What Gavin Newsom said – and didn’t say – during his visit to the Valley

Gavin Newsom has been swinging through the Central Valley this week. He was in Modesto on Monday night and in Fresno on Tuesday to shake hands and meet important people.

In Modesto, at least, most of those people wanted to know one thing: Newsom’s position on water. Specifically, the water flowing down the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers. Water the state is trying to take from us.

As a Democrat running against a little-known Republican to replace Jerry Brown, Newsom is destined to be California’s next governor. Of the problems Brown is handing off, none is more delicate or difficult than water.

It was the hottest topic among those packed into a Modesto restaurant. Would Newsom stick with his predecessor’s California WaterFix, the elaborate plan – which Brown refused to put to a vote of the people – that will supposedly fix the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and simultaneously send more water to the thirsty south? Or will he try to find a better way?

As Brown’s departure draws near, he’s rushing to cement his legacy by getting the WaterFix started.

The WaterFix’s two goals are supposedly “co-equal.” In reality, Brown’s essential goal is moving water south. The plan’s centerpiece is a pair of tunnels – each 40-feet in diameter – capable of sucking most of the enormous Sacramento River under the Delta to southbound pumps.

The State Water Resources Control Board made its priorities clear in announcing its final recommendation in early July. Board staff cherry-picked old statistics to insist the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus fisheries are on the brink of collapse. It pointed out that creeping salinity from San Francisco Bay imperils the Delta. Board staff insists only more water from our rivers can solve both problems.

But the board ignored more recent data showing fish numbers are improving. Board staff forgot that the Sacramento River supplies 80 percent of the Delta’s water, making it utterly essential in countering salinity.

People from Merced to Manteca and all points in between have vowed to fight this water grab. That’s why they wanted to meet Newsom.

Smart and persuasive, Newsom was ready with an answer that provided a glimmer of hope without committing to much.

“None of these things are on autopilot,” he said. “I’m not wedded to the presumptions of the current administration.” Sounds good.

Having been raised in the Bay Area, Newsom didn’t have to be reminded the Tuolumne River supplies San Francisco and 22 other Bay Area cities with drinking water.

“I floated down the Tuolumne River as a child, many times. You can’t be from San Francisco without being connected, almost spiritually, to Modesto and Turlock through the river.” Even better. But now the “but…”

“A great deal of time has been consumed studying this issue,” he said. “I know (Gov. Brown’s) point of view.” It’s important, said Newsom, to do his own research, but also to be respectful of past efforts.

That was Newsom’s way of asking us to recognize the difficulty of providing water for 40 million Californians. While we can’t lose sight of the cost to our region – a crippling $1.6 billion annually – the needs of the entire state can’t be ignored.

Everyone in this region should have one priority: To help the presumptive governor understand the devastating costs to our region. We also should commit to helping him resolve the problem.

Perhaps we can strengthen that connection that runs from our rivers all the way to San Francisco. Maybe we can help a new governor find a better solution than the one being pushed by Jerry Brown’s water board. It’s our best hope.