We’d prefer a deal. But we’ll fight to protect our rivers if that’s what it takes

A salmon makes its way up a fish ladder on the Sacramento River. The overwhelming majority of California’s salmon come from the Sacramento River, but the state is planning to adopt water rules on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers in an effort to increase salmon numbers.
A salmon makes its way up a fish ladder on the Sacramento River. The overwhelming majority of California’s salmon come from the Sacramento River, but the state is planning to adopt water rules on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers in an effort to increase salmon numbers. AP

Five appointed state regulators can do an enormous amount to help salmon and the state’s most-altered water system on Dec. 12. Or they can guarantee that water lawyers will stay busy for decades to come.

The State Water Resources Control Board’s five members – including one added Thursday – are scheduled to vote on implementing the Bay-Delta Plan’s Substitute Environmental Document. If unchanged, the SED will require 40 to 50 percent of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to flow unimpaired to the Delta, for the sake of salmon. It would also require vast amounts of water be left in cold storage behind the region’s three dams to help salmon in an ever-warming environment.

Such requirements will force farmers who depend on irrigation to fallow thousands of acres, costing hundreds of millions in lost income and devalued farmland and killing hundreds of food-processing jobs.

Our state’s water problems go far beyond the Delta. Our infrastructure was built to accommodate 19 million people, not 40 million (with most living in Southern California). We’ve wrecked the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by diking it then pumping billions of gallons hundreds of miles south. We never completed the State Water Project that called for more dams in the northernmost part of the state. Our groundwater is disappearing, and we’ve wreaked environmental havoc everywhere from the Salton Sea to the Klamath River.

The SED purports to solve a tiny portion of those problems. But adopting it will irrevocably harm a million Californians – all without any indication it will work. It will also ignite a legal battle for the ages, as the Turlock, Modesto, Merced, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts and the City and County of San Francisco wage an existential court challenge. All believe at least part of the water purportedly for salmon will be pumped away to supply other regions.

There’s another path: Voluntary settlement agreements. Intense negotiations have been under way since early November when Gov. Jerry Brown and governor-elect Gavin Newsom jointly asked the water board to delay its SED vote for a month. If successful, these agreements will set the pattern for similar negotiations throughout the state as diminishing water supplies become more precious.

Voluntary agreements would provide help for salmon right away; adopting the SED delays help for years.

“(The SED) is entirely unacceptable and will be devastating to both the fish and our communities because we’ll run out of water,” said Turlock Irrigation District board member Michael Frantz, a key negotiator. “The district’s position is that if a deal is not reached by Dec. 12, and if the plan as it is currently written is adopted, we’ll be headed off to court.”

Any lawsuit would target flaws in the state’s inexplicably low estimate of costs to those living here; its deceptions through reliance on outdated science, and the water board’s desire to usurp 130 years of water law.

The implications of regulation through SED are statewide, but the consequences will be felt here first.

“Merced County as a whole is pretty low on the pole for income, employment and all those things,” said John Sweigard, general manager of Merced Irrigation District. “One thing we’ve got … (is) water. And that’s all we’ve got. Now people want to come after that.”

The problem with the SED, said Sweigard, “is that one out of every five years we’ll have zero water deliveries” to farmers. That means replacing trees with low-profit annual field crops. Or pumping vastly more groundwater.

A settlement is preferable, but any agreement must include certain guarantees.

Dry-year off ramps. The districts must increase fish flows, but in consecutive drought years they also must be allowed to reduce those flows. Salmon will survive; they’ve evolved to read fresh-water signals and if spawning conditions aren’t right, they stay in the ocean.

No cold pools. Along with doubling flows, the SED demands control of vast pools of cold water remaining behind the dams – making it unavailable for irrigation. So is it 40 percent state bureaucrats want, or 60 percent?

Real science. The state bases its demands on “vetted” studies, the most recent from 2011 and most from the 1990s. More recent studies have refuted those earlier findings or cast data in a different light – including the discredited notion that higher flows equal more fish. We must work from the same data.

Rivers are red lines. The districts’ responsibilities must end at the mouth of each river. The SED includes goals for getting fish through the Delta. But we have no control over the Delta or the Sacramento River, which supplies 80 percent of its water and 95 percent of all salmon. Scientists call the Delta a “killing field” because 97 percent of the young salmon that swim in never swim out. Fixing the Delta is not our responsibility. Let others remove rip-rap from the Delta’s 750 miles of armored channels. Allow levees to breach, creating estuaries and lakes. Lift restrictions on catching non-native striped bass, which eat salmon. And tell the Bay Area’s salmon fishers to quit exaggerating the importance of their industry; commercial salmon catches are worth less than the cow manure produced on our dairy farms.

A few misguided people are trying to paint the City and County of San Francisco as the bad guys. Turlock and Modesto have partnered with San Francisco on the Tuolumne River since 1913. San Francisco paid for half of Don Pedro. When you’re in a fight with state bureaucrats held captive by intransigent environmentalists, you need strong allies.

We will do our part to help California solve its water problems. But we will not be forced to accept penalties so others can prosper. The state’s SED is bad policy, driven by a political agenda and unsupported by the best available science. It will cost our residents dearly if adopted.

It’s not just our fight. If state regulators can do it to this region, they can – and will – do it to others.