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State Board Doubles Fish Flow Releases

Modesto Bee - September 16, 2016

Hammer falling on everyone who relies on our rivers

Orange Blossom Recreation Area is one of the “String of Pearls” day-use parks operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Stanislaus River.

Orange Blossom Recreation Area is one of the “String of Pearls” day-use parks operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Stanislaus River. Jeff Jardine Modesto Bee file


“I’d rather be a hammer than a nail …”

– Paul Simon

The state water board has released a wrongheaded, lackadaisical, shortsighted plan to take vast portions of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers and send the water flowing freely out to the Delta. If this shoddy piece of work ever reaches the courts, we hope it will be tossed out.

But some of our vitriol must be reserved for irrigation districts and elected leaders – with notable exceptions – who knew this day was coming and failed to prepare.

After nearly four years, the State Water Resources Control Board released its revised Substitute Environmental Document on Thursday, accompanied by an hourlong press conference. Released means they dropped a 2,000-page ticking time bomb on the doorsteps of every person living in this three-county region. We have 57 days to respond. The board expects to vote in early 2017.

This document is important to all of the nearly 1 million people living in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. That starts with farmers, but includes factory workers, truck drivers, schoolteachers and everyone else. The state wants to double the water withheld from five of the region’s largest irrigation districts – Turlock, Merced, Oakdale, South San Joaquin and Modesto. Thousands of their farmers irrigate 435,000 acres. Tens of thousands work planting, harvesting, processing and moving the produce. Their kids attend schools, their money buys clothing, smartphones and gas.

Water is volatile in California, so we know the state board’s job is tough. Its five members must ensure that our most essential resource is beneficially and equitably used, keeping people healthy, food growing and the environment from being destroyed. The rivers that flow from our mountains or along the edge of our state are the board’s only means of meeting those demands. “Flow” is the key word – it’s virtually the only tool the board controls.

So the board is like a carpenter with only a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail.

Not enough salmon in the rivers? More flow.

River isn’t cool enough for steelhead migration? More flow.

Not enough smelt in the Delta? More flow.

Need to replace Sacramento River water siphoned off by two new tunnels? More flow.

But there’s something else a hammer can do: Pound foes.

After four years, water board staff submitted a proposal that is worse than the one offered in 2012. No amount of pounding will make it acceptable.

The 2012 plan was modeled on 40 percent flows, but recommended only 35 percent. The 2016 plan upped demands to 40 percent, and hinted at 50.

In 2012, the state made the ridiculous claim that losing a quarter of our area’s irrigation water would cost the region only $40 million in lost “economic output.” Four years later – with farm income having risen 30 to 35 percent – the 2016 document bumps it to $64 million – still utterly absurd. Merced County alone put the number at over $1 billion.

Here’s another hammer tap. In the news conference, board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus decried the plight of the poor San Francisco salmon fishermen, implying they were being victimized by “agriculture” hoarding water. Cry us a river of crocodile tears.

In the United States, commercial fishermen landed 720 million pounds of salmon in 2013 (last year for National Marine Fisheries Services statistics). The catch was down, but it was about the same for previous drought years. In 2013, American fishermen exported 349 million pounds of salmon, according to NMFS.


The Department of Fish and Wildlife says the state’s commercial fishermen caught 1.176 million pounds of salmon in 2015, worth $8,077,655. Of 1,350 commercial salmon fishermen, roughly 300 work out of San Francisco. They might get less sympathy when San Franciscans realize their Tuolumne River rights are in play, too.

Marcus used the drought as an excuse for not having produced this flawed report sooner. If she’d given them a few months more, they might have done better. Unfortunately, anxious environmental groups demanded it be released now.

The water board staff complied, and basically gave the environmentalists everything of importance they wanted:

â–ª More water than proposed in 2012;

â–ª Less oversight through a water “block” structure;

â–ª Reliance on faulty fish science;

â–ª No concrete goals or salmon targets;

â–ª No commitment from fishermen to stop catching salmon until our rivers are teeming;

â–ª A farcical refusal to acknowledge the true costs to those who live here who have invested billions in water infrastructure over 125 years;

â–ª Insisting February and June – when no fish are migrating – be included in determining flow numbers;

â–ª A range of 30 to 50 percent that starts at 40 (so isn’t the range really 40-to-50?).

What did this region get? A broad hint that if “agriculture” plays along, maybe a few more precious drops will flow this way. Oh, and 60 days to respond.

It’s hard to blame environmental groups – they’re doing what their hearts tell them to do. But what have irrigation district officials been doing since 2012?

The rare exceptions include Stanislaus County Supervisors Terry Withrow and Vito Chiesa and TID Director Michael Frantz, who tried in vain to negotiate a deal. But all the boards could have done more, such as raising water prices and using the proceeds to invest in pressurized delivery, better flow management and, yes, river projects to help restore salmon and steelhead fisheries. Instead, most were standing pat.

Maybe a hammer upside the head was needed to wake them up. That’s what they got Thursday.


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