State’s river flow proposal will get close look in Modesto meeting

A canal near Emerald Avenue and Maze Boulevard in Modesto is full of irrigation water in April 2014.
A canal near Emerald Avenue and Maze Boulevard in Modesto is full of irrigation water in April 2014. Modesto Bee file

Friday will provide a chance to wade into the details of the state’s proposal to increase flows on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

The meeting in Modesto will involve staff members with Stanislaus County government and the State Water Resources Control Board, which announced the controversial plan in September.

They will discuss the economic effects of the plan, which farmers and other critics say have been greatly underestimated by the state. They also will talk about the expected increase in well pumping and effects on drinking water supplies.

The 6 1/2 -hour meeting is public, but it is not a formal public hearing. The public hearings will start Nov. 29 in Sacramento and continue in Modesto, Merced and Stockton next month. The state board could make a decision in July.

This week, the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 for a resolution against the proposal, after hearing from water suppliers in the county. Peter Rietkerk, general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, estimated a 64 percent drop in the district’s Stanislaus River supply in “critically dry” years under the plan.

“The viability of our local agricultural economy as we have it today is called into question because we will no longer have the assurance of water supplies that we have had in the past in order to keep the crops viable,” he said.

The state proposes to boost flows to 40 percent of their pre-dam levels from February through June of each year, when water suppliers capture most of their runoff. That’s about double the current conditions on the three tributaries, although the Stanislaus is already under a somewhat higher standard.

The flows would help salmon and other fish and reduce salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, said Les Grober, deputy director for water rights at the state board, during the county supervisors’ meeting. He added that the agency is not proposing the 60 percent suggested in a 2010 study of fish needs.

“This is far less than what the science shows is needed and what commercial fishing interests and others say is needed to effect change to improve the condition,” Grober said.

He said 40 percent is a starting point, but actual flows could be 30 percent to 50 percent depending on conditions. The lower end is possible if rivers also get non-flow improvements, such as the rebuilding of gravel beds where salmon spawn.

John Holland: 209-578-2385

River flow meeting

When: 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Tenth Street Place basement chamber, 1010 10th St., Modesto

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