What Gavin Newsom said – and didn’t say – during his visit Monday in Modesto

Gavin Newsom came to Modesto on Monday night to shake hands and meet important people.

Most, if not all, wanted to know one thing: Newsom’s position on water. Specifically, the water flowing down the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. Water the state is trying to take from us.

As a Democrat running against a little-known Republican to replace Jerry Brown, Newsom is destined to be California’s next governor. Of the problems Brown is handing off to his replacement, none is more delicate or difficult than water.

It was the hottest topic among those packed into Surla’s Restaurant. Would Newsom stick with his predecessor’s California WaterFix, the elaborate plan – which Brown refused to put to a vote of the people – that will supposedly fix the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and simultaneously send more water to the thirsty south? Or will he try to find a better way?

As Brown’s departure draws near, he’s rushing to get the WaterFix started.

The WaterFix’s two goals are supposedly “co-equal.” In reality, Brown’s essential goal is to move water south. The plan’s centerpiece is a pair of tunnels – each 40-feet in diameter – capable of sucking most of the enormous Sacramento River under the Delta to southbound pumps.

The State Water Resources Control Board made its priorities clear in announcing its recommendation in early July. The board cherry-picked old statistics to insist the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus fisheries are on the brink of collapse. It pointed out that creeping salinity from San Francisco Bay imperils the Delta. The board insists only more of the water from our rivers can solve both problems.

But the board ignored more recent data showing fish numbers are improving. And the board made no mention of the fact that the Sacramento River supplies 80 percent of the Delta’s water, making it far more essential than our rivers in countering salinity.

People in Turlock, Modesto, Merced, Manteca, Oakdale and all points in between have vowed to fight this blatant grab. That’s what brought them to Surla’s.

Smart and persuasive, Newsom was ready with an answer that provided a glimmer of hope without committing to anything.

“None of these things are on autopilot,” he said. “I’m not wedded to the presumptions of the current administration.” Sounds good.

Having been raised in the Bay Area, Newsom didn’t have to be reminded that the Tuolumne River supplies San Francisco and 22 other Bay Area cities with drinking water.

“I floated down the Tuolumne River as a child, many times. You can’t be from San Francisco without being connected, almost spiritually, to Modesto and Turlock through the river.”

Even better. But now the “but…”

“A great deal of time has been consumed studying this issue,” he said. “I know (Gov. Brown’s) point of view.” It’s important, said Newsom, to do his own research, but also to be respectful of past efforts.

That was Newsom’s way of asking us to recognize the difficulty of providing water for 40 million Californians. While we can’t lose sight of the cost to our region – a crippling $1.6 billion annually – the needs of the entire state can’t be ignored.

Everyone in the room Monday evening should have had one priority: To help the presumptive governor understand the devastating costs to our region. But we also should commit to helping him resolve the problem.

If we can, perhaps we can strengthen that connection that runs through the Tuolumne River all the way to San Francisco. Maybe we can help a new governor find a better solution than the one being pushed by Jerry Brown’s water board. It’s our best hope.