Districts won first river fight

The issue never was just about more water for farmers. It was as much about how much water would be left for salmon when they need it most next fall.

South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts defied the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and National Marine Fisheries Service on Wednesday by blocking water released from New Melones Reservoir before it could reach the Stanislaus River. In the midst of negotiations over how much of the scant Sierra runoff the districts would get, the NMFS ordered a release to help push juvenile steelhead trout down the river.

But the water had to flow through Tulloch and Goodwin dams, controlled by the districts, first. When the districts closed the release gates, the water never reached the river. That prompted some emergency negotiations.

“We’re not anti-fish,” said SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields, who lives in Ripon. “We spend $1 million a year on biology on that river. The last thing we want to see is a fish harmed.”

The districts thought they had this issue settled two weeks ago by agreeing that they would get 25 percent less water this year, or 450,000 acre-feet. It wasn’t a difficult call, considering how little water is flowing down the Stan. While that’s still a lot of water, it doesn’t seem like much when only 545,000 acre-feet are behind the dam. The details were worked out Thursday, and by Friday the agreement was final.

Shields singled out State Water Resources Control Board’s Tom Howard for doing “a great job. ... His commitment was that they would get the data and analyze it as quickly as possible so that we could approve the deal by 3 o’clock Friday.”

That sounds amicable enough. But as much as we would prefer that this be a single, odd episode, it’s clear it is just the first of many. The state has signaled that virtually all water rights are open for discussion as this drought deepens. And Thursday, Chairwoman Felicia Marcus said the water board is looking first at the rights on the San Joaquin River’s tributaries. Turlock and Modesto are the two oldest irrigation districts in the state. If water rights are to continue to mean anything, they must mean something here.

Long-gone lawns?

While on the subject of water, it would behoove every city to start thinking about ways to get every home on water meters. In some Valley cities, only 50 percent of the homes are on meters. Others, like Modesto, are closer to 75 percent or 80 percent. It should be 100 percent. A surefire way to reduce water consumption is to meter its use and charge accordingly. Usually, water use falls 10 percent when it’s metered. With Modesto, Turlock, Ripon, Riverbank and Oakdale needing to cut water use by 35 percent, every tool needs to be in hand. And we’ll mention again that Southern California’s enormous Metropolitan Water District has combined with cities to offer “cash-for-grass.” They pay homeowners to pull up their lawns. Our water districts should consider similar programs. The water they save might be their own.

A great weekend for ...

One of our region’s signature events is the Oakdale Rodeo. If you go, it’s best to go to the Saddle Club arena well before the grand entry starts at 1:30 Saturday and Sunday. If you don’t mind a short drive, check out the Livingston Kite Festival, Sunday at 9 a.m. at the middle school. As always, we recommend making time for the Maddy Report. This week’s program includes Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor and The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters talking over Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget. Find it at www.maddyinstitute.com.