Turlock Irrigation District’s board of directors voted unanimously Tuesday to move toward a voluntary agreement that would supersede flow requirements within the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan.
That plan was first adopted in 2018, but the flow requirements never have been implemented. But since then, the plan has been the flashpoint for a debate — in simplest terms, think of it as fish vs. farms — that pits the environmental groups, such as the Tuolumne River Trust, against public utilities, such as the Turlock Irrigation District, Modesto Irrigation District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Those three agencies share the Tuolumne River’s water rights.
The 5-0 vote gives TID general manager Michelle Reimers and staff the green light to sign a memorandum of understanding, which very likely will lead to the voluntary agreement with the state’s Water Resources Control Board.
“The goal of negotiating a successful VA is to avoid the implementation of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Phase I, which, you know, is absolutely devastating to our region,” Reimers said during Tuesday’s special meeting at TID headquarters. “Last week, we came to a consensus on the major issues that we’ve been facing with the state.”
Details of the accord will not become public until a final agreement is reached, but the decision not only had the full endorsement of Reimers and the board — as well as Modesto’s board later in the day — but of Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced.
“I’ve been a supporter of the Voluntary Agreements for the entire 10 years I’ve been in the state legislature,” said Gray, who is running for the 13th District’s congressional seat this fall against Hughson businessman John Duarte. "I’ve worked closely with TID, MID, and Merced Irrigation District, to try to bring this to fruition. I’m extraordinarily pleased that they’ve taken a step forward.”
Peter Drekmeier, policy director for the Tuolumne River Trust, was not surprised by Tuesday’s outcome, and does not support it.
“We do not support the Voluntary Agreements as they’ve been configured,” said Drekmeier. “The last iteration of VA negotiations lasted four years and the Bay-Delta plan stalled. Now, the process is starting over. Meanwhile, the fish desperately need more water and we see this as another delay tactic.”
TID board president Michael Frantz stressed that the finish line remains uncrossed.
“Lots of opportunities for things to go wrong,” cautioned Frantz. “We’re dealing with a very complex issue, lots of agencies and lots of interested parties, and a lot of people who are very passionate about this issue… I feel like we’re at a better place than we have been ever, so I’m optimistic.”
On average, about 20 percent of the Tuolumne’s water flows remain each year after Turlock, Modesto and San Francisco take their share.
Under the current Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, that number would double — pleasing to environmentalists, but not to farmers, who say that would leave them with too little water come irrigation season.