Our View: We must challenge the state’s water grab

A 12-year-old boy swings over the Tuolumne River last summer; river flows would be stronger under the state’s proposal, leaving less for irrigation.
A 12-year-old boy swings over the Tuolumne River last summer; river flows would be stronger under the state’s proposal, leaving less for irrigation. Modesto Bee file

We all know Mark Twain’s three kinds of untruths: Lies, damned lies and statistics.

The State Water Resources Control Board is telling some statistical whoppers as it tries to justify its impending water grab.

The state’s statisticians and computers created their numbers. But we’ll stick to the back of an envelope. See which numbers you find more plausible.

Start with this: $1.01 billion. That could come out of our pockets.

Some background. Two years ago, a water board study proposed four scenarios for increasing the “unimpaired flows” on the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers. Many disputed those numbers, so the board has promised an update expected in March. By November, many feel the board will make its demands for more water to be sent down our rivers.

The state will tell us that taking the water is for our own good. They’ll say decreasing what we use and increasing the amount that flows to the Delta and beyond will make our rivers healthier, save the salmon (which have all but disappeared) and make the Delta less salty.

But the state will likely ignore the part about devastating our economy. So we’ll remind them of the four scenarios they offered in 2012:

▪ Do nothing, leaving flows where they are – roughly 30 percent on the Stanislaus, 17 percent on the Tuolumne and 20 percent on the Merced all leaving the area.

▪ Increase unimpaired flows to 20 percent; this affects only the Tuolumne, whose unimpaired flow would increase by 25 percent. Inconceivably, the state says this would add 12,280 irrigated acres in the region and increase farm profits by $9 million. Less water; more crops – that only works in a computer game.

▪ Increase flows to 40 percent, which would cost Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts a third more water. It would double what flows down the Merced and increase the flows on the Tuolumne by 150 percent. The state says this would fallow 66,500 acres in Stanislaus, Merced and south San Joaquin counties at a cost of $40 million. That figure is pure fantasy – putting the profit from each acre at only $600. Farmers don’t break even at $600.

▪ Increase flows to 60 percent, doubling flows down the Stanislaus, tripling the Merced’s flows and quadrupling the Tuolumne’s. The state says this would remove 155,720 acres from production, costing the region $124 million. That means the state figures those prime acres generate only $800 each, not counting any other effects.

A glance at Stanislaus County’s crop report shows the idiocy of that number. Ag commissioner Milton O’Haire says roughly 540,000 acres were harvested in 2013, generating $3.66 billion. That works out to about $6,780 per acre – nine times the state’s figure. The higher number is reasonable. Don’t forget, all the land to be fallowed would be in irrigation districts – the most fertile in the region.

It gets worse. The Stanislaus Farm Bureau and others dispute the impact of 40 percent flows. They say 100,000 acres would be fallowed. Since each one earned $6,780, lost farm income would $670 million.

Don’t stop there. As farm dollars get spent, they multiply at a rate of 3.5, according to a UC Davis study. So the $670 million becomes $2.3 billion.

What if the state demands 60 percent flows? Local experts say we’ll fallow 210,000 acres – costing $1.4 billion at the farmgate. With the multiplier, that’s a $4.8 billion hit in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties.

OK, that’s an unlikely worst-case scenario.

In reality, farmers are inventive and resilient people. Deprived of water, they won’t give up on their investments. Instead, they’ll spread whatever water they get over more acres by planting crops that need less moisture. That won’t include as many almond trees. Growing nuts requires 42 inches of water a year. With the cuts, irrigation districts will likely deliver around 30 to 36 inches most years.

To water all their acres, farmers will likely pull another acre of trees so they can spread the water across two acres of less thirsty crops.

More trouble. An acre of tomatoes is 54 percent less profitable than an acre of almonds. Melons are 79 percent less profitable, wheat 85 percent.

Substituting 60,000 acres of almonds for tomatoes, melons and veggies will create losses of roughly $300 million. Add the multiplier effect and our region will have lost $1.05 billion. There are roughly 1.1 million people living in the three river basins. Each one will be $1,000 poorer. And that doesn’t count losses in hydropower generation or the fact that 37 percent of jobs in this area are ag-related.

It gets worse. Without water, the value of the land falls, reducing taxes. That affects everything from public safety to education.

Meanwhile, the rivers that once watered our orchards and fields will be diverted to the delta pumps. The report notes a $63 million cost for pumps to help lift all that new water over the Middle River fish barriers, which would allow it to be pulled directly into the larger pumps near Tracy and sent south.

Everyone who lives here has a stake in this – the farm bureaus, the five irrigation districts, jobs agencies, the chambers of commerce, county supervisors, city councils – everyone.

“It’s going to take a united effort,” said Modesto Irrigation District board member Jake Wenger. “Not just the (irrigation) districts and the farm bureaus but also our friends and neighbors in town. This will devastate our economies, which have already been the hardest hit in the nation.”

Clearly the state’s farmer fantasy models are worthless. We culled numbers from various sources. What we really need is a more rigorous study we can trust.

California State University, Stanislaus, could do it, or perhaps University of the Pacific. Such studies aren’t cheap, but that shouldn’t deter us. We need to show the devastating impacts of this water grab. We need legislators to know the state isn’t just taking water, it’s endangering our livelihoods, our homes and our futures.

Then, if the state won’t listen, perhaps the courts will.