State’s water grab will devastate jobs, economy in Merced

The Merced Irrigation District promotes the Merced River SAFE – Salmon, Agriculture, Flows and Environment – plan.
The Merced Irrigation District promotes the Merced River SAFE – Salmon, Agriculture, Flows and Environment – plan. Merced Sun-Star file

Our community’s way of life is under direct attack by Sacramento’s plan to take our water and send it to the Bay-Delta for the benefit of others.

The State Water Resources Control Board’s own document describes the resulting damage to our community as an “unavoidable impact.” This is narrow and unacceptable thinking.

The Merced Irrigation District is fully prepared to protect and defend our community and water rights on the Merced River. But we believe there is a better way.

This will require an honest assessment and accounting of our state’s environmental challenges, why those challenges exist and how all parties can contribute to a comprehensive solution. Such a solution will require a willingness to forge partnerships across a wide spectrum of interests.

On Sept. 15, the state water board released its Substitute Environmental Document, supporting their Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan Update. The SED calls for significantly increased diversions of Merced River water away from storage in Lake McClure to flow north into the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, for the alleged benefit of salmon and protection of water quality in the Delta.

The Merced district’s water rights date to the 1850s and MID has been putting that water to beneficial use ever since, being excellent stewards of the Merced River. Lake McClure was funded, constructed and managed by our community in the 1920s. Unlike other communities, we don’t have access to state and federal water projects that traverse California. For our community’s water, it’s the Merced River – or nothing.

The water stored in Lake McClure provides significant groundwater recharge that helps protect eastern Merced County’s drinking water from salt intrusion. The lake provides recreation for anglers, boaters, campers, hikers and cyclists. It also provides irrigation water to about 2,200 farms, the vast majority having fewer than 50 acres and most run by families for generations.

This water also benefits the environment, filling wildlife refuges, streams and creeks.

Under the SED’s demands, local economic losses would reach more than $230 million and up to 1,000 jobs that support families would be lost.

Here is where we must begin our honest assessment of the Bay-Delta, who is responsible, and who should contribute to improving it.

The Bay-Delta estuary doesn’t exist as it did 200 years ago. It has been dredged, channelized, reclaimed and developed to allow for agriculture and housing. A mere 5 percent of the original floodplain habitat now exists. Non-native bass were introduced and have become an invasive, voracious predator of juvenile salmon and smelt. Hundreds of other species reside in the Bay Delta that didn’t originate there and have unquestionably altered the natural ecosystem.

It is impossible to undo what has been done to the Delta.

To believe that simply sending more water will have a meaningful impact on salmon populations requires a complete suspension of logic and common sense. Draining Lake McClure and sending the water to the Delta is not a solution; it’s an impact-shifting of the state’s existing environmental and water quality problems to one of the most disadvantaged and poorest communities in the state – our community.

This doesn’t mean we can’t support and improve salmon populations on the Merced River. Merced Irrigation District is ready to work with commercial salmon fisherman; it’s the right thing to do.

In direct response to the state water board’s only plan, MID promotes the Merced River SAFE – Salmon, Agriculture, Flows and Environment – plan. It would:

▪ Immediately increase Merced River flows in a reasonable manner that is sustainable for humans and wildlife. It would direct increased flows at specific times – and in appropriate quantities – to support the salmon life cycle at critical stages.

▪ More than 5 miles of riparian and salmon-rearing habitat would be restored along the Merced River upstream of Snelling. This habitat was altered decades ago by large-scale dredge mining.

▪ The Merced River Salmon Hatchery would better meet its original intended purpose of supporting salmon populations in our engineered ecosystem through expansion and modernization.

▪ Predatory bass along the Merced River would be removed and habitat restored to more natural conditions, improving salmon outmigration survival in the Merced River. MID has spent decades and tens of millions of dollars and decades studying the science of the Merced River. We will do our part to support salmon, but all other parties must be willing to do their parts as well.

This requires recognizing reality. Our rivers and the Delta are human-engineered water systems, and that’s not going to change. MID and the other tributary water-rights holders cannot be held responsible for the Delta being altered and developed. After all, it happened with the blessing of the state. If we are going to be asked to reduce our water supply and send water down the river, that water needs to stay in the rivers.

That means downstream water users – including those diverting water in and from the Delta – must also be part of the solution. They too must reduce diversions.

MID is fully prepared to fight for its historic, senior water rights. However, we are hoping that sensibility and civility can guide us toward reasonable solutions to extremely complicated problems and ensure the protection of two of the Golden State’s two greatest attributes – the environment and agriculture.

Dave Long is Merced Irrigation District board president; Scott Koehn is the board vice president. They wrote this for the Merced Sun-Star.

Water board hearings

The State Water Resources Control Board will conduct hearings in Merced and Modesto.

  • Merced, Monday, 9 a.m., Merced Theatre, 301 W. Main St.
  • Modesto, Tuesday, 9 a.m., Modesto Centre Plaza, Tuolumne River Room, 1000 K St.
  • For those unable to attend the meetings, written comments can be sent to Jeanine Townsend, Clerk of the Board; State Water Resources Control Board, 1001 I St., Sacramento, CA 95814-0100.