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Water districts were so close to deal. Now, lawsuits will contest ‘water grab’

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, speaks at a “Stop the State Water Grab” rally on the Capitol steps last August.
Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, speaks at a “Stop the State Water Grab” rally on the Capitol steps last August. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Some water districts would like to keep negotiating with state officials over river flows.

But lawsuits replaced settlements as the most likely path forward, the day after a crucial vote in Sacramento approving the “water grab.”

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts had no agreement for flows on the Stanislaus River before Wednesday’s meeting of the State Water Resources Control Board. By virtue of a 4-1 vote approving the latest update to the Bay-Delta water quality plan, the agency will require districts to leave 40 percent of runoff in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers for salmon.

As a result, farms and city customers will receive less water. And agencies will struggle to preserve water in reservoirs like New Melones and Don Pedro during multiyear droughts, district officials say.

“Given that the board adopted the plan, it is reasonable to say we are all headed toward litigation,” SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk said Thursday.

The OID and SSJID released a statement saying a voluntary agreement with the state had been within reach. In the past several months, the two districts along with Modesto, Turlock and Merced irrigation districts negotiated for acceptable terms with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Water Resources.

In early November, Gov. Jerry Brown and governor-elect Gavin Newsom convinced the state water board to grant another 35 days for those talks, allowing the MID and TID to achieve a framework of a settlement agreement. By the deadline this week, the Merced district had no deal but OID and SSJID were close.

The districts offered habitat improvements and a large pulse flow to support salmon migration in the Stanislaus.

“There are many points of consensus,” the districts said in a statement issued jointly with the Save the Stan campaign. “Settlement discussions since last night provide encouragement that a lasting solution on the Stanislaus River is near. We encourage the state board to provide a bit more time to foster continued dialogue toward reaching settlements.”

Local political leaders had hoped the water board members, all appointees of Gov. Brown, would postpone the decision again. Board members said it was time to vote and move to a second phase focused on the Sacramento River. They were encouraged by conservation groups to approve a plan that was nine years in the making.

“Why not allow more time if the settlement talks are getting close?” Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow said Thursday. “Now, this will be left in the hands of the attorneys, and millions of dollars will be wasted fighting this in court. This should be worked out through negotiations, and there should be a place in the middle where we meet.”

The MID and TID, joint owners of Don Pedro Reservoir, essentially agreed to strategic flows and extensive nonflow measures, as early as next year, to boost salmon numbers in the Tuolumne. The two districts would join more than a dozen other agencies on the San Joaquin and Sacramento river systems in a compromise agreement favored by Gov. Brown, committing $1.7 billion for water, spawning grounds, habitat and hatchery improvements to rejuvenate the delta.

State Water Project and Central Valley Project contractors would contribute to the effort.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, said the state water board mostly disregarded the settlement proposals that were put forward. He called for a lawsuit to stop the state regulatory agency from implementing the flow requirements approved Wednesday.

“This plan is dangerous,” Gray said. “It fails to protect people; it fails to protect the environment.” In consecutive dry years, the higher river flows February through June are expected to draw down reservoirs and cut deliveries to agriculture, destroying thousand of jobs, Gray said.

The Northern San Joaquin Valley water districts have 30 days to decide whether to contest the state plan in court.

The state board OK’d an amendment to its resolution encouraging parties to continue working together on agreements that are consistent with goals of the water quality plan. Gov. Brown’s ambitious compromise proposal was seen for the first time at Wednesday’s meeting and needs to be vetted, board members said.

Chairwoman Felicia Marcus and others suggested that additional talks should be transparent with participation from other groups, which would include those wanting to see more reservoir storage committed to the environment.

“They did say they want it done in a transparent process and for the public and others to get under the hood and understand what the proposals mean for their interest,” Rietkerk said.

With the Stanislaus carrying 30 to 35 percent of unimpaired flow, compared with the Tuolumne’s average of 20 percent, the OID and SSJID perhaps would give up the least amount of water to the state plan. But the districts watched as New Melones Reservoir crashed during the last drought, sinking to 10 percent of its 2.4 million acre-foot capacity, without the burden of additional flow requirements, Rietkerk said.

Fine print in the updated Bay-Delta plan will result in losing more than the 40 percent flow requirement and is not acceptable, the general manager said.

The districts have a partner in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which has threatened legal action to challenge pieces of the water board plan that contradict congressional directives for New Melones. The dam is operated for flood control, agricultural deliveries, recreation and other purposes.

The Bay-Delta plan also needs a signoff from the federal Environmental Protection Agency by April. EPA officials who report to President Donald Trump, and staff members of the previous administration, have cited concerns with versions of the Bay-Delta proposal.

Withrow said the county won’t be involved directly in litigation filed by irrigation districts but will be supportive.

“I don’t know how that will work financially,” he said. “We have to dispute this draconian decision that is going to affect our county.”

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