River flow proposal stirs debate in Turlock and Sacramento

Four of the five board members at the Turlock Irrigation District voted Tuesday against the state’s proposed boost in river flows. Meanwhile, the fifth board member was in Sacramento to press the same case.

TID leaders warned that the doubling of reservoir releases for fish would force farmers to increase groundwater pumping and could mean no Tuolumne River water at all in dry years.

“This is a water grab, and it’s a fight,” General Manager Casey Hashimoto said before the board passed a resolution against the plan for the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

Board member Michael Frantz missed the meeting so he could testify before the California State Board of Food and Agriculture. Supporters of increased flows also spoke to the board, which advises the Brown administration but does not have decision-making powers.

“There’s a clear recognition I think by all that flow is an important factor in (salmon) health and in their survival as a species,” said Steve Rothbert, the California director for American Rivers.

The Sept. 15 proposal from the State Water Resources Control Board calls for 40 percent of pre-dam river volume from February through June each year. That is when water suppliers capture most of their rainstorm runoff and snowmelt. The flows could range from 30 percent to 50 percent to adapt to specific conditions.

The state water board is taking public comment until Nov. 15 and could make a decision in spring 2017. In the meantime, it has urged interested parties to work on compromises that could involve fishery improvements other than flow.

Frantz said predation by non-native bass is a bigger threat to salmon than water diversions. He suggested barriers in the rivers and bounties for anglers.

“It seems reasonable to block them,” Frantz said. “They’re bad. They’re harming a native fish.”

Non-flow options could include restoration of salmon spawning gravel, creation of floodplain to provide shelter and food for the young fish, and control of invasive plants such as water hyacinth.

The 40 percent threshold would have cost 6,576 jobs and $1.6 billion in economic output if it had been in place in the very dry 2015, according to a study for TID and the Modesto Irrigation District.

Food and agriculture board member Mike Gallo, a dairy farmer and cheesemaker near Atwater, questioned the much smaller economic effects predicted by the state water board. He said it did not account for the effects of extended drought on permanent crops, which include orchards and vineyards.

Earlier in Turlock, TID board member Ron Macedo said the three San Joaquin River tributaries could be the start of a state effort to boost rivers flows elsewhere.

“This resonates throughout the state because this is an attack on our water rights,” he said.

John Holland: 209-578-2385