Community Columns

Larry Byrd: A fight for now, a fight for our future

Larry Byrd
Larry Byrd Modesto Bee file

There’s been a series of articles since the State Water Resources Control Board released its proposal for significantly increased river flows, allegedly for the benefit of fish and water quality. Modesto Irrigation District’s story has been absent from the mix – the vision of our forefathers, the decisions we’ve made, the sound science we’ve invested in, our commitment to our community and our vision for the future.

As a rancher, MID retiree and now a board member, here’s our story: In 1887, MID was formed as the second irrigation district in California (behind our long-standing Tuolumne River partner Turlock Irrigation District). Our forefathers’ vision was clear and their determination profound as they began transformation of a desert wasteland into one of the nation’s most productive agricultural regions.

After 16 years, and battling some opposition, the irrigation water that had been promised entered our newly constructed canal system moving water from east to west and providing irrigation to tracts of land. An idea that was proclaimed “utterly impracticable” by the late Modesto Herald was now a reality.

Property values climbed, land was subdivided, and wheat fields were transformed into vineyards and orchards. By the 1920s, nearly 60,000 acres had been brought into irrigation, and MID achieved worldwide recognition – success at last.

Building on the success of providing irrigation water to an otherwise barren landscape, MID’s forefathers’ vision wasn’t yet complete. By 1923, absent any ceremonies or crowds, the first electrical pole was installed, and MID embarked on a pathway to provide power. Local public power provides great benefit to those we serve, businesses we support and smart growth projected for the future.

Amid declining groundwater quality and quantity within the region, MID partnered with the city of Modesto to provide safe, reliable drinking water from the Tuolumne River, and in 1994 the Modesto Regional Water Treatment Plant was completed. While this investment also faced opposition, something had to be done to ensure sustainability of the Modesto sub-basin for generations to come. To date, MID has provided nearly 700,000 acre-feet (roughly 230 billion gallons) of treated surface water to the city of Modesto, significantly reducing their reliance on groundwater and improving water quality for more than 250,000 residents and 6,000 businesses.

Once again, we were ahead of our time, and the results are undeniable – groundwater levels have rebounded, and water quality is improving.

This cooperative agreement was based on common sense and bold leadership. Our efforts have created sustainable groundwater supplies, which have been our lifeline during this ongoing dry period.

This hasn’t happened by luck; it was accomplished through the vision and careful planning of those who served before and their ability to look beyond today. Doing what was comfortable wasn’t as important as doing what is right.

Today, we find ourselves in a fight to save our region and our resources. The state water board’s proposal threatens our ability to continue to sustainably manage our groundwater in the future. The board’s proposal can only be characterized as a “water grab.”

The state has failed to analyze and consider other sound alternatives that protect our environment, our groundwater resources and our economy. By their own numbers, this proposal will yield about 1,100 additional fish – at best. That’s right, this proposal will completely devastate our region for maybe 1,100 fish.

There are better solutions. MID and TID have invested $25 million studying the Tuolumne River. We have science-based, cost-effective solutions. We have even offered to undertake and pay for these solutions, including habitat restoration, river operation adjustments and a predation suppression program.

By our scientific calculations, our solutions will result in just as many fish or even more.

MID and TID have been good environmental stewards, caretakers and managers of our river and region for more than a century. Next year, an unelected five-member board appointed by the governor will decide the fate of our region for generations to come.

We can’t vote on this proposal, but we can fight it.

This isn’t a fight between farmers and fish or urban and ag; this is a fight for a common goal, a fight for now, a fight for the future and a fight for what’s right.

Join me at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Modesto Centre Plaza to voice your opposition and to save our Valley. As a united community of farmers, residents, business owners and laborers, this is worth our fight.

Larry Byrd is a member of the Modesto Irrigation District board of directors; he wrote this for The Modesto Bee.