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Bay-Delta plan would shrink ag in Merced, report says

A view of Lake McClure from the New Exchequer Dam in Snelling in February 2015. The State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to help fish populations by increasing water flows down the Merced River would hurt the local ag industry, according to a new report done for the Merced Irrigation District.
A view of Lake McClure from the New Exchequer Dam in Snelling in February 2015. The State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal to help fish populations by increasing water flows down the Merced River would hurt the local ag industry, according to a new report done for the Merced Irrigation District. Merced Sun-Star file

A state board’s proposal to help fish populations by increasing water flows down the Merced River would hurt the local ag industry, according to a new report done for the Merced Irrigation District.

If the State Water Resource Control Board’s proposed Bay-Delta Plan is approved, the report predicts Merced County’s economy would shrink by up to $231 million.

“This magnitude of change in long-term surface water supply reliability could lead to a structural change in the agriculture section,” the report said. “Such a drastic reduction could likely result in a countywide contraction in the agricultural sector.”

For years, the State Water Resources Control Board has worked on a proposal to release more water into the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers for fish in the San Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta, leaving less irrigation water for farmers. An update to the plan, dubbed the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, is expected to be released sometime this year.

The 104-page report, published in July, was done by the consulting firm Cardno. MID paid the firm $90,000 to conduct the study, which looks at ag production dependent on MID surface water. The report was published to the MID board of directors at a regular meeting on Tuesday.

MID hopes to use the study in future discussions with the water board to demonstrate the plan’s effect on the community, said Mike Jensen, a spokesman for MID.

“It’s critical for the community to understand what this means,” he said. “What’s being proposed is not something that strictly affects ag and MID. It’s going to affect the entire community.”

The increased flows would have a negative impact on farmers in “nearly every water-type year,” the report says. The report looked at a 93-year planning period from 1922 to 2014. In those years, 11 were considered water shortage years. Under the Bay-Delta plan, nearly half of them would be water shortage years.

Irrigation deliveries would be 55 percent lower in critical years, the report predicted. Municipal and industrial water users, particularly those in the Lake Don Pedro Community Services District, would experience 355 percent more interruptions in residential water supply.

Reduced surface water supply also would have a severe impact on groundwater supply and recharge, the report said. For those interruptions in residential water supply, groundwater pumping could cost up to $75,000 for an extended period of time. Less surface water and more pumping would also result in less groundwater recharge, the report said.

Agriculture and hydropower output, employment and labor income would decrease to below baseline in nearly every water-type year, the report said. Output losses would range between $1 million in wet years and $234 million in dry years. The annual number of jobs lost would range from 587 to 970, with income decreasing from $37 million to $59 million.

The report also estimated a greater decline in animal production than crop production. In Merced County, three of the five top commodities were animal products in 2014, the latest numbers available.

“These are significant negative effects that cannot be minimized or ignored,” John Sweigard, MID’s general manager, said in a statement.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to contribute funding to a similar study led by Stanislaus County, calling the funding a small price to pay compared with the effects if the plan is implemented.

Supervisors unanimously agreed to contribute $20,000 to the study’s cost. Stanislaus is paying $90,000 and also sought $20,000 from San Joaquin County.

In July, the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors moved to hire Stratecon Inc. of Southern California to conduct a study on the economic effects of the board’s plan.

While discussing the study, District 4 Supervisor Deidre Kelsey called the state water board’s plan “insane” and said it was “not sustainable.”

“The only thing we have is our river,” she said. “I don’t think $20,000 is that much when it comes to our water.”

District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion said Valley farmers should stop letting outsiders tell them how to use their water, adding that the current methods to revive salmon populations don’t seem to be working.

“I think $20,000 is a cheap buy to show we in the Central Valley on a regional level understand the importance of dealing with water,” he said.

One resident, Josh Franco, said he thought the study was a waste of money and wouldn’t produce any new information. He encouraged board members to lobby instead of spending money on the report.

“We know what the report will say,” he told the board during public comments of Tuesday’s meeting. “There are ways to spend your money more wisely.”

Board Chairman Hub Walsh said many county leaders already lobbied Sacramento officials on the issue. “If personal advocacy worked, we wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “We’ve been advocating for a long time.”

District 3 Supervisor Daron McDaniel said the value of water and money weren’t comparable. “We can replace money, but we can’t replace water,” he said.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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