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River Water Battle Pits Fish Vs. Farms

When it came to the California Water Resources Control Board’s draft of proposed changes that would impact the flows into the San Joaquin River from its tributaries and rework the salinity requirements on the lower portion of the river, your perspective depends on which side of the aisle you are on.

At least that was the case on Friday morning when hundreds of people packed the Stockton Civic Auditorium to tell the state’s water board what they thought about the proposed changes that are still a long way from being approved.

Praised by environmentalists as a step in the right direction and decried by farmers and the larger agricultural community because it would deplete water in locally-funded reservoirs that were built to ensure a steady supply of clean irrigation water, the plan calls for an unimpaired flow of 40 percent of the snowpack runoff from the Tuolumne, Merced and Stanislaus rivers into the San Joaquin in an attempt to create conditions that are more conducive to the salmon population that biologists say have been decimated by water diversions, the failing health of the estuary and predation caused by species some believe aren’t native to the watershed.

And just like the opinions, the impact of such a proposal if it were to stand varied depending on the person speaking.

According to Peter Rietkerk, the general manager of the South San Joaquin Irrigation District, a straight 40 percent unimpaired flow would drain New Melones Reservoir – the largest of the five reservoirs that the irrigation district has rights to – in only 13 years.

Rietkerk said that the roughly 505,000 acre feet of water that the district draws from Melones every year – they are allocated 600,000 under an agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers that was hashed out when the federal government raised the level of the dam in the late 1970s – would be cut back to only 480,000 acre feet of water that would end up flowing into the district’s canals. Subsequently, any additional revenue that the district, which manages three Sierra reservoirs alongside the Oakdale Irrigation District and splits their Melones allotment as well, could receive from self-funded conservation efforts that allows them to sell water to areas of the state that need it would be wiped out and could end up costing the communities they serve as much as $40 million in lost revenue.

And water districts that have agreements with them for water from Melones, like the Stockton East Water District, would see the frequency of their full entitlement drop from just 50 percent of the time down to 20 percent – something that he said would be mirrored throughout the watershed.

With numbers like that, Rietkerk wondered whether the conservation efforts were simply an effort to redistribute water to places that want it.

“I know that this isn’t going to be a popular thing to say,” Rietkerk said. “But you certainly have to wonder whether the end game of water conservation is to allow people who want the water to be able to take it from us.”

The theme of stopping water exports to places like the Westlands and West Kern Water Districts was a common refrain amongst those who championed the water rights of agricultural interests and even some of those who were concerned about the health of the San Francisco Bay and the estuaries that feed it – noting that exports hurt the biology of the areas that they’re bypassing because the freshwater never filters through, allowing the ecosystem to recharge naturally.

But there were also those who had absolutely no problems telling the agricultural community that it was their greed that was posing the biggest problem.

Former State Senator Patrick Johnston, a Stockton resident who serves on the Delta Stewardship Council, noted that farmers up and down the valley are planting nut trees that require an inordinate amount of water because the profit margins are so high even though the state is trying to manage its way out of the middle of its worst drought in decades.

Johnston didn’t mince his words to the five-member panel – comprised of two members with ties to the California Environmental Protection Agency, one with ties to other environmental groups, one with ties to the San Francisco Bay Area’s water management coalitions and one with ties to the agricultural industry – when he told them to be wary of any arguments coming from people who insist that “people are more important than fish” because they don’t understand the true scope of the proposed changes and what is at stake for the future of the watershed.

But local governments and elected officials from Washington, D.C., and Sacramento are wary of the proposal out of fear that relaxing the salinity thresholds will have devastating consequences on groundwater supplies that provide a large chunk of the drinking water for most valley communities, and severely damage the agricultural industry – which is a multi-billion-dollar sector in both San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties.

Meetings were also held on Monday, Dec. 19, in Merced and on Tuesday, Dec. 20, at the Modesto Centre Plaza to allow those communities the chance to voice their concerns. The final public meeting will be held on Tuesday, Jan. 3 2017 at the Cal/EPA Headquarters in Sacramento.

Public entities and concerned citizens have until Jan. 17 to submit their written concerns for the board to take into consideration.