Mike Dunbar

Who is using our rivers, draining our aquifers? It’s you

People listen in a packed house Tuesday morning (12-20-16) during a presentation by the State Water Board in Modesto, Calif. on the proposal to boost flows on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers.
People listen in a packed house Tuesday morning (12-20-16) during a presentation by the State Water Board in Modesto, Calif. on the proposal to boost flows on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. jlee@modbee.com

To Sylvia, I’m a whiner. She might have a point when it comes to mowing the lawn. But concerning the State Water Resources Control Board’s dishonest efforts to take more water out of our region, I’ve moved well beyond whining to raging.

“Farmers, agribusiness, and water districts need to stop whining about water rights and start changing farming practices and water use to meet the 21st century,” Syliva wrote in an email after reading my column, “We must fight the water grab, not just talk about it” (July 8, Page 1A).

Sylvia saw the story in The Sacramento Bee, where it appeared alongside one written by water board chairwoman Felicia Marcus offering the state’s supposed rationale for doubling or tripling the amount of water left in the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers.

In her email, Sylvia insisted “it is the farmers and water districts who are the biggest stakeholders and therefore must shoulder the bigger burden of change.” Then she asked rhetorically, “Who has depleted our aquifers and diverted river flows?”

Despite misgivings about reacting to such critiques, I answered Sylvia’s email. But I forgot her request to assign blame for those depleting our aquifers. That would be ... her.

Sylvia and everyone like her who waters a lawn, takes a shower and drinks from the tap deserves blame. Everyone whose pantry and refrigerator are filled with cheese, wine, steaks, cherries, apples, peaches, plums, pluots, cantaloupes, cakes, eggs, turkey, chicken and yes, salmon fillets, deserves blame, too.

All that food comes from here, by the way. Some of it was even invented here; the rest we merely perfected.

The city of Sacramento is one of the state’s last cities to insist on residential water meters. Meanwhile, the city pumps 7 billion gallons from its aquifers every year.

I told Sylvia that since 1975, farmers here have doubled crop production from every “unit” of water. They’re using “21st century techniques” such as micro-drip, hydro-sensors, irrigation tape, pressurized delivery, infrared photography via drones and much, much more. Water is now applied directly to root zones so plants get it all.

But there’s a drawback to some of this technology. It does nothing to replenish underlying aquifers, meaning those dependent on groundwater – including city dwellers – have less to drink. In our area, the largest “straws” in the aquifers aren’t from farms (mostly, their water comes from rivers), but from cities like Modesto, Turlock, Merced and Manteca. Sylvia’s hometown of Sacramento is no different.

She suggested our rivers could provide as many fish as the Sacramento River if restored. But the Sacramento is 12 times larger than the Tuolumne, and far colder. And even the mighty Sacramento has only 30 to 40 percent of the salmon it once supported, due in part to state/federal mismanagement that has resulted in massive fish kills.

The state’s method for saving salmon – relying solely on greater flows – is both disingenuous and wrong. Peer-reviewed studies and decades of daily monitoring show anadromous fish prefer milder flows, not massive releases.

So why do them? So that the water can be used elsewhere. I asked Sylvia to get a detailed map of the Delta and find “Old River,” running west from the San Joaquin toward the state and federal pumps. Before the San Joaquin’s water ever reaches the Delta – where most juvenile salmon are consumed by non-native striped bass – it will be sucked into that canal and sent south by fish-killing pumps.

Tens of thousands of salmon are hatched on our rivers; they just don’t make it past the Delta.

Sylvia should be aware that in the same report that demanded more water from us, the water board said it would also need another 16 to 17 percent to help the Sacramento salmon survive.

Sacramento gets 84 percent of its water from that river. Once the state has taken all our water, where will regulators turn next, Sylvia? Good luck.

ADD RESTORE THE DELTA to the list of those trying to drain our rivers. While the organization hates Gov. Jerry Brown’s WaterFix, it aligned itself with the state by endorsing the falsehood that more water flowing through the Delta’s unnatural, armored channels will create more salmon. In its statement, Barbara Barrigan-Parilla’s group insisted the Delta needs 60 percent of our rivers. Instead of worrying about our water, perhaps Barrigan-Parilla should concentrate on fixing the Delta – pulling the rip-rap off the channels, flooding those islands already 10 feet below river level, and creating more floodplains for salmon and smelt. How about getting rid of striped bass? To fix the Delta, start in the Delta.

THE NATURAL RESOURCES Defense Council piled on, too. The former employer of Felicia Marcus – and propagator of the almost baseless Alar apple poison scare of the 1990s – is imploring people to show support for the water board’s reckless decisions. People from our region submitted literally thousands of comments, but they were ignored. Wonder why.

MODESTO WILL HAVE an important visitor Monday. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom will be here to raise money for his campaign to replace Gov. Jerry Brown. We’re hoping some of those able to pay $500 a ticket will ask him about this water grab – and find out if he will consider stopping it.

FINALLY, a “told you so” moment. Water Deeply reports on a study published in a peer-reviewed journal produced by the American Fisheries Society that juvenile coho salmon can survive in “just a trickle” of water in native streams. Does that mean big diversions aren’t necessary? Two years ago, FishBio published another peer-reviewed study showing salmon on our rivers preferred flows of 700 cubic-feet per second, not the massive 5,000 to 10,000 cfs flows demanded by government scientists.

Eventually, the facts will pile up and prove the state is either in over its head or simply trying to justify taking water from here and sending it somewhere else.