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At stake is water for farms, Manteca, Lathrop & Tracy
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Calling a state move to commandeer water from irrigation districts “arbitrary” and “capricious” four agencies — including the South San Joaquin Irrigation District — are suing the State of California over a decision to increase unimpaired water flows on three rivers with the goal of increasing salmon population by 1,103 more fish a year.

The suit filed Thursday in Tuolumne County where both SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District have senior adjudicated water rights on the Stanislaus River Basin that supersede every other claim to water seeks an injunction against the Department of Water Resources Control Board. The goal is to stop a Dec. 12 board decision that would require a 40 percent unimpaired flow between February and June on the Stanislaus, Merced, and Tuolumne rivers to bolster salmon population.

Currently the flows are capped at 30 percent. While the board decision would have the 40 percent unimpaired flow reached by fluctuating between a range of 30 and 50 percent, various fishing groups have slammed that decision as being woefully inadequate and have called for unimpaired flows approaching 70 percent.

SSJID seeks to protect

legal rates and

its water customers

“We file suit not because we prefer conflict over collaboration,” noted SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk. “On the contrary, we continue to encourage and participate in settlement discussions on our rivers, and support science on the Stanislaus. But we also have an indisputable responsibility to reserve our legal rights and protect our ag and urban customers.”

SSJID supplies irrigation water for more than 52,000 acres of farmland in the South County. Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy also rely on SSJID to provide their residents part of their drinking water. Ripon is also seeking surface water from SSJID.

During normal water years the water board decision — based on data provided by the state — would cost the three counties of the Northern San Joaquin Valley (San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced) — an annual economic loss of $12.9 billion, cost 4,000 people their jobs, and force increased groundwater pumping of 1.57 million acre feet annually by cities and farmers. Since the unimpaired water flow analysis was made, the state has set in place a new mandate that essentially will not allow more groundwater pumping in a given year than is replaced in an aquifer. That would mean up to 132,000 of the nation’s most fertile agriculture valley would be fallow while cities would face significant cutbacks in surface water supplies.

The impacts on the 209 region would increase significantly in a drought.

Based on historic hydrology on the Stanislaus River Basin, New Melones Reservoir — the state’s fourth largest at 2.4 million acre feet of water — could go dry 12 times every 95 years.

Rietkerk called the state’s environmental impact report on its plans to take water “incomplete.” He also noted the state move ignores water rights issues under laws the state established more than a century ago to bring order to water use.

SSJID along with its Tri-Dam Project partner Oakdale Irrigation District would stand to lose at least 120,000 acres of water every year. Tri-Dam operates the reservoirs on the Stanislaus River — Donnell’s, Beardsley, and Tulloch.

Scientific research

points to more effective

ways to increase salmon

The two agencies have invested millions of dollars retaining the services of one of the world’s most regarded fish biology firms — Fishbio — to do extensive research of the Stanislaus. The state has funded no such scientific research on the Stanislaus River in fashioning its proposal that took the byzantine state water bureaucracy more than 10 years to cobble together and delivered long after a mandated California Legislature deadline.

That scientific research strongly suggests addressing predators such as the non-native bass that now support a massive sports fishing industry, timing short periods of water pulse flows instead of massive releases, and building spawning areas is likely to increase salmon population significantly more than the 1,303 a year the state expects to see under its plan.

The OID already has increased the survivability of salmon with its habitat restoration at Honolulu Bar on the Stanislaus River.

In SSJID’s corner besides OID is the Turlock Irrigation District that relies on the Merced River as well as the City and County of San Francisco that operates Hetch Hetchy Reservoir as well as has storage at Don Pedro Reservoir on the Tuolumne River that also provides water and power for 20 other Bay Area cities.

The four agencies are members of the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority.

The lawsuit contends that the water board’s plan will “directly and irreparably” harms the SJTA members. The plan “will cause substantial losses to the surface water supply relied upon by the SJTA member agencies for agricultural production, municipal supply, recreational use, hydropower generation, among other things. Implementation will also cause direct impacts to groundwater resources relied upon by the SJTA member agencies.”  These impacts will devastate local water supplies for ag and urban communities and severely impact the regional economy.

The lawsuit claims that “the board’s own analysis estimates the project will impact more than 1 million acres of agricultural land in the San Joaquin Valley, the majority of which, 65% is designated as ‘prime’ or ‘unique farmland,’ or ‘farmland of statewide importance.’ ”

State plan only

increases salmon

numbers by 1,303

“It’s the decimation of a large portion of agriculture in the middle of the nation’s most productive food belt that should concern everyone,” said OID General Manager Steve Knell. “All this loss of productive agriculture to gain 1,103 more salmon a year — per the state’s own analysis — doesn’t make sense.”

Among other claims, the lawsuit alleges the water board adopted a wholly different plan than it analyzed, violated state and federal due process laws, and unlawfully segmented the environmental review of the plan by initially requiring higher flows from only three of the lower San Joaquin River tributaries, excluding the upper San Joaquin River and the larger Sacramento River and its tributaries, which provides the majority of the water to the Delta.

The water board adopted the plan after delaying a Nov. 7, 2018, vote at the urging of then-Gov. Jerry Brown and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom to provide additional opportunity for voluntary settlements among tributary agencies.

Rietkerk said the SSJID and other agencies were “extremely close” to coming up with a negotiated deal with the water board but the state went ahead and adopted the plan as it originally presented it forcing the lawsuit.

The suing agencies said the lawsuit is “an unfortunate culmination” of an effort begun five years ago by state agencies in concert with the SJTA at developing voluntary settlement agreements to avoid the “draconian flow demands” being proposed by the water board in their Phase I document. As a result of a hard deadline set by the water board and a result of a change in state government due to elections, that effort ended in a majority of the basin agencies not able to finish their negotiations.

Rietkerk said the OID, SSJID and other members of the SJTA stand ready to return to the table if that door is opened under the new administration, but the lawsuit is a necessary action to preserve the SJTA’s legal rights in court should that not occur.

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email