The state can’t be trusted on water. The courts are our last resort


No matter how many state bureaucrats, well-heeled environmentalists and even a few odd poets vilify those who depend on the Merced River, John Sweigard says he won’t stop trying to save the salmon that depend on it.

“MID is not going to quit pursuing comprehensive salmon restoration on the Merced River,” said Sweigard. “Because if (salmon survival) is not addressed, it’s always going to be an issue used to come after our water rights.”

Sweigard spoke as the State Water Resources Control Board met Wednesday in Sacramento. Like many others form the Northern San Joaquin Valley who attended, he feared the worst. And that’s what the state water board delivered.

Through a regulatory mechanism called the Substitute Environmental Document, the board voted 4-1 to double or triple the amount of water left in the Merced and Tuolumne rivers presumably to help salmon. On the Stanislaus River, the state would increase unimpaired flows by a third to two thirds.

The three rivers provide virtually all the flows for the San Joaquin River as it enters the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The state insists more water is needed from our rivers to save the Delta, which gets 80 percent of its water (and 90 percent of its salmon) from the Sacramento River.

The dramatic reductions in irrigation water will cause tens of thousands of acres to be fallowed, and force many farmers to remove permanent tree crops for annual crops that can be abandoned during drought.

For the past month, the irrigation districts have been intensely negotiating with emissaries from Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to reach a “voluntary settlement agreements.”

During the meeting, Karla Nemeth, head of the Department of Water Resources, and Chuck Bonham, head of the Department of Fish and Game, laid out an agreement reached on the Tuolumne.

The state water board utterly ignored their work, voting to implement a plan virtually unchanged since 2009.

Their action leaves the region with no choices. The five irrigation districts and the City and County of San Francisco, which all hold rights to use our rivers’ water, promised lawsuits if the SED was approved and now those lawsuits must move forward.

All of this ignores the substantial work already taking place on our rivers and feeds the conspiracy theories that it is more about moving water south than saving salmon.

Bolstering that argument are ongoing studies showing conclusively that higher flows are far less important in salmon revival than riverbed restoration and creating floodplains. On the Stanislaus River, salmon nests increased 15 fold five years after restoration work was completed. MID is taking similar steps.

The water board ignored those results both in making its decision and in ballyhooing it to the world. Its press release ignored the 15,000 salmon that spawned on the Stanislaus in 2016, saying only 10,000 salmon were counted in the entire San Joaquin River basin. They can call it a mistake, but they’ve made the same mistake before. At this point, it’s simply deception.

Harder to explain is why the board ignored the work of Bonham and Nemeth – which called for Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts and the City and County of San Francisco to increase flows (an additional 109,000 acre feet), put up $38 million for restoration and develop 80 acres of floodplain and provide 40 acres of riverbed restoration. Creating similar settlements across the entire Valley would result in billions of dollars for restoration and billions of gallons of additional water for wildlife.

Those on the Stanislaus were close to taking such a deal. Sweigard said he would have taken a similar deal, but it wasn’t offered. Not that it matters now.

Four members of the board – but especially member Tam Doduc and chairwoman Felicia Marcus – made it abundantly clear that the state cannot be trusted to keep its word.

Here’s what we must do next:

First, file the lawsuits. We have no other choice.

Second, our state representatives must vote against the confirmation of new board appointee Sean Maguire, a former water board staffer. They also must demand any new appointees actually believe in their mandate to balance the needs of people with those of fish.

Third, we must continue to do the hard work of restoring our rivers. Not because the duplicitous bureaucrats will ever appreciate those efforts, but because it is the right thing to do.