River flow plan sparks debate
Farmers and their supporters packed a Modesto boardroom and laid into a state plan to increase river flows.
They told the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday night that the proposal would sharply reduce water deliveries in below-average or drier years. They warned of thousands of lost jobs and of stress on groundwater as farmers seek to replace surface supplies.
“If this goes through, this will only speed up the demise of many farmers,” said Andy Stein of Newman Flying Service, which applies pesticides by helicopter.
The State Water Resources Control Board proposed Sept. 15 to roughly double reservoir releases on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers from February to June each year. The flows would help salmon and other native fish and reduce salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, said Les Grober, the water board’s deputy director for water rights.
He was the only speaker in favor of the plan and he acknowledged the concerns of the opponents.
“I know this crowd gets it and this (county) board gets it – this is a tough proposal,” Grober said. He added that the agency studied but did not propose even bigger flows, to the disappointment of environmentalists and salmon fishermen.
Grober said the state would seek agreements with water users that might include non-flow fish measures, such as streambed restoration. Supervisor Terry Withrow said local residents have proposed that for four years but have been ignored in Sacramento.
The Merced County Board of Supervisors held its own lively meeting on the proposal Tuesday afternoon.
The state board is taking written comments until Jan. 17 and could vote on the plan in July 2017.
Critics got a couple of concessions in both Merced and Stanislaus counties – the comment period was extended past Nov. 15, and more meetings will be held in the affected region. But they got riled up once again upon hearing that some of the meetings will be a few days before Christmas.
“It’s almost like you don’t want people to show up for it,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini told Grober.
Grober said the plan would help revive rivers that flow at about 20 percent of natural levels over those five months and at times drop below 10 percent. The state proposes to boost this to 40 percent to start, but actual flows could be 30 percent to 50 percent, depending on conditions.
The state projects little change in water supplies in above-average or wetter years, a 14 percent reduction in below-average years, and 38 percent in those termed “critically dry.”
Several speakers said controlling predation on salmon by non-native bass would help much more than increased flows.
“We spent the money on the science,” said Joe Alamo, a board member with the Turlock Irrigation District. “Now let’s put it to work.”
John Holland: 209-578-2385
RIVER FLOW HEARINGS
The revised hearing schedule for the state proposal to increase flows on the Stanislaus. Tuolumne and Merced rivers (all sessions start at 9 a.m.):
Nov. 29, Sacramento: Byron Sher Hearing Room, California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, 1001 I St.
Dec. 16, Stockton: Main Hall, Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium, 525 N. Center St.
Dec. 19, Merced: Multicultural Arts Center, 645 W. Main St.
Dec. 20, Modesto: Tuolumne River Room, Modesto Centre Plaza, 1000 K St.
Jan. 3, Sacramento: Coastal Hearing Room, Cal-EPA headquarters
Written public comment will be received until Jan. 17. More information on the proposal is at www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights.