State water board won’t vote next week on controversial river flow plan

Felicia Marcus at a water symposium in Modesto in 2015.
Felicia Marcus at a water symposium in Modesto in 2015.

The State Water Board is making it clear that it won’t vote next week on a much-disputed proposal to require higher river flows for improving water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta.

Felicia Marcus, who chairs the water board, said in a letter Wednesday to the California Natural Resources Agency that final action will be taken at a board meeting later.

Hearings Tuesday and Wednesday in Sacramento are still set for considering comments on the final amendments to the Bay-Delta plan, which would require dams in the Sierra to release 40 percent of flows in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers from February through June to help young salmon swim downstream to the ocean.

In her letter Wednesday to state Natural Resources Secretary John Laird, Marcus said Tuesday’s hearing will provide the final opportunity for comment on the proposed action. Leaders in Stanislaus County, who strongly oppose the plan, had heard rumors the board would postpone action on the river flow requirements.

Marcus has said the state agency wants to see negotiated agreements with local irrigation districts for increased river flows and other measures to assist devastated native fish populations including salmon. “Board members and staff have repeatedly emphasized that voluntary settlement agreements can provide a faster, more durable solution to reasonably protect beneficial uses in the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries,” Marcus wrote.

The board recognizes the importance of river flows, combined with “nonflow actions” to improve the fisheries, Marcus’ letter said. The state’s Natural Resources Agency is supposed to play a role in talks with local irrigation districts, which hold historic water rights on the rivers and claim the flow requirements will have devastating economic effects on the region.

Vito Chiesa, a Stanislaus County supervisor, said the state board has ignored the findings of scientific studies commissioned by Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts on salmon migration in the Tuolumne River. Those studies arrive at conclusions that differ from biological studies supporting greater river flows as the primary solution. The districts have recommended steps to reduce nonnative fish that feed on young salmon.

Representatives from MID, TID and other irrigation districts are expected to speak at the hearings next week.