Editorials

Our View: Gray’s water bill passes first crucial test

aalfaro@modbee.com

Forgive the fractured cliché, but the state of California has put the people of Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties in between a rock and the river.

Assemblyman Adam Gray is trying to give us a tiny bit of wiggle room. His Assembly Bill 1242 passed its first committee vote Tuesday, 8-4 – the barest of margins. Next, it goes to the Natural Resources Committee, where it faces another tough battle. To understand the importance of this tiny step, consider two things that happened last year.

First, California became the last state to regulate groundwater. Necessary and long overdue steps were taken as water districts and farmers reacted to our drought by pumping billions of gallons for their crops.

Second, the state has been signaling – or threatening, if you prefer – its desire to keep more water in the San Joaquin River’s three major tributaries, lessening the amount available for agriculture. The State Water Resources Control Board says it needs that water to help salmon and steelhead survive in the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers and to help keep salt out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Both worthy goals. But the method of reaching these goals – preserving groundwater and taking more river water – put us on a terrible collision course. The victims will be the thousands of farmers and ag-dependent businesses in the region. In a region with the state’s worst unemployment, ag produces roughly $8.5 billion. No other industry comes remotely close.

In its original environmental document, the state predicts that depriving our region of river water will mean more pumping and that will have “significant but unavoidable” detrimental impacts. That’s like saying, “Too bad; deal with it.”

What the state has failed to recognize is that for groundwater to be sustainable, it must be recharged. In this region, one of the most significant means of recharge is flood irrigation. As farmers inundate fields, from 8 percent to 15 percent of the water, depending on soil types, seeps underground.

Other types of irrigation provide far less recharge. Without irrigation, groundwater recharge is severely diminished. Eventually, groundwater becomes depleted.

Literally every person in this region – roughly 800,000 from Manteca to Merced – depends on groundwater. A few cities get treated river water, but all use at least some groundwater.

Because the state’s original environmental documents have failed to take any of the irrigation benefits into consideration, Gray was compelled to act. He authored AB 1242 to force the state to consider the benefits of irrigation on recharge when considering how much water to require from the rivers.

“I focused on the enormity of the (water) take (from the rivers); that it wasn’t a rational path forward,” said Gray. “I brought up the 350,000 (acre) feet, which is the estimated water they’ll take at 35 percent. That is the entire capacity of Hetch Hetchy (reservoir).

“You can imagine the economic and practical effects to San Francisco of tearing down Hetch Hetchy. (The state) suggests they can do that to our community but the impact is ‘significant but unavoidable.’ ”

Gray’s bill was backed by an incredible array of people and organizations. City councils from Merced to Atwater with Modesto expected to join Tuesday night; the Merced and Stanislaus supervisors; every chamber of commerce; school superintendents; and the Yosemite Community College District all supported AB 1242. This is also a victory for them.

Gray’s victory wasn’t the only news. Water board staff is poised to ask for an additional $3.75 million to complete a revision of the environmental study of impacts. It also said it might need until June 30, 2017, to complete the project. It was originally due two weeks ago.

The subcommittee vote was an important first step. There are many, many more to go for all of us.

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