Districts agree to collaborate on Tuolumne River
By Christine Souza
Modesto Irrigation District, Turlock Irrigation District and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission have signed a memorandum of understanding with the state to advance a voluntary agreement for the Tuolumne River.
MID and TID, which jointly operate the Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River, joined dozens of other California water agencies in committing to collaborate with the state to finalize agreements that will provide water supply reliability to communities, while enhancing river ecosystems. Contra Costa Water District signed onto the agreement in September.
Details from the agreement signed last week are expected to be scrutinized more closely as the process unfolds.
“Although not the final step in the VA (voluntary agreement) process, signing the MOU acknowledges that parties have come to an agreement on the major items including flow and nonflow measures, with some technical details to be finalized,” TID General Manager Michelle Reimers said in a statement.
The action by the districts signals momentum towards an alternative to regulations adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board in 2018, as part of the first phase of the state’s Bay-Delta water quality control plan. In the absence of voluntary agreements, the regulation requires districts along the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to leave 30% to 50% of “unimpaired flows” in the San Joaquin River tributaries to help fish.
In recent years, the districts, farmers and residents in the region protested the state-approved plan, saying it would do little to restore salmon and other fish populations while cutting water supplies to the northern San Joaquin Valley.
“We need every tool to improve environmental conditions,” said California Secretary for Natural Resources Wade Crowfoot. “This collaborative approach holds the promise to do that more quickly and holistically, while improving water reliability to communities, farms and businesses.”
The department released a Tuolumne River-specific term sheet with details on proposed river flow and habitat restoration efforts. The term sheet outlines details for an eight-year program to provide new flows for the environment in an effort to help recover salmon and other native fish, create new and restored habitat for fish and wildlife, and provide funding for environmental improvements and water purchases.
TID and MID stated that signing the MOU allows the Tuolumne River parties to participate in small workgroups with other water agencies and state agencies charged with working out the voluntary agreement implementation details, including both flow and nonflow measures.
MID and TID said the districts would review the term sheet in upcoming board meetings. Any final voluntary agreement will be presented to and approved by the districts’ board of directors. MID and TID are among a number of districts, municipalities and others that have active litigation over the unimpaired flows criteria.
“We have invested heavily in studying and truly understanding the Tuolumne River, the species and industries that depend on it and developing a realistic and sustainable voluntary agreement,” MID General Manager Ed Franciosa said. “By signing the MOU, we seek to balance water supplies for the benefit and continued success of our urban and ag communities and our environment, while striving to break the paradigm of management through regulation and litigation.”
Lawsuits were also filed by a coalition of environmental and fishing groups, which claimed that the state water board should have directed even larger flows toward fish.
California Farm Bureau and other parties filed a still-pending suit against the unimpaired-flows plan in 2019, arguing the water board failed to follow the California Environmental Quality Act and underestimated the harm the plan would cause to agriculture in the Central Valley.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)