Ag still faces hit in updated river flow proposal

The Stanislaus River is pictured on Thursday afternoon, Sept. 15, 2016, on River Road east of McHenry Avenue near Escalon, Calif.
The Stanislaus River is pictured on Thursday afternoon, Sept. 15, 2016, on River Road east of McHenry Avenue near Escalon, Calif.

State officials said Thursday that they are still seeking major increases in flows on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, to the dismay of farming advocates.

The updated proposal from the State Water Resources Control Board would boost flows to 40 percent of pre-dam levels from February to June each year. The initial plan in 2012 was 35 percent.

Environmental and salmon-industry leaders said even more water could be needed to revive rivers that have suffered from a century and a half of diversion.

“At the end of the day, fish need more water,” said Eric Wesselman, executive director of Friends of the River. “You can’t get around that.”

The proposal is out for public comment until Nov. 15 and could go to the board for adoption in early 2017.

Critics said the board downplayed the lost jobs and income resulting from the proposal. They also said the board should give more weight to fishery improvements that do not involve flow, such as restoring stream-bed gravel and suppressing non-native predators.

“This new recommendation of 40 percent unimpaired flows is outrageous and really just a death sentence for our economy here,” said state Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced.

The flow increases would be relatively greater on the Merced and Tuolumne because the Stanislaus already has a somewhat higher standard. And the water reductions to farms and cities would be especially harsh in dry years.

The region served by the rivers would have lost an additional 6,576 jobs and $1.6 billion in income had the 40 percent proposal been in effect in the very dry 2015, according to the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. They share Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne and have launched a campaign called Worth Your Fight.

“Our community has never faced a threat of this proportion,” the districts said in a joint statement. “… This water grab will impact our region’s way of life.”

The plan seeks to balance farm and city water uses with the need to improve fisheries and reduce salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said in a conference call with reporters.

“We can’t ignore the flow needs anymore when you look at the magnitude of how much we have taken out of these rivers,” she said.

The 40 percent threshold is a starting point, but actual flows could range from 30 percent to 50 percent depending on information that is not yet known, said Les Grover, the board’s deputy director for water rights. He added that predator control and other non-flow measures would be part of the effort.

Marcus acknowledged a key point from critics — that groundwater pumping would increase to make up for the lost river water. She urged more recharge projects using excess storm runoff in wet years, along with water recycling.

The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts, partners on the Stanislaus, suggested that the three rivers are being commandeered to make up for Sacramento River water diverted by the twin tunnels proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Marcus said the tunnels and Thursday’s proposal are separate parts of a four-phase effort to improve the Delta. Most of the state’s water supply runs through it, but it has concerns about ocean-water intrusion, levee stability, fish habitat and other issues.

Wesselman said Friends of the River prefers a 60 percent threshold and would work with other parties on “truly cutting-edge” ways of managing water.

The Golden Gate Salmon Association called the 40 percent proposal “a historic step to right a wrong” and suggested that an even larger boost could be needed.

“Let’s be clear,” Executive Director John McManus said in a news release. “Leaving a little bit more water in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries is absolutely benefiting humans since that water will translate into more salmon fishing and salmon for people to eat.”

John Holland: 209-578-2385