We’d prefer a deal, but we’re ready to fight

In dry years, like 2015, the old dam can be seen at Lake McClure. Under the state’s proposal, Merced would experience drought-like conditions one in every five years due to increased flows into the Delta.
In dry years, like 2015, the old dam can be seen at Lake McClure. Under the state’s proposal, Merced would experience drought-like conditions one in every five years due to increased flows into the Delta. Merced Sun-Star

Five appointed state regulators can do an enormous amount to help salmon and the state’s most-altered water system on Dec. 12. Or they guarantee that water lawyers will stay busy for decades to come. It’s their choice.

The State Water Resources Control Board’s five members – including one added just Thursday – is scheduled to vote on implementing the Bay-Delta Plan’s Substitute Environmental Document. If unchanged, the SED will require 40 to 50 percent of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to flow unimpaired to the Delta, purportedly for the sake of salmon. It would also require vast amounts of water be left in cold storage behind the region’s three dams to help salmon in an ever-warming environment.

Such requirements will force farmers who depend on irrigation to fallow thousands of acres, costing hundreds of millions in lost income and devalued farmland and killing hundreds of food-processing jobs.

Our state’s water problems go far beyond the Delta. Our infrastructure was built to accommodate 19 million people, not 40 million. We’ve wrecked the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta by diking it then pumping billions of gallons hundreds of miles south. We never completed the State Water Project that called for more dams in the northernmost part of the state.

The SED purports to solve a tiny portion of those problems. But adopting it will irrevocably harm a million Californians living here – without any indication it will work. It will also ignite a ferocious legal battle led by our irrigation districts and the City and County of San Francisco.

There’s another path: Voluntary settlement agreements. Intense negotiations have been under way since early November when Gov. Jerry Brown and governor-elect Gavin Newsom jointly asked the water board to delay its vote for a month. Agreements could provide help for salmon right away; adopting the SED means all efforts cease and lawsuits begin.

Any lawsuit would address flaws in the state’s ridiculously low estimate of costs to our region; its deceptions through reliance on outdated science, and the water board’s desire to usurp 130 years of water law. All have implications for every water agency in the state, but the consequences will be felt here first.

“Merced County as a whole is pretty low on the pole for income, employment and all those things,” said John Sweigard, a negotiator and general manager of Merced Irrigation District. “One thing we’ve got … (is) water. And that’s all we’ve got. Now people want to come after that.”

Here’s what we need in any negotiated agreement:

Dry-year off ramps. The districts are willing to supply higher flows, but in consecutive drought years they must be allowed to cut back. Salmon will survive; they’ve evolved to read fresh-water signals to ensure spawning conditions are right.

No cold pools. Along with doubling flows, the SED demands control of vast pools of cold water remaining behind the dams – making it unavailable for irrigation. So is it 40 percent the state wants, or 60 percent?

Real science. The state’s “vetted” studies are mostly from the 1990s. More recent studies have refuted their findings or cast data in a different light – including the notion that higher flows are key to saving fish. We must work from the same (hopefully better) data.

Rivers are red lines. The districts’ responsibilities must end at the mouth of each river. We have no control over the Delta, labeled a “killing field” by scientists because 97 percent of the young salmon that swim in never swim out.

We’re willing to help solve the state’s water problems. But we will not be forced to accept penalties just so others can prosper. The state’s SED is bad policy, driven by a political agenda and refuted by the best available science. If the state can’t meet our demands, it’s better to fight.