Opinion

Hundreds rise in defense of the region’s rights to water

In the state’s new Substitute Environmental Document, its water demands rose from 35 percent of “unimpaired flows” to 40 percent or even 50 percent on three Valley rivers, including the Tuolumne River, seen here near Legion Park in Modesto on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.
In the state’s new Substitute Environmental Document, its water demands rose from 35 percent of “unimpaired flows” to 40 percent or even 50 percent on three Valley rivers, including the Tuolumne River, seen here near Legion Park in Modesto on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. aalfaro@modbee.com

The real question facing the people of this Valley is no longer whether they will fight the state’s devastating water grab, but how.

“Have you ever heard of Admiral Yamamoto?” Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow asked Les Grober. Facing five angry supervisors on the dais with some 300 angrier people sitting just over his shoulder, Grober didn’t answer.

Withrow was speaking about Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese marshal admiral who masterminded the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “He’s quoted as saying, ‘I fear we’ve awakened a sleeping giant.’ You’ve awakened the giant. We’re not going to sit back and just let this happen.”

Grober, the State Water Resources Control Board’s deputy director, was at Tuesday’s Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors meeting to explain the state’s plan to redirect roughly 300,000 acre-feet of water away from fields and orchards in a wrongheaded, and likely futile, effort to “save” salmon that don’t exist.

After taking four years to revise a disastrously flawed 2012 report, the state unveiled its new Substitute Environmental Document last month and it’s worse than the original. The state’s demands rose from 35 percent of “unimpaired flows” on the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers to 40 percent or even 50 percent – double what is currently used for environmental purposes.

Deep in its details, the SED also explains its need to control the cold pool behind Don Pedro and Exchequer dams, meaning less flexibility for irrigation.

Earlier Tuesday, the water board’s Tom Howard attended the Merced County Board of Supervisors meeting with the same purpose; he got the same reception.

“You take 40 percent of our water and you take 40 percent of our economy,” said Merced Supervisor Daron McDaniel.

Yes, Grober said, the increased unimpaired flows will cause economic hardship. The loss of 288,000 (or 293,000, he used both numbers) acre-feet, would result in “$64 million” in losses to farmers.

You take 40 percent of our water and you take 40 percent of our economy.

Merced Supervisor County Daron McDaniel

“I’ve got a different number,” said Milton O’Haire, Stanislaus County’s ag commissioner: “$5.6 billion.”

His number is based on 210,000 acres being fallowed across two counties. “That’s 22 percent of our harvest, and that’s $1.6 billion. When you figure the multiplier of 3.5, you’re talking $5.6 billion.”

Or 13,000 lost jobs.

“I’m pretty confident in my numbers,” said O’Haire.

The official meetings to discuss the SED are Dec. 19 in Merced, Dec. 20 in Modesto and Dec. 16 in Stockton. Last week’s meetings were just sneak previews.

In Merced, the overflow room overflowed. In Modesto, 300 filled the chamber while others sat in a nearby room watching a video feed. Stanislaus Sheriff Adam Christianson had been asked to provide extra security. It wasn’t needed, but emotions are running high.

The state calls this Phase One, and it entails usurping California’s oldest water rights to send more water down the San Joaquin’s tributaries. Phase Two is a similar grab on the Sacramento, and Phase Three is a restructuring of all water rights.

If the state succeeds in Phase One, many of the high-value crops grown here won’t be viable. Property values will plummet; lives will be changed. Losing water reliability could doom many family farms.

Meanwhile, many in the environmental community obliviously characterize our region as filled with greedy growers operating “megafarms” – that’s flat-out wrong. There are 2,450 farms in Stanislaus County, averaging 185 acres each, with most being much smaller.

Over the past 20 years, those farmers have been willing to share increasing amounts of water to protect native species. Most are willing to do more. But they’re not willing to waste a precious and valuable resource on ludicrously flawed plans that many believe mask a different agenda.

The California WaterFix would build two tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta with “co-equal” goals of making water deliveries south more reliable and “saving” a heavily channelized Delta. Because the Sacramento provides 80 percent of the Delta’s fresh water, it’s impossible to do both – unless you get water from somewhere else, such as our rivers.

When asked in Merced if this was about the tunnels, the water board’s Howard wouldn’t answer. In Modesto, it wasn’t a question.

“This is not about fish,” stated Supervisor Bill O’Brien. “This is about the twin tunnels. … If it was about fish, we’d be talking about predator species.”

Scientists from FishBio work on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers, and have confirmed that every salmon returning to either river last year was born in a hatchery. Genetically, they were no different than the 720 million pounds of salmon harvested commercially last year – hardly an endangered species.

Grober demurred, saying there were “a few” genetically distinct salmon. We trust the biologists, not the bureaucrats.

Stanislaus Supervisor Vito Chiesa asked Grober about cold water. Salmon die as water temperatures near 80 degrees. So the state wants access to cold water behind the dams. The only way to keep it cold is to keep more of it.

“There will need to be minimum levels of storage to achieve temperature control,” said Grober.

That sounds like a plan for the state to dictate how Don Pedro and McClure reservoirs are operated – just as New Melones on the Stanislaus is now controlled to benefit fish, often wasting billions of gallons of water in the process.

Gov. Jerry Brown has told the state to negotiate voluntary agreements. By Wednesday, Merced Irrigation District unveiled the Merced River SAFE Plan.

Stanislaus County officials are less inclined to negotiate. Two years ago, Withrow invited representatives of the Turlock, Modesto and Oakdale irrigation districts, environmental organizations, state agencies and elected officials to a series of meetings. It proved fruitless.

“You keep saying you want a settlement,” Withrow told Grober. “But we’ve been negotiating with ourselves. Proposals are made and nothing comes back. … We have very little hope in this process.”

You keep saying you want a settlement. But we’ve been negotiating with ourselves. Proposals are made and nothing comes back. … We have very little hope in this process.

Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow

As 25 people spoke in Modesto on Tuesday, there were promises of solidarity from surrounding counties, elected officials, irrigation districts and many more.

At this point, anyone who doesn’t recognize the peril the state’s plan represents is not paying attention. Just as the region’s forefathers once fought to build dams and canals, this generation must protect its water rights. Not just for farmers, but for all of us.

If the state insists on using phony numbers and disingenuous justifications to take water, this will become a bitter, bitter fight. It will be costly and protracted and involve lots of lawyers. But it’s a fight that must be waged. And won.

River flow hearings

The 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.

  Comments