How much water will state ask for today?

California Department of Fish and game biologist Sarah McCulloch extracts a pair of ear bones, or otoliths, from a salmon found on the Tuolumne River near La Grange.
California Department of Fish and game biologist Sarah McCulloch extracts a pair of ear bones, or otoliths, from a salmon found on the Tuolumne River near La Grange. Modesto Bee file

Water is the lifeblood of our region and its agriculture industry. Today we’ll find out just how much of that blood the state intends to spill.

The State Water Resources Control Board is expected to release the long-delayed draft substitute environmental document, a staff document detailing how much more water staff feels should be flowing down our rivers. In some cases, board staff will demand double the flows. The purpose, the state insists, is to save salmon.

There is no proof that such measures will save even one salmon, but there is ample evidence that losing access to the water could decimate our region’s largest industry – agriculture. Farm Bureau officials estimate 100,000 acres will be fallowed in Stanislaus County alone and 210,000 acres from Merced to south San Joaquin. With the water will go all the jobs that follow crops from the fields into food processing plants in Modesto, Patterson, Merced, Atwater, Escalon, Oakdale and so many more cities.

Community leaders are already angry.

“Every club, every group I’ve spoken to the past two years, I’ve ended with water and this being the single-biggest threat to our economy,” said Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa. “Now it’s going to be real as of (Thursday).”

Irrigation districts on the Tuolumne could see a 100 percent increase in lost water. Farmers in South San Joaquin, Oakdale and Merced irrigation districts could lose from a third to 50 percent more.

Fighting these recommendations means going against a Goliath. River water belongs to the state, and the water board is its regulator. Still, irrigation districts have rights – some dating to the 1800s. Those would have to be tested in court.

The SED is a staff recommendation; the actual decision will be made by the water board. But only one member is connected to farming; the other four seem more simpatico with environmental groups. And it was those groups who grew tired of waiting two months ago and sent a letter demanding the new SED be released – ending any hope of fruitful negotiations.

Those who live here have gotten little indication of what’s in the plan. But we’ve been warned to brace for demands of 40 percent flows on all three tributaries. That could be marginally higher than the recommendation of four years ago. Following release, there will be a comment period. It must be long enough to allow area officials to form a detailed response; after all, the state took four years.

We’re told this is all in the name of helping salmon traverse the Delta. But the first SED contained a reference to funding for a “lift” to direct water to the pumps that ship it south before it ever reaches the Delta.

“If it was really about fish, we’d be talking about fish – not flows,” said Turlock Irrigation District director Michael Frantz, who spent 18 months with others developing an agreement that was ultimately rejected by environmentalists. It’s hard to see negotiations resuming with any degree of confidence or trust. But if this goes to court, it is likely to end in a winner-take-all decision. It isn’t wise to take such a chance.

Before anyone gives in to anger, we should see what the SED says. Then we must do one more thing: Admit the rivers are in desperate shape and need help. We should be planning for moderate flow increases, creating improved spawning nests (as has been done on the Stanislaus) and predator reduction. Frantz suggests “escorting” young salmon to the ocean, keeping striped bass away. All of this takes money and everyone will have to pay more to use the water. .

When the water board releases its SED today, we’ll know where we stand. But if the number is 40 percent, it’s unlikely anyone here will stand for that.