Merced County officials express concerns about state's water plan for fisheries

03/20/2013 6:05 PM

03/20/2013 6:15 PM

Politicians, farmers and irrigation district officials gathered in Sacramento for a public hearing on Wednesday to decry the economic impacts of the state’s proposed plan to boost fisheries in the San Joaquin River and its salmon-bearing tributaries.

At the same time, environmental regulators joined the commercial-fishing industry in criticizing the plan for not going nearly far enough.

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 during Wednesday's meeting, held at the Environmental Protection Agency. "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 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 down river 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 between 25 and 45 percent of spring-time 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."

However, regional farmers argue 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 both farmers 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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