With the State Water Board poised to order the flushing of 40 percent of water stored at three local reservoirs to enhance fish population and this bypass Valley farms, Congressman Jeff Denham called in the head of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Thursday.
Denham took Andrew Wheeler, acting administrator of the EPA, on a tour of a Stanislaus River fish weir and allowed local irrigation districts to stress the devastation the proposed Bay-Delta Plan would have on local farms and the Valley’s economy.
“EPA is working closely with California’s farmers and landowners to help protect their valuable water resources and provide them greater certainty with respect to where federal jurisdiction begins and ends,” said Wheeler. “Hearing directly from Californians and our Region 9 EPA staff is vital to our efforts to protect the public health, environment, and natural resources of this unique and beautiful region of our country.”
Denham hosted a roundtable discussion with members of the Turlock, Modesto, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts at Jacob Meyers Park in Riverbank, where Wheeler was able to hear from residents and farmers about water quality issues impacting regional agriculture.
“We had a very good briefing on the issue,” said Wheeler in a press conference after the meeting. “They raised a number of questions that I’m going to go back and talk to my staff about. Seeing the river course was important but hearing their concerns is very important to me at this stage.”
The state Water Resources Control Board is expected to decide on the controversial plan the day after the election. The EPA, said Wheeler, is expected to review the plan and examine the validity of the science behind it.
“I’m not pre-judging anything until I’ve actually seen it,” said Wheeler when pressed his opinion of the plan. “I’m told it’ll be coming Nov. 7 or 8 … and I thought it was important to go ahead and get briefed up myself personally.”
Denham and others say that the plan to protect fish is not backed by science and would only drain precious water held in Don Pedro, New Melones and McClure reservoirs for agriculture and cities. The board plan asserts that running 40 percent of the water out to the Delta from February through June will mimic natural conditions. Wheeler was told that unimpaired flows are not a magic bullet and that the state board abandoned its fish modeling when it showed that the plan would produce only about 1,103 additional Chinook salmon – hardly enough to warrant the economic calamity it would bring.
Denham and others have long asserted that 98 percent of the salmon that hatch on the local rivers are gobbled up in the Delta by non-native big-mouth bass before they can make it to the Pacific Ocean.
“If you take our water, if you double the flows, it doesn’t help the fish but it certainly hurts our community, and will affect our drinking water and raise prices for our ratepayers,” said Denham. “The Valley has never faced anything like this before. It’s unbelievable the impacts it would have, the economy that would be destroyed, the families that would be torn apart because of this.”
At the weir – an enclosure of stakes set in the river as a trap for fish – Wheeler learned that most of the salmon originated from fish hatcheries and released into the bay or ocean.
“That was interesting,” Wheeler said. “That was very educational but then sitting here listening to the different irrigation districts, tribal leaders talk about the impact for both hydroelectric power as well as water for farming here, those are very important considerations that I really hope the California board is listening to and paying close attention to. I really hope if they do submit a plan to us it’s a plan that everybody can get behind.”
Denham said he has made President Trump aware of how what many are calling a “water grab” would hurt his district.
“He is concerned about the amount of water that California is sending back to the ocean,” echoed Wheeler, who was appointed by Trump and confirmed by the Senate to take over the EPA after the July resignation of Scott Pruitt.
Wheeler said his visit underscored the importance of the Valley to the state and country to agricultural production.
“This is an extremely important area of the country.”
Later in the day Wheeler and Denham met with the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau in Modesto. Some of them expressed concern over losing irrigation water while others told how they were sued by the Army Corps of Engineer regulations for farming their own land.
“The Army Corps is coming in and interpreting laws differently than they do the rest of the country,” said Denham.
The congressman said he wants more water storage facilities built in California. He hailed the U.S. Senate’s passage of his New Water Act which provides financing for water projects throughout the western United States, including new reservoirs, below-ground storage projects, recycling and desalination projects.
“It’s actually the first time that we’ll have federal funding and infrastructure bank to be able build Sites, Temperance Flats, Shasta as well as Los Vaqueros and each of our irrigation districts,” said Denham. “It’s time to actually start building. We’re obviously playing defense to stop the state water grab but it’s time for us to play offense and really build California, create jobs and improve our economy.”
Denham’s provision in the WRDA bill authorizes the EPA to finance Bureau of Reclamation projects under the Water Infrastructure and Innovation Act program and sets a one-year deadline for execution.