In buses, trucks, cars and on trains, the Valley came to Sacramento on Monday. They set up tents and tables, hauled in tubs of water and created a proper media event. There was even a marching band.
In all, an estimated 1,500 residents from Stanislaus, Merced and southern San Joaquin counties came to the state Capitol for the “Stop the State Water Grab” rally. They heard elected officials — city councils members, county supervisors, state legislators and even Congressmen – vent their outrage over what they consider an existential issue.
The Valley came to be heard.
Stanislaus Supervisor Vito Chiesa ran the show, but Assemblyman Adam Gray, Modesto City Councilman Mani Grewal, Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen, Rep. Jeff Denham and the Atwater High band were among the stars.
“I’ve done a lot of these – a LOT!,” said Olsen, the minority leader of state Assembly before becoming a county supervisor. “I have never – never! – seen anything like this.”
Merced Mayor Michael Murphy was resolute in promising to fight for every drop. But it was Grewal who had the crowd roaring its loudest. He compared what the state is doing to bullying, and vowed we would not be bullied.
The State Water Resources Control Board has spent nearly a decade studying flows on the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers. Having started with demands for 35 percent of the rivers to save native salmon, the state now insists on 40 percent or possibly 50 percent.
Meanwhile, the state offers no mitigation for the economic devastation that will occur to farmers and farm workers, or even much concern. It ridiculously low-balled estimates of income losses, saying a loss of maybe $120 million per year was “unavoidable.” People who actually live here – employment officials, planners, analysts – say it will run up to $1.6 billion per year.
For all that, the state originally suggested an additional 1,600 salmon might turn up on the Tuolumne River. As one prominent biologist put it, you can buy that many baby salmon for $5. Now, the water board says we should see an additional 20,000 fish.
But the state offers us no dry-year relief, no firm fish goals, no promise to restore flows to farmers if their plans fail. Worse, they offer no indication that it matters what happens to 1 million people living here.
Virtually every one of Monday’s many speakers returned to that point – the state simply doesn’t care. If there are problems, we’re on our own. That’s why so many people put aside their jobs, classes and everything else they had to do to come to Sacramento.
At times, when the band was playing, it felt like a party – though an angry one. Consider the hand-letter sign reading, “Water Boarding is illegal.”
In one sense, we even brought along counter-protesters, mostly from the Bay Area. A consortium of environmentalists, perhaps trying to steal the limelight, arranged an event starting an hour earlier. It drew a few early-arriving reporters and perhaps a half-dozen supporters. There were more people speaking than listening.
When the buses from the Valley started pulling in, all the attention shifted.
It’s entirely likely the water board’s five members avoided or ignored Monday’s enormous Valley rally. No worries; many of those who spoke Monday will appear at their meetings Tuesday and Wednesday.
The water board likely will vote to implement its plan in a few weeks. It would be smarter, we think, to reach a compromise that helps fish without destroying livelihoods and a way of life. If the board simply forges ahead with the state’s disastrous plan, they can expect the next protest to be even louder.