Why Harder, other valley reps are asking EPA for close review of delta water plan

Political leaders from the valley are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to closely scrutinize new water quality standards proposed for the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta.

A two-page document submitted by the State Water Board to the EPA sparked a bipartisan reaction this week from communities with major interests in delta water.

“The State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to the EPA misses the mark,” said Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, who joined almost a dozen congressmen, including conservatives Kevin McCarthy and Tom McClintock, in sending a letter to the EPA.

State Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, raised concerns that thousands of pages of reports and testimony on the Bay-Delta water quality plan were condensed in a two-page letter asking for a federal sign-off on new salinity standards for the delta.

To meet those standards, water entities including the Modesto, Turlock, Oakdale and Merced irrigation districts are expected to sacrifice 40 percent unimpaired river flows from February through June, leaving less water for agriculture and city water customers. The state board approved the controversial flow requirements in December, even though Gov. Gavin Newsom has favored voluntary agreements with water districts to improve delta water quality.

Gray suggested that activist water board staff were attempting an end run around the settlement negotiations. “Adoption of the Bay-Delta plan by the EPA based on a single letter would be a profound act of irresponsible government,” Gray wrote in a letter published Tuesday in The Modesto Bee.

State Water Board Executive Director Eileen Sobeck sent the March 13 letter to the EPA. It consisted of a few paragraphs and a chart. The state agency did not offer an explanation for the submittal that has sparked the reaction.

Michael Frantz, a TID board member, said the state board’s letter might be a procedural step, but it’s imperative that the EPA sees all the details of the Bay-Delta update. The water board plan is more than 3,500 pages and was critiqued in written comments and public hearings over a two-year period.

“We hope the EPA will do a thorough review and analyze what it will do to our community and what it will do for fish and wildlife,” Frantz said. “We would rather the state water board send a plan (to the EPA) supported by our community and that has the support from water agencies and moderate environmental (groups).”

Under the voluntary accords, water districts would sacrifice less water for supporting the delta ecosystem, but measures for supporting salmon populations and other species will take effect immediately. Irrigation districts and local communities argued that the Bay-Delta plan proposed by former water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus and staff would severely damage the local economy, drain reservoirs in consecutive dry years, and deplete groundwater.

Multiple lawsuits were filed after the water board approved the river flow requirements Dec. 12. Marcus has been replaced by a new board chairman.

“Ideally, members of our community should come together to create a real solution and not rely on a drawn-out lawsuit that will slam the brakes on any progress,” Harder’s statement said.

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