Water board’s wrongheaded vote shows why state of California can’t be trusted

Politicians addressed roughly 1,400 people attending the “Stop the Water Grab” rally in Sacramento in August. It was the largest gathering at the Capitol this year.
Politicians addressed roughly 1,400 people attending the “Stop the Water Grab” rally in Sacramento in August. It was the largest gathering at the Capitol this year. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

There is no use continuing to negotiate with the state of California on deals to save the salmon on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. The state cannot be trusted.

That became clear Wednesday night, when the State Water Resources Control Board voted 4-1 to implement a regulatory mechanism called the Substitute Environmental Document as part of the Bay-Delta Plan.

Originally scheduled for November, Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom jointly signed a letter asking to delay the vote so “voluntary settlement agreements” could be reached on each river.

For a month, Karla Nemeth, head of the Department of Water Resources, and Chuck Bonham, head of the Department of Fish and Game, worked with the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts and the City and County of San Francisco (who share rights on the Tuolumne River) to reach a deal. And they did.

With some relief, they detailed a strong settlement at Wednesday’s water board meeting. Included were increased flows (109,000 acre feet), $38 million for projects, creation of 80 acres of floodplain and riverbed restoration. They described agreements across the entire Valley resulting in billions of dollars for restoration and billions of gallons of new water for wildlife.

Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts said they were close to a deal on the Stanislaus River; Merced Irrigation District signaled it would accept something similar.

But the water board refused to accept victory.

The key to any voluntary settlement agreement is that it replaces the demands contained in the SED – which calls for a doubling or tripling of river flows. Such draconian increases would fallow tens of thousands of acres and force farmers to replace orchards with field crops that can be abandoned during drought. Property values would fall, followed soon by property taxes. Hundreds of food processing jobs will be lost.

Fantasizing that voluntary agreement negotiations will continue even after the outdated SED was approved, the water board ignored two governors and broke the promises made by Nemeth and Bonham.

Each of the six entities with river rights promised to protect them in court if necessary. Now it’s necessary.

Many here believe the board is more interested in sending water elsewhere than saving salmon. Bolstering their argument are studies showing that higher flows are far less important to salmon than riverbed restoration, more floodplains and predator control.

The water board ignored such studies and turned to deceit. Its press release bemoaned the plight of salmon, saying only 10,000 were counted in the San Joaquin basin in 2016. In reality, 15,000 salmon were counted on Stanislaus alone, some 3,500 on the Tuolumne and 2,450 on the Merced. The board can call being off by 10,000 fish a mistake, but they’ve made the same mistake before. It’s just another reason to question all the water board’s numbers.

Board member Dorene D’Adamo, an attorney who has worked two decades on river issues, tried to alter the board’s thinking. Her motions to delay the vote or adjust the language were voted down 4-1.

What’s next: First, file the lawsuits.

Second, our state legislators must vote against confirmation of board appointee Sean Maguire and demand that chairwoman Felicia Marcus not be re-appointed in January. Their replacements should understand the board’s mandate to balance the needs of people with those of fish.

Third, we must continue to do the hard work of restoring our rivers. Not because duplicitous bureaucrats will recognize our efforts, but because it is the right thing to do.