Water hearings, sometimes contentious, end with hope for agreement between farms, fish

Two days of hearings before the State Water Resources Control Board created some hope of voluntary agreements with local irrigation districts, which are under pressure to release more water in rivers to help salmon.

Tuesday and Wednesday, the state board heard heartfelt comments from people concerned about collapsing fish populations in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and fears about job losses and economic calamity in the Northern San Joaquin Valley if water rights are stripped from communities.

One speaker said the board’s proposal for delta water quality sent a shockwave through rural California, as evidenced by a rally Monday in Sacramento that drew more than 1,000 people from a Central Valley area stretching from Tulare to Redding.

In a state with nearly 40 million people, the board was urged to consider the impact of its decisions on people as well as fish.

Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said the proposal to double the unimpaired flow in the Tuolumne River will have a human toll in a county with high unemployment. “I know you heard from angry people,” Chiesa said. “It’s because they are scared ... I believe we can do better as farmers, but we have to weigh the costs.”

Chiesa said he believes there’s hope of a settlement but “ask you not to push too far too early.”

Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said the board will take into consideration the local economic impacts. “There is plenty to be concerned about, which is why we are not going for that top number,” she said.

The board sparked an uproar in July in releasing a final plan calling for 40 percent of unimpaired river flows, within a range of 30 to 50 percent, from February through June to help young salmon swim downstream to the ocean. Many speakers from environmental and sportfishing groups urged the board to seek flows of 50 to 60 percent or higher to reverse the historic effects of dam construction on the delta ecosystem.

The board made no decision on the proposal. Its staff recommends adoption of the plan at a future meeting. Some water district officials said they prefer to reach voluntary settlements with the state rather than litigation.

Board member Steven Morris asked the top manager of the Merced Irrigation District if it could live with an annual water budget for environmental purposes. District General Manager John Sweigard said he’s open to the concept but the district can’t accept losing control of operations at McClure Reservoir.

Sweigard said attempts to lower water temperature in the Merced River would have limited success. And a proposed requirement to keep 180,000 acre-feet of “cold storage” in the reservoir for environmental purposes would limit water deliveries to farmers in drought years, the general manager said.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts face a steeper climb with increasing flows in the Tuolumne River, which often are 20 percent of the runoff in the watershed. The districts say the plan would force much larger releases from Don Pedro Reservoir than what’s indicated by the water board, forcing growers to fallow ground and pump groundwater to preserve orchards.

There was a minor exchange Tuesday between a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation official and the board over New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River. The bureau says the federally operated dam won’t comply with the plan if it’s inconsistent with congressional priorities for New Melones, which include flood control and storage for agricultural and drinking water.

On a cue from Marcus, board member Tam Doduc asked if the bureau will comply with the state’s water quality standards. The bureau official said the U.S. Department of Interior will review the requirements when they’re released. It could seek legal action over the issue.

Attorney Tim O’Laughlin, representing water districts in the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, said the group has submitted a solid proposal to the state Department of Water Resources for improving conditions for salmon.

O’Laughlin tried to reach agreement with the board on how much water will be available for customers in multiple-year droughts. The board has suggested the impact on agricultural diversions is 7 to 14 percent for districts with rights on the Stanislaus River. The attorney argued the impact would grow to much larger amounts in extended droughts.

From 30 to 40 percent of unimpaired flow is often released from New Melones because of a responsibility for meeting water quality standards in the lower San Joaquin River.

Groups concerned with the ecological health of the delta said voluntary settlement deals with water districts have failed in the past and only larger flows will achieve good results.

Peter Moyle, a watershed sciences expert with the University of California, Davis, wrote in a blog this week that large-scale habitat improvements in the south and central delta are key to improving salmon survival. Higher flows alone won’t be successful, he wrote.