Hundreds of locally elected officials, water and agricultural leaders, agency representatives and community members last week got what was likely their first chance to address the State Water Resources Control Board regarding a controversial proposal to cut water use for the benefit of fish and wildlife.
The standing-room only hearing was held at the Modesto Centre Plaza on Tuesday evening, Dec. 20.
"The Board's job is to establish objectives that provide reasonable protection to the fishery and to balance that with other uses just as important to Californians, including agriculture and municipal use," said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus. "We want to provide an opportunity for people to come together to propose better ways to meet those objectives by working together to restore habitat, to manage the flows intelligently, to deal with predation and other things.
"In establishing these objectives, the State Water Board must consider and balance all beneficial uses of water - not pick one and discard the others," continued Marcus.
On Sept. 15, the State Water Board released a draft revised Substitute Environmental Document for a 60-day public review and comment period. At more than 3,500 pages, this controversial document proposed allocating 40 percent of unimpaired flows along the Tuolumne River from Feb. 1 to June 30 annually for fish and wildlife beneficial uses and salinity control.
During the public hearing, State Water Board member Dorene D'Adamo of Turlock whose husband farms in western Merced County, asked those in attendance to help her and other Board members "better understand how this proposal impacts this region."
"Tell us what our staff got right and where they might have missed the mark; give us your ideas as to how this proposal can be improved and how we can strike a better balance. Please don't just tell us what you don't like about the proposal, tell us how it can be improved," said D'Adamo. "Because of the significant impacts this proposal would have upon agriculture, drinking water supplies, groundwater basins and the regional economy, I would much rather see a plan that - instead of just focusing on flow - includes the use of all tools."
Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth said that the proposal would sidetrack all of Turlock and Ceres' efforts to secure groundwater and drinking water sustainability.
"We're embarking on a $150 million to $200 million surface water plant, which is a huge investment for Turlock and Ceres, and this proposal will absolutely decimate our ability to continue with that project," said Soiseth. "We're hoping to show them some common sense solutions. They are ignoring non-flow proposals, they are ignoring ways to bring about stronger fish populations that doesn't include taking this much water from the Central Valley."
Soiseth said that although he did not speak during the public hearing in Modesto, he has plans to speak at the last public hearing in Sacramento in January for a specific reason.
"The way the Water Board has structured it is they have tried to group all of the Central Valley interests in Modesto and Merced and they've tried to group all of their supporters in January up in Sacramento," said Soiseth. "So I'm reserving my time to speak in January when they think they can ignore us because they are no longer in the Central Valley."
Turlock Irrigation District Directors Charles Fernandes of Ceres and Michael Frantz of Hickman were also in attendance to oppose the State Water Board proposal, with the former calling it a "flagrant violation of the law."
"It's a water grab," said Fernandes. "We have the senior water rights to the river and they're just totally disregarding it."
"We have better solutions," added rantz. "We want to see more fish too, but it shouldn't require so much water to get. We can get better results with less water. I hope a lot of people express the grave concerns we have for the impacts this will have to our livelihoods and our community."
Stanislaus County Supervisor Vito Chiesa of Hughson criticized State Water Board officials' use of the term "balance," which he said he heard at a Board of Supervisors meeting in October and again during the public hearing Tuesday.
"I would offer up to you today that no one in this room thinks 40 or 50 percent unimpaired flows is a balanced approach," said Chiesa, whose comment merited applause. "People are scared. They really are with what this can do to them, what this can do to the Valley. Please listen to the people."
Newly elected Assembly member Heath Flora spoke in front of the State Water Board "in support of MID, TID, local elected officials and concerned citizens" as he publicly opposed the proposal and asked members to unite in order to find a solution together.
"Within Stanislaus County, we are one of the few, if not the only, region whose groundwater basins are not listed as critically overdraft - and why is that?" said Flora. "It's because we have elected incredibly intelligent experts to our irrigation boards, to our city councils, to our board of supervisors, and our community is very knowledgeable on this particular issue.
"I would encourage and implore the Board to reach out to those experts because they know this area, they know this issue, and they are willing to negotiate, but we have to be brought to the table," continued Flora.
The last State Water Board public hearing is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Jan. 3 in the Coastal Hearing Room, located on the second floor of the Joe Serna Jr. - CalEPA Headquarters Building, 1001 I Street in Sacramento.
Written comments on draft revised SED are due on Jan. 17. The State Water Board is anticipated to release a final SED and plan in May 2017 and consider it for adoption in July 2017.