Water plan will ‘decimate’ economy; hundreds converge at Capitol for protest

A boisterous rally Monday sent a message to the state to keep its hands off the water rights of communities in the Central Valley and reconsider a new water allocation plan that won’t be effective in restoring salmon in rivers.

About 1,500 attended the gathering outside the state Capitol Building organized by leaders from Stanislaus and Merced counties. People held signs and chanted “stop the water grab” in an outpouring of passion against an appointed state water board that proposes to take double the amount of water from the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers and use it for salmon restoration.

The water stored in Don Pedro, McClure and New Melones reservoirs is the lifeblood of farm-belt communities including Modesto and Merced and small towns like Hughson.

The participants, coming from counties that lack political clout, came to make noise on the Capitol steps. And nothing made harmonic noise like the Atwater High School marching band, led by director Michael Flores.

The rally brought together bipartisan elected officials, farmers and farmworkers, county and city officials and educators in unity to battle a state water board decision that could have profound impacts on the region. A series of speakers were backed on the Capitol steps by a banner and wall of blue-jacketed Future Farmers of America students, as well as dignitaries.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, who represents Merced and part of Stanislaus County, said that for six years he repeatedly called on the water board to listen to his district’s concerns and was refused.

“This plan will decimate the economy of the Central Valley,” Gray said. “We stand to lose $1.6 billion and over 6,000 jobs in my community alone.”

Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, whipped up the crowd, saying families were faced with catastrophic water shortage, “not because of any act of God but because of breathtakingly stupid acts of governance.”

Modesto Councilman Mani Grewal said the city, which purchases Tuolumne River water from Modesto Irrigation District for homes and businesses, is not about to hand over the water for a plan based on flawed science. “Our ratepayers paid for the infrastructure, ratepayers paid for the treatment plant, and they want to take our water from us? We will never, never surrender. We will continue to fight,” Grewal promised.

Jose Gonzalez, superintendent of the Planada Elementary School District, said Merced-area school districts asked the water board for more study on the impacts on school wells if river water is diverted away from farms and aquifers are overtaxed. He said the rural districts can’t afford to upgrade their wells or dig new ones.

Other speakers included Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock, and elected state officials from the Sacramento Valley, Salinas and the southern San Joaquin Valley, who were invited on the premise that their communities’ water rights are threatened by state actions.

Rally organizers had expected a State Water Resources Control Board decision on the Bay-Delta water quality plan this week, but officials indicated last week a vote will be postponed until an unspecified meeting. Hearings on the plan are set for Tuesday and also Wednesday if necessary.

More than 25 buses, some arranged by the Farm Bureaus in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties, transported people to the Capitol grounds.

Patricia Lopez was among employees of Duarte Nursery in Stanislaus County who wore orange shirts and carried signs at the rally. She said her earnings as a laborer provide for her daughters and grandkids.

“It’s not right they want to take our water,” Lopez said. “We need water for living. We need water for our jobs. We need water for our families.”

Scores of FFA students made the trip to Sacramento to have their voices heard, including Colton Tucker of Hughson, who said his family’s almond orchards will be devastated by water shortage.

FFA student Anthony Agueda said his family’s dairy in Hickman will face an uncertain future if canals run empty in drought years, when the board’s plan would require 40 percent of unimpaired flows in rivers for the sake of fish.

Intense debate swirls around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub for California’s massive storage and conveyance system stretching from Shasta Dam in the north to San Diego.

The state is simultaneously holding hearings on a $17 billion twin tunnels project that’s strongly opposed by San Joaquin leaders and delta advocates.

An hour before Monday’s rally, a coalition of delta protection and environmental groups held an event to criticize the water board’s plan for not guaranteeing enough river flows for salmon and steelhead trout. About 25 people attended the quiet affair.

Noah Oppenheim, director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations, said the number of coastal salmon fishing outfits has dropped over 40 years from 4,500 to 450.

With an average of 20 percent natural flow in the Tuolumne, corporate farming operations have grown fat by holding a tight grip on water rights to the detriment of the fishing industry, Oppenheim fumed.

“It’s time they go on a diet,” Oppenheim said. “It’s us versus you and we will win.”

Lane Parker of Modesto attended the main rally to reinforce that larger numbers of people could be hardshipped by the state board’s ultimate decision. He said almond growers like him will have to choose what orchards to keep and which ones to abandon under the 40 percent flow scenario.

Many expect that the water board’s decision will soon be followed with lawsuits that could tie the matter up in court for years.

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