STOCKTON -- Local water districts have joined farmers in resisting the proposed expansion of a national wildlife refuge, claiming it will split the valley in two and cut off access to a 40-mile stretch of the San Joaquin River.
"Essentially, the federal government will have their own territory in the middle of California ... usurping the right of Californians to use the San Joaquin River as they see fit," the Tracy-area Banta-Carbona Irrigation District and two Stanislaus County districts wrote in a recent comment letter.
The expansion equates to "nationalizing" one of California's major rivers, the districts wrote.
Meanwhile, San Joaquin County, in its own critique, argues that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has underestimated the impact of converting thousands of acres to wildlife habitat.
Fish and Wildlife pegged that impact at $24.5 million per year across the region, less than 1 percent of the agricultural output of San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties.
The real impact will be closer to $80 million per year in San Joaquin County alone, when considering the ripple effect on shipping, processing and packaging jobs, the county wrote. It concluded that the refuge expansion would "gravely" harm the local economy.
The critical comments come two years after Fish and Wildlife first proposed lengthening the existing San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuge west of Modesto to the south and north.
The feds would buy land from willing sellers along the river, slowly restoring riparian habitat over a period of many decades.
"Our biggest issue is not the refuge itself," said David Weisenberger, general manager of the Banta-Carbona district.
"It's who owns the refuge," he said.
That is, the federal government. Weisenberger believes the feds will pre-empt local authority. If you want to add a gas pipeline or build a power line, you'll need an act of Congress.
"Everything comes into play once they're in your neighborhood," he said Tuesday.
Not the case, said Richard Smith, a planner at Fish and Wildlife's Sacramento office.
"We can't stop beneficial infrastructure projects just because it's a refuge," he said.
The existing refuge is crossed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. power lines. The Hetch Hetchy aqueduct to San Francisco passes underneath.
The expansion is not about controlling a public waterway -- or, as the districts put it, "nationalizing" the stream, Smith said.
"I don't understand what that means," he said. "This is primarily for migratory birds." He did say a full-blown environmental impact study might be required -- something critics demanded in their letters.
Kim Forrest, project leader for Fish and Wildlife, said that despite the water districts' concerns, most of the comments received by the agency were "positive or neutral at worst."
"I think part of the problem is the confusion with other government programs going on in the Delta that we have absolutely nothing to do with," she said, alluding to state efforts to build tunnels and convert farms to wetland habitat.