State ignored us; it’s time to go to court

A sign of the time. The battle to “Stop the State Water Grab” now moves into courtrooms across Northern California.
A sign of the time. The battle to “Stop the State Water Grab” now moves into courtrooms across Northern California. The Modesto Bee

The water districts who filed a lawsuit against the State Water Resources Control Board on Thursday called it the “unfortunate culmination” of five years worth of efforts to reach a compromise on river flows.

We’ll use other words – like “inevitable,” because of the water board’s refusal to balance the needs of humans with those of the environment. And “necessary,” to protect our region’s rivers, thousands of food-industry jobs and the water rights that have sustained this Valley for more than a century.

On Dec. 12, the state water board voted 4-1 to adopt Phase I of the Bay-Delta Plan, which included a regulatory mechanism called the Substitute Environmental Document. The SED relied on studies done in the 1980s, ’90s and early 2000s to justify demands for vastly higher flows from the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Dozens of water professionals and scientists had already presented the water board with facts, figures and vetted studies better documenting the needs of salmon. Others showed that higher flows alone will never restore the fishery or solve the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta’s myriad problems. Still others described the economic agony that dramatically increased flows will create here before rippling to the Bay Area where 2.3 million share our river.

The water board listened but failed to hear a single argument. Worse, by voting to implement Phase I, the board rejected a hard-won agreement specifically designed to help salmon on the Tuolumne River.

That agreement arose from an unprecedented request made jointly by Gov. Jerry Brown and the man who has since replaced him, Gavin Newsom. They asked the water board to give state negotiators time to reach “voluntary settlements” with our irrigation districts. The districts – owned by the public – have held the rights to use the water that flows through our communities for more than a century, investing hundreds of millions in dams, canals, power plants and other infrastructure.

Brown sent two high-ranking officials – Karla Nemeth of the Department of Water Resources and Department of Fish & Wildlife boss Chuck Bonham – to negotiate.

In 30 days, the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission reached a landmark deal. The water districts agreed to send an additional 110,000 acre feet of water – 35 billion gallons – down the river, spend nearly $40 million for riverbed restoration and create of 80 acres of new flood plain. Districts on the Stanislaus and Merced rivers signaled they would accept similar deals.

Victory wasn’t good enough for The Bay Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club, Tuolumne Trust and others groups who demanded the settlement be ignored and the outdated SED adopted. Which is what a gleeful board did.

That left our region no option. The Turlock, South San Joaquin and Oakdale irrigation districts joined the SFPUC in suing to block the water grab in Tuolumne Superior Court. Modesto Irrigation District filed a similar lawsuit in Sacramento Superior Court. Merced filed its lawsuit last week.

These lawsuits will be years winding through the courts. Meanwhile, the irrigation districts will have little incentive to negotiate or begin new efforts to improve salmon habitat.

But stopping those efforts would be a mistake. We should live up to the agreement, offering further proof that the state water board’s decision was capricious, unnecessary and wrong. That we are the better stewards of our rivers, caring more about the survival of salmon and the well-being of those who live alongside them.