Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth attended the last State Water Resources Control Board public hearing in Sacramento Tuesday in an attempt to convince Board members to rethink a controversial proposal that aims to cut water use for fish, wildlife and salinity control.
“I am here today not only as the Mayor of Turlock and an employee of Modesto Irrigation District, but — most importantly — as a proud third generation almond farmer,” said Soiseth. “One of the reasons I chose to speak here in Sacramento was because it can be easy to forget the faces of those you met in Stockton, Modesto and Merced that will be impacted by your decisions.”
In September, the State Water Board released a draft revised Substitute Environmental Document. At more than 3,500 pages, the document proposed allocating 40 percent of unimpaired flows along the Tuolumne River from Feb. 1 to June 30 annually for fish and wildlife beneficial uses and salinity control.
Soiseth told Board members that when he ran for mayor two years ago, one major topic he focused on was water reliability. He said that since the time he assumed the position of mayor, Turlock has lost four potable wells due to unsafe spikes in arsenic or nitrate levels.
“As a city and a farming community, we have conserved and conserved and conserved some more — but we can’t conserve our way out of the drought, and we can’t conserve our way to new sources of water,” said Soiseth.
Soiseth spoke about the work Turlock Irrigation District completed a year ago to acquire 30,000 acre feet of Tuolumne River water every year for 50 years.
“This was no small task — the agreement had been an idea for over 30 years — but Turlock and Ceres were finally on a course to drinking water reliability — a reliability that is now threatened by the SED,” said Soiseth. “With the SED, you have decimated our ability to provide for ourselves.”
During his time at the podium, Soiseth told Board members about his grandmother and 88-year-old Turlock farmer Viola Brown, who has farmed on the same 20 acres since her husband returned from World War II and purchased it with his GI Bill. They grew hay, wheat and sweet potatoes until they heard about Blue Diamond, which at the time was encouraging the planting of almond orchards.
Soiseth said Brown and her husband took a huge risk to plant the permanent, high value crop without a large market in the 1950s as the orchard required significant upfront costs and took four years just to start producing almonds. Once it did, the price of the almonds per pound was weak.
To make ends meet, Soiseth said that Brown and her husband occupied full time jobs at a nearby peach cannery and poultry slaughterhouse, while also farming their acreage at night. They never expanded past their original 20 acres unlike a majority of TID and MID farmers.
“They lived within their means and strove to pay off the farm as quickly as possible. They’re not out-of-town investors growing thousands of acres of almonds,” said Soiseth. “They’re hard-working Californians that were able to pay off their farm because their risk of planting almond succeeded — something that would’ve never been a reality without a reliable source of surface water from the TID canal behind their property.”
Soiseth said that if the SED passes as is, Brown’s orchard would cease to exist as she cannot afford to put in a costly drip system for the older trees that have a wider root zone. In addition to this financial strain, establishing a new well presents significant political and financial hurdles for Brown as it counters the region’s efforts to meet Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requirements.
“The fate of my city rests with you. The fate of thousands of farmers that grow your food rests with you. The fate of thousands of employees that process your food rests with you,” said Soiseth. “And the fate of the American Dream in the Central Valley rests with you.”
Written comments on draft revised SED for Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan are due by 12 p.m. on March 17. The State Water Board announced during the public hearing in Modesto that they anticipate releasing a final SED and plan in May 2017 and considering it for adoption in July 2017.