Short of a late March miracle of rain and snow, this promises to be another long, dry summer.
Water will be challenging to manage this summer, but it could get much harder if the state forces Northern San Joaquin Valley's irrigation districts -- including Merced, Turlock and Modesto -- to release substantially more water down the Merced and Tuolumne rivers every spring to improve conditions for fish.
The proposal is to keep the level of the those rivers and the Stanislaus River at roughly 35 percent of the unimpaired flow -- that amount that would be coming from the Sierra without the dams or other diversions.
The state Water Resources Control Board has hearings scheduled this week in Sacramento, and it could use a decision by fall.
The irrigation districts are up in arms over the proposal. They are convinced sending more water down the river won't do much to help salmon but will devastate agriculture -- our economic engine -- and have ripple effects on other businesses, on individual households and ultimately on land values and therefore property tax revenue that supports local governments.
Even if there is some hyperbole in some of the irrigation districts' arguments, the stakes are undeniably high for Merced and Stanislaus counties.
The state water board staff acknowledges a significant and unavoidable impact on valley agriculture but views that as just one piece of a larger puzzle -- the delta's position as the hub of the state's water supply and as the home of multiple fish and animal species.
Another factor in this water board recommendation is the high salinity levels affecting farmers in the southern part of the delta. That's one reason why this can't be characterized simply as a farm vs. fish battle.
The board staff reviewed flow options ranging from 20 to 60 percent and argues that "the 35 percent unimpaired flow proposal strikes a balance between providing water for the protection of fish and other competing uses of water, including agriculture and hydropower generation."
We don't agree that it strikes a reasonable balance. Our counties might appear to be water wealthy because we have not suffered the water shortages felt on the west side and south end of the valley. But the water and power from Don Pedro and Lake McClure also are supplying households and businesses, and agriculture is the only truly vital part of north valley economy.
If the districts have to release more water every spring, even in dry years, they won't have it available to generate power when it is most needed, during the hot summer months. That will translate to having to buy more expensive power, affecting most urban residents.
The water board needs to adopt a more comprehensive approach and give more consideration to other factors affecting salmon population -- predator fish (striped bass), lack of floodplains and other habitat, poor water quality, pumping, overfishing and ocean conditions.
We're not naive enough to think there won't be a mandate for some additional river flows, but they should be at a level that won't undermine the fragile economy of Stanislaus and Merced counties and fallow thousands of acres of the best farmland in the world.