Officials say water plan's benefits few, risks great

kcarlson@modbee.comMarch 21, 2013 

Officials responsible for delivering water and energy to city dwellers and farms punched holes Thursday in a state plan to give more Sierra Nevada runoff to fish.

Speakers told a state board in Sacramento that a game-changing Bay-Delta Plan threatens to stymie hydroelectric power during heat waves, would devastate farms in the Northern San Joaquin Valley and could create water shortages for Bay Area customers.

Officials said studies on the water releases are seriously flawed because they don't account for the complexity of operating dams such as New Melones on the Stanislaus River and Don Pedro on the Tuolumne, which generate energy for hundreds of thousands of people and support the valley's agricultural economy.

The State Water Resources Control Board will digest testimony from hearings this week before suggesting any changes to the program, designed to improve conditions for fish in rivers feeding the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The Merced, Modesto, Turlock and other valley irrigation districts face losing a third of their water supplies if they are forced to increase river flows from February to June.

Roger VanHoy, interim general manager of the Modesto district, said power generation at Don Pedro would shift from the summer -- when there's big demand in the Western grid -- to spring months when it isn't needed.

The district delivers electricity to more than 100,000 homes and business customers and is a source of water for 250,000 people.

"It takes away the most flexible generation around," VanHoy said, noting that hydropower won't be there to assist with events such as the deadly heat wave in the summer of 2006.

Turlock Irrigation District officials said that losing the water would worsen a declining groundwater basin in southern Stanislaus County because desperate farmers would use wells for irrigation.

Turlock Mayor John Lazar said it would undercut a treatment plant project on the Tuolumne to supply drinking water to the city of 70,000.

Besides hurting farms and communities in economically distressed Merced County, boat ramps and recreation would be left high and dry at Lake McClure, said Bryan Kelly, a deputy general manager for the Merced Irrigation District.

Kelly doubted the benefits of spring water releases, which are supposed to help young salmon migrate downstream to the ocean. It would warm the remaining water behind dams and create unhealthy temperatures in rivers when salmon spawn, he said.

"If you are going to hurt us this bad, show us it is going to do some good," Kelly said.

San Francisco officials dispelled a perception that the city is not affected by the plan.

The impact on the water supply serving 2.6 million Bay Area customers is greater than first thought, they said Thursday, because of the complex arrangements with the Modesto and Turlock districts to bank water at Don Pedro, downstream from the city's Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

San Francisco officials said studies for the Bay-Delta Plan missed that analysis, and they painted worst-case scenarios of water rationing and up to 188,000 job losses in the Bay Area.

The state board will work on responses to the comments and could make a decision later this year.

Written comments on the proposal can be mailed to Jeanine Townsend, Clerk of the Board, State Water Resources Control Board, P.O. Box 100, Sacramento 95814-0100; emailed to commentletters@waterboards.ca.gov, with the suggested subject line "Comment Letter -- Bay-Delta Plan SED"; or faxed to (916) 341-5620. Deadline for comments is noon March 29.

Modesto Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.

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