Mike Dunbar

We offered more water and money; what more does the state want from us?

Hundreds of people attended the “stop the state water grab” rally, protesting the state water board’s plan to require higher flows down the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. The protest last August was the largest at the State Capital this year.
Hundreds of people attended the “stop the state water grab” rally, protesting the state water board’s plan to require higher flows down the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers. The protest last August was the largest at the State Capital this year. mdunbar@modbee.com

What’s worse, the “know-nothings” who deny climate change or the “know-everythings” who sit on the State Water Resources Control Board?

For the salmon trying to survive on the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers, the “know-everythings” are doing far more harm.

Four board members – chairwoman Felicia Marcus, Tam Doduc, Joaquin Esquivel and neophyte Sean Maguire – took an unnecessary and ill-advised vote Wednesday that has the potential to leave the salmon high and dry. That’s not a good place for salmon to be.

It also has the potential to cost hundreds of farmers and thousands of food-industry workers all or part of their livelihoods. Not that the board members care.

The water board was presented a “voluntary settlement agreement” offering to spend millions of dollars to protect salmon; release 35 billion gallons of water from our dams; to restore miles of riverbed and create 80 acres of floodplain. The plan is blessed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The California Department of Fish and Game’s Chuck Bonham and Department of Water Resources Karla Nemeth helped negotiate it.

The agreement was reached 30 days after Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom dispatched Bonham and Nemeth to negotiate. Irrigation districts with rights on the Stanislaus and Merced rivers signaled they would accept similar deals. This should have been a celebration.

Instead, the board voted to proceed with Phase I of the Bay-Delta Plan, which includes a regulatory mechanism called the Substitute Environmental Document. Relying on decades-old science, the SED dictates “unimpaired flows” of 40 to 50 percent on the rivers and virtually no other remedies. By including the SED, the board had to ignore voluminous studies showing flow alone won’t save salmon.

“It’s frustrating,” said Tom Orvis, an Oakdale Irrigation District board member. “Especially when you have actual, on-the-ground scientific results (that are) set aside … in favor of studies from another time and another state.”

The board preferred listening to the environmental community.

Someone calling himself “Cactus Pete” set the tone, insisting “water has its own spirit” and imploring the board to “be free of the animal flesh industry.”

Morning Star Gali, of the Pit River Tribe, mourned the loss of salmon … on the Sacramento River. A representative of the Center for Biological Diversity insisted, “All species lives matter.”

The head of Restore the Delta called the estuary “a gem,” ignoring the fact that 95 percent of its levees are armored with rip-rap and that most of the land that once flooded to create estuaries is now farmed. Oh, and 97 percent of the juvenile salmon entering the Delta are either eaten by non-native predators or sucked away through massive pumps.

The insufferably arrogant Gary Bobker of the Bay Institute characterized our region’s offer of 109,000 acre feet of additional water and $40 million in restoration funding as “a more effective way of failing.” Then he decried the fact that people like him were not part of the negotiations, though his organization has never offered to fund a single restoration project on any of our rivers.

What does Bobker bring to the table besides sarcasm?

Worse, was a representative of the Sierra Club insisting “if we rely on voluntary agreements, we won’t get anywhere.” Translation: The people of this region won’t keep their promises.

That’s a slap at people like Michael Frantz, the TID board member who worked just as hard as the state representatives to reach the voluntary settlement. It ignores the combined 10-0 vote among district board members to sacrifice water and money to help salmon. It ignores 2.6 million Bay Area residents who drink from the Tuolumne.

Within the next 30 days the water districts must sue to protect their rights. It’s a necessary step.

While our legal case is strong, our moral case gets stronger as we remain dedicated to improving the rivers – and tuning out those who would halt all efforts.

“We believe their SED is deficient; we don’t believe it is lawful,” said Modesto Irrigation District board member John Mensinger. “It has very little on groundwater impacts and nothing on the impacts of climate change or 101 other things. … But this is a long game. There’s no reason we can’t (sue) on one hand and talk to the people at the state about how we can agree on the best plan moving forward.”

Forward because there’s no other direction.

“I’m couldn’t be prouder of our elected boards, their commitment to good stewardship on the Tuolumne River – our most precious resource,” said Frantz. But, “the salmon need help.”

So he’s anxious to continue talking to Bonham, Nemeth and even environmentalists with something to offer.

While he believes reasonable people will prevail, he’s losing patience with the water board.

“In seven years of dealing with the state water board, they’ve done nothing to earn my trust and a lot to lose it,” said Frantz. “We did everything they asked us to do and they still did it their own way.”

Now it’s time to do things our way. We’ve already started, and so have the salmon. Thousands are on our rivers spawning this very minute.

When it comes to our rivers, we know better than all the “know-everythings.”

Mike Dunbar is editor of the editorial pages. 209-578-2325