Agriculture

Meeting on river flows gets tense at times

River flow proposal gets tense airing in Modesto

A state water official explained its proposed increases in river flows and heard from a Stanislaus County supervisor in opposition on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, in Modesto, Calif. (John Holland/jholland@modbee.com)
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A state water official explained its proposed increases in river flows and heard from a Stanislaus County supervisor in opposition on Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016, in Modesto, Calif. (John Holland/jholland@modbee.com)

Two state officials said Wednesday they are open to alternatives to a proposed boost in river flows, but their Modesto audience remained skeptical.

The farmer-heavy crowd said it has heard such promises before regarding the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers, only to see the state ignore their concerns.

“There’s nothing,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow said. “It’s just on deaf ears.”

The county’s Water Advisory Committee discussed the latest flow proposal from the State Water Resources Control Board. It calls for increasing the rivers to 40 percent of their pre-dam levels from February through June each year, but actual flows could be 30 to 50 percent depending on conditions at the time.

Critics say irrigation districts capture most of their runoff during these same months, and the proposal would leave many farmers with no surface water in dry years. They also warn of increased pumping of stressed aquifers and impacts to city water supplies and hydropower plants.

The state board acknowledges these concerns but also needs to protect fish that have suffered from the diversions, said Leslie Grober, deputy director for water rights.

He said at Gov. Jerry Brown’s direction, the board is looking for agreements that would meet this goal with less water. Irrigation districts have urged measures such as controlling nonnative bass that prey on salmon and restoring spawning gravel in streambeds.

“Balancing is hard, but we’re doing it because it’s what we have to do,” Grober said.

The state agency had proposed 35 percent of pre-dam levels in 2012. The change to 40 percent was announced Sept. 15. The board has set a Nov. 15 deadline for public comment, but Grober said it could grant a request from critics for more time. A final vote could come in 2017.

The board could choose flows as low as 20 percent or as high as 60 percent, which the staff studied but did not recommend, said Eric Oppenheimer, a chief deputy director for the agency.

The lower number is roughly the level today because of diversions to farms and cities, he said. The higher figure is what would best serve fish without regard for human uses, according to a board report in 2010.

Withrow said efforts by local agencies to compromise on the flows were ignored after the initial 35 percent proposal came out four years ago.

“So to come here now and tell us that we want to settle, that we want to try balancing, we have a real hard time swallowing that,” he said.

Committee member Francisco Canela, who works in the wine industry, agreed.

“Where’s the end game for this community?” he said. “That’s our concern. We’re giving more water and more water and we aren’t getting anything back.”

John Holland: 209-578-2385

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