Our View: If the state carries out its plan, our region will suffer

Fisheries technicians wade into the Tuolumne River to check a rotary “screw-trap” as they count salmon migrating down the river to the Bay and beyond.
Fisheries technicians wade into the Tuolumne River to check a rotary “screw-trap” as they count salmon migrating down the river to the Bay and beyond. Modesto Bee

Is the state coming to tear down the arch, or just extinguish some of its lights?

For more than 100 years, Modesto’s downtown arch has proclaimed “Water Wealth Contentment Health.” The reasons are obvious – much of what we value is derived from the water flowing through our communities. Without the water, our wealth, health and contentment could disappear. That’s no less true in Turlock, Oakdale and Ceres; or in Merced, Manteca, Ripon, Escalon and even, to some extent, San Francisco.

The State Water Resources Control Board wants to “save” the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by letting more water flow past us and into the Delta. By doing that, state officials must ignore the billions of dollars we have invested in dams, canals, hatcheries, homes and farms – investments predicated on 150 years of carefully using the water.

In that same time, California has been altering and transforming the Delta into a system of rip-rap clad channels funneling water toward pumps that send it to millions of people hundreds of miles away.

The Sacramento River provides 80 percent of the Delta’s fresh water, the San Joaquin and its tributaries only 20 percent. Yet, it is our water the state has targeted.

Yes, 100 years ago the estuary teemed with Delta smelt and thousands of salmon came up the San Joaquin and down the Sacramento before migrating to the ocean. But that estuary no longer exists. It’s been almost entirely “channelized” to facilitate faster flows out and in.

The state’s remedy? Add water. Water from our rivers.

With much of the Sacramento River destined to be siphoned beneath the Delta, taking additional San Joaquin flows will still be woefully insufficient. Water trapped in channels doesn’t swirl with silt, forming berms to nourish swamp grasses that leach away the salt; it can’t meander and spread into vast shallow lakes creating mudflats and ecosystems. Additional water can only push back the salt water rushing up those channels.

If the state wants to “save” the Delta, why not start in the Delta? Haul away the rip-rap, breach the levees and allow nature to re-create an estuary where smelt can thrive and juvenile salmon can evade predators. That such an obvious plan is well down the state’s to-do list shows what’s really going on – a water grab.

We hope hundreds of people attend Monday’s hearing at the Merced Theatre and Tuesday’s at Modesto Centre Plaza, proving we stand united. Why? Because this is crucial for our future.

Twenty percent of the Tuolumne and Merced rivers and about 30 percent of the Stanislaus now flow unimpaired to the Delta. The state wants 40 percent from each, but is threatening to take 50 percent if improvements in the rivers aren’t made.

There’s more. The state wants to control the “cold pools” deep behind our dams – amounting to roughly 35 percent of reservoir capacity. Combined, the state would control nearly four times the amount of water it now has at its disposal.

Eventually, when today’s water grab fails to “save” the Delta, distraught environmentalists will return, bewildered their plans have failed, and insist that saving the Delta requires 60 percent of flows.

And if that doesn’t work?

It won’t matter; our region’s 150-year-old agricultural traditions will have disappeared. Most of our jobs, farms, property values and way of life already will be gone.

The state’s plans are outlined in its 3,100-page Substitute Environmental Document, which, officials admit, relies on flawed modeling. It gives short shrift to substantial “unavoidable” negative impacts – which we fear will roll tsunami-like through our factories, farms and homes. It might take years for all the impacts to be felt; but will the state care when the harm occurs?

No. The state’s primary concern is saving fish – the 400,000 city residents who get their drinking water from the rivers are afterthoughts.

When some of our elected representatives quietly negotiated with officials and environmental groups last year, agreeing to provide vastly more water for fish, they thought they had a deal. The agreement moved up the state’s official ladder, then disappeared.

The state water board members who will attend the Monday and Tuesday hearings are not the enemy. Most aren’t from here, so they might believe what they’ve read been fed by environmental groups – that we’re all just a bunch of greedy corporate farmers.

That’s not us. The closest contact most of us have with a farmer is at the farmers market.

None of us – farmers included – want to see dead rivers. We know we’ve asked our rivers to do too much; we’re eager to do what we can to revitalize them. But this plan isn’t about the rivers; it’s about taking water. With it will go our wealth, our contentment, our health.

What will be left?

Water board hearings

The State Water Resources Control Board will conduct hearings in Modesto and Merced.

  • Merced, Monday, 9 a.m., Merced Theatre, 301 W. Main St.
  • Modesto, Tuesday, 9 a.m., Modesto Centre Plaza, Tuolumne River Room, 1000 K St.
  • For those unable to attend the meetings, written comments can be sent to Jeanine Townsend, Clerk of the Board; State Water Resources Control Board, 1001 I St., Sacramento, CA 95814-0100.