River runoff proposal gets valley's thumbs-down

Representatives: 35 percent is too much to take from ag

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comMarch 20, 2013 

— Politicians, farmers and irrigation district officials on Wednesday warned of severe economic damage to the valley from the state's proposal to send more water down the San Joaquin River and its salmon-bearing tributaries.

At the same time, environmental regulators joined the commercial-fishing industry at the public hearing to criticize the plan for not going nearly far enough in helping the salmon fishery.

The Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan in its draft form would require regional irrigation districts to leave 35 percent of mountain runoff in the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers from February to June.

The decrease in available water for agriculture would result in the loss of hundreds of jobs and tens of millions of dollars in annual economic activity, according to data from the state water board.

Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, and others from the region spoke against the plan at Wednesday's meeting, held at the state Environmental Protection Agency building.

"Taking more water from three rivers so vitality important to our well-being is like asking someone on unemployment for a loan," Gray said.

Merced farmer Joe Scotto said the plan will greatly impact his livelihood. "If the board makes a decision that includes the 35 percent, my life's work will turn to dust," Scotto said.

However, salmon advocates said the state's economic analysis was incomplete, calling on the board to prioritize the impacts to the commercial-fishing industry.

"Our Central Valley fish make up the majority of the fish that are caught," said Roger Thomas, president of the Golden Gate Fishermen's Association. "You can see what happened when the runs went down. Salmon is a great resource. It saves all the coastal communities."

Meanwhile, agriculture supporters repeatedly argued that the proposed flow requirements would likely do little to increase salmon populations.

"This proposal takes water at a time when it is most valuable and sends it downriver with only a hope that it will benefit the fish population," said state Sen. Anthony Cannella. "Water is too valuable to waste on the hope that it will make a difference."

Federal and state environmental regulators agreed that the proposal would do little to improve fish populations, especially in average and dry years.

"We have a fishery that's on the edge," said John Shelton, environmental scientist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "We recommend strongly that you protect it in the low-flow years. Otherwise, it will be wiped out."

The plan allows the board to annually adjust the flow requirement to between 25 percent and 45 percent of springtime runoff, depending the health of the fisheries and other factors.

Environmental regulators said long-term gains in fish populations would likely only be observable by leaving 50 percent of runoff in the river system.

"We like the idea of the range," Shelton said. "But if you do have a range, you have to start on the high end because coming down is easy, but going up is fairly tough."

Regional farmers argue that even the board's 35 percent of spring runoff requirement will dramatically affect groundwater levels. Pumping groundwater is unregulated in California, and a falling water table can affect farms and cities.

"We will all be competing for groundwater," said Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau. "This is a very specific concern that's not just about agriculture."

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 water board in the fall.

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

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