Mike Dunbar

Mike Dunbar: Soon, state will explain why it wants our water

Domenic Giudice with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife looks for salmon carcasses in the Stanislaus River at Goodwin Dam Recreation Area near Copperopolis on Monday morning, Dec. 7, 2015.
Domenic Giudice with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife looks for salmon carcasses in the Stanislaus River at Goodwin Dam Recreation Area near Copperopolis on Monday morning, Dec. 7, 2015. jlee@modbee.com

The state of California soon will tell us what we’re worth. Don’t be surprised if the answer is “not as much as south Valley farmers,” or “not as much as San Francisco fishermen,” or simply “not much.”

In February, the State Water Resources Control Board will release its long-awaited revised Substitute Environmental Draft, laying out how much water it wants to flow down the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers to the ocean and the board’s projections of the costs of those increased flows to our region. Such reports are number-heavy and a bit boring, but stick with us because the state plans to take money out of every pocket in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

The board’s first report in 2012 was so pathetically flawed it’s taken state number-crunchers four years to get over the embarrassment.

Their foremost concern is the welfare of Oncorhynchus tshawytscha – the king salmon. Of less concern is the welfare of other species – cows, chickens, farmers, etc.

The 2016 report is likely to repeat the state’s desire that 40 percent of each river be used to restore salmon populations. In the case of farmers in Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, that means giving up 25 percent of the water they’ve been putting to beneficial use for generations. It is 15 percent more from the Stanislaus and 20 percent more from the Merced.

Before the state can grab that much water, it is required to calculate economic and social impacts for our 1 million residents. When it first suggested its 40 percent figure, the state’s pencil pushers put the economic impact at $124 million per year. That didn’t even reach the threshold of absurd.

A journalist with a cheap calculator can find impacts at least 10 times greater, without mentioning $1 billion in losses San Francisco said it will suffer as it shares the pain of its Tuolumne River partners, Turlock and Modesto.

Undeniably, all three rivers are damaged; salmon numbers have dropped cataclysmically from 50 years ago. The Tuolumne is the worst, supporting only a remnant population. More could be done and must be done to help fix the rivers, and yes, more water will be required. But not all solutions have to involve depriving farmers of water.

Keeping 25 percent more water in the river might help improve the salmon’s plight – or it might not. We’ve been trying to have that discussion for years, but the environmental community – which has burrowed into the ears of government staffers – insist the only remedy is higher flows. Never mind data showing that bass populations have exploded as the rivers warm, and they have been devouring 98 percent of outmigrating juvenile salmon.

Bass are invasive species, and their favorite food is smaller fish. UC Davis pointed out that entire populations of Sacramento pikeminnow are often “completely eliminated by bass.” To a bass, there’s not much difference between a juvenile pikeminnow, a salmon fry and a Delta smelt; they eat ’em all. But we digress.

In writing about the 2012 environmental draft, we noted the water board reached the bewildering conclusion that its least-dramatic flow increases would result in planting 12,280 more acres with a $9 million increase in ag income. Less water equals more acreage. Dumbfounding.

The state’s preferred 40 percent flows would result in only 66,500 acres being fallowed. That, said the state, would cause a $40 million drop in ag income. Apparently, state economists believed each irrigated acre produced $600 in 2012. Utterly outlandish.

Total farm income in Stanislaus County was $4.4 billion last year. That means each of Stanislaus County’s roughly 540,000 ag acres produced $8,150 – or 13 times the state’s 2012 number. Merced and San Joaquin had similar figures. If the state sticks with its estimate of 66,500 fallowed acres, farmers will collectively lose $542 million – not $40 million. That’s every year, but that’s not all.

Each $1 of farm income generates $3.50 of economic activity, according to UC Davis. So that $542 million becomes $1.9 billion. And that’s the best-case scenario. County farm bureaus estimate losing so much irrigation water would result in 100,000 fallowed acres. That would cost farmers closer to $810 million with an economic impact of $2.8 billion.

Yes, many farmers would pump more groundwater rather than fallow fields, but the state has decreed groundwater use must be sustainable, meaning less pumping. Other farmers will switch some of their land to lower-value annual crops. That way, during a drought, they could skip planting altogether and save water for their remaining trees. While farmers might economically survive such a year off, their employees and those working in food-processing factories won’t.

For justification, the state will point to the poor Pacific salmon fishermen, insisting only healthier San Joaquin River flows can restore fish populations. Hogwash.

There are fewer than 500 commercial salmon fishermen in Northern California, according to a Department of Fish and Wildlife report, and their best year this century was 2005 when their catch was worth $15.7 million in 2015 dollars.

In a good year, some 500,000 salmon leave the Sacramento River for the ocean. It’s been 30 years since even 15,000 salmon exited from the entire San Joaquin system. To restore a salmon fishery, start with the Sacramento – which provides 80 percent of the Delta’s water and 97 percent of its salmon. Unless, of course, you intend to have the Sacramento River bypass the Delta altogether, being sucked south through giant tunnels.

The real sticking point – the point that must be negotiated – is how much water and how fast the state wants it. If the state just starts taking the water, our region will be economically devastated.

Next month, when the state unveils its new numbers, our region’s leaders – supervisors, water district board members, employment officials, etc. – must be ready to refute poor analysis and correct any bogus data. With substantially less water, jobs will disappear, land values will fall and less will be collected in taxes. A congressional report already calls us the Appalachia of the West; with less water, we could be the Sahara.

Mike Dunbar is the editor of the Opinions pages: 209-578-2325, mdunbar@modbee.com