Agriculture

Sides brace for hearing on river flow plan

A mallard stands on a mat of water hyacinth on the Tuolumne River in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. The Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers would have higher flows in their lower reaches under a proposal by the State Water Resources Control Board. It is opposed by farmers and cities that would lose some of their water supplies. Water hyacinth is an invasive plant that has harmed salmon habitat on the Tuolumne. High flows might help reduce it.
A mallard stands on a mat of water hyacinth on the Tuolumne River in Modesto, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016. The Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers would have higher flows in their lower reaches under a proposal by the State Water Resources Control Board. It is opposed by farmers and cities that would lose some of their water supplies. Water hyacinth is an invasive plant that has harmed salmon habitat on the Tuolumne. High flows might help reduce it. jholland@modbee.com

Fishing and environmental groups will get the first say Tuesday about how much water should run down the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

The session in Sacramento will be the first of five before the State Water Resources Control Board, which is considering a major boost in the flows. Irrigation districts, city water suppliers and other critics will get their chance as the public hearing moves to Stockton, Modesto and Merced next month.

The board Wednesday released a detailed agenda for the hearing, which will be webcast live. Its staff already has heard plenty of informal comment since the proposal came out in September.

The plan would reduce water supplies by 14 percent in an average year of rain and snow and by 38 percent in “critically dry” years, the staff said. Critics fear the cuts could be even greater and accuse the board of underestimating job and income losses.

“It will absolutely devastate our economy,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said during an October presentation by the state agency. Added Supervisor Jim DeMartini, “Where do you get the authority to just take the water away from the irrigation districts?”

The state board staff said the plan tries to balance the needs of fish and humans, and is much less than what many environmentalists would like to see.

“We don’t view this as an easy task in the least,” Executive Director Tom Howard told the Merced County Board of Supervisors in October.

The increased reservoir releases would help struggling fish in the lower rivers, he said. The agency also aims to reduce salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is tapped as a water supply for much of California.

The state board will take written comment until Jan. 17 and could make a final decision in July.

The flows would rise from February through June of each year, when most of the rain runoff and snowmelt take place. The plan calls for boosting the rivers to 40 percent of what they carried before the dam building that started in the mid-1800s. The three rivers combined are at about 20 percent now, but the Stanislaus is already under a higher standard than the Tuolumne and Merced.

The state agency acknowledged that the loss of river supplies would prompt farmers and cities to increase well pumping. Critics say this flies in the face of a recent state law that requires sustainable groundwater use within a quarter-century.

They also say the state’s projection of farm losses – 433 jobs and $64 million in income in an average year – is far too low in a three-county region that grossed about $10 billion last year.

Irrigation leaders agree that some increased flows could help salmon, but they want them targeted to when the fish would clearly benefit. They urge non-flow measures, such as restoration of spawning gravel and reduced predation by non-native bass.

The state board staff said 40 percent is a “starting point,” but the levels could range from 30 to 50 percent depending on conditions.

The Tuolumne River Trust urges at least 50 percent to enhance a stream heavily used by the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, along with San Francisco and nearby cities.

Farms and cities could build on their efforts at efficient water use, Executive Director Patrick Koepele said in an email Wednesday.

“River restoration creates jobs,” he added, citing a study on the large project underway on an often-dry stretch of the San Joaquin River upstream of the Merced confluence.

“A healthier river and healthier environment is also a quality-of-life issue,” Koepele said. “We want places for our families to enjoy nature close to home, a place for a father to take his kids fishing, for friends to picnic.”

John Holland: 209-578-2385

RIVER FLOW HEARING SCHEDULE

Each session will start at 9 a.m. with a presentation by the staff of the State Water Resources Control Board. Members of the general public then can speak for up to 3 minutes each. Remarks by the parties listed below will follow.

TUESDAY, SACRAMENTO

Speakers: Natural Resources Defense Council jointly with Trout Unlimited and Bay Institute; National Marine Fisheries Service with UC Davis fish experts; leaders in commercial fishing

Location: Byron Sher Hearing Room, California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, 1001 I St.

DEC. 16, STOCKTON

Speakers: Cities of Manteca, Tracy and Stockton; Tuolumne River Trust jointly with California Sportfishing Protection Alliance; Oakdale Irrigation District; South San Joaquin Irrigation District; other water suppliers and interest groups

Location: Main Hall, Stockton Memorial Civic Auditorium, 525 N. Center St.

DEC. 19, MERCED

Speakers: Merced Irrigation District, Merced County, San Joaquin Tributaries Authority, Restore Hetch Hetchy

Location: Multicultural Arts Center, 645 W. Main St.

DEC. 20, MODESTO

Speakers: City of Modesto, Stanislaus County, Stanislaus and Tuolumne Rivers Groundwater Basin Association, Turlock Irrigation District, Stanislaus Regional Water Authority jointly with city of Turlock, Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, Yosemite Farm Credit Association, Modesto Irrigation District

Location: Tuolumne River Room, Modesto Centre Plaza, 1000 K St.

JAN. 3, SACRAMENTO

Speakers: State and federal fishery agencies and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; California Department of Water Resources; San Francisco and other Bay Area users of Tuolumne River; other speakers from water suppliers and sport fishing

Location: Coastal Hearing Room, Cal-EPA headquarters

Written public comment will be received until Jan. 17. More information on the river flow proposal is at www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights.

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