River plan vote is meant to help fish, but it will dramatically hurt Valley farming

State water officials want to get more water flowing through three key Valley rivers to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, shown here. But critics argue the impact to farmers will be severe in lost irrigation supplies, while the benefits to salmon and other fish are uncertain.
State water officials want to get more water flowing through three key Valley rivers to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, shown here. But critics argue the impact to farmers will be severe in lost irrigation supplies, while the benefits to salmon and other fish are uncertain. Special to The Bee

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

The State Water Resources Control Board’s five members — including one appointed just Thursday — are 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 throughout the San Joaquin Valley 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 for the state’s poorest workers.

California’s water problems go far beyond the Delta. The infrastructure was built to accommodate 19 million people, not 40 million. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta has been harmed by diking, then the pumping of billions of gallons hundreds of miles south. The State Water Project was never completed, leaving out key dams planned for the northernmost part of the state. Along the way, environmental havoc has been wreaked from the Salton Sea to the Klamath River, and only in the past two years has attention been paid to groundwater.

The environmental document purports to solve a tiny portion of those problems. But adopting it will irrevocably harm Californians living in the San Joaquin Valley — all without any indication it will work. While the rivers under scrutiny are to the north, the impact would hit the Westlands Water District and its members in Fresno and Kings counties. The water board’s staff estimates that supplies delivered south of the Delta in the Central Valley Project will be cut by 26 percent. That would occur on top of supply reductions already in place by other decrees.

Westlands farmers rely on the CVP for their water. Imagine an orchard or field producing crops. Now erase one-fourth of that orchard or field. That’s what the water reduction would do.

Adoption of the environmental document will also ignite a legal battle for the ages, as the Turlock, Modesto, Merced, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts and the City and County of San Francisco (which shares the Tuolumne River with Turlock and Modesto) wage an existential court challenge. All believe at least part of the water purportedly to be used for salmon simply will be pumped away to supply other regions.

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. Voluntary agreements would provide help for salmon right away; adopting the SED means all district efforts cease.

Such agreements could set the pattern for negotiations throughout the state as limited water supplies become ever more precious due to a warming planet, inadequate storage facilities and extended periods of drought mixed with occasional torrential deluges — making water more difficult to capture.

Reaching such agreements pivot on this: how much should residents of any one region be required to give up to facilitate others? Should the state be allowed to ignore water laws — established in the 1880s and reinforced throughout the 20th century as the state encouraged dam building — to facilitate more current concerns, such as the preservation of climate-endangered species?

Agreements allow participating agencies to fund and begin work immediately. Trying to alter existing laws through regulatory mechanisms such as the SED means going to court for what could be an eternity for some species. That does no good for farmers, city dwellers and least of all fish.

Lawsuits are to be expected. In this case, the state has offered ridiculously low estimates of costs to the region, in one case suggesting that having less water for farmland would result in increased revenues. Water board staff has created a deceptive narrative through reliance on outdated science. Then there’s the state’s plan to simply ignore, or usurp, 130 years of established water law.

Such changes have implications for every water agency in the state, but the consequences will be felt in Merced, Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties first.

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

The problem with the SED, said Sweigard, “is that one out of every five years we’ll have zero water deliveries” to farmers. The only time the district has failed to deliver at least some irrigation water in its 100-year history was in 2016, when its McClure Reservoir was essentially dry.

No water means pulling out nut and fruit trees in favor of low-profit annual field crops. Or pumping vastly more groundwater.

The districts have some distinct needs and are insisting on common-sense guarantees. For instance:

▪ Dry-year off ramps. The districts are willing to supply more water for fish most years, but in consecutive drought years must be allowed to reduce those flows. Salmon have evolved to read fresh-water signals; if spawning conditions aren’t right, they stay in the ocean.

▪ No cold pools. Along with doubling unimpaired river flows, the SED demands control of vast pools of cold water remaining behind the dams – making it unavailable for irrigation. While the state’s demands of 40 percent flows seem reasonable, their cold-pool demands mean 60 percent or more will be unavailable to farmers.

▪ Using real science. The state bases its demands on a group of “vetted” studies, the most recent from 2011 and most from the 1990s. More recent studies from UC Davis, and professional research firms such FishBio have refuted those earlier findings or cast data in a different light — including the notion higher flows are key to saving fish. River restoration and predator control are now seen as far more important.

Rivers are red lines. The districts’ responsibilities must end at the mouth of each river. The SED includes goals for getting fish through the Delta. But people living in Merced, Oakdale and Turlock have no control over the Delta or the Sacramento River, which supplies 80 percent of the Delta’s water and 95 percent of all salmon. Scientists call the Delta a “killing field” because 97 percent of the young salmon that swim in never swim out. Those living in the Delta should take that responsibility.

The residents and farmers of the San Joaquin Valley are willing to do their part to help solve California’s vast water problems. But they must not be forced to accept penalties just so others can prosper. The state’s environmental document is bad policy, driven by a political agenda and unsupported by the best-available science. It will cost some of our state’s poorest residents dearly if adopted.