The community has two extra months to comment on a controversial State Water Resources Control Board document that proposes cutting water use after Board chair Felicia Marcus sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown last week, effectively extending the public comment period into March.
This extension comes just two days after the State Water Board held its second-to-last public hearing on Dec. 20 in Modesto, which at its peak was standing-room only.
"While the State Water Board has already provided an extensive 120-day public comment period, earlier today my staff provided notice of a further two-month extension of the public comment period on the Lower San Joaquin proposal," wrote Marcus in a letter to Brown on Dec. 22. "This extension will allow commenters additional time to assess what they have read in the documents and heard at the hearing, and to better propose improvements to the draft to accommodate and achieve flow and non-flow actions that can achieve improvements in ecosystem health on the lower San Joaquin River and its tributaries.
"It will also provide the negotiating parties additional time to see whether a larger negotiated solution is possible," added Marcus.
The deadline for the public review and comment period regarding the State Water Board's draft revised Substitute Environmental Document for Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan, which 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, was originally set at Jan. 17.
In her letter to Brown, Marcus said that State Water Board staff effectively extended the deadline to March 17.
Following the release of the draft revised SED in September, Brown wrote a letter to Marcus to urge her and the rest of the State Water Board to "move quickly to complete the remainder of their analysis on the Sacramento River basin."
"Delay may be too costly. The need to improve our aquatic ecosystems is urgent," wrote Brown in September. "Many communities are paralyzed and fearful of a lengthy and unpredictable regulatory process. Voluntary agreements in which water rights holders improve stream flows and restore habitat could offer a faster, less contentious, and more durable outcome."
Marcus said that in response to Brown's letter, State Water Board staff worked closely with the Governor's office and California Natural Resources Agency to create what she called a "credible, feasible plan to accelerate our Delta planning efforts."
"These efforts are designed to carry out the board's statutory mandate, but also to accommodate voluntary agreements that reasonably protect beneficial uses, improve flows, and restore habitat," wrote Marcus.
Since the release of the draft revised SED, Marcus said that State Water Board members and staff have held numerous staff-level workshops and meetings, as well as public hearings in Modesto, Merced, Stockton and Sacramento.
"We have received extensive, thoughtful oral comments," wrote Marcus. "Throughout the process board members and staff have emphasized the flexibility built into the proposal, including the flexibility to incorporate voluntary agreements. Board members and staff recognize that sufficiently protective voluntary agreements can reduce uncertainty, be more durable, and be implemented more quickly than traditional regulatory processes.
"One thing that has been clear in the oral comments is that there are a number of community members and institutions open to pursuing voluntary agreements," continued Marcus.
The last State Water Board public hearing regarding the draft revised SED is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Jan. 3 in the Byron Sher Auditorium, located on the second floor of the Joe Serna Jr. - CalEPA Headquarters Building, 1001 I Street in Sacramento.
Of those in attendance during the last public hearing will be Turlock Mayor Gary Soiseth, who - during the public hearing in Modesto - revealed his intent to speak instead in Sacramento.
"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."
Written comments on draft revised SED for Phase 1 of the Bay-Delta Water Quality Control Plan are due by 12 p.m. on March 17. The State Water Board announced during the public hearing in Modesto that they anticipate releasing a final SED and plan in May 2017 and considering it for adoption in July 2017.