Ag Alert Update: Water board sets Nov. 7 vote on river-flows plan

Issue Date: August 22, 2018
By Christine Souza
An overflow crowd watches as the State Water Resources Control Board opens hearings on a plan to redirect flows in Central California Rivers.
Photo/Christine Souza

After two days of testimony before the State Water Resources Control Board on its proposed plan to increase flows on the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries, the board announced it would reconvene Nov. 7 for final changes and formal action.

The plan would require "unimpaired flows" of 30 to 50 percent, averaging 40 percent, in the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to address environmental objectives including salmon restoration. The hearings came the day after hundreds of Central Valley residents rallied outside the state Capitol to voice concerns about the impact of redirecting water in the rivers (see story).

During the hearings, the board heard from representatives of environmental and fisheries groups, who urged that the flows requirement be set at 50 percent or greater. It also heard from water, agricultural and business advocates who cautioned about the plan's human impact, and who encouraged the board to look at different options to achieve its objectives. 

State water board Chair Felicia Marcus described the board's task as helping struggling salmon and improving the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem while "balancing competing goods."

In testimony to the board, California Farm Bureau Federation Senior Counsel Chris Scheuring asked it to table or reject the flows proposal, citing the "incredible human cost" it would bring, and encouraged the board to work with irrigation districts to reach voluntary agreements.

"Let's find these voluntary settlement agreements, consider nonflow measures," Scheuring said. "Predation, food supply, habitat, more precisely calibrated flow regimes—those are what we should be talking about."

Scheuring also recommended that adoption and implementation of any final plan should be done incrementally, given the "excruciating level of human conflict."

Farmer Michael Frantz of Hickman, who serves on the Turlock Irrigation District board of directors, said, "I've always been known as the voluntary-settlement guy, because I'm utterly convinced that flow alone isn't going to solve the issue of salmon recovery. Unfortunately, we haven't made a lot of progress."

Frantz said a "comprehensive sweep of flow and non-flow measures is the only way" to resolve the issue, for communities and the fishery.

The Turlock and Modesto Irrigation Districts draw water stored in Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River.

CFBF environmental policy analyst Justin Fredrickson said additional flows alone would not benefit fish and suggested the board seek to integrate flow and nonflow actions, including proposed flood-management actions, in the tributaries and elsewhere.

Many speakers at the hearings expressed disappointment about the board's apparent failure to respond to thousands of comments received on its earlier proposals.

"As an organization, we are not only concerned, but also astonished" by the lack of amendments to the plan, said Breanne Ramos, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau.

Modesto Irrigation District board member John Mensinger called the plan "flawed and inadequate," and warned that the board should expect legal challenges should the plan remain unchanged and if settlement agreements cannot be reached. 

"As the plan now stands, the Modesto Irrigation District, and I suspect 101 other folks, are going to file a lawsuit. They are going to claim that you violated certain rules," Mensinger said, noting that the MID believes the state board cannot legally take water stored behind a reservoir that was paid for and constructed by the irrigation districts.

"I'm going to advocate working with you and finding a compromise, but having said that, you are not making it easy," he said.

Alicia Forsythe, deputy regional director for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Mid-Pacific Region, which operates New Melones Reservoir on the Stanislaus River, encouraged collaboration to find solutions but pointed out that the bureau has "certain water storage and delivery obligations under the Central Valley Project Improvement Act and other federal laws, which cannot be negated by the state of California."

"Reclamation will do everything within its legal authority to ensure that statutory obligations are met and that its interest in providing a reliable water supply and delivery for farmers and communities in the Central Valley is protected," Forsythe said.

Merced Irrigation District General Manager John Sweigard provided the board with specifics about why he believes its plan would not work for the Merced River.

"This proposal has unquantified salmon benefits," Sweigard said. "We're reasonable people. We're willing to participate in real, reasonable solutions that we believe in."

He also warned that the plan represents a "taking of senior water rights," and "taking of a locally owned and paid-for reservoir."

Ramos, the Merced County Farm Bureau executive, said the plan "would force businesses to close and families to leave the county."

Tom Orvis, director of governmental affairs for the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, said one of every three jobs in his county is tied to agriculture, and the board plan would jeopardize many of those jobs.

"In Stanislaus County, we are the sixth-largest agricultural economy county in the United States. There's roughly $14 billion in stimulus that goes into our local economy," Orvis added.

San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation Executive Director Bruce Blodgett told the board communities in his county would feel the pain caused by the unimpaired-flows plan.

"Something to look at is the assumption that maybe farming can just stop and begin, stop and begin," Blodgett said. "Taking one year off agriculture, if you have an orchard or a vineyard, means you are permanently out of agriculture." 

Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa, a farmer from Hughson, pointed out that the county struggles with unemployment, crime, low household income, fewer college graduates and limited access to healthcare.

"If we had one shining star in our community, it's agriculture," Chiesa said, encouraging the board to understand the impacts that would occur if it approves the proposed plan.

"I know you've heard from a lot of angry people, but it's not because they are angry; they are scared," he said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at


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

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