After the State Water Resources Control Board voted in December to approve a vehemently-opposed plan set to increase unimpaired flows along local rivers, local legislators and water agencies vowed to take the case to court — a promise which came true Thursday as the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority filed a lawsuit challenging the decision.
The state’s Bay-Delta Plan Update 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.
The SJTA, on behalf of the Turlock, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, filed a suit in Tuolumne County which contends the State Water Board adopted a “wholly different plan than analyzed, violated state and federal due process laws and unlawfully segmented the environmental review of the plan,” among other claims, according to a release from TID.
“The state’s plan will result in minimal benefits to fish while severely impacting our communities. That’s not something we can allow,” said TID Board President Charles Fernandes.
According to a study by TID and Modesto irrigation districts, the state’s plan would lead 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.
“We are incredibly disappointed in the State Water Board’s December 12 action to adopt Phase I,” noted TID General Manager Casey Hashimoto. “TID and our partners on the Tuolumne put forth a workable solution which could have been implemented immediately and would have produced a greater outcome for the native fish when compared to the state’s plan.”
A voluntary agreement was reached in December between state officials and TID, MID and other agencies in Northern California to decrease water usage on the Tuolumne River and contribute to a fund for habitat improvements, but was confronted with a Friday deadline for court challenges against the water board’s decision.
The suit alleges that the plan’s unimpaired flows are unlikely to benefit salmon while causing considerable loss of agricultural, urban, recreation and hydropower water use in addition to the depletion of groundwater. The plan also disrupts decades-old water rights of the irrigation districts, the suit says, requiring them to release more water that can be used by junior water rights holders downstream.
Over the summer of 2017, TID endorsed an alternative plan, the Tuolumne River Management Plan, to help save the area’s native fish, which includes stream-bed gravel restoration, predator control and the strategic placement of rocks and trees along the river to provide a better habitat for fish migrating up the Tuolumne, rather than the increased flows proposed by the State Water Board, in addition to various other methods.