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‘This plan is illegal.’ Merced Irrigation District challenging state’s water decision

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, speaks at a rally against a proposal by state water officials to increase water flows for the lower San Joaquin River to protect fish, at the Capitol, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. The State Water Resources Control Board is holding hearings this week concerning a plan to allow more water to flow freely down the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from February to June, meaning less water will be available for farming and other needs.
Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, speaks at a rally against a proposal by state water officials to increase water flows for the lower San Joaquin River to protect fish, at the Capitol, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018, in Sacramento, Calif. The State Water Resources Control Board is holding hearings this week concerning a plan to allow more water to flow freely down the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from February to June, meaning less water will be available for farming and other needs. AP Photo

The Merced Irrigation District board gave direction Wednesday to take legal action challenging the state’s Bay-Delta water quality control plan, which is strongly opposed by communities in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

A series of lawsuits against the state’s controversial “water grab” are expected from affected irrigation districts, following last week’s decision by the State Water Resources Control Board approving the regulatory plan and a supplemental environmental study.

The Merced district vowed to aggressively fight the plan, which calls for increased river flows in tributaries of the lower San Joaquin River, including the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.

The state board, overseeing water rights and water quality in California, wants irrigation districts to reduce diversions and leave 40 percent of watershed runoff in the rivers, February through June, with an aim to boost depleted salmon numbers.

Officials in Stanislaus and Merced counties predict the resulting cuts to agriculture and city customers will damage the economy and lead to groundwater overdrafting.

“This plan is illegal and it is not scientifically sound,” said John Sweigard, Merced Irrigation District general manager, in a news release. Sweigard’s statement said the state water board requirements will create unnecessary harm to domestic and agricultural water supplies and the local economy, while providing “almost nothing to improve conditions or habitat for fish.”

According to the Merced district, the state plan could possibly divert half the runoff flowing into Lake McClure reservoir and send it to the Sacramento-San Joaquin delta.

A state water board spokesman said Wednesday afternoon the agency does not typically comment on pending or potential litigation.

In Wednesday’s news release, Sweigard said the State Water Resources Control Board doesn’t have legal authority to change water rights through its water quality control plan. The state decision failed to meet requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, he added, and also violates provisions of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

“It fails to recognize our beneficial uses of water and ignores the state’s own water rights priority system,” Sweigard said.

The water districts affected by the first phase of the Bay-Delta update, including Modesto, Turlock and Merced irrigation districts, along with Oakdale and South San Joaquin, have 30 days from Dec. 12 to file lawsuits to block implementation of the flow requirements.

Merced Irrigation District did not say exactly when its lawsuit will be filed.

Melissa Williams, a spokeswoman for Modesto Irrigation District, said the district has a 30-day window for challenging the state board decision in court and any action will likely take place after the holidays. In formal statements following the decision last week, the MID and TID said they would analyze the board’s resolution and “take appropriate action as necessary.”

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts said they are coordinating their legal complaints with other member districts in the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority. The coalition of water agencies includes MID, TID, OID, SSJID and the city and county of San Francisco.

“The question is not a matter of if the districts will decide to pursue litigation, but when to file the complaints,” SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk said in an email Thursday. “The districts intend to reserve the right to challenge the plan, while remaining optimistic toward settlement opportunities with state and federal agencies on the Stanislaus River.”

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