Those who depend on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers for agriculture and drinking water may have received a reprieve Tuesday night.
The State Water Resources Control Board was set to adopt a proposal to double the amount of water allowed to flow unimpeded down the rivers and out to the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta on Wednesday. Instead, the board received a written request from Gov. Jerry Brown’s office and Governor-elect Gavin Newsom to postpone the vote until Dec. 12.
Assuming they grant that request, that 35-day delay will give the five irrigation districts that hold century-old rights to use the water for growing food additional time to work out a settlement to improve conditions for salmon without harming farmers. Modesto and cities like Manteca in southern San Joaquin County that receive treated water for customers from the Tuolumne and Stanislaus would face dry-year water supply cuts under the state plan.
“We are grateful that the governor has heard our community’s cry for help,” said Michael Frantz, a Turlock Irrigation Board director who is among those deeply involved in trying to find a voluntary settlement agreement. “In the 35-day time period between now and then, the governor has committed to personally getting involved in the settlement negotiations process.”
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In a letter to water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus, Gov. Brown and Newsom wrote that a short extension will allow the negotiations to progress and “could result in a faster, less contentious and more durable outcome. Voluntary agreements are preferable to a lengthy administrative process and the inevitable ensuing lawsuits.”
Under the plan that was to be considered, farmers in the region would lose on average 25 percent of their irrigation water each year. The local districts, including Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, said it would have severe economic effects, requiring the fallowing of 100,000 acres.
If no settlement is reached, the next step will be for the board to implement its plan — which it has been developing since 2009. That would result in immediate lawsuits by the districts.
Others were cautiously optimistic that at least some movement has been shown.
“I’m putting my faith in our representatives who have been involved in the process,” said a board member of another district who preferred not to be quoted by name. “Do I believe the 35 days is going to yield fruit? It hasn’t in two years, so I’m skeptical. But I’m willing to try it if the governor is reaching out himself.”