Here’s a best-case scenario:
In the name of helping endangered fish, the state takes 40 percent of the water flowing down the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers and sends it to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, leaving a third less for irrigation. Farmers start pumping more groundwater for their trees and vines. After a couple of droughts, there isn’t enough groundwater left, and the trees and vines begin dying. Everyone loses. Meanwhile, south valley farmers get guaranteed water deliveries from the new gigantic tunnels near Sacramento. With this reliable supply, their trees and vines flourish; their land prices rise and they make huge profits when there’s no competition from nut farmers to the north.
Oh, did I mention that this is someone else’s best-case scenario? It’s a nightmare for everyone from Merced to Manteca.
Many will label this a conspiracy theory and send me a tin hat. Conspiracy or not, the outcome is plausible. The critical point is that mismanagement of Northern California water has created a zero-sum game. Without more storage, there’s only so much water to go around – and a lot less during droughts.
Those south valley farmers are demanding “more reliable” state water deliveries. More reliable deliveries south is a “co-equal goal” with saving the Delta in the state’s Bay-Delta plan. To make those reliable deliveries, the governor wants to build twin tunnels to send Sacramento River water beneath the Delta, then south.
Building such a huge project has political costs. To finesse that, Gov. Jerry Brown is promising to also “save” the Delta, hoping it will make the tunnel project more palatable than his peripheral canal in 1982.
But how do you “save” a watery environment by diverting most of its water supply? By getting the water from somewhere else.
That’s where we come in. Our irrigation districts are under enormous pressure to provide more water for fish – which is reasonable. But how much more water is needed? The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts now provide 10 percent of unimpaired flows for the environment. But the State Water Resources Control Board is considering a demand for four times that amount.
At the mid-April groundwater forum in Turlock, board member Dorene D’Adamo said the state will request 35 percent of unimpaired flows. Later, she upped it to 40 percent. Requiring 40 percent would mean roughly a third of the water now used for agriculture and other purposes would flow to something else. If you want to see what that looks like, check out a brimming Stanislaus River right now.
But Turlock and Modesto water rights go back 135 years. How could anyone get away with such an outrageous grab? By getting a bigger brother to grab it for them. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is considering re-licensing requests for Don Pedro and Exchequer dams. The state gets to “recommend” a flow, which D’Adamo signaled will be 35 percent to 40 percent. And where will that water flow?
Into the Delta – which the governor has promised to save. Convenient.
Stanislaus Farm Bureau executive director Wayne Zipser estimates that having a third less water would have meant fallowing 100,000 acres this year.
Esteemed hydrologist Vance Kennedy said bluntly: “That’s going to ruin agriculture.”
What’s to be done?
First, follow Merced’s lead and increase irrigation fees to $100 per acre-foot. Set aside that money for infrastructure – including new dams.
Second, recommend a surcharge on irrigation water; consider it ammunition for fighting this battle in the courts, media and Legislature.
Third, enlist allies. With apologies to the Gallo, Franzia and Cortopassi families, San Francisco and 28 Bay Area cities rely on the Tuolumne River. Linking arms with Delta residents already fighting the tunnels will help.
Finally, work for additional storage before tunnels are built – and dedicate most of that water to environmental use.
Our best-case scenario? The tunnel plan collapses and new dams provide more water for everyone to share, even in the driest droughts.
Dunbar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2325.