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Region up in arms over water scale back plan study
Water that flows down the TID Main Canal in Ceres could be impacted if a plan to divert more water downstream to the San Joaquin River is enacted. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

Officials from nearly every city and water agency within the immediate three-county region of the Valley are livid over a new environmental study that could eventually result in the state flushing more valuable water from reservoirs into the San Joaquin Delta.

By creating unimpaired flows of 40 to 50 percent from Don Pedro, Exchequer and New Melones dams - thereby not allowing use on crops - the state would create disaster for the Valley, they say. The state proposes to take a significant amount of water from the reservoirs to benefit salmon population as well as prevent salty ocean water from traveling inland through the San Joaquin River.

The outcry came Thursday when the State Water Resources Control Board released a complex revised Draft Substitute Environmental Document (SED) in support of Phase 1 of its Bay¬Delta Water Quality Control Plan.

"They just did a broad brush analysis and said, ‘Oh it's minor, a few million dollars is all it will affect the Valley' and everybody said, frankly, bull----," said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells. "They got enough comments to push back and went back and did some more legwork and this, several years later is the revised draft substitute environmental document, which basically comes back and says the same thing."

Wells said the plan, if implemented, would lead to significant impact "and huge changes to water use in the Valley, in these three counties."

This proposition is part of the State Water Board's requirement every three years to update the Bay-Delta Plan, which is a state-certified regulatory program used to establish water quality control measures in order to adequately protect beneficial water use in the Bay-Delta Watershed.

While the State Water Board said that state and federal agencies continue to take steps to improve conditions for fish and wildlife, "Californians continue to take more water out of the Delta and its tributaries than the species can withstand."

As detailed in the draft, the State Water Board proposes increasing flows to provide habitats for fish and wildlife upstream of the Delta from Feb. 1 to June 30 from three tributaries of the lower San Joaquin River and adjusting the salinity requirements to a slightly high level to reflect updated scientific knowledge and protect farming in the Southern Delta.

If these aren't addressed now, the State Water Board said that could result in "more draconian actions" to establish water quality standards for the Bay-Delta.

In order to demonstrate the implications of the State Water Board's proposal, Turlock Irrigation District and Modesto Irrigation District looked at data from 2015 to determine that the plan would have led to $1.6 billion in economic output loss, $167 million in farm-gate revenue loss, $330 million in labor income loss and the loss of nearly 7,000 jobs.

"MID and TID continue to be disheartened that the State Water Board is doubling down on this uncompromising, misguided plan that sparked an outcry when the proposal was first released in late 2012," said TID and MID in a joint statement. "What's worse is that the State Water Board ignored our community's recurring pleas to minimize the impacts of its 2012 proposal, and instead increased its desired amount of water to be taken - moving from 35 percent to 40 percent of unimpaired flows."

To further emphasize their opposition to the State Water Board's proposal, TID and MID launched "Worth Your Fight," a website that aims to help their customers and the region understand the implications of the plan and its "attempt to steal their livelihoods." The website can be found at

"Our community has never faced a threat of this proportion," said the two agencies in the statement. "MID and TID have continued to fight for the water resource that was entrusted to us 129 years ago. But this isn't a threat we can confront alone. Everyone - agricultural water, urban water and electric customers - will be affected. This water grab will impact our region's way of life."

TID and MID weren't the only public entities to vocalize their disapproval of the proposal Thursday as California Farm Bureau Federation officials said "water supplies dedicated to fish should be subject to the same efficiency standards as those affecting California farmers and homeowners."

"For years, regulators have been requiring increasingly more water in the name of environmental protection, but fish populations have continued to decline," said CFBF President Paul Wenger. "Regulators have no idea how many more fish - if any - would result from dedicating even more water to environmental purposes.

"But we do know one thing: This will hurt people," continued Wenger.

Wenger described the proposal as untested, unproven and unpromising, saying that it could potentially idle around 240,000 acres of farmland with no guaranteed results. He said the Farm Bureau will urge the State Water Board to revise the proposal in order to create "a balanced plan to help the environment without causing needless suffering."

State Assemblyman Adam Gray said the new recommendation by the State Water Board to require 40 percent unimpaired flows on the Tuolumne, Merced, and Stanislaus rivers amounts to "an economic death sentence." He said the new SED is "a report which does not reflect the realities of the world we live in and could only be written by a government agency operating behind closed doors which has turned a deaf ear to the communities which will ultimately pay the highest price."

A multi-county coalition condemns the SED and claims it discounts the input from the Valley which is dependent upon water for its economic livelihood. They call for a better analysis of the plan and mitigation of impacts.

Comments on the SED are due on Nov. 15. A public hearing will be held in the Tuolumne River Room of Modesto Centre Plaza, 1000 L. Street, Modesto on Nov. 4.

The Board will consider approving the proposed Bay-Delta Plan amendments at a public meeting that will be held in early 2017.

If the controversial plan becomes a reality, there may not be enough water available from the Tuolumne River to allow the cities of Ceres and Turlock to construct a surface water project.

"That kind of impact of 40 percent unimpaired flows is a tremendous increase of what flows down the river," said Wells. "So what does it mean? We don't know how."

The coalition "is greatly disappointed that the State Water Board and its consultants have rejected numerous requests from our region to discuss the assumptions and data underlying the SED's analyses and recommendations," said a statement released by David Jones, the Director of Legislative Affairs and Communications for Stanislaus County. "No other agency would be permitted to conduct a multi-year study, at the cost of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, and fail to even discuss its assumptions with those who stand to be impacted by its recommendations. The release of this new environmental document marks a failure to engage in serious technical analyses of environmental, social, economic, educational and cultural impacts with those to be affected in this region."

The coalition said the agencies "will continue to analyze the voluminous updated SED carefully in order to fully understand the depths that the State Water Board will go to harm our region on the whim of possibly benefitting the Delta and salmon."

The coalition claims that the 2012 SED ignored the well-documented recharge value of irrigation water, and was unable to account for the state's new groundwater laws and groundwater pumping increases resulting from the drought.

Gray said the State Water Board's report may express hope for settlement discussions - and he supports that approach - but he said "it takes both parties, acting in good faith, to conduct them."

"Instead, we have a situation where the State Water Board demands that the most economically challenged part of the state decimate its economy to restore salmon, while the California Fish and Game Commission refuses to reduce invasive predators like bass that are responsible for so much of the reduction in salmon populations in the first place."

He noted that for settlement discussions to be successful, board Chairwoman Felicia Marcus needs to direct her staff and consultants to meet with local interests and discuss in detail their assumptions, data, and conclusions.

"There must be an acknowledgment of the significant adverse impacts removing so much water from our area will have on our economy, and there must be a willingness on behalf of the state to mitigate that impact. Nowhere else in California would a change of such magnitude and consequence be considered without extensive mitigation as part of the discussion."