Showdown Over Salmon: River plan would require more water for the fish

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 9, 2013 

— While environmentalists say newly proposed regulations for the San Joaquin River and its major salmon-bearing tributaries don't go far enough, irrigation officials decry predicted negative economic impacts.

The Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan in its draft form would require the irrigation districts to leave significantly more springtime runoff in the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers.

Specifically, the proposed regulations would restrict the Merced, Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts from using more than 65 percent of mountain runoff between February and June.

As a result, the region likely would have to endure more than $60 million in annual economic losses, according to data from the state Water Resources Control Board.

More than 400 jobs in the region could be permanently lost, with about 66,000 acres of farmland taken out of production, according to the water board.

"It's a significant impact to the region, not only from an agricultural prospective, but you'll have a significant amount of job loss," said Allen Short, executive director of the San Joaquin Tributary Authority.

The plan is to keep the level of the San Joaquin River and the tributaries at roughly 35 percent of the unimpaired flow -- a term describing what runoff levels would be without water diversions for drinking and irrigation.

Public input sought

The public comment period for the draft plan ends March 29. The revised draft plan will be released to the public in the summer and will go before the board in the fall.

In recent years, the river has dipped down to as low as 5 percent of unimpaired flows, according to water board officials.

While some environmentalists have said the plan would improve conditions, others argue the requirements don't go nearly far enough.

"I think the science is clear," said Doug Obegi, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council specializing in water issues. "About half of all runoff needs to stay in the San Joaquin tributaries in order to restore and sustain healthy fish populations."

In a 2009 study, the state water board found that if only 40 percent of the water in the tributaries were diverted, salmon populations on the San Joaquin River would likely increase significantly.

However, that study didn't take into account economic impacts, said Les Grober, assistant deputy director of water rights with the state water board.

"The board is very mindful of competing needs and not just proposing a one-sided solution," he said.

"The proposed flow objectives may not provide the precise or optimum flows for fish, but they will provide better conditions than now occur," he added.

Flexibility built in to plan

At the same time, that 35 percent flow requirement would not be a fixed number, he said. Under the water board's plan, groups could petition the board yearly to adjust the requirement between 25 percent and 45 percent of unimpaired flow.

"That is a big difference," Grober said. "In the past we have required one number, and that locks us into something that is not always optimal. This allows us to more nimbly respond to changing conditions."

Results aren't certain

However, it's far from clear just how beneficial this will be for fish populations.

There's a "reasonable expectation" the plan will improve the salmon population, but it will take time to know for sure, said Jay Lund, director of the center for watershed sciences at the University of California at Davis.

"It's a little bit like asking a farmer 'Will almond prices be high for the next five years?' " he said. "We're in a similar kind of game, trying to manage the fish. We don't know if these bets will pay off, but some folks feel they're worthwhile."

For the valley irrigation districts, the chance salmon population might improve is not worth the cost.

"We're talking about hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars to the local economy. A third of this economy is ag-oriented in this area," said Merced Irrigation District General Manager John Sweigard.

Under the 35 percent unimpaired flow requirements, the district said, it would have had to release an additional 53,000 acre-feet of water between February and June 2012, a roughly 60 percent increase.

The result of which would have been an even stricter cap on water deliveries during this year's critically dry season, according to district officials.

Growers would be facing a 1.6 acre-foot per-acre cap on water deliveries, compared with the recently approved 2.4 acre-foot per acre curtailment, Sweigard said. An acre-foot covers one acre 1-foot deep.

"We think they're underestimating what the impacts are going to be," he said. "We think their analysis is bad."

All the state can do is balance the needs of the different stakeholders, Grober said. But there's going to be a trade-off between the economy and the environment.

"The intent of this proposal is to achieve the goal of fishery protection, but we must also consider the competing uses of water because proposals such as this will have a water supply cost," he said.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.


BY THE NUMBERS

Recent salmon counts from the Stanislaus River for the fall-run Chinook migration period:

2003 4,832

2004 4,404

2005 4,121

2006 3,022

2007 405

2008 923

2009 1,323

2010 1,356

2011 764

2012 7,019 *

* As of Dec. 16, 2012

Source: www.SanJoaquinBasin.com

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