California water policy should rely on California science

Joshua Epps and Jason Mensonides fish along the Tuolumne River in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, March 23, 2018. TID issued an advisory saying people might expect to see the river double in volume Friday.
Joshua Epps and Jason Mensonides fish along the Tuolumne River in Modesto, Calif., on Thursday, March 23, 2018. TID issued an advisory saying people might expect to see the river double in volume Friday. aalfaro@modbee.com

Despite having well over a year to adequately address thousands of public comments from our region, the State Water Resources Control Board has ignored the value of water to our community and doubled down on its proposal to mandate 40 percent of unimpaired flows along the Tuolumne River.

State Board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus astounded our communities when she stated that “efforts are underway to design voluntary agreements” (How to move past water wars, save the Delta, Page 7A, July 12). The Modesto Irrigation District and Turlock Irrigation District have sat with the state at the negotiating table for more than a year offering science-based, balanced solutions. Yet, none of these discussions and proposed solutions are reflected in the state’s revised proposal. The Board’s recent action further proves that its mind was made up a long time ago and any claim of negotiating in good faith is a charade.

The timing from the State Board couldn’t be worse. MID and TID are in the process of relicensing the Don Pedro Project – a reservoir, dam and powerhouse crucial to the region. The threat to this asset cannot be overstated as it generates clean energy, offers vast recreation opportunities, and is a vital component to a healthy ecosystem. Most importantly, it provides a reliable water supply for both agricultural and urban customers across the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Last fall, MID and TID filed our Amended Final License Application for the relicensing of the Don Pedro Project with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Included in our filing is the Tuolumne River Management Plan – a comprehensive suite of inter-related river flow and non-flow measures that we developed using Tuolumne River-specific studies and models to meet the co-equal goals of fishery protection and improvement and water supply reliability for our communities. The Tuolumne River Management Plan describes our proposed operations, improvements and resource protection measures under a new FERC license.

Our plan balances these co-equal goals by considering years of scientific research and review, input from various resource agencies, regulators and public stakeholders, and innovative approaches to solving environmental challenges.

As a result, the Tuolumne River Management Plan is a balanced, sustainable and achievable plan based on sound, site-specific science.

Through FERC’s collaborative, integrated licensing process, the districts have invested more than $25 million to develop scientifically-based models that evaluate multiple aspects of the Tuolumne River, including reservoir operations, river temperature, fishery populations and socioeconomic impacts.

This integrated process began nine years ago, before we even filed a formal new license application. We not only looked at what we knew about the project and the Tuolumne River, but more importantly what we didn’t know and conducted almost three dozen additional studies to fill in the data gaps. We also invited and collaborated with all interested stakeholders, including state and federal resource agencies, to gather feedback and recommendations.

We are confident in the many benefits of the Tuolumne River Management Plan, which will help enhance the river’s fishery – specifically the fall-run Chinook salmon and O. mykiss populations – through management of habitat and predators, increased river flows, construction of a salmon conservation hatchery, and use of creative water diversion options.

River flow is a vital component of fish health, but it is not the only factor and it doesn’t mean that an additional abundance of water is needed. That’s why scientists studied all aspects of potential stressors – predation, water temperature, timing of river flows – and took a holistic approach in the Tuolumne River Management Plan.

The Tuolumne River Management Plan will increase fall-run Chinook salmon production in the Tuolumne River over 2.5 times the current production. If the State Water Board was actually interested in protecting and improving the natural resources of the lower Tuolumne River they would recognize that the districts’ flow and non-flow measures would create the conditions for native fisheries to thrive significantly more than the state’s flow-centric demand.

MID and TID have been responsible environmental stewards of the Tuolumne River for more than 130 years. We support a vibrant and healthy Tuolumne River and we have a balanced plan that can be implemented today. The Tuolumne River Management Plan will ensure the long-term prosperity of our communities and the environment, while providing water security and reliability to our region for the next half-century. The State Board should stop ignoring fact-based logic and do the right thing. To learn more, visit www.worthyourfight.org and www.tuolumnerivermanagementplan.org.

Nick Blom is president of the Modesto Irrigation District Board of Directors. Charles Fernandes is president of the Turlock Irrigation District Board of Directors.