Why have hearings if state water board isn’t going to listen?

The Tuolumne River from near its headwaters in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. The river looks placid and languid on an August day, but it provides drinking water for millions and food for millions more.
The Tuolumne River from near its headwaters in Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park. The river looks placid and languid on an August day, but it provides drinking water for millions and food for millions more. The Modesto Bee

For those in the environmental movement, the State Water Resources Control Board hearings Tuesday and Wednesday were like an episode of “Friends,” all warm, witty welcomes. For the people from the Northern San Joaquin Valley, it was like watching the movie “Defending Your Life.”

The water board is considering a long-awaited staff plan to send 40 to 50 percent of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to the ocean. Such flows, say those testifying from this region, would be utterly destructive – killing jobs, forcing farmers to fallow fields and vastly diminishing the services public officials can provide. They backed up their warnings with facts, figures, computer modeling and law books.

The other side offered, well, a lot of emotion. One literally broke into tears. If they had data, most of it was outdated. After two 10-hour days of testimony, some observations:

▪  The final 90 minutes were crucial, but centered on arcane details. Dorene D’Adamo – the only board member who combines a farming background and deep water-policy expertise – started questioning staff about the rules around “carryover” storage. She worried about language suggesting the state could take over operations of the reservoirs, resulting in zero water for farmers – especially in drought years. Who decides how much to store, she asked. A staff member answered it would be up to a committee that includes water board staff, water district employees and, possibly, others. Like professional environmentalists.

Carryover is essential for farmers and fish. Fail to store enough, and a dry year means dead crops. Drain the reservoirs too low, and the water left behind gets warm; salmon die in warm water. So D’Adamo asked again, “How much carryover?” She never got a real answer.

▪  Turlock ID’s Steve Boyd told the board that under the plan’s carryover requirements, thousands of farmers would have had no water in 2014 and 2015.

▪  Turns out, there are no longer specific goals for fish populations. Instead, the state will monitor water temperature, floodplain development and water velocity. Without numbers, there’s no way to tell when you’ve succeeded or failed. That might be the point. The state can forever move the goalposts. Put simply, farmers can’t win.

▪  John Swiegard, Merced ID’s GM, looked for common ground: “We’re reasonable people, willing to participate in reasonable solutions we believe in,” he said. “I drive an electric car, I have fake grass.” But he noted “huge errors” in the state’s plan, which emphasizes those changeable “conditions” over fish salmon counts. “We’re willing to do our part, but from what I’ve seen this biological monitoring thing is getting way out of control. … Let’s do the basic things first.”

▪  Doug Obegi, who works for board chairwoman Felicia Marcus’ former employer, the Natural Resources Defense Council, insisted fish must have 50 percent flows. Anything less, he said, and the board will “watch the Delta and species disappear forever.” But the rivers where fish are rebounding are mostly managed by water districts. Obegi must have fish and farmers confused.

▪  The live feed went dark near the end of the second day. What you missed, said those still there, was board member Steve Moore saying if they hadn’t promised to put off a vote he would make a motion to accept the staff proposal that minute. Tam Doduc said she would second it. Why have hearings when board members decide before arriving?

▪  Tim O’Laughlin, who has represented several of our region’s irrigation districts, was asked by chairwoman Felicia Marcus why he no longer appears before her board. “I became frustrated,” he answered. “It’s hard to keep talking to people when you see no reciprocity.” Perhaps he’s already met Moore and Doduc.

▪  Chuck Bonham, director of the Department of Water Resources, had a lot of nice things to say to the board and all who spoke. Then he said this: “Water matters to all of us. We need to get over fighting over who it matters to the most.”

For Chuck, not having water means his car stays dirty, his lawn turns brown. If a Modesto farmer doesn’t have water, it means the 50 acres of almonds turn to twigs and the bank doesn’t get paid. Maybe her kids won’t go to college and the two employees who have been with her for 15 years will no longer have a job or health benefits.

Water matters here. The board votes on Nov. 7. By that time they’re all likely to learn exactly how much.