Merced County leaders urged a top state water official Tuesday to rethink a proposed boost in river flows.
The doubling of reservoir releases would hurt farmers while doing little good for fish on the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers, members of the Board of Supervisors said.
“I believe in the environment, but I also believe in trying to take care of folks,” Supervisor Jerry O’Banion✔ said.
The board heard an afternoon presentation from Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board, about its Sept. 15 proposal. State agency staffers also were to attend an evening meeting of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.
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Howard said the rivers need more water to help struggling fish and reduce salinity in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
“What we’ve seen is the substantial decline in fishery resources throughout the system,” he said.
The state board is taking public comments until Jan. 17 and could make a final decision in July 2017. This is part of a revised timeline that includes several meetings in December, which opponents said would conflict with the holidays.
The state board seeks 40 percent of pre-dam flows from February through June of each year, but actual flows could range from 30 to 50 percent depending on conditions. Those same months are when water suppliers capture most of their runoff for farm and city use.
“You take 40 percent of the flow, and you take 40 percent of our economy,” Supervisor Daron McDaniel said.
Critics said the reduced surface supplies would lead to more groundwater pumping at a time when agencies have to make pumping sustainable under a 2014 state law. They urged fishery enhancements that do not involve flow, such as controlling non-native bass that prey on salmon and reshaping streambeds damaged by past mining.
Opponents also said the state board has not involved local people in the process and underestimates the lost jobs and income.
“This proposal threatens our communities, especially our disadvantaged communities,” said Darrell Cordova of Denair, who farms in Stanislaus and Merced counties.
Howard said top fishery experts found that predator control would have little impact on salmon numbers. But he said the state is open to agreements with local agencies that use non-flow measures to achieve the goals.
Supervisor Hub Walsh asked if the state is seeking increased flows on the three San Joaquin River tributaries to make up for Sacramento River water diverted by the Brown administration’s “twin tunnels” plan.
“I can only tell you that there’s no conspiracy,” Howard said.
He also said the plan has been thoroughly vetted for sound science, and the board is not pushing for the 60 percent threshold urged by many environmentalists.
John Holland: 209-578-2385