The final draft proposal of a state plan to increase water flows through the Tuolumne River for the benefit of fish and wildlife was released Friday with little changes, despite vehement opposition from a broad coalition of local governments and organizations.
In an effort to prevent an “ecological crisis,” the State Water Resources Control Board released its third and final draft of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan update, which calls for allocation of 40 percent of unimpaired flows along the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers — to help rehabilitate the area’s native fish species.
The result of a nine-year process during which the Board studied and analyzed different options, met with local stakeholders and reviewed more than 1,400 comment letters, State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus said that the plan’s challenge is to “balance multiple valuable uses of water — for fish and wildlife, agriculture, urban, recreation and other uses.”
“Californians want a healthy environment, healthy agriculture and healthy communities, not one at the expanse of the others,” Marcus said. “That requires the water wars to yield to collective efforts to help fish and wildlife through voluntary action, which the proposed plan seeks to reward.”
Many farmers and local water agencies feel as if the State Water Board has indeed waged a water war on the San Joaquin Valley. The first draft of the plan, which also included 40 percent unimpaired flows, was released in September 2016, and in December 2016, hundreds of locally-elected officials, water and agricultural leaders, agency representatives and community members addressed the Board in Modesto, sharing the potential impacts the water grab could have on the farming community.
Despite entire agencies at their disposal and seemingly unlimited funds, no amount of trickery can obscure the truth — their fish first philosophy will decimate our region, poison our drinking water and provide no environmental benefit whatsoever.Assemblymember Adam Gray
“I would offer up to you today that no one in this room thinks 40 or 50 percent unimpaired flows is a balanced approach,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa told the Board at the 2016 public hearing. “People are scared. They really are with what this can do to them, what this can do to the Valley. Please listen to the people.”
As detailed in the final draft proposal, the State Water Board proposes increasing flows to provide habitats for fish and wildlife upstream of the Delta from February to June, which are the critical months for protecting migrating fish on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. A 40 percent unimpaired flow requirement, within a range of 30 to 50 percent, is proposed because “it can improve conditions for fish and wildlife considerably without more challenging impacts on other water users,” according to the Board.
The Board added that the local native fish population has declined dramatically, bringing some species to the brink of extinction. For example, approximately 70,000 fall-run Chinook Salmon adults returned to the San Joaquin Basin in 1984 but only 40,000 were counted in 2010. As of 2014, that number had fallen to 8,000.
Last summer, Turlock Irrigation District endorsed an alternative plan, the Tuolumne River Management Plan, to help save the area’s native fish, which includes stream-bed gravel restoration, predator control and the strategic placement of rocks and trees along the river to provide a better habitat for fish migrating up the Tuolumne, rather than the increased flows proposed by the State Water Board, in addition to various other methods.
In order to demonstrate the implications of the unimpaired flows, TID, along with Modesto Irrigation District, looked at data from 2015 to determine that the state’s plan would lead to $1.6 billion in economic output loss, $167 million in farm-gate revenue loss, $330 million in labor income loss and the loss of nearly 7,000 jobs.
Through the Worth Your Fight campaign, TID and MID spread the word about when and how community members could voice their concerns to the State Water Board. In March 2017, MID and TID filed joint comments which addressed issues with the proposal and the $30 million worth of research the agencies put into the science behind their alternative plan, which was conducted through the relicensing of the Don Pedro Dam.
The variability in the proposed flows allows the Board to annually review and make changes if necessary, Board staff said, such as in the event that non-flow measures implemented by water agencies do have positive impacts on the fish population. According to TID and MID, the Tuolumne River Management Plan is anticipated to increase fall-run Chinook salmon production over two and a half times the current production.
“We are disappointed that State Water Board staff seemingly ignored the most recent, site-specific, peer-reviewed studies performed on the Tuolumne River in favor of a flow-centric approach to managing the Delta and its tributaries,” TID General Manager Casey Hashimoto said. “We remain confident that TID and MID’s Tuolumne River Management Plan is the most sustainable option for the future of the Tuolumne and those who rely upon it.”
The Worth Your Fight campaign alone submitted 6,589 public comments to the Board in opposition of the proposal, and in a joint statement from the campaign, TID and MID expressed frustration at the fact that little has changed in the updated, final draft of the plan despite the public’s worry.
“The State Water Board thinks this plan will have limited harmful effects,” the statement said. “But we know this water grab will have devastating impacts to our region, which is why thousands showed up and voiced frustrations when the State Water Board came to our communities.”
Prior to Friday’s release of the final draft proposal, the State Water Board held its longest public comment period ever, which ended March 17, 2017. Since then, the Board has been working on the final draft and following its release is now asking for written comments on any changes until noon on July 27.
“Apparently after a year of review and edits, the State Water Board feels it only needs to give our region 21 days to review and comment on the latest draft,” TID and MID’s joint statement said.
The two districts are joining other water agencies to petition the State Water Board to allow more time for commenting on a “proposal that will drastically impact our communities.”
Assemblymember Adam Gray encouraged community members to submit comments to the State Water Board, calling the proposal “theft” and accusing special interests of infiltrating the government itself.
“Despite entire agencies at their disposal and seemingly unlimited funds, no amount of trickery can obscure the truth — their fish first philosophy will decimate our region, poison our drinking water and provide no environmental benefit whatsoever,” Gray said, adding that the truth would surface if it weren’t for the Board’s cries of environmentalism. “People would question why the proponents of a plan designed to save fish cannot demonstrate any meaningful benefit to those very fish or why the questions and concerns of a million people do not deserve even a halfhearted response. People might even question whether it is really environmentally friendly to sacrifice the health of one environment for the health of another.
“They have left us no alternative,” Gray continued. “We will continue to negotiate with the best interests of the Valley at heart, but, if the state continues to violate the principles of good faith, a decade’s worth of lawsuits are about to begin.”
Marcus said that a settlement without increased flows isn’t possible but hopes that all stakeholders can come to an agreement.
“Flows have to be a part of any settlement because it’s part of any healthy ecosystem,” Marcus said. “There’s a different energy when folks are actually talking about a particular watershed and talking about how they can make it work better…I’m hoping we can get enough of that and reward the doers rather than the endless debate.”
The State Water Board has scheduled a hearing to take place at its Aug. 21-22 Board meeting in Sacramento where they will consider adopting the plan. More information about the hearing day will be shared on Worth Your Fight’s Twitter and Facebook pages as details develop.