Modesto-area farmers, residents make impassioned plea to water board

River flow hearing packs Modesto hall

Stanislaus County Supervisor-elect Kristin Olsen speaks about the state proposal to increase river flows on Tuesday, December 20, 2016, in Modesto, California. (John Holland/
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Stanislaus County Supervisor-elect Kristin Olsen speaks about the state proposal to increase river flows on Tuesday, December 20, 2016, in Modesto, California. (John Holland/

More than 900 people packed a Modesto hearing on boosting river flows Tuesday, most of them determined to stop the state’s plan.

“There is not a single person who lives in this area who will not be harmed by this proposal,” Hilmar-area dairy farmer Duane Marson told the State Water Resources Control Board.

It hosted the fourth of five hearing sessions on roughly doubling flows on the lower Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers from February through June of each year.

Proponents said salmon and other fish have suffered from a century-plus of diversions. They urged water conservation beyond what farms and cities have already done.

“I think there are some opportunities out there to use our water more efficiently and more wisely so there’s more to go around,” said Patrick Koepele, executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust

The turnout at Modesto Centre Plaza exceeded the 600-plus Monday in Merced and about 250 in Stockton last week. The round of hearings started Nov. 29 in Sacramento and will finish there Jan. 3. The board could make a decision in July.

The state agency projects a 14 percent loss in river water supplies in average years, rising to 30 percent in dry years and 38 percent in those deemed “critically dry.”

Kent Mitchell, vice chairman of the Sierra Club Yokuts Group, urged “sacrifice from all sides” to reach a consensus.

“Fish vs. farmers – what a false choice that is,” he said.

Sandra Anaya, who lives in Modesto’s airport neighborhood, said she has canoed on the nearby Tuolumne River with help from the trust.

“I strongly believe with the river becoming lower and lower, recreational opportunities are going to be less accessible,” she said.

Farmers and water managers said the plan would put people out of work while doing little for fish. They also said it would mean more groundwater pumping, contradicting a 2014 state mandate for sustainable use within a quarter-century.

Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra said the flow increases would complicate plans for a Tuolumne River treatment plant supplementing wells in his city and Turlock. Modesto Mayor Ted Brandvold said the same kind of project has replenished the aquifer since it was completed in 1994.

Kristin Olsen, who will soon be a Stanislaus County supervisor after serving in the state Assembly, said the plan would harm a region that already suffers from low incomes and health issues.

“The one plus we have in our community is water, and we can’t have you take that away from us,” she said.

Dave Wheeler, who grows diverse crops west of Modesto, suggested water storage projects to increase the amount that can be released for fish.

His son, Wrangler Wheeler, a member of Future Farmers of America, also questioned the state plan.

“I urge you to take into consideration the many lives, jobs and futures you will be affecting,” he said.

Several speakers urged fishery enhancements that do not involve flow, such as restoring spawning gravel, controlling predation by non-native bass, and reducing water pollution.

“Listen to our science, our voices, and realize we will never stop fighting,” Waterford-area cattle rancher Todd Sill said.

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the state board, said she was open to non-flow measures but her agency is not authorized to approve them. Other officials in the California Natural Resources Agency can do this, she said.

The idea of compromise did not sit well with Peter Stavrianoudakis, a defense attorney and Merced County farmer.

“Who barters with a thief for how much they’re going to … steal from them?” he said.

Don Barton, a walnut and olive grower east of Escalon, said the state greatly underestimates the farming losses at an average of $65 million a year.

“The impact will be horrendous,” he said, “and we ask that you please reconsider this plan.”

Barton charged that the state is looking at the three rivers to replace Sacramento River water that Gov. Jerry Brown proposes to divert from the Delta via the “twin tunnels” plan. Marcus said the two efforts are separate, despite claims to the contrary.

Marty Lanser of Modesto, a blind radio announcer, mixed humor with scripture during his time at the podium.

“This proposal is not fair,” he said. “I don’t have to have 20-20 vision to see that.”

John Holland: 209-578-2385

Final session: Sacramento

When: 9 a.m. Jan. 3

Where: Coastal Hearing Room, California Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, 1001 I St.

The session will start with a presentation by the staff of the State Water Resources Control Board. Members of the general public then can speak for up to three minutes each. Scheduled speakers will follow with longer presentations. Written public comment will be received until Jan. 17. More information is at