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Fish v. farm: Water board hearing sparks heated debate

POSTED March 26, 2013 10:41 p.m.

Hundreds of concerned residents from the Central Valley made their presence known during the high-stakes State Water Resources Control Board hearing this week. Their message to the water board: farms are more important than fish.

The hearing was scheduled to receive public input on a proposal to redirect over 35 percent of unimpaired flows from Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers in order to preserve the Chinook salmon.

“We were very concerned that we wouldn’t have a voice from the people,” said Turlock Irrigation District’s Director of Water Resources and Regulatory Affairs Steve Boyd. “I think it was very important for people to be there to hear and provide comments to the board.”

Though buses were loaded up with representatives from Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Merced counties, thanks to a joint effort from TID and Modesto’s Irrigation District, farmers found themselves volleying against the interests of fisheries.

According to the original proposal, the State Water Board suggested that 35 percent of unimpaired flow should be taken from Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced Rivers to save endangered fish; but after reviewing reports by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at the hearing, many fishery representatives recommended that the Board give a “modest” increment to the fish, and less for the farmers.

Jon Rosenfield , conservation biologist of the Bay Institute, told the board that it should adopt flow standards that provide half or more of the San Joaquin Basin’s unimpaired flow on a running average basis between February and June at a minimum of 2,000 cubic feet per second year round.

“We recommend that the Board seriously weigh its own 2010 findings that 60 percent of the unimpaired flow is necessary to recover fish species in the watershed,” added California Water Policy Director Chandra Ferrari. “Fish will continue to decline if they are left with significantly less than half of the natural river flow.”

Turlock Irrigation District’s board chairman Michael Franz said he believes that their studies on the Tuolumne River are improbable, based on extensive research done by TID.

“We have a full time biologist studying the Tuolumne for over 40 years. We have conducted and published more studies about the health of the fish and wildlife in and along the Tuolumne than any other agency or NGO,” said Frantz on Tuesday afternoon. “Yet none of the 650 pages of comments submitted on our behalf were incorporated into your document.”

Frantz also called upon the water board to consider the history of the Valley and its significance to the state's economy before making a decision.

“Our parents and grandparents mortgaged the farms we now inhabit to pay for the irrigation system that greened the San Joaquin Valley. Today we feed the world, and the economy of the entire state benefits. Before you propose to turn parts of it back to a brown fallowed barren land, the people deserve answers to the questions we have raised today. They deserve better,” he said.

State legislators Assemblyman Adam Gray and Senator Tom Berryhill were concerned most with poverty issues, and believed that forcing areas like Stanislaus County, which hosts a 15 percent unemployment rate, to be shortchanged a vital necessity as water to be irresponsible.

“We are celebrating just a few blocks from here Ag Day at the State Capitol. It seems a little bit ironic that we have before us a decision like this…It doesn’t take a PhD in Sociology to realize that there is great poverty,” said Gray. “I’m here to appeal to your sense of decency and humanity.”

 “This is a formidable mountain to climb to get people to understand,” said Vito Chiesa, a farmer and chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. “We spoke passionately, but the environmental community speaks just as passionately as they need double the flow rate. We talked about the unemployment and poverty rates, and we hope they listen. Agriculture is the backbone of our economy.”

U.S. Representative Jeff Denham also co-signed a letter to Governor Jerry Brown opposing the direction of the state water board, saying its policy for "fallowing 128,000 acres of prime farmland out of 320,000" is not how “regional self-sufficiency is to be defined nor implemented.” Instead of hearing from vying factors, Denham believed that placing a “singular, efficient and logical process” should be in order, although no comments were made as to how.

Les Grober, assistant deputy director of Water Rights, said he believed that the hearing was an important part of the public process, and wanted to hear comments in order to make adjustments to continue moving forward.

“Emotions ran high, and there were a lot of strong opinions expressed about the board,” said Grober. “We got exactly what we were looking for: comments. This is a controversial topic and it is difficult. The opinions are very far apart. That is why solicitation is so important.”

Grober highlighted that placing a draft is by no means final. They hoped that the draft would help shape the board's proposal after listening to public comments and concerns.

The water board is not expected to make a final decision until summer or fall.

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