State board approves controversial river flows. What’s the next step for MID, TID?

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts tentatively agreed to join other agencies in Northern California in a grand scheme for improving fisheries and sending more water to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to support its deteriorated ecosystem.

District leaders hope the voluntary agreement will be an alternative to the State Water Resources Control Board plan that’s strongly opposed by water districts, counties and cities in Northern San Joaquin Valley.

The state board, on a 4-1 vote Wednesday, approved a Bay-Delta plan that includes what the districts consider unacceptable flow requirements for the Tuolumne River, as well as the Stanislaus and Merced rivers, a decision that’s expected to spawn lawsuits in the next 30 days.

“I can’t speak for the MID, but it’s likely the TID will be headed to court very soon,” Michael Franz, a TID board member, said after the daylong meeting in Sacramento. “I am just one of the five, but that is the direction I think we will be headed.”

In a statement, the MID said the district and its partners engaged in good faith settlement discussions, as directed by the governor and state water board. “We’re disappointed by the board’s action and we’ll take any and all measures to protect our water supply and our communities,” MID said.

Dorene D’Adamo, a water board member from the valley, voted against the delta plan and proposed several amendments to make the requirements more acceptable to local communities. But she didn’t get support from the full board.

The MID and TID, and its partner the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, wanted more time for an environmental review on the voluntary settlement negotiated with representatives of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Water Resources. Districts opposed to the water board’s plan have 30 days to file court challenges and are not likely to let the deadline pass.

The proposed alternative settlements unveiled by Fish and Wildlife Director Chuck Bonham and DWR Director Karla Nemeth at Wednesday’s meeting promise more water and supports for the delta as early as next year, while it’s unclear how soon the Bay-Delta update can spur any action.

According to the proposal, a total of 14 agencies in a region stretching from Stanislaus County to the Sacramento River and its tributaries would contribute blocks of water, habitat restoration, floodplain management and funding for science and conservation.

In agreeing to the settlement proposal, the MID and TID suggested that the state combine the San Joaquin section of the Bay-Delta water quality plan with Phase II, which includes the Sacramento River system. In exchange, the districts would begin to implement river flows and nonflow measures to start supporting beleaguered salmon in the Tuolumne River next year.

The proposed agreement for the Tuolumne would remove difficult parts of the Bay-Delta requirements, such as cold pool storage behind dams, and use well-timed flows and nonflow measures to boost salmon numbers. The state water board requirements include river flows equal to 30 to 50 percent of unimpaired runoff February through June in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers.

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, which have rights on the Stanislaus River, and the Merced Irrigation District have not agreed to join in the multiagency settlement proposal. Those districts are also expected to consider their legal options for challenging the Bay-Delta update.

In a surprise addition, Friant Dam water users on the upper San Joaquin have offered 50,000 acre-feet of water for refreshing the delta. The package of voluntary agreements is grounded in Gov. Jerry Brown’s water action plan released in January 2014, designed to start rejuvenating the delta after years of inaction that has threatened species with extinction.

With the settlement proposals, up to 1 million acre-feet of water would pour into the delta from Sacramento and San Joaquin river systems, with major contributions from the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. About 140,000 acre-feet annually would come from the San Joaquin and Tuolumne.

The voluntary agreement with MID and TID also includes pulse flows from Don Pedro Reservoir in March for outmigrating young salmon. The pulse flows of 2,750 cubic feet per second would last for 20 days in wet years, 18 days in below-normal years, 14 days in dry years and nine days in critical years.

William Paris, representing MID, said the annual flow package from the Tuolumne would be boosted from a current 216,000 acre-feet a year to 313,000 acre-feet. Some of the nonflow measures would include habitat and floodplain improvements, a temporary floating barrier for annual activities to reduce nonnative bass that decimate young salmon, and a $38 million conservation fund.

MID representatives said it’s more appropriate to include the San Joaquin system in the broader package because it shows how the different watersheds would contribute to delta restoration.

Bonham, who was chiefly involved with the negotiations, said the state and irrigation districts would keep talking about possible out clauses in consecutive dry years, a feasibility study on developing additional supplies for river flows, and possible groundwater banking. Some believe that discussion of voluntary settlements may continue even if parties are battling in court.

Based on a quick look at the proposals, environmentalists and delta protection groups claimed the additional water in the Tuolumne proposal amounted to little more than the status quo or would fail to benefit the fish. Some of those same groups don’t think the flow requirements in Bay-Delta plan -- from 30 to 50 percent of natural runoff -- will accomplish much either.

“Right now, some of our smarter colleagues are finding out that the voluntary settlement agreements allow for substantially less water than what’s in (the Bay-Delta plan),” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, director of Stockton-based Restore the Delta.

Proponents of the voluntary settlements say they can fast-track efforts to improve conditions in the delta, as opposed to lawsuits that could delay implementation of the Bay-Delta program for years.

Water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus noted that the discussion of voluntary settlement agreements was not opened to groups with different perspectives.