Opinion

Really want to share the river? Then how about some realistic solutions

The Tuolumne River at the Fox Grove fishing access area, near Hughson. Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts would move their water intake facilities to near this location so that more cold water will help salmon survive in the colder, upstream reaches of the river.
The Tuolumne River at the Fox Grove fishing access area, near Hughson. Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts would move their water intake facilities to near this location so that more cold water will help salmon survive in the colder, upstream reaches of the river. The Modesto Bee

Restoring California’s native fisheries is a daunting task that must strike a balance among all water users. Patrick Koepele, executive director of the Tuolumne River Trust, was right in his recent op-ed about one thing – the solution to California’s ecosystem troubles will require cooperative partnerships.

Unfortunately, Koepele then goes on in his story “If we’re smart, we can find enough water for all of us” (Aug. 15) to paint an imaginary scenario in which a 90,000-acre-foot water bank can magically replace the local water supply lost to the current State Water Quality Control Board plan. Conservative estimates show the water board plan will require over 350,000 acre-feet of river flow in dry years and up to 1.7 million in wet years – a a 300 percent increase over the current amount now dedicated to environmental flows.

In theory, the State Water Board is taking this water to help fish.

However, this is as unrealistic as Koepele’s suggestions for water banks. The real problems for fish are limited spawning areas, voracious predators and rock-lined Delta channels that offer little in the way of protection for native fish migrating to the ocean.

Koepele suggests that replacing our current water-delivery canals with pressurized pipe would miraculously save 300,000-acre-feet of water. The project he mentions, pioneered by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, was a great experiment but was never fully implemented because it didn’t pencil out.

Applying the same practices on the Tuolumne River simply won’t produce the hoped-for results. So rather than rely on one trial project, SSJID and other irrigation districts continue to study pressurized delivery along with other approaches that hopefully will work. Koepele should do the same.

Properly managing our water so that there is enough for farms, urban users and the environment isn’t helped by make-believe or misguided plans. It takes hard work. Farmers and irrigation districts are leading the way on collaborative efforts that create fish habitat, preserve wetlands and more.

Wise investments in our environment can help improve overall water management, something a small water bank is unable to do alone. Projects such as restoring spawning grounds along the Tuolumne River, creating side channels, or restoring miles of riparian habitat do much more for fish than simply pouring more water down the river. And it’s the very success of these local projects that highlights the wrong direction of the narrow policy under consideration by the State Water Board.

Left unchanged, this policy will force draconian water supply cuts, which will remove the ability to work together – forcing everyone back into defensive postures.

What Koepele misses is that the proposed cuts are so severe that, if implemented, there will be no water for water banks, cooperative environmental projects or any other investments in creative water management. How could that possibly be helpful to our long-term water future?

If you agree, join us Monday, Aug. 20 at noon on the steps of the State Capitol to protest this horrible policy. Together, we can invite the State Water Board to work collaboratively with local experts and support a proven path to success, not impede it.

Mike Wade is the executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. He wrote this for The Modesto Bee.

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