Merced stands up to state; Modesto is next


The one message delivered with certainty to the State Water Resources Control Board in Merced on Monday was this: If the state tries to force twice as much water down the Merced River for environmental purposes, the people of Merced will fight.

Tuesday morning, the board will realize Merced doesn’t stand alone.

The fourth of five hearings – and the last outside Sacramento – starts at 9 a.m. at Modesto Centre Plaza. Perhaps 1,000 people – maybe more – will attend. Their message, about the Tuolumne River, will be similar to what the board heard in Merced. But it won’t be any more eloquent or compelling.

“I want to precede my comments with an unequivocal promise that myself and everyone in this room behind me stands willing to fight to the bitter end,” said a calm Scott Koehn, a member of the Merced Irrigation District board.

“The state board is asking us to play Russian roulette,” said county Supervisor Daron McDaniel, alluding to increased groundwater pumping surely to lower the county’s aquifer, meaning cities will have drill deeper wells to find drinking water. “It will dramatically increase the rates for their drinking water. Nine hundred jobs will be lost in Merced County alone with an impact of $231 million. … The (board) presentation we heard talked about fish; I’m talking about humans.”

One began, “I’m a farmer. I’m an endangered species.” Even water board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus had to laugh.

But such light moments were few.

More than 20 elected representatives spoke, starting with state Sen. Anthony Cannella, who explained the region’s challenge. Assemblyman Adam Gray followed, calling the board “the grim reapers” and demanding they go back to the drawing board.

Rep. Jim Costa pointed out that since the early 1990s the state has been demanding ever more water for the Delta – now up to 1.4 million acre-feet each year – and showing no results. “It’s easy when it’s not your water, not your life, not your blood,” he said.

Costa pointed out that salmon aren’t remotely endangered; they’re still being fished commercially.

Merced Irrigation District’s panel of experts and executives contrasted the state’s plan, as laid out in the Supplemental Environmental Document, with their own – exposing enormous flaws in the state’s case.

“Nobody likes to talk about reservoirs,” said MID General Manager John Sweigard, “but these reservoirs keep the rivers alive during drought years. … This appears to us a hostile takeover of a locally owned district.”

One speaker began by saying, “This is nuts.” Another vowed, “We’re not going to let you get away with taking us down.” A West Side dairy farmer explained, “If I go out of business, I put families out of business, too,” then ended by saying, “Have a merry Christmas anyway.”

Speaker after speaker arose to express distrust, anger and even rage as the cheers and applause of 600 of their neighbors egged them on. But on at least six occasions, the speakers either began or ended with a sincere “happy holidays” or “merry Christmas.”

Perhaps that’s one reason Chairwoman Marcus felt compelled to assure everyone their comments were not being made in vain. Her board is not expected to issue a decision until mid-summer.

Tuesday, the final hearing outside Sacramento takes place in Modesto; expect an even larger crowd.

Among the many messages they will deliver, we hope, is that Merced is not alone in this fight. The people of Stanislaus County and all of south San Joaquin County are standing with them – standing with each other.