Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin county officials delved into the pages of a controversial proposal to cut water use — a proposition they oftentimes referred to as a threat to the region's “lifeblood” — during a public meeting Friday with State Water Resources Control Board representatives in Modesto.
“Certainly there are a lot of unknowns here. We’re trying to understand what you did and your thought process,” said Rod Smith, president of Stratecon, which is a consulting firm that specializes on water resources. “I appreciate this forum; this is a great opportunity, rather than people just reading documents. It’s good to have some dialogue.”
In September, the State Water Board released a Substitute Environmental Document for public review and comment. At more than 3,500 pages, this controversial document was given to the public for a 60-day comment period.
As detailed in the revised draft, which was released more than three years after the original, the State Water Board proposes increasing flows to provide habitats for fish and wildlife upstream of the Delta from Feb. 1 to June 30 from three tributaries of the lower San Joaquin River and adjusting the salinity requirements to a slightly high level to reflect updated scientific knowledge and protect farming in the Southern Delta.
During Friday’s meeting, officials engaged in a number of topics regarding the SED, including resource analyses, agriculture discussions, as well as large urban and rural implications. When it came to economic impacts of the SED, the State Water Board said that the annual average revenue or total economic output related to agricultural production in the irrigation districts under baseline conditions is about $1.5 billion, however, under the 40 percent scenario, this would drop by about $40 million. Indirect and induced economic output, at $1.1 billion under baseline conditions, would drop by about $27 million.
Under the 40 percent scenario, direct employment, which encompasses about 8,100 jobs under baseline, would decrease by approximately 190, while indirect and induced employment, which totals about 10,500 jobs under baseline, would reduce by approximately 240.
Stanislaus County Agricultural Commissioner Milton O’Haire said that he believed the total number of jobs lost — which in the SED is predicted by the State Water Board to be about 430 altogether in direct and indirect jobs — is a drastic underestimation since various online sources and studies state that every 10 acres harvested roughly supports one job in Stanislaus County.
“This one page talks about 23,000 acres being fallowed and only affecting 433 jobs, that doesn’t really add up to me,” said O’Haire.
Merced County Planning Director Mark Hendrickson asked State Water Board officials — if the proposal were to be implemented — how the affected counties would give certainty or “comfort” to existing businesses that were expecting to have a certain amount of available water and who were looking to expand, as well as to outside industries looking to come to the region.
“One of the greatest challenges we have in the state of California is trying to recruit people this direction,” said Hendrickson. “The reality is that this is absolutely going to discourage companies which are either here from growing or new industries from coming this direction.”
Stanislaus Business Alliance CEO Dave White criticized the State Water Board’s lack of knowledge of the region’s economy, asking if officials had conducted interviews with employers and farmers, or if they just used statistics that the State produced to make their analysis.
“This is a really important issue, you need to dig down deep, you really need to understand our economy,” said White. “You guys don’t know our economy.”
“When you’re talking about taking away something that this community totally relies on, I think it’s up on the Water Board to drill down to every situation that we’re bringing up because this has a huge impact on us,” added O’Haire. “We want to see all the details, all the numbers, everything looked at — because this is our livelihood.”
The State Water Board is scheduled to host one of five public hearings regarding the SED at 9 a.m. Dec. 20 in the Tuolumne River Room of Modesto Centre Plaza, 1000 K Street in Modesto.