Buried in the 3,500 pages of a State Water Board plan to increase the endangered steelhead population on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers by between 1,000 and 4,000 fish is a formula that could turn the 209 region into Owens Valley 2.0.
If the proposal to nearly double the unimpaired flows on the three rivers to 40 percent from February to June had been in effect at the start of this year the South San Joaquin Irrigation District would have been able to deliver only 105,000 acre feet of water to the 52,000 acres of farmland they help irrigate as well as to the cities of Manteca, Lathrop and Tracy. SSJID, in the water year that ended Sept. 30, delivered 183,000 acre feet. Keep in mind the 183,000 acre feet is after the district and cities combined efforts to reduce overall water use by 30 percent collectively in California’s fifth year of drought. The district has senior adjudicated water rights to 300,000 acre feet of water from the Stanislaus River watershed that the state essentially is trying to make a justification to commandeer for its fish plan.
SSJID General Manager Peter Rietkerk said in practical terms that means growers would have received 12 inches of irrigation water instead of 40 inches for the year. It would not have been enough to bring almost any annual crop to harvest. And it likely wouldn’t have been enough to keep almonds, walnuts, grapes, and other permanent crops alive let along produce a harvest.
As for the cities, they would have been forced to cut the use of treated surface water by as much as 64 percent.
Rietkerk noted that would mean growth in cities could come to a screeching halt. It may also be dicey to support existing residential and urban development within the watershed of the three rivers that includes San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Merced counties.
It means ratepayers in Manteca, Lathrop, and Tracy would likely face water rate hikes as it would essentially “strand” the $45 million investment the three cities made in the Nick DeGroot South County Surface Water Treatment Plant. By not having the water to treat and sell for existing development, revenue needed to retire bonds floated to build the facility would be lost.
The state is offering no mitigation for the economic impacts that they concede will take place if their project is implemented.
The last time a region was hit on such a catastrophic scale by a water plan was when the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water diverted large amounts of the flow of the Owens River in Eastern California’s Owens Valley to fuel growth in the Los Angeles Basin.
The move drastically reduced farm production, cost local jobs, stunted growth and essentially dried up Owens Lake that in 1913 covered 108 square miles.
At one time Owens Valley agriculture was said to have rivaled that of the San Joaquin Valley before the construction of federal reservoirs under the auspices of the Central Valley Project.
Stress On Water Supplies
Making the scenario all the more plausible are parts of the proposal that have nothing to do with fish flows but everything to do with not “boiling” the fish once they get upstream. The state wants to create minimum floors for water storage at New Melones, Don Pedro and McClure reservoirs.
The reason is to make sure water released in the summer and early fall is cool enough not to create oxygen issues when the temperature of river water exceeds a certain point. When that happens, fish start to die off as they cannot breathe.
The plans call for cold water pools of 700,000 acre feet at New Melones, 800,000 acre feet at Don Pedro, and 300,000 acre feet of McClure reservoirs as of Sept. 30 every year.
While McClure this year was at 370,068 acre feet and Don Pedro at 1,312,356 acre feet — the state’s proposed storage floor for Sept. 30 — New Melones was at 527,559 acre feet.
That means if the plan was being enforced this year, SSJID and Oakdale Irrigation District would have had to make up the difference of 172,000 acre feet. Each district would have been forced to use 86,000 less acre feet than they did this year. The cool water pool between the three reservoirs is 1.8 million acre feet. Combined it would be the equivalent of being the seventh largest reservoir in the state.
“None of that water can be used for anything,” Rietkerk pointed out.
The state is no longer disputing the plan will have catastrophic effects on the 209 region. The state’s 10-year, $70 million study that includes no actual hard data regarding fish survival in the three rivers concludes the region will suffer at least $260 million in economic losses each year, permanently lose 2,000 to 3,000 direct jobs, and leave 240,000 acres of farmland fallow in the three counties.
The economic loss alone for the 209 region of 1.5 million residents is $173 for every man, woman, and child on a recurring annual basis.
Rietkerk noted water managers as well as economists and other experts SSJID, OID, Merced Irrigation, Turlock Irrigation, and Modesto Irrigation are working with have data that suggests the impact figures in the state study are “extremely conservative.”
It is against that back drop that the OID and SSJID are stepping up efforts to make farmers, cities, residents, workers, and developers aware of the implications of the State Water Board plan that Sacramento wants to implement by mid-2018.
Information will be provided through the Save the Stan website the two irrigation districts operate jointly as well as outreach meetings such as one that is being planned with growers in the coming weeks.
Urging Other Methods
Rietkerk said irrigation districts backed up by scientific research by biologists on the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers believe a more effective way is to restore habitats for fish as the OID has done at Honolulu Bar in 2012 on the Stanislaus River at a cost of $1.1 million as well as address the issue of non-native fish that are aggressive predators of native fish such as the steelhead.
The SSJID general manager points to how increasing the limit and lowering the size of non-native predators that fishermen catch has helped endangered salmon and steelhead on the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest to enjoy higher survival rates.
Rietkerk noted SSJID is committed to do its fair share of helping to protect fish on the Stanislaus when it comes to habit restoration as well as predator control.
The SSJID and OID are supporting a petition currently before the Department of Fish and Game Commission to implement the same tools in California to help the federally protect salmon and steelhead.
The Coalition for a Sustainable Delta notes the predation of the endangered native salmon, steelhead and smelt by non-native species is “well documented” and is a major contributing factoring to their dwindling numbers. They cite a 2011 DFG report that concluded “studies of striped bass feeding habits indicate they consume an enormous volume of fish, overlap in their geographic range with the listed species (the endangered Delta smelt, Chinook salmon, and Central Valley steelhead), and have historically consumed listed species, at times in very substantial quantities.”
Studies by Fishbio biologists on the Stanislaus River reaffirm the DFG’s conclusion about the impact non-native fish are having on endangered fish species.
Experts for the coalition have noted water policies involving the Delta put in place in 2003 set the stage for the steady decline of threatened species in the Delta. Since then state regulators have narrowly focused on increased flows and water pumping restrictions while essentially ignoring predation.
Changing water flows on the Stanislaus, San Joaquin, and Merced rivers is only the first phase of the state’s strategy. They will move to the Sacramento River Basin next.
Ultimately the state will need to go after the legally adjudicated senior water rights the SSJID and OID legally own under existing law as well as that of the other impacted irrigation districts.
There are also ripple effects of the plan to increase unimpaired river flows from February through June.
It would mean hydroelectric plants on the three water sheds would have their ability to generate “green” electricity severely reduced during peak power demand months in summer and the early fall.
That in turn would require PG&E and other utilities to seek more expensive electricity replacements.