Sacramento is weaponizing regulatory process just to take our water

Tuolumne River crests the La Grange dam, a rare event that happens only in time of abundant water. This image was taken in 2017, a record year for flows on the river.
Tuolumne River crests the La Grange dam, a rare event that happens only in time of abundant water. This image was taken in 2017, a record year for flows on the river. gstapley@modbee.com

I recently took legislative action to prevent an assault on our way of life – and it’s going to take a collective effort to win this fight.

Some statistics: $4 billion in economic value. $735 million in labor income. 19,000 jobs.

This is the value of water and what the Don Pedro Project – dam, reservoir and powerhouse – on the Tuolumne River provides to my constituents and the Central Valley. In addition, Don Pedro generates clean and affordable electricity, serves as flood control for the Tuolumne River and offers many recreational opportunities. It’s used to irrigate 200,000 acres of prime farmland and provide electricity and drinking water for more than 220,000 people in the Valley and another 1 million in the San Francisco Bay Area.

State and federal agencies are threatening to cripple our economy and our region’s way of life by trying to take our water through a confusing regulatory process. Our region has rightfully been fighting the State Water Resources Control Board’s water grab, and now federal agencies are trying to do the same through regional offices in Sacramento.

Hydropower licenses must be renewed every 50 years, and Don Pedro’s license is up. Planning ahead, Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts (MID and TID) developed a plan to renew the license for another 50 years while protecting the natural resources of the lower Tuolumne River and sustaining our water supplies.

MID and TID’s Tuolumne River Management Plan is the culmination of a multi-year, comprehensive effort by the districts with significant input from agencies, tribes and the public to identify and assess effects of continuing Don Pedro operations. Through consultation with state and federal agencies, our irrigation districts developed the best science on the Tuolumne River to improve habitat and determine what the fisheries actually need to thrive.

After participating in a collaborative process to develop this sound science, these same agencies chose to ignore the process and relied on their own “studies.” In one alarming case, instead of using the science developed on the Tuolumne River, the National Marine Fisheries Services’ (NMFS) Sacramento Regional Office based their recommendations on river temperature criteria designed for the state of Washington. Obviously, our climate is dramatically different here in the Central Valley.

NMFS also had the audacity to suggest building a 70-foot tall dam behind Don Pedro, at an estimated cost of $170 million, to collect baby salmon before trucking them down the river and dumping the disoriented juveniles into feeding grounds for striped bass where the predation rate is almost 100 percent.

I’ve been pushing for more responsible water storage in California for years, and while Sacramento is fighting these efforts apparently they don’t mind spending millions of our dollars on an experimental project such as fish passage that has no proven or guaranteed success.

This is not federal money, these costs are directly borne by MID and TID ratepayers: our families, farms, cities and businesses.

If the lack of science and absurd trucking of fish wasn’t enough, these agencies are demanding to increase flows on the Tuolumne River by more than 200 percent. And for what? They don’t give us any idea of how many fish this insane amount of water will create, but we know exactly how much water it will waste.

They hide behind the idea that more water equals more fish but fail to say how many more fish. We cannot allow this radical agenda to move forward.

There is a lack of accountability by these rogue agencies trying to force our region into paying hundreds of millions of dollars and giving up hundreds of thousands acre-feet of water for their unjustified proposals. Our ag-based community thrives on a reliable water supply, and as we saw when the state water board tried to take our water, we’re ready to fight for our region, and we will continue this fight at the federal level to ensure that these agencies are held accountable.

That is why I secured language in the 2019 Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations bill to stop NMFS and Sacramento from this reckless path until they come to the table and actually consider reasonable proposals for moving forward.

MID and TID already invested years and millions of dollars to develop a balanced, sustainable, and achievable plan – exactly the type of approach that the state and federal agencies need to adopt. The people I represent should not be pawns of Sacramento bureaucrats, and I’m pushing for the District’s practical plan that will rehabilitate our river while protecting our way of life.

Water is the lifeblood of our region – we should all be ready to fight for it.

Jeff Denham represents California 10th Congressional District. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.