The Ceres City Council weighed in Monday on the forthcoming battle over surface water by passing a resolution dead-set against a proposed Bay-Delta Plan which would take more water from area reservoirs and flush it down the river and bypassing farms.
A coalition of Valley cities, counties, water agencies and farming interests are gearing up for the fight against the state Water Resources Control Board.
Recently the state agency released what is called a revised Draft Substitute Environmental Document (SED) in support of Phase 1 of its Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan. The document suggests that there would be minor impacts if the unimpaired flows of three rivers - the Stanislaus, the Tuolumne and the Merced - step up from 17 percent to 40 percent between Feb. 1 and June 30 of each year, which is peak irrigation season.
"It would have a significant impact on our local economy," said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells.
The council heard from Michelle Reimers, a spokeswoman with the Tuolumne Irrigation District, which owns and operates Don Pedro Reservoir and dam with Modesto Irrigation District.
"The document, in length, is about 3,500 pages. We have 57 days to comment," Reimers told the council. "We currently have a number of staff, attorneys, consultants, biologists and scientists going over the document to find flaws and try to understand where they're coming with their science."
Reimers said for the state to dictate releases from a privately-owned and operated dam seems legally questionable. She said lawsuits would probably tie up the plan for at least a decade.
"The farmers aren't the only ones who will be impacted by this water," said Reimers.
TID and MID are currently seeking relicensing to operate Don Pedro, which expires this year. The state board may decide to tie the increased unimpaired flows to the new license, which is given by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC.
As part of the lengthy relicensing process, Reimers said TID and MID commissioned 34 studies costing approximately $25 million looking at the benefits the dam brings to the region. She said the Tuolumne River water from Don Pedro equates to $1.6 billion in economic output, $160 million in farm gate revenue, $330 million in labor and 6,500 jobs. Reimers said if the Bay-Delta Plan had been in place in 2015, farmers would have received no surface water "and what they actually received in 2015 was 18 inches."
The plan would also affect groundwater sustainability since irrigation water helps recharge Valley groundwater water tables. The TID and MID sub-basins are currently the only two in the Valley that are not listed as being in critical overdraft. "But what happens is when you get cut back on surface water, people start pumping," said Reimers.
MID supplies a lot of drinking water to the city of Modesto via Modesto Reservoir, which is supplied from the Tuolumne River. TID is prepared to do the same for the cities of Ceres and Turlock. The Bay-Delta Plan would negatively impact the surface water plans for Ceres, she said.
TID conducted a predation study and learned that 90 percent of the out-migrating juvenile salmon are being eaten by bass before they even reach the San Joaquin River but that the district can recommend a suppression program by modifying stream beds that would affect predator fish habitat.
"Just modifying the timing of the river would help things... and we could see a lot of salmon return," said Reimers.
She said many believe the push to flush more water to the Delta is not just about fish and salinity issue but is to eventually pipe more water to Southern California through Gov. Brown's controversial Twin Tunnels proposal. Brown and large corporate agribusinesses have proposed building two underground 35- and 40-foot wide tunnels to divert the Sacramento River and maximize water exports from the Delta to the southwest Valley. The Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which imports water from the Delta and sells it to cities across southern California, is also backing the tunnels.
A public relations campaign is underway complete with yard sales reading "Worth Your Fight: Don't Go With the Flow." Reimers said a website is available at worthyourfight.org to explain the issue and collect petition signatures.
State Assemblymembers Adam Gray, D-Merced, and Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank, delivered 3,100 petitions to the State Water Resources Control Board last week, proclaiming their firm opposition to a recent proposal to allocate 40 percent of water along the Tuolumne River for the benefit of fish and wildlife in the Delta.
"The last report from the State Water Board proposed taking 35 percent of our water," said Gray. "After a four year review process, during which the Board refused to engage with local stakeholders who live near and depend on these rivers, the number has now grown to 49 percent.
"It is unfathomable how the Water Board could witness the harm caused by one of the worst droughts in California's history and draw the conclusion that they need even more from us," continued Gray.
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.
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.
"The State Water Board must acknowledge the difficult position this proposal will have on our local communities as we attempt to balance demands on water," said Olsen. "How can we achieve sustainable groundwater supplies if the number one source of recharge from our rivers is eliminated under this proposal?"
Along with turning in the petitions, both Gray and Olsen requested that the SWRCB extend the original 60-day comment period to 120 days in order to give additional stakeholders time to respond. They also asked that the Board hold meetings with local agencies in the communities that depend on each of these three rivers.
"The Water Board's proposal makes a number of references to settlement discussions," said Gray. "If they genuinely would prefer settlement instead of litigation, they need to start treating our communities with the respect they deserve."
Gray and Olsen were not the only local legislators to oppose the State Water Board's proposal as Congressmen Jeff Denham, Jim Costa and Tom McClintock released a joint statement expressing their disapproval.
"It is completely unacceptable that the State Water Resources Control Board failed to hold public hearings in the communities most affected by this proposal," wrote Denham, Costa and McClintock in a joint statement. "The people, the farmers and communities in the San Joaquin Valley have borne the brunt of the impacts of five years of drought conditions and this proposal, if adopted, would only result in further harm to the economy of the region.
"The SWRCB must extend the comment period for at least 90 days because the people of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, and Merced Counties deserve an open and transparent process where their voices can be heard. Furthermore, it is imperative that before any additional releases are ordered, the SWRCB must prove that the anticipated ecological benefits outlined in this proposal will be realized," continued Denham, Costa and McClintock.
Alysson Aredas contributed to this report.