Mike Dunbar

News from water front hasn’t gotten much better ... yet

Tuolumne Meadows, high in the Sierra Mountains in Yosemite National Park, is where a multitude of small streams collect and begin their journey out of the mountains and into the homes of hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the river for drinking water.
Tuolumne Meadows, high in the Sierra Mountains in Yosemite National Park, is where a multitude of small streams collect and begin their journey out of the mountains and into the homes of hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the river for drinking water. The Modesto Bee

Rotarians seem like a happy bunch. They get together for lunch, celebrate accomplishments, skewer one another, raise a little money for charity and then listen to a speaker. It’s unlikely they expect to leave those luncheons depressed.

Sorry about that.

I spoke to about 140 members of the Modesto Rotary Club last month about our region’s struggle to hold onto enough water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to sustain our economy while letting go of enough to sustain salmon.

It’s a delicate balance, and it’s clear our region hasn’t balanced those competing needs very well. We’re a flat-out agricultural dynamo, producing $10 billion a year on our farms. But while there were once tens of thousands of salmon migrating up our rivers to spawn each fall, now we’re fortunate to see 20,000. And most are non-native visitors to the Stanislaus. We’ve got work to do.

Don’t worry! The state is here to help!

The State Water Resources Control Board will soon order that 40 percent of our rivers flow into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Well, maybe 50 percent some years.

Oh, and while the board used to say a healthier salmon population was the goal, that’s no longer the case. The board has expanded its water-grab rationale to saving the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Board chairwoman Felicia Marcus says the Delta is on the verge of collapse, and the only thing that will save it is more water from our rivers.

Perhaps she should tell the man who appointed her, Gov. Jerry Brown. Instead of putting more water into the Delta, he’s committed to taking more out.

Brown says he’s convinced that building two 35-mile long, 40-foot diameter tunnels beneath the largest estuary on the west coast will do the trick. Though his tunnels would be capable of carrying away the entire flow of the Sacramento – which provides the Delta with 80 percent of its fresh water – he says they won’t.

Instead, Brown insists the tunnels will achieve “co-equal” goals of saving the Delta and providing more consistent flows south.

How do you take water out of the Delta and save a estuary that needs more water? Simple, you get water from somewhere else. But the only place to get it is from our rivers.

Just between me and the Rotarians, I expressed some skepticism. Not only about the reason for the water grab, but about the cost of the tunnels, how much water is needed, how much benefit fish will receive, whether or not salmon could be saved considering a warming planet and warming rivers and about everything flowing out of the mouths of bureaucrats.

Start with Gov. Brown’s promise that his pals at the Metropolitan Water District (and a few others) will pick up the tab for his $15 billion tunnels. Turns out, the actual cost will be $20 billion.

To find the extra $5 billion, Gov. Brown wants to proclaim the tunnels part of the State Water Project. That project was started by Gov. Brown – Pat, not son Jerry – 58 years ago. Why add a new project two decades after the project was finished? Because, if the WaterFix is part of an existing project, its costs can be rolled onto those who benefited from the original.

To make that a reality, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee must convene. Not vote, just meet.

Twice the committee has set a meeting, and twice attention from the media and others has forced postponement. They’re trying a third time – Sept. 11 at 10 a.m. This time, the Southern California Water Coalition – whose biggest fish is Met – is running it’s own campaign in support.

There have been more developments, including passage of a bill to create more fairness in disputes with the water board.

Currently, the water board acts as prosecutor and judge in any dispute. Staff creates plans (like increasing flows to save salmon) then the board blesses them. If you don’t like the plan, you can appeal – to the board that just blessed it. Seems pointless.

Last year, Assemblyman Adam Gray wrote a bill to create an independent review panel for water disputes. Improbably, Gray’s bill passed but Gov. Brown vetoed it.

This year, Anna Caballero pushed through a similar bill, AB 747, which passed 69-5 and now awaits Gov. Brown’s signature. Though it was similar to his bill, Gray took a knee.

“It didn’t go far enough,” Gray said. The hearing panel would be within the water board structure, not independent.

“I want a separate entity from the water board,” said Gray. “You can’t house the appeals panel within the water board and have it considered trustworthy. The water board has shown us no evidence that it warrants any trust.”

If your livelihood depends on water – and that’s true for most of the 1 million people living in our region, whether they know it or not – this is not happy news. It doesn’t mean we should give up fighting to control our own destiny, and we can’t give up on helping the salmon. But it does mean we’ll have to fight all the harder.

Another Rotary Club has invited me to speak this month. I’m counting on having less-depressing news by then. Or maybe I’ll sing.