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4 different sides to the State 'water grab'

Whether it's a healthy fishery for salmon and Steelhead Trout, ecological crisis, or economic impact, every side invested in California's water wars stand to be impacted by California's controversial river flow proposal.

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Whether it's a healthy fishery, ecological crisis, or economic impact, every side invested in California's water wars and impacted by a controversial river flow proposal have some skin in the game.

At the heart of current discussions is the Substitute Environmental Document [SED], a controversial river flow proposal that would take 30 to 50 percent of flows from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers for the benefit of fish, wildlife, and the environment.

Any document that is 15 inches in height is likely to contain a tough topic with expert counterpoints at every turn. This is the case with the SED's river flow proposal.

The sternest critics have accused the proposal of being a "water grab" from State officials.

Trout Unlimited, Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District, and the State Water Board are among the stakeholders in California’s latest water war. They help explain why they each have skin in the game.

1. State Water Resources Control Board

The State Water Board has no easy task. They’re addressing delta salinity and river flow proposals for the San Joaquin/Bay Delta to “reasonably protect” fish, wildlife, and the environment. It can be a balancing act that stirs a lot of emotion for water users, while the waterboard also attempts to address what they call an "ecological crisis" in the Delta.

“This has been and is an extraordinarily hard process for the Board," said Environmental Program Manager Les Grober. "It’s a very tough decision because they’re very mindful of how important this is to so many people. Water is a precious resource and the board has put in a tremendous effort to be transparent in the information its using to inform its very hard decision."

The State Water Board's position:

  • They want to update a water quality control plan for the Bay Delta that has not had a major update since 1995, with the exception of a minor update in 2006.
  • Salmon and Steelhead Trout in the lower San Joaquin River have not been doing well under the current water quality proposal. Fish populations dropped from around 70,000 in the mid-1980’s to 10,000 in 2016 and 2017.
  • They propose a range of 30 to 50 percent unimpaired flows from the three tributaries of the San Joaquin River. This includes the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced River.
  • An increase in flows would benefit endangered Steelhead and salmon, a species of concern, by making the water less harmful to fish. Water temperatures can increase on the river, making it harmful to fish, and additional flows can mitigate that impact.
  • Most of the water on San Joaquin River is put toward other uses, sometimes as much as 90 percent can go toward agriculture and drinking water. At times, only 20, 10, or less than 10 percent of flows go toward fish and wildlife.
  • The range of flows is meant to allow local water users to come up with nonflow ways of achieving fish and wildlife protection goals, however, there may have to be an investment in resources to achieve it. According to Grober, this is an example of the proposal’s flexibility and how comments and concerns were addressed.

“When I say addressed comments and concerns, there’s one overarching concern that… people may disagree with doing the balancing that’s proposed,” Grober said.

“It’s because we’ve listened to everybody. We’ve listened to concerns on the fish and wildlife side to the water use side and… this is still the right mix. This is the right proposal.”

2. Trout Unlimited

Trout Unlimited is the country’s oldest and largest coldwater fish, salmon and trout, and river conservation organization. According to Rene Henery, California Science Director for Trout Unlimited, the proposal can begin addressing what he considers a “historically fragmented approach” to water management.

“A big part of our interest is in reconciling the fragmented components of our water management… and finding solutions that work for everybody,” said Henery.

  • Trout Unlimited is supportive of the SED’s river flow proposal.
  • It’s not just about salmon. It’s also about recovering “the environment that salmon are an essential piece of the health and functionality of.”
  • They want to provide protection for the fish species in a way that is sustainable.
  • They have criticism for the proposal not being as objectives based in the way Trout Unlimited had hoped.
  • Fish need more water than they’ve been getting. TU would like to see water in combination with investment in habitat so not as much water would be needed and a better outcome could be produced from the water spent.
  • This is not about fish versus people.

“I think the media have really grabbed onto a meme of fish versus farms and from our perspective that is a false dichotomy, a false opposition,” said Henery. “We think that the environment and agriculture in the Central Valley can totally be compatible with one another.”

3. California Farm Bureau Federation and local farmers

The California Farm Bureau Federation urged the State Water Board to reject this proposal in late July.

“This unified response from groups representing farmers, ranchers, and urban and rural residents alike demonstrates the impact the water board’s proposal would have, and the need for the board to explore alternative methods that would help fish without the severe human cost of its current approach,” California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johansson said in statement.

The Farm Bureau cited the agricultural-water-business coalition on their criticism of the SED.

  • The agricultural-water-business coalition said the proposal would “large and unprecedented” impacts and that there are “alternative pathways” that exist for fish and wildlife goals.
  • There would be adverse effects for businesses, local governments, and disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley
  • They warn that the proposal violates a Constitutional requirement that water be used reasonably
  • The proposal is described as an “expedition in scientific uncertainty,” and encourage “voluntary and creative solution-finding” like functional flows, habitat creation, and predation.

ABC10 connected with 4th generation farmer Jake Wenger, who provided a list of reason the river flow proposal would be harmful to farmers. Among his reasons were economic impact and potentially harmful impacts of increased groundwater pumping on water quality.

4. Worth your Fight, a joint campaign of Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District

Turlock Irrigation District [TID] and Modesto Irrigation District [MID] formed a campaign to oppose the State Water Board’s river flow proposal. These water agencies provide irrigation water to farmers, and, in the case of MID, they provide treated drinking water from the Tuolumne River to the City of Modesto. Turlock Irrigation District has warned that litigation could be in the future if the river flow proposal passes.

“The reduction in surface water supplies being proposed under the SED would directly impact growers but it also harms agricultural processing and other aag-relatedbusinesses,” TID Public Information Officer Calvin Curtin.

“A 2014 Socioeconomic Study shows the Don Pedro Project supports approximately $4.109 billion in economic output, $734.8 million in labor income, and 18,900 jobs in our region.”

Turlock Irrigation District's position:

  • A 30 percent SED approximately doubles the amount of water that would be released for environmental purposes. The impact of the flow proposal becomes more impactful in dry years.
  • 40 to 50 percent unimpaired flows would result in severe reductions in surface water supply and may result in the inability to sustain permanent crops.
  • They oppose the emphasis on flows. They reason that flows are just one element to a healthy fishery. 90 percent of juvenile salmon are eaten by non-native predator fish before they make it out of the Tuolumne.

“More water for water’s sake won’t solve the predation issue and until predation is solved, substantial improvement in the number of fish leaving the system is unlikely,” said Curtin. “Our plan is based on Tuolumne specific studies done as result of our relicensing efforts.”

Modesto Irrigation District's position:

  • Under a 40 percent unimpaired flow proposal, in addition to drought impacts experienced in recent years, TID and MID forecasted a $1.6 billion output loss, $167 million farm gate revenue loss, $330 million in labor income loss, and 6,576 jobs lost.
  • If the SED effects were in effect in 2015, farmers and the City of Modesto would have receive no surface water.
  • Surface water deliveries to the City of Modesto for drinking water would be impacted. This would leave 250,000 people and 6,000 businesses without a sustainable water supply.
  • Tuolumne River Management Plan – It proposes flow and non-flow solutions to achieve or even exceed state goals and ensuring water security and reliability to the region. It would increase fall-run Chinook Salmon production over 2.5 times the current production.

“Our communities are looking at significant impacts with no evidence that additional water will get where it needs to go or achieve any goals or objectives identified by the state. We will be forced by state regulators to solve larger statewide problems that we didn’t create,” said MID Public Affairs Specialist Samantha Wookey.