Valley irrigation leaders warn against state’s river flow proposal

Elijah Reed, 12, swings from a rope over the Tuolumne River under the Seventh Street bridge in Modesto on Tuesday.
Elijah Reed, 12, swings from a rope over the Tuolumne River under the Seventh Street bridge in Modesto on Tuesday. aalfaro@modbee.com

Irrigation districts pledged to keep up their fight against a state proposal to boost flows in the lower Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.

They said the proposal, aimed at improving conditions for salmon and other fish, would hit hard at the region’s agriculture and lead to an increase in well pumping.

“That’s water that’s lost,” said Herb Smart, water resources analyst for the Turlock Irrigation District. “It doesn’t go onto farms. It doesn’t go into storage.”

The discussion came at Monday’s monthly meeting of the Stanislaus County Agricultural Advisory Board, which makes recommendations on farm-related issues to the Board of Supervisors.

The State Water Resources Control Board has proposed that February-through-June flows on all three rivers increase to 35 percent of the natural conditions before they were diverted. The idea is to help young salmon get out to sea, part of the effort to rebuild fish numbers that have been reduced by dams and other changes to the rivers.

The proposal, which came out in late 2012, could go to the board for final approval by year’s end, Smart said. The board could choose an amount other than 35 percent.

The February-June period is when the watersheds are getting much of their rain and snow, followed by the runoff that supplies farms and cities and generates cheap hydropower.

Critics said the change would be especially tough in a year such as 2014, one of the driest on record. TID and the Modesto Irrigation District, which draw from the Tuolumne, have cut deliveries to roughly 40 percent of the accustomed amount. The Merced Irrigation District is providing far less because of the dire state of Lake McClure. The Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts are doing relatively well this year with their Stanislaus River supply, but they could have trouble if 2015 is dry, too.

OID General Manager Steve Knell noted an estimate by the state board that the loss of surface water would mean a 25 percent increase in well pumping.

“We’re talking about declining groundwater,” he said. “Now we’re going to pump 25 percent more groundwater?”

Smart said the board needs to consider measures that could help fish without increasing river flows. He noted a project, partially funded by OID, that restored salmon spawning habitat in the Honolulu Bar stretch of the Stanislaus, east of Oakdale. He also said nonnative striped bass are preying on juvenile salmon.

SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields said the increased Stanislaus flows would leave New Melones Reservoir too low for recreation in some years, which would harm the Sonora-area economy.

The proposed flows would somewhat mimic how the rivers functioned under natural conditions, with heavy runoff in late winter and spring and less water in other months.

“None of us lives in a natural environment anymore,” Knell said. “Everything is manipulated, so let’s quit kidding ourselves.”