Felicia Marcus removed from State Water Board. ‘It was time for a change.’

Felicia Marcus, whose push for larger river flows angered farmers and community leaders in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, won’t continue as chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board.

Gov. Gavin Newsom named Joaquin Esquivel as chairman of the powerful water regulatory board. In his first State of the State Address, Newsom said Tuesday that Esquivel would bring balance to state water policy. His appointment is considered a positive sign for voluntary settlement agreements that are less onerous for water agencies like the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts.

In December, the water board approved a Bay-Delta plan requiring 30 to 50 percent of unimpaired flows February through June in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers to improve the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and boost salmon populations. Newsom and former Gov. Jerry Brown have leaned toward settlement agreements to find creative ways to improve the ecosystem; ongoing settlement talks with water districts are expected to continue until March.

“With the change in the board, we’re hopeful we’ll see movement to more flexibility in meeting our water supply and ecosystem needs,” said Mike Wade of Modesto, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

Laurel Firestone, co-founder of the Community Water Center, was appointed as the replacement for Marcus, whose term expired Jan. 15. Firestone’s appointment is consistent with Newsom’s push for clean drinking water for communities. It’s estimated a million people in California live without it.

Firestone has been an advocate for addressing wells contaminated with nitrates.

During the sometimes testy hearings on the Bay-Delta plan last fall, valley leaders gave credit to Esquivel for visiting communities that would be affected by the water board plan. MID, TID and local agencies in Stanislaus County fiercely opposed the flow requirements, saying the plan would cut water deliveries to farmers and undermine the sound management of reservoirs in drought years.

“Joaquin took time to come and tour and has expressed willingness to listen,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen tweeted Tuesday.

Supervisor Vito Chiesa said he liked Marcus personally, but “It was time for a change. There were so many hurt feelings in the valley and a sense she had lost some credibility with the water districts.”

Esquivel and fellow water board member Sean Maguire have expressed openness to agreements using a variety of measures to restore salmon in the rivers. Board member Dorene D’Adamo of Turlock voted against the Dec. 12 water board decision and also has favored voluntary settlements.

Speaking at a Rotary meeting in Modesto on Tuesday, D’Adamo noted that Newsom talked about a “portfolio” approach to water solutions in California. She said conservation and additional storage by themselves won’t solve the state’s water challenges; a solution is going to take a combination of storage, conservation and recycling.

In another appointment announced Tuesday, William Lyons of Modesto will work for the new governor as an agricultural liaison, focused on farm and water policy. Lyons, 68, is a former secretary of the state Department of Food and Agriculture. The position pays $175,000 a year.

Lenny Mendonca, co-owner of Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., and a former Turlock resident, was appointed chief economic and business advisor and director of the governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. Mendonca, who holds a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University, also was appointed to the High-Speed Rail Authority.

The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.

Ken Carlson covers county government and health care for The Modesto Bee. His coverage of public health, medicine, consumer health issues and the business of health care has appeared in The Bee for 15 years.