River-flow plan threatens farms, opponents say

Issue Date: March 27, 2013
By Kate Campbell

Farmers, political leaders, small business owners and irrigation district officials packed a Sacramento hearing last week to comment on a proposal before the State Water Resources Control Board that they said threatens severe economic and environmental consequences in parts of the northern San Joaquin Valley. The plan would limit diversions from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced river watersheds with the intent to increase river flows and help boost recovery of fisheries in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries.

The proposal would cut water supplies for the Modesto, Turlock and Merced irrigation districts by an estimated 15 percent to 25 percent a year from February to June, reducing available surface water deliveries to nearly 1 million acres of irrigated farmland.

A "preferred alternative" presented to the board by its staff would retain 35 percent of the combined watersheds' unimpaired flows in the water courses. If adopted, the proposal could also curtail existing water rights.

The proposal prompted opposition from county Farm Bureaus, irrigation districts, city councils, county boards of supervisors, and state and federal legislators representing the affected region.

"This isn't about farmers versus fish," said Amanda Carvajal, Merced County Farm Bureau executive director. "This decision will pit farmers against their neighbors and municipalities. What's even more frustrating is that even though the scientific evidence doesn't add up, state and federal agencies continue to advocate for unimpaired flows upwards of 60 percent."

In its evaluation, water board staff said reducing water diversion levels would mean irrigators would use more groundwater, leading to "significant impacts to groundwater resources." Staff also noted more than 100,000 acres of prime farmland would likely be converted to nonagricultural uses, due to changes in water supply availability

Chris Scheuring, California Farm Bureau Federation managing counsel for natural resources, told the water board that Farm Bureau would prepare extensive written comments on the proposal, but outlined several immediate concerns.

"There's a lot of scientific concern about whether a 'flow-centric' approach to fisheries rehabilitation actually works, particularly in a system as altered as the delta watershed and with as many stressors as exist apart from the flow regime," Scheuring said. "We question the scientific basis of this report and whether there's any meaningful justification for trading off the numerous and certain adverse agricultural impacts for the elusive goal of rehabilitating fisheries."

Scheuring added concerns about "fallowing a marvelously productive agricultural landscape that has been watered for generations by very senior water rights on these rivers, and the certain negative environmental impacts to groundwater."

Merced County farmer Loren Scoto told the water board that its decision "will directly affect me and young people like me who want to go into agriculture. Your ruling could very well spell an end to a farm that has been in my family for four generations and cause the loss of jobs for people who've worked alongside us for over 25 years."

"We take irrigation very seriously," Stanislaus County walnut and almond farmer Jake Wenger said. "We've spent a lot of time determining how much water we need and how much water we use. We've heard that drip irrigation will solve all of our problems, but that easy answer isn't always the solution."

Wenger said soil types and crop needs can vary widely.

"To suggest a massive cut to available water can be resolved by going to drip irrigation is like telling everyone to survive on 1,000 calories a day," Wenger said. "Some people will get by, but everyone else will start to wither and hope to survive."

Modesto Irrigation District representatives told the water board the proposed reduction in water supplies will impact both water and power customers, including potential increases in water and power rates, lost crop production, lost farms, lost jobs and a downturn to an already struggling economy.

"Our communities are looking at significant costs with no evidence that the additional water will get where it needs to go or achieve the fishery goals identified by the state," MID spokeswoman Melissa Williams said.

Water board staff estimated that reduced water supplies could translate into an annual decrease in crop value in Stanislaus and Merced counties of nearly $50 million, with more than 300 lost farm jobs. However, economic analysis provided with the proposal did not include wider impacts in related sectors such as food processing, agricultural services and local economic repercussions.

The impact of the water supply reductions would extend beyond crops, said Bill Mattos, president of the California Poultry Federation. He said Foster Farms is the largest employer in Merced and Stanislaus counties with about 7,000 employees.

"In the Livingston area, Foster Farms processes 450,000 to 550,000 chickens a day. All those chickens take water to wash and the company uses a sophisticated treatment and recycling system," Mattos said.

In addition, he said, farmers raise 80 million chickens a year in Merced County and 55 million in Stanislaus County.

"All those chickens need water and a lack of water could be devastating to these operations," Mattos said.

A water board decision on the proposal is expected before year end.

For more information online, see www.waterboards.ca.gov/waterrights/water_issues/programs/bay_delta/ and look for the link titled Bay-Delta Plan Update: San Joaquin River Flows and Southern Delta Water Quality (Phase 1).

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.