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State Water Board votes to increase flows
• Lawsuits expected to stop state ‘water grab’
water board pic
The State Water Board adopted the Bay-Delta Plan, which calls for increased allocation of 30 to 50 percent of unimpaired flows along the San Joaquin River and its tributaries — a plan that is opposed by the Turlock Irrigation District and other local agencies. - photo by CANDY PADILLA / The Journal

Despite vehement opposition from a broad coalition Valley farmers, governments and organizations, the State Water Resources Control Board on Wednesday voted to approve the contentious Bay-Delta Plan Update, meant to revive dwindling salmon populations by restoring water flows through local rivers.

The result of a nine-year process, the Bay-Delta Plan calls for increased allocation of 30 to 50 percent of unimpaired flows along the San Joaquin River and its tributaries — the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers. The plan also makes allowances for reduced river flows on tributaries where stakeholders have reached voluntary agreements to pursue a combination of flow and “non-flow” measures that improve conditions for fish and wildlife, such as habitat restoration and reducing predation. 

“Californians want a healthy environment, healthy agriculture and healthy communities, not one at the undue expense of the others,” said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. “Doing that requires that the water wars yield to collective efforts to help fish and wildlife through voluntary action, which the plan seeks to reward. The collaborative spirit we heard today offers promise and motivation towards that goal.”

A voluntary agreement was reached between Turlock Irrigation District, Modesto Irrigation District and other agencies in Northern California to decrease their water usage on the Tuolumne River and contribute to a fund for habitat improvements — an arrangement that water users, Gov. Jerry Brown and his successor Gavin Newsom hope can make things better for the environment without a strict mandate from the water board. 

TID and MID, along with their partner San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, asked on Wednesday for more time for an environmental review on the voluntary agreement, and districts opposed to the water board’s plan have the next 30 days to take legal action. 

TID is “disappointed” in the State Water Board’s approval of the Bay-Delta Plan, communications specialist Brandon McMillan said Thursday. 

“We believe the agreement on the Tuolumne River, which could have been implemented immediately, was far superior to what the board adopted,” McMillan continued, adding that TID will take “appropriate actions as necessary” within the next 30 days. 

The Tuolumne River agreement would require TID and other water districts to make habitat improvements, like expanding floodplains and restoring spawning beds with gravel, as well as increase fish flows — but not as high as the state plan mandates. Farmers would also fallow land to free up irrigation supplies. 

Department of Water Resources Director Karla Nemeth called the collaboration “historic,” but environmentalists deemed it inadequate. 

An alliance of leading conservation organizations, including the Environmental Defense Fund, Trout Unlimited and The Nature Conservancy, applauded the water board’s approval of the Bay-Delta Plan, calling it an important first step in addressing the ecological crisis in the Delta and calling for ongoing productive and transparent discussions among all parties. 

“California’s water future looks brighter tonight,” the groups said in a joint statement. “The State Water Board’s approved Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan will help us all protect clean water for 25 million residents, support jobs and start the recovery of our 10,000-year-old native salon runs.”

The State Water Board voted 4-1 to adopt the plan, with Valley-native Board member Dorene D’Adamo voting against the plan while also suggesting several amendments which would make the requirements better for local communities. 

District 21 Assemblymember Adam Gray applauded D’Adamo’s efforts, though they were in vain, he said. 

“Despite the legitimate and comprehensive alternatives put forward by our local irrigation districts, the Water Board shoved their fingers in their ears and adopted the plan as is,” Gray said. “The Water Board had a clear choice tonight. They could have embraced settlement agreements and secured real, tangible improvements for fish and habitat within less than a year. Instead, they chose to adopt their disastrous plan and guaranteed a decade’s worth of litigation.

“We will see you in court.”

Chairwoman Marcus on Wednesday encouraged water users to continue settlement talks, noting that it would take some time to implement the new, regulated standards. The Tuolumne River agreement would deliver water and support for the Delta as early as next year, while there is no current timetable as to when the Bay-Delta Plan would be enacted.