Mike Dunbar

Don’t try to fool us with bubbles and glimmer

The judge who sank the state’s concept (it’s too vague to call it a “plan”) to save the Delta wanted to leave no room for interpretation.

“To be clear,” Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny wrote Thursday, “the Delta Plan is invalid and must be set aside until proper revisions are completed.” At this time, he added, “there is no proposed project.”

The Delta Stewardship Council was trying to develop a program to both “save” the Delta and make water deliveries out of it “more reliable.” But, by necessity, it had to steer clear of the elephant in the Delta, Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin-tunnel plan. That left the plan unable to to meet the requirements of a 2009 law listing various criteria. Without meeting those criteria, Kenny ruled the plan amounted to mere bubbles and glimmer, and wouldn’t allow it to proceed.

We can relate. The state is preparing to blow its bubbles our direction. Hopefully, if the county carries through on an impact analysis it should have started months ago, we will be able to burst those bubbles.

The State Water Resources Control Board is at the heart of both issues. The board is scheduled to release its much-delayed report on the economic impacts of draining away half a million acre-feet of irrigation water from the three rivers that sustain life in our region. We’ve been waiting for this revision for years; now we’re told it’s really, really close. Again.

The original Draft Substitute Environmental Document in 2012 looked at the impacts of allowing more water to flow down the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers in an effort to save salmon. Before the state can grab so much water, it must estimate impacts – and its original estimates were absurd. Admitting there would be “unavoidable” negative consequences, the state said it would cost the region $40 million to $124 million, depending on which of three scenarios was adopted. (A more limited scenario predicted fallowing would increase farm income.)

The Stanislaus Farm Bureau says losing 350,000 to 500,000 acre-feet of the Tuolumne’s average 1.9 million acre-feet would require fallowing at least 100,000 acres and force farmers to plant lower-value annual crops on thousands more.

We’ve written about this before, pointing out the average dollar “yield” of an acre of irrigated Stanislaus farmland was $8,150 in 2014, with comparable figures in San Joaquin and Merced counties. We also pointed out the state’s “middle” scenario figures only 66,500 acres will be fallowed.

Using that acreage assumption and the real dollar figures, farmers will be out $542 million – not $40 million. Instead of 1 percent of farming output, our calculator puts it at 12 percent – then it gets worse.

UC Davis says each $1 of ag income generates $2.27in economic activity – turning that $542 million into $1.2 billion. And what if the Farm Bureau is right, and 200,000 acres across three counties are fallowed? Double the damages. This doesn’t count the $1 billion San Francisco – which shares the Tuolumne River – estimates it will lose.

These numbers came out of a journalist’s 12-year-old calculator. To really understand the impacts requires an economist working with all the tools of the so-called dismal science. The state employs economists (we hope they’ve gotten better); and soon so will we. Stanislaus County Supervisor Terry Withrow says the county will conduct its own economic impact study, hopefully with help from Merced and San Joaquin. But we’re getting a late start; once the state’s study is released, there are only 60 days for comment.

What’s taken so long? Optimism. Figuring it’s better to negotiate than adjudicate, Withrow spent months convening quiet meetings between state officials, rational environmentalists, realistic farmers and a few irrigation district leaders. The rivers clearly need help, but farmers clearly need time to adapt. In fits and starts, the talks were making progress.

But they fell apart early this year after too many participants – and a few outside the process – decided they’d rather fight it out in court than figure it out at the table. Likely a bad decision.

So we’re headed back to the beginning, expecting the state’s latest economic impact figures (and a fight) by mid-July. In the meantime, 20 Merced County school district superintendents have demanded the board listen to their concerns. Assembly members Adam Gray, Kristin Olsen and eight of their colleagues have written to the water board to demand better answers to economic and scientific questions – the kind of questions the state failed to adequately answer in its Delta Plan.

For those whose livelihoods depend on the rivers, this is a crucial time. We deserve more than bubbles and glimmer. It will be too bad if the state has to hear that from another judge.