A day after Merced leaders sharply criticized a state plan to boost river flows, the Merced Irrigation District proposed an alternative to the Bay-Delta Plan in hopes of finding a compromise.
MID is proposing what it calls the Merced River SAFE Plan, which stands for salmon, agriculture, flows and environment. Under the plan, MID would sent more water down the Merced River, but the length and amount of water would be adjusted based on salmon needs. The plan also would work to restore river habitat, reduce predatory fish such as bass and upgrade the salmon hatchery.
The plan is a response to the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposed Bay-Delta Plan, which seeks to increase flows in the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers to benefit the salmon populations. MID argues flows alone will not help salmon or the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“There is no question that more needs to be done for salmon,” John Sweigard, MID’s general manager, said in a news release. “What can be questioned is the methodology. For decades we have sent more water toward the delta and less water has been diverted for agriculture. It’s clear that salmon are being affected by more than just water.”
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On Tuesday, state water officials gave a presentation on the Bay-Delta Plan to the Merced County Board of Supervisors. The supervisors urged the water officials to rethink the plan, saying it will devastate the county, which relies heavily on Merced River water for agriculture.
Under MID’s proposal, the water district would increase flows in the Merced River immediately, but they would not exactly match the state’s proposed 40 percent. Water releases would be made at times proven to benefit migrating salmon.
MID also proposes working with state and federal agencies to restore five miles of salmon habitat on the river that was dredged decades ago by other groups. MID also would make upgrades to the salmon hatchery on the river by partnering with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The proposal includes removing predatory species, such as bass, from the river and filling in bass spawning and rearing areas on the river.
In the announcement of the plan Wednesday, Sweigard emphasized MID’s willingness to help improve salmon populations while also issuing a warning. “We are willing to step forward and try to bring solutions – not fist-pounding – to the table. We are willing to do our part,” he said. “Make no mistake: MID is fully prepared to defend its senior water rights.”
Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown asked the chair of the water board, Felicia Marcus, to prioritize any agreements regarding the plan. “Voluntary agreements in which water rights holders improve stream flows and restore habitat could offer a faster, less contentious and more durable outcome,” he said.
MID board members also expressed wishes to reach a settlement with the state while still serving farmers dependent on Merced River water. “Without settlement on a comprehensive solution to ensure salmon and our community can survive, we will be locked in prolonged legal battles pitting all against all,” said Dave Long, the MID board president.
MID estimates if the state’s plan is implemented, the agriculture economy in Merced County would shrink by 1,000 jobs and $231 million.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477