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State plan: Sacrifice Northern SJ Valley economy for questionable fish gains

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POSTED January 13, 2013 9:37 p.m.

The State Water Resources Control Board is no stranger to controversial decisions that shape the course of nature and the quality of life in the urban world. Such is the case with the Board’s recent recommendation to increase flow by 35 percent along the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus rivers from Feb. 1 to June 30 each year.

This long-promised reworking of the 2006 Water Quality Control Plan for the Bay-Delta (2006 Bay-Delta Plan) was released on New Year’s Eve, and if adopted, would be nothing short of devastating for the Central Valley and its residents.

 In its own text, the Board admits that the impacts to San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties would be “unavoidable and significant.” Although the purpose of the board’s effort to increase unimpaired flow is to support river wildlife, its staff and hired experts have been unable to identify just what benefits more water will bring. They can, however, quantify one thing: the dramatic harm this proposed change would inflict on people who call the Central Valley home.

Perhaps most alarming, the Water Board’s proposed model places the lion’s share of the burden on three economically ailing counties, asking them to sacrifice water needed for farms and residents while increasing water exports to Southern California. Everyone must pitch in to support a healthy Delta, and irrigation districts and their customers will do their share. But this plan is a dangerous gamble, and it’s patently unfair.

According to the board’s own figures, the 35 percent increase in flow on the tributaries would fallow 12,000 acres of land in the three counties. Aside from the lost income caused by declining production, idling farmland would eliminate hundreds of jobs, increase reliance on ground water, and cause a risky reduction of the water table. Water rates would undoubtedly rise, straining households in a region already struggling through a lingering recession.

Given the painful consequences of adopting such a proposal, it makes sense to ask what alternatives may exist. In fact, there are strong options that offer real promise for boosting native fish species, including controlling non-native predators, reducing ocean harvest, and investing in habitat restoration. These are relatively inexpensive, simple alternatives that do not require an increase in flow. But, in a slap to the face of those whose lives would be upended by their most recent proposal, the Water Board staff refuses to seriously consider them.

 The Board also apparently has overlooked how its recommendation would hurt the Central Valley’s ability to produce hydroelectric power, an important part of the state’s green energy program. Stored in upstream reservoirs, the bulk of water on the Merced, Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers is released in hot summer months, when air conditioners are blasting and energy demand peaks. Fortunately, the reservoir releases coincide with peak demand for water needed for crops.

But the Board’s proposed flow model calls for the greatest releases in the spring, leaving less water in reservoirs each summer to meet demands for power and agriculture. How would that lost summer electricity be replaced? Most likely it would require ratepayers to fund the purchase of supplemental power from a conventional source, saddling them with higher energy bills – and undermining California’s efforts to increase its use of green energy.

Few Californians dispute that our fisheries continue to struggle despite a significant investment in recovery. But so far, we have yet to hear from the board how a dramatic increase in unimpaired flow – causing devastating consequences for valley residents and industry – would prove to be the rescue measure the fish need.

 How sad for California that after years of work, aided by sincere and expert input from multiple stakeholders, this flawed and scientifically suspect proposal is the best the Water Board can produce.

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