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States river flow plan flawed on many levels
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Visionary investments in dams, canals and facilities made generations ago by local farmers have allowed our two irrigation districts – Oakdale and South San Joaquin – to have the most senior position for water rights on the Stanislaus River, rights that date back to 1853. Today, we provide irrigation water to more than 120,000 acres in two counties. SSJID also delivers clean, affordable drinking water to three cities. Together, our agencies have been responsible stewards of the river and its resources.

That stewardship is cemented in our commitment to the river itself. Since the early 1990s, our districts have funded upward of $1 million each every year for science and fishery research. We have the longest operating data-collection records on out-migrating young salmon and steelhead. We brought state-of-the-art technology to the river with a weir that photographs and logs each fish that moves up the river. The state guesses on salmon counts. We have an exact number.

Together, we have invested more than $110 million in the past decade to modernize and improve our water delivery systems. When our federal partners on the river were short of water to meet required fishery flows because of the drought, we stepped in and helped. Were it not for our investments and our conserved water supplies, the salmon and trout populations would have been devastated.

Now, the State Water Quality Control Board wants to overturn more than a century of responsible water management and legal precedent. Purportedly to help salmon, it wants to divert billions of gallons of water each year by increasing “unimpaired flows” down the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to 40% between February and June. This water grab is based on unscientifically supported assumptions, and distorted and biased modeling of potential impacts. 

The plan took more than 10 years to develop and cost more than $70 million. Sadly, the 3,500-page document virtually ignores proven factors that help create more fish. Despite repeated requests, the state purposely ignored all research we have gathered on the Stanislaus River since the 1990s. Not a single meeting was held anywhere in our region. 

The proposal would deprive growers of dependable, affordable surface water deliveries that are the foundation of an $8.5 billion ag-based regional economy. The state suggests between 24,000 to as many as 250,000 acres would be taken out of ag production each year. Thousands of people could lose their jobs on farms and in industries closely linked to ag. The state lowballs the yearly impact to the regional economy at $64 million. Local estimates conservatively predict an annual hit of $250 million or more. 

What’s the tradeoff for that economic tsunami? The state estimates only 600 or more “new” salmon will find their way back each fall – or about 200 fish for each affected river.

The state’s plan would impact the source of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of residents in Modesto, Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy. Reducing their reliable source of water supply threatens future growth and economic development, and makes mandatory conservation a permanent way of life.

The state expects farmers, cities and water districts to make up for the surface water hijacked from them by  increasing groundwater pumping by more than 100,000 acre-feet a year – at the same time it also is demanding that sustainable groundwater management practices be developed. Surface water is the biggest tool that water agencies have to preserve drought-stressed aquifers. Pure hypocrisy.

Releasing water between February and July also forces electric utility companies to produce hydroelectric energy during a non-peak demand period. This creates cheap power in the winter and spring when it’s not needed as opposed to saving the water in our reservoirs to make clean, affordable power in the summer, when demand is high. Consumers will pay the price in the form of higher bills.

The state also wants to insert itself into the management of our regional reservoirs, though it never invested a dime to build them. The water board’s plan would require New Melones Reservoir – where our districts keep water -- to have no less than 700,000 acre-feet in storage at the end of each water year on September 30. Similar requirements at Don Pedro and Lake McClure would threaten to remove more than 1.8 million acre-feet of operable surface water storage. 

The state also refuses to acknowledge that taking billions of gallons a year more water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers is not somehow connected to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desire to build the Twin Tunnels under the Delta. Not evaluating the two projects together makes many of us question the underlying purpose of each project.

This is not about “farmers vs. fish.” We know there are proven solutions that increase salmon populations and produce the results we all want at no additional water cost. The recent doubling of salmon returns on the Stanislaus River during the drought with no extra flow is proof of that. Unfortunately, those methods are not included in the state’s calculus.

If the vitality and survival of the fishery is the true goal, the irrigation districts stand ready to partner with the state to implement programs that provide sustainable solutions for local fisheries and for our region’s economy. We need wise and responsible management of our public resources – now and in the future.


Steve Knell is general manager of the Oakdale Irrigation District. Peter Rietkerk is general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District in Manteca. Together, the districts have formed, a public education effort to inform Californians about the threat posed by increased flows on the Stanislaus River.