northwest.
Generous permitting for catching adult salmon in the ocean outside the Golden Gate are reversing gains in growing the chinook salmon runs, Fuller said, citing a study done for SSJID.
To benefit fishery resources, the TID’s Tuolumne River Management Plan proposes well-timed flows along with predator suppression, water hyacinth removal, gravel cleaning and sediment management, and a hatchery near the La Grange diversion dam.
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