Our View: Preserve our resources without destroying our region

Aerial photo of the confluence of the Tuolumne River, left; into the San Joaquin River near Vernalis looking to the south.
Aerial photo of the confluence of the Tuolumne River, left; into the San Joaquin River near Vernalis looking to the south. Modesto Bee file

News flash: The state doesn’t want to ruin the Valley’s economy.

News flash: Farmers don’t want to see our rivers die or salmon vanish.

Why is it necessary to make such obvious statements? Because since the release of the state’s flawed environmental plan for the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers in 2012, the opposite beliefs have become dogma. It’s time to restart the conversation.

Faced with outrage and rapidly organizing opposition, the state withdrew its 2012 Substitute Environmental Draft last year. A new one is expected “this spring.”

In it, we hope for significant changes. In the 2012 version, the State Water Resources Control Board staff proposed increasing “unimpaired flows” to 35 to 40 percent on all three rivers – meaning sharp cuts in the amount that can be put onto the fields and orchards that provide the basis of our economy.

Farmers reacted with outrage, saying the impact would be cataclysmic, destroying entire segments of agriculture and the jobs that go with them.

Environmental organizations embraced the plan because they felt farmers and the irrigation districts had recklessly increased diversions, leaving all three rivers in danger of becoming lifeless drainage ditches.

California’s water belongs to everyone, so the state has an obligation to protect it. Farmers can use it, but they don’t own it. The irrigation districts can capture it behind dams, but the water is held in “public trust.” Allowing entire fish populations to vanish is a violation of that trust. There’s little argument that the salmon populations of the Tuolumne and Merced are in danger of vanishing.

Over the past month, The Bee has spoken to irrigation districts and the state water board. It’s clear they’d all rather find a solution than fight. But there’s much work to be done.

Economic impacts

The state originally estimated ag losses at $124 million per year. But many believe the state’s plan would force farmers to fallow 200,000 acres or more. Thousands would be out of work. That would create losses of $1 billion; and some say more.

As the state reworks its numbers, others are conducting their own studies.

“It’s crucial that the public have faith in the numbers,” said Dorene D’Adamo, the only member of the five-person board who lives in the Valley. “Whether it’s $600 million or $200 million or $1 billion, this is an area where those impacts will be magnified” due to our chronic unemployment, residual effects of the foreclosure crisis and other issues.

The impacts won’t stop in the Valley. San Francisco, a partner with Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts on the Tuolumne, estimates another $1 billion in adverse consequences in the Bay Area.

Environmental impacts

Water above 72 degrees kills salmon. In May, when the salmon are swimming out to the ocean, the best place to find cool water is behind dams. But those high unimpaired flows would result in far less water behind the dams, diminishing the cold pools.

“At 40 percent (unimpaired flows), New Melones will crash once in every five years,” said Jeff Shields, general manager of South San Joaquin Irrigation District, which shares the Stanislaus River with Oakdale Irrigation District. “It will force up water temperatures, creating a lethal river.”

Using pulse flows, scheduled cold flows and even diminished flows when salmon aren’t around is smarter. That’s called “adaptive management.”

Felicia Marcus, who chairs the state water board, embraces that idea. She also endorsed nonflow measures. For instance, studies show the biggest salmon killers are bass. For every 100,000 salmon fry hatched on the Stanislaus, only 2,000 reach Vernalis on the San Joaquin River.

Jake Wenger, an MID board member, said one study showed 98 percent of the Tuolumne’s juvenile salmon are eaten by bass.

Other solutions

Two years ago, SSJID began delivering pressurized water to a small number of farms near Ripon. Those farmers, said Shields, are reporting record yields while using 25 percent less water. Extending that across the district would save a lot of water, but Shields said it will cost at least $100 million. Who pays for that?

Michael Frantz, a board member at Turlock Irrigation District, suggests streambed restoration projects and planting thousands of shade trees along the Tuolumne to help cool the water. Again, there’s a cost.

Frantz noted that TID is already considering additional storage. As part of any deal, the state needs to help fast-track such projects, or at least not get in the way.


Many suspect that it’s not just a happy coincidence that the state is demanding more water from our rivers while simultaneously promising to make water deliveries to farmers in the south more reliable. After all, that’s one of the co-equal goals of the controversial Bay-Delta Conservation Plan.

As Wenger put it, “They’re taking steps now to ensure they have the water later.”

While we cannot ignore our responsibility to improve the environment along our rivers, the state must improve the environment of trust. Cooperation is endangered if we believe this is just another plan to send our water south.

But there are hopeful signs.

“I happen to like Felicia Marcus,” said Frantz. “I think she is a brilliant woman.”

D’Adamo already has enormous credibility in the region.

Building relationships is the first and most necessary step. But there are many more steps to take.