State water grab will devastate our community

Lake McClure, which can hold about 1 million acre feet of water, was only filled to 20 percent capacity in 2016. The state’s water plan would make this almost a permanent condition.
Lake McClure, which can hold about 1 million acre feet of water, was only filled to 20 percent capacity in 2016. The state’s water plan would make this almost a permanent condition. akuhn@mercedsunstar.com

Are you a mechanic? A food processor? A trucker? Do you work in a bank? Sell insurance? Much more simply, do you drink water in eastern Merced County?

Assuming you answered yes to any of these questions, get ready: the State Water Resources Control Board will soon vote to take more than $230 million and about 1,000 jobs from our community.

In July, the water board released its newest plan to require that twice as much water remain in the Merced River and flow north into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. After a series of hearings and delays, the board is poised to adopt this doomed-to-fail plan on Nov. 7.

If it looks familiar, that’s because it’s the same plan the state has had for a decade – requiring 40 percent of the Merced flow from Lake McClure so others far from here can benefit from it.

The state’s proposal got one public hearing in Merced, in December 2016 – just days before Christmas. Still, nearly 1,000 attended; another 1,400 came to a hearing in Modesto a few days later, 800 more showed up in Stockton. The board then took 18 months to make minor revisions to its so-called Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan SED. But those revisions didn’t alter the plan’s essential goal: a monumental water grab. Across all three rivers, it would be nearly enough to fill Lake McClure each year.

Lake McClure is our community’s primary source of water. It is owned and operated by Merced Irrigation District and the water stored there supports the environment, agriculture and is a critical source of groundwater replenishment. It creates about $1 billion in economic output each year.

Even now, Lake McClure experiences water shortages about once every five years. Under the water board’s plan, we’ll experience shortages every other year, on average.

Think of the five-year drought we just experienced. The water board is going to inflict that kind of suffering on us every other year.

For this pain, the state will see about 1,000 additional salmon, but their cost will be enormous. The Bay-Delta SED projects losses to be $231 million per year, with 970 full- and part-time jobs disappearing. Even today, a quarter of our community lives below the federal poverty level and 10 percent of our workforce is unemployed.

This might not seem like much to bureaucrats sitting in Sacramento cubicles, but it’s not their wells that will go dry or their children who will drink contaminated groundwater. Our community cannot afford to lose this vital water source.

For years, water board scientists and their allies in the fringes of the environmental justice movement have sought to paint a picture of “farmers vs. fish.” First, it was about the Delta smelt and now it’s about the salmon on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries – the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. But this is a false portrait; their demands will impact everyone, not just farmers.

The debate is actually about “fish vs. school children” and the water they drink. It’s about “fish vs. workers,” and the jobs they’ll lose.

The state has a plan, but so does Merced Irrigation District – a plan that will help salmon without devastating our community.

MID offered a detailed, well-researched proposal called the Merced River SAFE Plan – or Salmon, Agriculture, Flows, Environment. It would provide reasonable new flows, substantial habitat restoration, predation management and improvements to the salmon hatchery.

The water board’s revised plan, released in July, excluded all of MID’s input and the latest scientific information compiled on the Merced River. We got four weeks to review the state’s plan before the board was scheduled to adopt it. After more than 1,000 people protested on the Capitol steps, the water board delayed the vote until Nov. 7.

Board members can still change course before choosing to devastate one of the poorest communities in the state.

We hope our community’s voices were heard in August. We pray that the five water board members will open their ears and hearts and understand what their staff is truly proposing and its impacts on the people who live here.

As the state water board staff continues to pursue an ideology, MID remains committed to protecting salmon, our local water supply, our environment and our agriculture.

Dave Long is Merced Irrigation District president; Jeff Marchini is vice president.