Farm Bureau sues to stop flows plan on San Joaquin

Issue Date: February 6, 2019
By Dave Kranz

A plan for lower San Joaquin River flows misrepresents and underestimates the harm it would cause to agricultural resources in the Central Valley, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation, which filed suit to block the plan.

Adopted last December by the State Water Resources Control Board, the plan would redirect 30 to 50 percent of "unimpaired flows" in three San Joaquin River tributaries—the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers—in the name of increasing fish populations in the rivers. The flows plan would sharply reduce the amount of water available to irrigate crops in regions served by the rivers.

In its lawsuit, filed Monday in Sacramento County Superior Court, Farm Bureau said the flows plan would have "far-reaching environmental impacts to the agricultural landscape in the Central Valley," and that those impacts had been "insufficiently analyzed, insufficiently avoided and insufficiently mitigated" in the board's final plan.

"The water board brushed off warnings about the significant damage its plan would cause to agricultural resources in the Central Valley, labeling it 'unavoidable,'" CFBF President Jamie Johansson said. "But that damage can be avoided, by following a different approach that would be better for fish and people alike."

The Farm Bureau lawsuit says the water board failed to consider reasonable alternatives to its flows-dominated approach, including non-flow measures such as predator control, food supply and habitat projects for protected fish, and said it ignored "overwhelming evidence" that ocean conditions, predation and lack of habitat—rather than river flows—have been chief contributors to reducing fish populations.

The water board "did not analyze feasible alternatives and mitigation measures that would reduce severe impacts to water supply and agricultural resources while at the same time more effectively contribute to improving fish populations through a combination of non-flow measures and biologically targeted functional flows," the lawsuit said, adding that the plan would have particularly significant impact in below-normal, dry and critical years and in multi-year droughts.

"Nonetheless, the Water Board instead stuck to the same approach based on a range of differing percentages of unimpaired flows, while merely dismissing as 'significant and unavoidable' the severe impacts resulting from that approach to surface water supplies, groundwater resources and agricultural resources," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit says the flows plan will ultimately affect four groundwater sub-basins and "hundreds of thousands of acres of California's most productive farmland, with significant environmental, economic and social impacts."

The water board's analysis of impacts on agricultural resources "is inadequate in several respects," Farm Bureau said. The lawsuit says the board plan fails to appropriately analyze its impact on surfacewater supplies and, in turn, how cutting surface water would affect attempts to improve groundwater under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—all of which would cause direct, indirect and cumulative effects on agricultural resources.

The plan also assumes impacts to farmland can be offset by a variety of measures Farm Bureau considers unrealistic.

For example, the suit says, the water board assumes impacts from reduced surface-water supplies can be partially avoided through "unsustainable levels of groundwater use, despite the legal requirement that the affected areas achieve sustainable management of groundwater under SGMA."

Further, Farm Bureau said, the water board expects impacts to agriculture to be mitigated through unrestricted water transfers among water districts, deficit irrigation and redistribution of available water to higher-value crops, "all over-broad assumptions that are either belied or called into significant question by actual on-ground circumstances within the affected districts."

The lawsuit says several measures proposed by the water board to offset the identified impacts to groundwater and agricultural resources are "ineffective, infeasible, uncertain, or insufficient and disproportionate" to the harm to groundwater and farmland.

The governmental affairs director for the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, Tom Orvis, said the water board plan could have a "devastating impact" on Central Valley agriculture and the region's economy.

"It has that trickle-down effect in our counties, not only in farm-gate revenue but on that county revenue that fosters so many services that our counties provide for citizens," said Orvis, who also serves on the Oakdale Irrigation District board of directors.

The OID is among a number of irrigation and water districts that have filed suit against the water board regarding the unimpaired-flows plan. At least five suits contesting the plan have been filed by affected water agencies in the Central Valley and Bay Area. A coalition of environmental and fishing groups has also sued, claiming the board should have directed even larger flows toward fish.

Orvis said Central Valley water districts have assembled substantial scientific evidence that simply directing more water to fish would not bring added benefits.

CFBF President Johansson described California farmland as "a significant environmental resource, providing food, farm products and jobs for people throughout the state, nation and world."

"Before cutting water to thousands of acres of farmland for dubious benefit, the state must do more to analyze alternatives that would avoid this environmental harm," Johansson said.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at Assistant Editor Christine Souza contributed to this story.)

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

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