Mike Dunbar

Time’s up. We’ll see if water board passes the test on our rivers

Time for a water test.

Question 1: After nine years of justifying itself through sham hearings, outdated studies and endless hand-wringing, will the State Water Board finally vote Nov. 7 to send billions of gallons of water from our rivers into the Delta?

2) What happens on Nov. 8, the day after the water board votes?

3) Who gets hurt? (Warning: Trick question.)

4) Will Donald Trump swoop in to save us?

Extra Credit: Has anyone seen San Francisco’s nose?

If you don’t have all the answers, here’s a cheat sheet:

▪ Will the board vote? It appears entirely likely the five-member water board will vote on Phase 1 of the Delta water quality plan – the part that doubles flows from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. With three members having said last August they would pass it then, expect a 4-1 vote.

The dissenter will be board member Dorene D’Adamo, a water expert and only board member who lives in the Valley. She’s got a plan – similar to ones developed by the Turlock, Modesto and Merced irrigation districts – that would actually accomplish the board’s goals without ruining our farms and food industry.

▪ What’s next? If the board votes, all “voluntary agreements” negotiations will come to a screeching halt. The board’s action will be the law, and those agreements will be footnotes. Any irrigation district board member who signs onto such an arrangement would be hounded out of office.

Within 24 hours, we predict a lawsuit will be filed on behalf of the San Joaquin Tributaries Association. It’s likely to point out that the state’s demands have evolved. Why? Because the state knows its science is outdated and mostly wrong.

In 2012 the state demanded 35 percent of unimpaired flows – a 75 percent increase over current outflows. After being told that was impossible without devastating our economy, killing jobs and ruining lives, the state reconsidered. In 2016, it doubled down – demanding 40 to 50 percent unimpaired flows. Why did it suddenly need more water?

Because, as any lawsuit likely will point out, not all the water is for salmon migration. The state now envisions keeping part of the water behind our dams to use at different times. They call it “flow shifting” – using some during migration, but shifting some to other times.

Isn’t that an admission that the state’s peer-reviewed studies, insisting high-volume flows are necessary for migration, are faulty?

▪ Who gets hurt? The obvious answer is virtually everyone living from Manteca to Merced. But there are others – like Jerry Brown.

Southern California’s share of the Colorado River is dwindling, so it needs more water. California’s governor has staked his legacy on delivering it. We’ve heard that Brown has been calling key individuals, pushing them toward those “voluntary agreements” and he’s willing to take less water.

It might work – but only if agreements are reached before a board vote. If not, this issue will be tied up in court for a generation. Such delays could doom Brown’s dreams of twin tunnels.

Then there’s water board chairwoman Felicia Marcus. A few months ago, the rumor mill said she was fed up and would exit when her term ends in January. Now, we’re hearing she’s changed her mind and has been asking folks to recommend her to the new governor for reappointment. That’s almost certain to be Gavin Newsom, who was raised in San Francisco where Tuolumne River water flows from the taps.

He visited Modesto last summer and told a group of potential contributors he didn’t think the fate of our rivers should be left up to an unelected board. But he’s also said he wants one tunnel, not two.

▪ Will Trump save the day? It’s a shame that this issue had to become political, red vs. blue, but that was likely unavoidable. Marcus got a letter, dated Oct. 31, from Andrew Wheeler, the acting administrator of the U.S. EPA. The “breadth and complexity” of the revised Bay-Delta Plan, he wrote, could conflict with federal law. He wants his comments considered before the board votes and a “careful federal review” if it passes. This could mean more delays. Or, it could mean the state will pass the plan twice just to irritate the Trump administration.

Which brings us to …

▪ Extra credit: Last week, City and County of San Francisco supervisors did something entirely, well, self-defacing. So deep is their hatred of Trump and pals, they voted 11-0 to endorse the state water board’s plan. That showed ’em.

Never mind that it will reduce water to 23 Bay Area cities. Or that their own Public Utilities Commission (and staff) is fighting the water grab. Or all the outdated science, or the fact the water will go south (not west) or that hundreds of thousands of Bay Area residents will pay more for water. And did they forget that San Franciscans once voted down a harebrained scheme to remove O’Shaughnessy Dam, the Tuolumne’s first stopping point?

Talk about cutting off your nose to spite, well, Donald Trump.

▪ Bottom line: The state’s plan is indefensible. The state knows 95 percent of salmon die in the Delta, not on our rivers, yet continues to pretend this is about fish. It isn’t. It’s about water and who gets to use it.

If the water board proceeds with its vote, we’re not going away. We’re just going to court.

Mike Dunbar is editor of The Modesto Bee’s editorial pages. mdunbar@modbee.com.