State’s offer of working group to oversee water flows “a joke,” MID official says

The Tuolumne River runs through Waterford, Calif., on August 24, 2018.
The Tuolumne River runs through Waterford, Calif., on August 24, 2018.

Key elements of a State Water Resources Control Board plan for restoring fisheries are not acceptable to local irrigation districts, which are likely to sue if the state board does not compromise, district board members said Friday.

Most people know by now that the Bay Delta update would require 40 percent of unimpaired flows from February through June on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to restore salmon and support the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta estuary.

To implement the plan, the state board would create a working group for the rivers that would exert far too much influence over the operation of Don Pedro, New Exchequer and New Melones reservoirs, two board members said.

The so-called “STM Working Group” would include state water board staff and its executive director, the state and federal wildlife agencies, and water users. The group would implement the flows downstream from the dams and assess their effectiveness in boosting salmon numbers.

“The STM Group is a joke,” said John Mensinger, who sees himself as a moderate board member of Modesto Irrigation District, which co-owns Don Pedro with Turlock Irrigation District. “We are never going to accept it.”

An important role of irrigation district board members is deciding how much water to allocate for agriculture and city customers each year and how much to hold in storage, said Michael Frantz, a TID board member. “In certain years, (the STM Group) would take that control away from our elected leaders and transfer it to a Sacramento bureaucrat.”

In a statement Friday, the state agency said it would not be operating the reservoirs. The STM group would assist with implementation and monitoring of the flow requirements and would be comprised of the current operators, who are experts on reservoir management, and fisheries experts, who know how to manage flows for fish protection, the board’s statement said.

“The STM working group is all about having experts that understand the local problems make recommendations to best manage the system,” the board said.

The water board, which held a two-day hearing on the plan Tuesday and Wednesday, says it will vote on the Bay Delta water quality update Nov. 7. Local and state officials who spoke at the Sacramento hearing said they would prefer to negotiate voluntary agreements that could include other tools for improving the fisheries in the delta.

If there are no agreements, the state could impose the flow requirements through conditions on water rights starting in 2022.

The irrigation districts, including MID and TID, along with districts with rights to Stanislaus and Merced river water, take issue with the final flow proposals, which were issued in July, but also can’t live with proposals for year-to-year carryover storage behind the dams for environmental purposes.

With a more civil tone prevailing at the hearing this week, local officials had thought that Gov. Jerry Brown’s appointees on the board might compromise. But board members’ comments near the end of the meeting Wednesday evening suggested they won’t budge and were disappointing, Frantz said.

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the five-member board, is a former western director for the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. Other board members have professional backgrounds with regulatory agencies.

Negotiations are still possible with the state’s Natural Resources Agency, Department of Water Resources and Department of Fish and Wildlife. Representatives of those agencies said at the hearing they’re committed to discussing voluntary settlements before the Nov. 7 decision.

“If the state board adopts this program, as it stands, we are going to sue them because the environmental document is deficient and a lot of things they are asking for are unlawful,” Mensinger said, noting he has seen a rough draft of a lawsuit.

Legal challenges to the Bay Delta update are also anticipated from environmental groups that have called for 50 to 60 percent river flows to benefit the fisheries.

Frantz said the carryover storage requirements are a lesser-known piece of the state’s plan and one reason for dire predictions of economic losses for the region.

He said it would result in cuts or total elimination of water deliveries to farmers and city of Modesto customers amid multiple dry years. As an example, he cited the severe drought from 2012 to 2015. No water would have been delivered to TID customers in the last two years of the drought if the state proposals had been in place, Frantz said.

Some special drought provisions in an agreement might help appease the districts.

“We expect to see more droughts,” Frantz said, noting that weather patterns suggest that dry spells could be longer and more severe in the future. Aside from the farm-related industries served by the districts, more than a million people live in the area affected by the water board’s plan.

The state plan would allow the increased river flows or an equivalent amount of water to be managed and shaped for creating river conditions and cooler water temperatures that support the salmon. The releases, starting at 40 percent of the natural runoff in the watersheds, could be adjusted in future years between 30 and 50 percent based on whether the measures are effective in boosting the fisheries.

Mensinger said the upper end of the range is too high — the MID won’t sacrifice half its water.

The irrigation districts are faced with convincing the water board to accept some of their ideas for salmon restoration in the three rivers. They contend more can be done with less water by providing habitat and suppressing nonnative bass that feed on young salmon swimming downstream.

Some have suggested the state should remove June from the requirements since the young salmon are no longer in the river that month.

If the flow requirements are approved in November, a signoff is required from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It could be another flashpoint in the process given the recent efforts by the Trump administration to intervene in water resource policies in the delta. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation has said the updated Bay Delta plan contradicts the congressional priorities for the federally run New Melones reservoir and has threatened legal action.

The state water board has not conceded that the federal EPA has approval rights over all of the Bay Delta water quality update.