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State plan sacrifices 6,756 jobs in 209 for 1,103 more fish
Fishbio researchers check a fish monitoring device near Riverbank on the Stanislaus River.

A plan for a massive diversion of water for urban and farm uses from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced rivers released Friday by State Water Resources Control Board is being heralded as a way to possibly save salmon and other native fish.

But what the sound bites and the posturing of those favoring the move fails to touch on is the nitty gritty details of the 3,500 page report developed by state bureaucrats to redistribute water by essentially ignoring legally adjudicated senior water rights. One of those details is just what the state that is on the verge of 40 million residents will get if they manage to double unimpaired flows on the three Lower San Joaquin River tributaries to 40 percent.   Sending 350,000 more acre feet of water into the Delta and out to the Pacific Ocean will mean the loss of water to meet the needs of 1 million Californians. And when that is all said and done details in the bowels of the massive document indicated the Chinook salmon population on the three rivers should increase by only 1,103 fish.

South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District that jointly legally secured and developed water rights on the Stanislaus River basin nearly 110 years ago without a penny in state or federal assistance would lose 79,000 acre feet of water or 14 percent of their water. In exchange the fish numbers on the Stanislaus River might increase by more than 300 salmon.

SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk noted the SSJID, OID, Merced Irrigation District, Modesto Irrigation District, and Turlock Irrigation District had voluntarily entered into settlement discussion as Gov. Jerry Brown requested to try and find a compromise position. 

Rietkerk characterized it as “negotiation at gunpoint” adding that the water board not only ignored suggestions by the impacted irrigation districts but 6,589 comments made by residents, businessmen, farmers, and government leaders in the three-county Northern San Joaquin Valley region that the state freely concedes will suffer major economic impacts if the plan to increase salmon numbers by 1,103 is implemented.

The Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts slammed the decision Friday as an “unscientific water grab proposal” given there is no on-the-ground research data to back up the plan that took more than 10 years and $70 million to develop.

The Modesto Irrigation District points to independent studies that project such a move will cost the three-county 209 region 6,756 jobs and annual losses of $1.6 billion. 

The state doesn’t dispute those numbers. It concedes the plan will also fallow at least 240,000 acres in San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced counties.

Rietkerk said the SSJID intends to aggressively protect its water rights as well as doing something the state has never done — continue to study fish and the impact of water flows and predators on endangered salmon on the Stanislaus River.

Rietkerk noted the only spawning restoration efforts on the Stanislaus River was undertaken by Oakdale Irrigation District — SSJID’s partner in providing stewardship for the Stanislaus River the past 100 years. SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District have been spending nearly $1 million on an annual basis for more than 10 years to secure expertise of FISHBIO scientists, biologists, and technicians to monitor fish and river conditions as well as to work toward creating more spawning habitats. OID has invested $1.1 million in a project at Honolulu Bar that was completed in 2012 to restore spawning habitat and create a safe haven for juvenile restoring spawning grounds on the river as well. The state during the same time period spent $70 million to prepare their response without collecting any such data on salmon in the Stanislaus.

The SSJID/OID studies show that releasing too much water in the spring – especially during a drought – diminishes the cold water stored in upstream reservoirs that trout need to successfully spawn later in the year. The state’s plan ignores more than two decades of scientific research on the river that clearly shows more water does not equal more fish. 

The research also seems to verify a 2014 study by the state Department of Water Resources that 95 percent of young salmon and steelhead are eaten by predators such as bass before reaching the Delta.

To that end, research points to a need to address predators that lurk in deep pools between Riverbank and the Stanislaus’ confluence with the San Joaquin River.

Assemblyman Gray calls it ‘first shot’ in

next chapter of state’s water wars

“The State Water Resources Control Board’s decision today is the first shot fired in the next chapter of California’s water wars,” warned Democratic Assemblyman Adam Gray of Merced, who represents San Joaquin Valley communities that rely on diversion from the river for water supply.

Board chairwoman Felicia Marcus pitched it as a plan to prevent an ecological crisis. John McManus, president of the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said the plan is critical to restoring California’s nearly decimated native salmon population, a boon to fishing families and communities.

The plan applies to the lower San Joaquin River, three of its tributaries and the southern end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The delta is home to many threatened fish species and provides water for vast swaths of farmland and the majority of California’s people.

The change is designed to protect salmon by mimicking natural water flows that fish respond to, the board said in its report. Some fishing groups wanted it to go even farther.

The advocacy group Trout Unlimited advocated for a target closer to 60 percent. The plan lacks key details about how water managers will measure outcomes for fish and determine water flows throughout the year.

“It’s very hard to look at that plan and say, ‘Yes, that’s going to protect the fish,’ because it just doesn’t have the detail that’s required to get there,” she said.

But farm groups argue that lessening water diversion will deliver a major blow to the economy and cost thousands of jobs in the San Joaquin Valley. It not only will decrease water sent to farmers in some years but significantly increase the year-to-year variation, making it difficult for growers and food processors to make long-term plans, said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition.

“Simply dumping more water down the river with the hope that it will solve the Delta’s water issues is an incomplete solution to a complex set of problems,” Wade said.

Gray, who represents the San Joaquin Valley, said it will also hurt communities that rely on river diversion for their water supply. Overflow from agricultural irrigation helps supply the ground water that the majority of his constituents rely on for drinking water.

In a blistering statement, he said the “fish first philosophy will decimate or region” and further charged it is not “environmentally friendly to sacrifice the health of one environment for another.”

The water board is now taking public comment and will finalize the plan in August.

Associated Press contributed to this story.